Carruth success set in stone
Written by DAVID DUPONT, Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor
Tuesday, 11 June 2013 08:48
Sometimes George Carruth will be driving along, and spot one of his sculptures in a yard.
|George and Deb Carruth in their Waterville store. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
After 30 years of selling his work, the artist and entrepreneur still finds it "amazing" that people will buy his art and love it enough to put it in their yard.
Then again Carruth never was one to promote his work. That job has fallen to his wife, Deborah Carruth.
Over the course of 30 years the husband and wife team have built a national business, Garden Smiles.
It was Deborah Carruth who signed her husband up to exhibit his stone sculptures at Harrison Rally Days in Perrysburg in 1982.
"It was kind of against my will," the sculptor said.
"They were just special and I knew it," Deborah Carruth said.
That the sales that first day depleted his inventory proved her point.
"That's when I realized people do like these things," he said.
Now that business has about $2 million in annual sales through stores, catalogs online and its own Garden Smiles shop in Waterville. It's an enterprise nurtured by George Carruth's whimsical creations, anchored by his signature works puckish smile and Deborah Carruth's savvy business and marketing sense.
"She'd get me into galleries that I was too embarrassed to knock on the door," George Carruth said.
"I'm kind of a natural marketer," she said. That he could make his livelihood from his art was "only obvious to me."
But not to their parents, said the two Perrysburg High School graduates - he in 1970, she in 1973.
George Carruth had always whittled and worked with his hands, and after graduating from the Columbus College of Art and Design started off in an advertising agency when he did drawing, and later started his own freelance business.
When he visited American Greetings in Cleveland looking for freelance assignments, he saw sculptors at work, and was drawn to the craft. Convincing company officials to give him a try out, he demonstrated a knack for sculpting. So the company set him to work fashioning the models for Care Bear and Strawberry Shortcake figurines. By the early 1980s, he was doing his own avocational sculpting.
In a 2006 WBGU-TV program he explained that while living in Cleveland, he was inspired to start carving stone by what he saw strolling along the city's breakwater.
The imagery was influenced by his love of nature and a child's sense of wonder. He likens his work to children's illustration.
"Nobody did what he did," said Deborah Carruth.
After Harrison Rally Days, Carruth started to make the circuit, doing as many as 32 shows a year. He won prizes at art fairs, including the Crosby Festival of the Arts, and at the Toledo Area Artists Exhibition.
His work sold well enough that in 1983 he quit his job at American Greetings, even though his wife was eight months pregnant with their third child, and launched Garden Smiles. Their parents were concerned. The young couple was determined.
His work continued to attract attention at art fairs, but it was a one-man show at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, arranged as usual by his wife, that set Garden Smiles in motion. "I was on TV for 90 seconds, but it gave us instant credibility," he said.
"It almost took off without our knowing it," Deborah Carruth said.
"I was pushing some kind of button that made people happy," he said.
A bird bath caught the attention of retailer David Kay who put out his own garden and gifts catalog. The bird bath landed on the cover of the catalog in 1985, and the Carruths had to ramp up production.
Carruth no longer made one-of-a-kind sculptures, but instead created pieces that could be reproduced. This meant his work was accessible to more people. Rather than charging $800 for a one-of-a-kind piece, customers could buy something for $150. And favorite designs, like the Garden Smile that gave the company its name, could be reproduced without Carruth having to sculpt the same piece over and over and over.
Production also led to the retail operation. Ever so often the plant would have a sale of ever-so-slightly flawed products. But throughout the year fans would show up. That meant, Deborah Carruth said, someone taking time from the task on hand to find the piece wanted.
So in 1996 they opened the Garden Smiles shop on Mechanic Street in Waterville. They also at one point operated a shop in Columbus but closed it during the recent downturn. The company has a three-pronged marketing stream: online, the retail shop and wholesale.
Tough economic times did take a toll. Many of the garden and gift shops that were the backbone of its sales have now gone out of business. Foreign knockoffs haven't helped either. But Garden Smiles has adjusted.
George Carruth creates many of his design in the polymer clay, Sculpty. It gives him the pliable material needed to fashion his finely detailed work.
Concrete is the material of choice for production at the company's Waterville plant, but Carruth has worked in a variety of materials.
New for this year will be porcelain Christmas ornaments. Those will be manufactured in Oregon.
He's also had some prestigious assignments, including making an ornament for the Christmas tree for the White House when Bill Clinton was president. He was also commissioned to produce reproductions of the gargoyles on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was the first time, he said, that he had copied someone else work.
Most often George Carruth said his creations spring from his own imagination. "I'm a daydreamer. I do what I want. ... Doing something different. That's the fun and excitement of it."
Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 June 2013 08:52