A successful artist-entrepreneur with a vocation for encouraging others

Molly Haley with her Marblehead Handprints briefcase

It was their love of sailing that first brought Molly Haley and her husband Ed Freitag to this part of coastal Maine in 2007. Then, in 2013, they made a commitment to spending significant time in St. George when they bought a small seasonal residence on Water Street overlooking Tenants Harbor, where they moor “Primetime,” their Beneteau 49. But sailing isn’t the couple’s only passion or reason for enjoying this area. This past April they were among the key supporters of the Island Institute’s 6th Artists and Makers Conference, an annual event whose aim is to serve Maine’s art-based businesses. For Haley, in particular, encouraging artist-entrepreneurs in whatever way she can has become a true vocation, one that stems from her own personal experience as an artist-turned-business owner in the 1970s.

At the time, Haley was living in Marblehead, Mass., teaching art to middle- and high-school students, as was common in those days for many art majors with a college degree (in her case from Skidmore College). What launched her into the business world was pure happenstance—an invitation from the Marblehead Art Association to teach a class in silk screening. Afterward, one of the students, Kathy Walters, expressed interest in learning how to silk screen on fabric. From that point forward it was a cascade of developments, decisions and lucky connections that made the company Haley and Walters founded in 1970, Marblehead Handprints, a legend in the artisan retail world.

They started experimentally, creating their own designs and hand printing them in Haley’s kitchen and back room. The decision to try silk screening on canvas—something no one else was doing—proved providential. “I’ve always been product-oriented,” says Haley, “so as soon as we had started making our fabric I wanted to make something out of it.” The two began churning out tote bags in various sizes and other creations, holding little open houses in Haley’s home to show their wares.

Next came the official launch of Marblehead Handprints and setting up a shop in downtown Marblehead. Haley was 28.

“As we got into it, I realized that the kind of designs we were doing were the kind of things I had been doing during my senior year at Skidmore—the two-dimensional work with positive and negative designs,” Haley says. “I was also drawing on a fabulous color course based on the work of Josef Albers that I took. And these two aspects of my Skidmore training turned out to be the basis for the business Kathy and I created. We did things in colors we liked and our scale at first was pretty big. Later, when Laura Ashley came out and started doing what we were doing, making things that mixed and matched, but using a smaller scale, we listened and made some adjustments to our scale.”

The business became something of a cottage industry, involving dozens of people, mostly all women. They employed stitchers, hand printers, and shop help. “If someone came to us with an idea for a product, we gave them some fabric and said, ‘Try it out.’ Eventually we bought stuff from them.”

A key feature of the business was that Haley and Walters never went to machine printing. “When we first started printing in my back room it was a maximum of a couple of yards at a time that we could print and we would roll the fabric up as we went and it wasn’t always very technical with the lining up of the pattern. But people liked that, they could see the overlap and know that it was hand printed that way. We were experimenting with a lot of different types of fabric, but we ran out of space and couldn’t keep up with production even after we narrowed down our designs. We finally went with hand-printer mills in Massachusetts. Over the years we used six different hand-printer mills in the northeast.”

Marblehead Handprint products weren’t cheap, Haley freely admits. “At the time our stuff was expensive because we had to pay people who lived in the U.S.—there wasn’t some big factory in Puerto Rico or some other place. But buying our products was an investment for the purchaser—we didn’t have planned obsolescence. Our products were made to last.” By way of proof, Haley pulls out her own Marblehead Handprints briefcase, made before the business closed around 1994 and still showing virtually no signs of wear. “We used real heavy canvas that was very hard to print on,” she notes.

Haley and Walters went wholesale early, in 1971. “We thought let’s go wholesale, so I called Saks Fifth Avenue and I got an appointment. When we got there with our little dog-and-pony show, the buyer wasn’t there, but we ended up in the vice president’s office and I guess we charmed him because he bought from us—bought for all their 22 stores! We thought uh-oh, this is when we really need to be serious about the business and so we went to the bank.”

But going to the bank for two women wasn’t a simple matter in the early 1970s, the era of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and other women’s movements. Both married at the time, Haley and Walters couldn’t even get credit cards in their own names when they started their business. “We weren’t involved in the ERA or any of the movements going on then,” Haley reflects, “it was just what we wanted to do, so we did it.”

Within four years of starting Marblehead Handprints, Haley and her then husband divorced, leaving Haley with two daughters to raise on her own—thankfully, Marblehead Handprints was fully up and running by then. And starting in 1978 people interested in running Marblehead Handprints stores began coming forward. Eventually there were over 20 such stores across the country.

“We licensed the use of our name on a yearly basis, wholesaled to them and did yearly conferences that focused on things like store display ideas and other business topics,” Haley explains. About the same time that this was occurring, Haley met Ed Freitag and eventually married him and moved to Washington D.C., taking over responsibility for such things as trade shows while also commuting to Marblehead to work with Walters on developing new designs, refreshing the look of their most popular offerings and developing new products.

Eventually, after a run of more than 24 years, Haley and Walters began the process of shutting Marblehead Handprints down. At this point Haley began turning her attention to finding ways to share what she had learned as a successful entrepreneur with others, especially women.

St. George resident Kate Johanson has been using her MH knitting bag for 37 years.

“I heard that the American Women’s Economic Development (AWED) program that was part of the Small Business Administration’s Office of Women Business Ownership was opening a business center in D.C. for women needing information about running a business. So I picked up the phone and spoke with the executive director and told her who I was and my business and she said, ‘Oh, I know your business!’ So I ended up volunteering for them doing business counseling.” She eventually was hired for the position of Director of Counseling and Special Programs, which involved developing workshops, recruiting business professionals to do counseling and matching them with aspiring entrepreneurs.

“What I realized in doing that work was that training entrepreneurs needed a different approach from what was offered in business schools—a practical approach of how to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. These people wanted to move and wanted the business information. They were not interested in theory.”

That realization, Haley says, was the inspiration for proposing in 2003 that her alma mater, Skidmore College, set up an Entrepreneurial Artist program in the art department. But it took 10 years for her proposal to become a reality.

“At Skidmore I was going to the business department and to the art department and back and forth, having trouble getting anywhere—there was a lot of resistance to the entrepreneurial program because a lot of the art professors wanted art for art’s sake. Well, that’s fine, but I managed to take an art degree and do a business. I learned business as I went along. And we managed to support a lot of people through Marblehead Handprints, including myself, because I was a single mother for seven years. It wasn’t until the college established the Arts Administration Program that they could see where it could belong.”

In the spring of 2013 Haley and Arts Administration Program director David Howson developed and presented the first Entrepreneurial Artist Workshop. The initiative is now a fully accredited curriculum with such classes as “Business Basics,” intensive field experiences and networking events. More than 300 students have taken advantage of the program so far.

“Through this program students learn how to use their creative ideas in a different way, how to take what you’re doing and turn it into something people will buy. But you have to be a certain personality, I think, and not all artists have the personality to do business. You have to be open to opportunities, you have to start talking to people—and you have to look at your competition, go to galleries and shows, to see how your work fits in. And you may have to bow to the market a little bit. If you continue to go to your own drummer you may not be able to keep up.”

As an afterthought, Haley adds with a shrug, “And the people who just want to paint can paint.”

—JW (The Marblehead Museum is in the process of mounting a show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Marblehead Handprints that will open June 1, 2020.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *