Run Your Own Art Swap

It’s that time of year again.

For the past five years I’ve done a yearly Art Swap where I round up a group of creative folks (almost all of whom have Day Jobs of their own) and everyone makes a project of some kind, in any medium, big or small.  They make enough for everyone in the swap, mail them to me, and I collect the shipping money and mail the projects out to everyone else.

Organizing the whole thing is surprisingly simple—I keep in touch via plain ol’ email, set some deadlines early on to keep people on track, then send out group reminders as those deadlines get closer.  Most everyone involved finds the deadlines helpful, since as I wrote about a few weeks ago, we tend to take tasks we’re working on more seriously when we have to answer to someone else.

The financial aspects of the Swap are also pretty simple—I keep an Excel file with everyone’s name, what they’re making, and how big it is (size and weight) so I can calculate a rough shipping cost and ask everyone to chip in.  I then collect money from everyone (cash, check, or Paypal), track it in the spreadsheet, and carry over the total from year to year.


Major costs for the Swap include:


● Mailing (usually $8-12 per package)


● Boxes (I used to save old boxes during the year to reuse for the Swap until this became too much of a pain and I started buying them in bulk from Staples)


End of a hard night’s work…

This year’s physical items all fit into a 9 x 6 x 4-inch box. A 25-pack of them was only $7.49, and I saved money on shipping by picking them up at the store.


● Envelopes (plain manilla envelopes for the flat items, which I shipped separately this year so I could buy the smaller boxes and try to save some $$$—though I think it ended up being close either way)


● Packing tape (the normal clear Scotch kind with the plastic guard works well enough, though if I were really a badass I’d invest in a reusable taping gun and buy my own refills)


● Printer ink and paper for the Who’s Who pamphlet, which I started putting together last year so everyone could say a bit about their projects. This year I used a photo scheme similar to your very favorite blog about the Day Job life ;-)



I made the Who’s Who pamphlet using my printer at home and stapled it using one of those long staplers that can reach halfway across a piece of paper (the guy on the phone called it a Deep Throat stapler, a name that’s now fused into my brain forever).  The Staples near my work in the snootier part of town didn’t have one, but the other Staples in the more blue-collar part did, so I’m definitely glad I called ahead.  The Deep Throat stapler was free to use even if you weren’t a customer, but I’ll probably invest in my own since I plan to keep making pamphlets like this in the future, and it’s probably worth the gas I’ll save driving across town ;-)



I enjoy the actual sorting of the projects immensely since it appeals to my love of small, physical tasks where I can see the progress I’ve made, and laying out one project after another for everyone except the maker is a process I find immensely satisfying.







Packing the boxes this year also took a lot less time than previous years, in part because the smaller boxes were WAY easier to handle than the big ones I used last year, but also because my taping skills have improved.  All in all, the sorting took about an hour and the packing took just over two hours.


In total we had 16 projects this year:

  • 8 were some kind of 3-D visual art
  • 5 were some kind of 2-D visual art
  • 2 were writing-based projects
  • 1 project can’t be easily classified because that would ruin the surprise


Geographic locations were scattered throughout the US, with a few new states represented:

  • 3 people came from California
  • 2 came from Arizona
  • 2 from New Hampshire
  • 2 from Pennsylvania
  • 1 each from Utah, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, New Mexico, and Connecticut


This was also the year with the most people included in the Swap that I’ve never met personally (3), plus I also heard from two old friends I haven’t talked to in a decade or more, which was also pretty sweet since reconnecting through collaboration always feels good.



My own project for this year was an idea I’d been mulling over for a long time—a faux parody guidebook instructing the bewildered on how to use passive-aggressive put-downs to indirectly make other people feel bad.  I illustrated the lessons using these squeaky clean stock photos with Ann Taintor-esque word balloons to show examples that the guidebook explains in step-by-step terms, and together that form a dry, sarcastic-edged humor that’s befitting of the subject matter.



The passive-aggressive pamphlet was super fun to make but took a REALLY long time, since the text took longer than I thought to write and revise (it came out at 20 half-sized pages) and finding and editing the stock photos also took a while, which cut into my novel-writing time for last month.  Still, I’m really happy with how it came out, and I’m hoping to offer it in some form to a wider audience at a later date—I’ll keep you posted ;-)

Like most of the projects I’m involved in, the Art Swap means a lot to me, as I know it does to a lot of the participants who don’t have as many creative outlets in their lives—or at least not as many as they’d like.  It also gives people motivation to do something cool they might not normally try—and I’ve been using it as an excuse to try some new projects so I don’t fall into a rut—and you know how much I hate ruts.

I’m also writing this entry because I hope it’ll inspire some of the folks out there reading to round up their friends or old Facebook acquaintances for an Art Swap of their own.  The process is pretty simple and I’m sure you can find a system that works with your particular style, set of friends, and everybody’s schedules, so feel free to use my process as a guide and make revisions as you see fit

And on that note—if you’re looking to start your own Art Swap and want to share ideas, or looking to get in on next year’s action with mine, drop me a line at and I’ll let you know the next time one comes around, since I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

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