Real Artist Case History: Stefan Pokorny

The thing about art is, it comes in all forms. Art can be a delicate painting or an irreverent installation, it can be a performance, a statue, a room full of light, there is no limit to how art presents itself. In some cases, art can be a very practical endeavor. Regardless of how art manifests, a common theme permeates the experience of every successful artist – and that is often an obsessive devotion to the work. Such is the case for Stefan Pokorny, an artist and the owner of Dwarven Forge, a successful small business creating hand crafted worlds for tabletop gaming. And he’s taken Kickstarter by storm.

Stefan came from humble roots. Adopted from Korea by European parents, he was raised in the United States. By age 15 he was involved in classical art training. Stefan was a painter first. It wasn’t until his second year of college that he decided to take an elective sculpting course. Still, Pokorny went on to receive a Masters in painting always believing that he would become a painter. When that didn’t pan out, in part because of the themes in painting at the time which went against his own style of work, he turned to another obsession: Dungeons and Dragons.

The popular adventure game is played largely in the imagination with players talking through adventure quests. Pokorny saw a potential demand so he fell back on his sculpting skills and began creating tiny, intricate worlds. Pokorny never looked back. Since 1996 his small company called Dwarven Forge has trudged ever forward.

Pokorny’s designs were a hit from the beginning. Gamers received him enthusiastically, relishing the thoughtful, fully interchangeable designs he created. Because his art reflected the circle in which he himself traveled, Pokorny had a very hands on approach to running his business. At conventions, he was an ebullient ambassador for his diminutive worlds, bounding around in a felt dwarf hat drumming up sales and excitement for Dwarven Forge.

Demand remained high but Pokorny still struggled to keep his business afloat financially. The high overhead cost of materials and rental space in Brooklyn, New York threatened to close the forge for good. He turned to Kickstarter.

Already something of a fixture among a certain subset, Pokorny knew he had a considerable base from which to draw, but he needed to bring in as many backers as possible. A visit to one of Dwarven Forge’s many Kickstarter pages (Pokorny has launched multiple campaigns over the years) reveals a vibrant universe of videos, photos, and long lists of backer incentives.

There is no denying that in some ways, Pokorny has just had the good fortune of tapping into a market with high demand. When Dwarven Forge mounts a new Kickstarter campaign, they keep their goals modest and realistic every time so as not to turn off potential supporters. But every time Dwarven Forge has run a Kickstarter they have exploded their modest aims.

To date, Stefan Pokorny’s Dwarven Forge has raised roughly $6.5 million through Kickstarter.

While this doesn’t mean that the artist and his small team are living large, it does afford them some measure of comfort. They were able to upgrade their Bushwick studio space to a larger size and have the freedom to focus on what’s next in their miniature world rather than worrying about how to pay for their operation to stay open.

Because of the nature of the business as it relates to Pokorny’s own work as an artist, he remains 100% hands on. Unlike other businesses in which the founder may step aside after achieving some measure of financial success, Pokorny’s work is his art and vice versa. He maintains control of Dwarven Forge, continuing to hand sculpt each piece along with his team. He still operates booths at major conventions, even enjoying the freedom to give back in some ways.

Dwarven Forge and Stefan Pokorny have gained some serious notoriety, not least because of their success on Kickstarter. Recently a feature length documentary titled Dwarvenaut was released profiling the artist and his little company. The film is a no holds barred look at what it takes to run a successful art business, the sheer number of hours spent perfecting the work and promoting the company. Viewers come away understanding that Pokorny lives and breathes his work.

Every artist who hopes to achieve success should consider Pokorny’s story. For over 20 years, he has obsessively built his tiny empire. It has been a true labor of love, drawing not just on his artistic training but founded in something he truly loves. When painting didn’t pan out because Pokorny was unable to find a market for his work, he didn’t let that deter his dream of pursuing a career as an artist. Instead, he re-evaluated his skillset and found a way to make his talent and training suit a need. He never looked back.

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