May 7, 2016

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Kelly, Julie, Lisa, Kelly of Forth

What are you working on—on the side?

We started Forth in 2013 to host quarterly salons designed to provide Chicago’s creative women of influence the time and space to talk. We meet around a topic or theme with a menu inspired by the season. Since then, it’s blossomed into an incredible community and a resource. By connecting and sharing the expertise, talents and stories of salon alum, we can offer panels, workshops and gatherings both for our members and the larger creative community. We’re also able to act as cheerleaders, sharing with the world all the good our members and collaborators are up to, which we put out in our blog and via our social channels (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) and newsletter.

Forth: Kelly Allison, Julie Schumacher, Lisa Guillot, Kelly Connolly

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

Kelly Allison Photography, Food and Lifestyle Photography
Lots of support. Lots of delegation. There are elements of both my business and my side project that require my participation, and elements that need my guidance and approval. Yet there are many more that can be managed by well-trained assistants and interns. The key to keeping all of the details running smoothly is figuring out that balance.

Julie Schumacher, Well Turned Words, Copywriting and Strategy
I have an incredibly supportive partner who values the bounce Forth gives to my step. Being out for an event or writing on the weekend is commended, not condemned. In copywriting and strategy work, there’s often small pockets of time in between tasks…waiting for feedback, for a call that got pushed back. I’m good at toggling and fitting things into the nooks and crannies of my day. I should also sleep more, but I’d rather work on Forth-related magic.

Kelly Connolly, Nimble Well, Event Rentals
I had to think about what actually constitutes a side project for me. Working for myself, just about every day is a work day which means a mix of both my business and collaborations with other entrepreneurs and small organizations like the Green Wedding Alliance and Forth Chicago.

Managing it means scheduling the work in my calendar. When I can fit in blocks of time to work on projects, I fit in a lot. During the very busy months for my business, I pull back, so the side projects are somewhat seasonal with a thread that carries through the busier months.

Why have a side project?

Lisa Guillot, Life, Brand and Business Coaching, Step Brightly, Boutique Brand strategy Studio
A woman entrepreneur is not defined by her business. She is a creative, a doer, maker, mom, wife, friend, chef, a source of inspiration and elevation for those around her. Women are like a multifaceted diamond that shines brightly in different light depending on where we put our focus.

My side project, Forth Chicago, is a facet in my life that fuels me with inspiration, collaboration and energy. Chicago is so supportive of the entrepreneurial lifestyle with multiple co-working spaces, events and resources. For me, creating Forth Chicago, or any side project for that matter, gives me another venue to look, explore, discover and learn from many wildly talented women in a plethora of industries. As a creative, I need other people to bounce ideas off of, share insights with, and learn from. A side project, particularly one built around community, is a great way for me to shine a light on all facets of my life.

One of the best things about creating a side project around community is that is grows and morphs with the group. Who knows what we will be in a year from now, but I know it will be so incredibly rad (to use a Julie word) because it’s built with a strong intention of collaboration and love.

Kelly Allison Photography, Food and Lifestyle Photography
Forth is a side project that feeds me on many levels. It is a social outlet, filling a need for relationship with Chicago women of influence. It is a creative outlet, providing collaborative opportunities which stretch my thoughts and ideas far beyond the potential of working solo. It fills my desire for contributing to the greater good, allowing me to play a role in facilitating meaningful relationships between Chicago women creatives, makers and entrepreneurs, and simultaneously offering support and resources those women. And ultimately, Forth is a life source as a community. A community of powerful and magnificent women who are in it for the relationship—a beautiful web of connected people who understand the potential and the magic of human connection.

Kelly Connolly, Nimble Well, Event Rentals
I’m the sole employee of my event rental company, and it’s easy to get into my routine and end up only seeing the people that I work with.

I don’t think there is one job I could have that would satisfy every possible outlet for my creativity and desire to collaborate. My job is my own business that I’ve created and I have a very personal relationship to my business—what it is and how it operates—but it would be too much to ask to be completely fulfilled creatively by my business. We are multifarious, and businesses, even ones we create ourselves, are, by necessity, focused. It’s interesting for me to figure out how much of my various interests I can express in my business, but there are limits to what a business is and does and how my audience understands what it is that I do before it becomes too diffuse. Just as it would be too much to expect to be fulfilled in all my relational needs through one relationship, having one creative pursuit means that other creative outlets atrophy.

Working with Forth on salons and workshops, and finding new ways of supporting the creative entrepreneurs, who are members, serves several purposes. It helps me exercise my ability to work with other people on projects as a team, and it makes me feel like I’m part of a larger community, not just my specific industry. We’re in the middle of a huge socio-economic shift toward entrepreneurship—in many ways because of the limitations of traditional career paths—and it means that there are a lot of us simultaneously taking similar risks and experiencing similar challenges that can be rough to face in isolation. Collaborating with Forth is a way that I find communion and solidarity, and can also support other creative entrepreneurs.

Julie Schumacher, Well Turned Words, Copywriting and Strategy
I think these three dynamos covered as well as I could the idea that I absolutely love the work I do, but I am not one thing and both need and want to tap into all the pieces. Looking directly at my work, I’m a better writer and thinker when I learn about design, development, catering, law, marketing, booze, brides, business, etc. It’s like a massively powerful liberal arts education all the damn time.

Forth surrounds me with potential collaborators and fast friends. I’m stunned at the quality of conversation and caliber of women we get to meet, over and over. If you are the average of the people around you, these are the people I want around me. Beyond the women we meet at the salons, we have been lucky to build a community out of the venues we partner with, sponsors who reach out and the greater pool of creatives we’re able to engage through Forth that would be super hard to bring together as a single human being. We’re more powerful and impactful together...whether that’s looking at Kelly, Kelly, Lisa and me doing our thing and our things, the 100+ members of Forth or the shiny, intricate fabric of the larger creative community we’ve been building.

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Diptych courtesy of Forth Chicago.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with 50,000feet, an independent creative agency dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

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April 24, 2016’s Tara Button finds and promotes products to be used for a lifetime

Upon discovering Tara Button’s, I more than appreciated it—I admired it (like how Ashton Kutcher did). As promised in its name, Button wants strongly to “Change our throwaway culture to a ‘keep’ or ‘pass on’ culture.” In essence, buy once, use for a very long time: years, decades, centuries and beyond. Here, she shares the motivation behind her project, in addition to thoughts on doing the work to realize an idea.

When and how did you arrive at the idea of
I have cared about the planet ever since I could remember. When I was seven, my best friend and I hatched a plan to save the environment. We had “invented” a projector using Daddy’s big torch and letters cut out of cardboard stuck on a clear piece of plastic. It worked very well on my bedroom wall, but we had bigger plans. We thought if we managed to project “Save the world” on the moon, people would start recycling, using less energy and everything would miraculously be alright. Unfortunately, even Daddy’s biggest torch did not stretch that far.

BuyMeOnce is my latest pie-in-the-sky idea to save the world. But luckily at 34, I’ve learnt the power of ideas and actions that can shine a light on a subject bright enough so the whole world takes notice.

I was working on advertising for Le Creuset, who make beautiful heirloom cookware, which is guaranteed for life. It struck me that if more people bought products that were less throwaway and more “lifetime heirlooms”, it could solve many environmental problems and also save people money in the long run.

I thought that a site that gathered together all the things that were built to last, taught people how to take care of the products they owned and challenged manufacturers to make more durable items, could fill a big gap in the sustainable market. I tried desperately hard to ignore this idea. I had a full time job and was trying to write a book in my “free time.”

The last thing I needed was another project. However, whenever I read anything about the environment, I felt this horrible itch inside my head, poking me and telling me to get a move on and do it. So I did.

I registered the site in March 2013 and very slowly started climbing the learning curve (more like a learning wall) of building a website. I spent days researching, trying to find the “best in show” when it comes to durability in every category imaginable, from tweezers to teddy bears to t-shirts.

What were some of the first things you did
in taking from an idea to a reality?

The first practical things I did was to come up with the name of the website and the logo. An early form of the logo was an engraving on a metal shopping tag, but it looked too harsh, so i changed it to the current version. I started trying to build a website and had several false starts on different platforms and with different templates. In the end, I chose Squarespace and was able to move forward. Most of the initial work was research, because I wanted to be sure that there were enough of these great products out there to make it worth bringing them together.

Your website is large, showcasing a lot of products and different types of information. How did you get the website made? Did you hire a designer or did you design it yourself? Do you use a content management system? If so, what is it?
I designed it all myself with many tortuous hours on the help chat function. I knew what I wanted, so slowly but surely I got it done. Once I had the design I wanted, I did get some help replicating pages and putting in content that I had written. At the end of last year, I got some more help from a couple of friends who helped me with some writing and putting pictures up. Now I have a few lovely interns who help me put content on the site.

Our content is managed using many Google Sheets and Dropbox. I’m sure, as we grow, this will have to be more formalised.

What still feels raw, and this doesn't mean bad nor good, 
from when you started until now?
We only launched 3 months ago and we weren’t monetised or even in the USA when the first press came out. We didn’t approach the press, but we went viral, so we are still playing catch-up when it comes to the business model and revenue streams, but we are getting there quickly with the help of mentors and advisors. I’m having to get used to being a manager and leader, which is a big leap from being a creative person when you are the “talent.” I'm used to other people managing my time and having final say. It’s both exhilarating and disconcerting being the person who calls the shots.

Speaking of getting a project started, how did you 
make yourself committed to start? Because “Just do it” 
is easier said than done.
I was very uncommitted at first. I made many small starts and got put off. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t really know here it would go. I have so many small projects, books to write, DIY and other passions that often got in the way. The difference with this project was the kick in the stomach I got every time I read anything about the environment. It nagged me, until I was forced to do something. It was too painful not to.

If you need to get yourself to start. Just tell yourself: I’ll just try this for 10 minutes. Then once you’ve started, the hardest part is over. Trick yourself into it. Or if you have self-motivation problems, use (a website that sends your money to charity if you don’t do what you said you would). It is the single most useful tool I’ve ever come across for self-motivation. I wrote a 60,000 word book using this technique.

What is your work schedule like in evolving
And how to you manage your time?
My interns turn up at 9:30, so I have to be dressed and ready for the day. This is a great help, as working from home can often mean sleeping in until noon if you’re not careful. We work at my dining room table, often I will pop out for meeting or go upstairs to Skype people, but we mainly work together. I’m lucky enough to have found three exceptional people to found this company with. They leave at 5:30, and I’ll take a break, but will often return to bits of work later on the evening, and I’m guilty of sending emails from my phone well past midnight.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
My workspace is my living room/dining room/kitchen in my flat. It’s a nice room but gets easily cluttered with so many people using the space (I live with two others and have three employees). My laundry is hung there, and mail and crockery can build up, so I have to keep on top of that to keep it as calm as possible. The upside is that I have a short commute and no overheads. The downside is that it always feels like I could be doing work, even after everyone’s left for the day.

Who and/or what are your creative influences?
I’m influenced and inspired by many people. I love hearing about brave and driven people and how they’ve made a difference. Richard Branson, for his tenacity, daring and “can do” attitude. Steve Jobs for cutting through to what’s important. J.K. Rowling for plowing on when there was no end in sight, let alone signs of a million pound book deal. Elizabeth Gilbert is a big influence. She talks a lot about creativity beyond fear, and I enjoy her wise friendly words.

The world doesn’t have to like what you do. You have to like what you do.

In running, what are some bona fide 
“best practices” in working well—in working 
as best as possible?
I am very open and honest with everyone I work with (below), I share my worries, doubts and gaps in my knowledge with my team. This works well, because then, these gaps tend either to be filled by my employees who know more than I do, or these issues are brought to light in a way that’s helpful, so I can go and do some research. This also means that my employees also feel very comfortable asking for help and being open when something is challenging them.

Is your team a distributed workforce? 
And how did find these people?
I found people through Angel List Talent, Work in Startups and Job Lab.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
We are lucky at this point not to have had any major disagreements. We are all very mature and respectful people here, listening to each other’s opinions and arguments. If there was ever a major disagreement between my employees, I hope that I would be able to step in, in a way that meant that both sides felt respected and valued.

In doing work and trying to be productive each day, 
what software or Web-based tools do you use 
and highly recommend?
We love Google Docs, and most of our day-to-day systems run on simple spreadsheets. We use Dropbox for our image folders and one of my awesome team members built a “Kanban” scheduling system in Google Sheets, so we can always see what we are supposed to be working on.

Who and/or what keeps you going 
in keeping going?
The mission keep me going. And the response from people who hear about the mission. We have hundreds of emails from all over the world saying “Thank you. Keep it up.”

For people who want to start a project on the Web, 
what is your advice?
Ask for help everywhere. Go to the people who have done it before and ask for advice. Build on platforms that have good customer support and get building. If there’s one thing I've learnt. Build it, and they will come!

What does independence mean to you? 
Independence means that I can make decisions based entirely on my own values with no compromise for either commercial reasons or outside influences. In advertising, my job title was “Creative” but I don’t think you can be truly creative when you’re trying to spread another person’s message. Now I get to spread my own message.

What is your definition of growth?
I’ll be happy if the business allows the idea and message of BuyMeOnce to sustain through time. We need growth in revenue to pay for the people I need to help me research and build the site and put out content. Money is not the ultimate goal, but money is necessary to take us to the ultimate goal of inspiring genuine change.

How do you get the word out about
How do you attract customers?
The word has all been pretty organic. We are active on social media which helps, but the press came to us in a big way, so we were lucky in that. Once that calms down, we will start to have to approach people but that hasn’t happened yet.

How did you arrive at the name for your website?
I like anthropomorphising things (look how fun it was in “Toy Story”), and I think that special products speak to you so I gave them a voice. The voice says “buy me once”, which seems to sum up what I want people to do. I came across another site recently called “Don’t buy shit!” which is another (much angrier) way of saying the same thing. ツ

How does the city of London contribute to your work? 
And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
London’s amazing, because there’s so much talent here, there’s a real buzz of creativity going on here. You only have to go down to places like Google Campus to see that there is a huge amount of new and exciting projects going on. It’s inspiring but also just very handy. I’m in a position where I can ask a CEO or mentor out for a coffee, and I don’t have to travel half the way across the country to meet them. They are all here.

Do you attend the London chapter gatherings
of CreativeMornings?
Nope, but I might now!

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All images courtesy of Tara Button.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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April 16, 2016

Connecting and Reconnecting: Graphic Designer and Letterer Jenna Blazevich at 49th monthly CreativeMornings in Chicago

Jenna Blazevich a.k.a. Vichcraft, a Chicago-based designer and hand-letterer, spoke at the 49th monthly gathering of the CreativeMornings chapter in Chicago. She shared selections of her graphic design, visibly fortified with handmade typography, from illustrative letterforms to calligraphy. Two aspects of her talk caused me to reflect.

The rewarding act of keeping in touch

When seamless, email and its digital siblings in texting and social media are efficient shortcuts to communication. It’s easy to see why they are used frequently—they excel in passive communication. Blazevich’s craft of physical correspondence is extraordinary, because it’s unusual. When Blazevich showed her reel of handcrafted postal tidings sent to friends, colleagues and mentors, each demonstration of letter-and-envelope writing sizzled with sentiment and beamed with memories of the people who motivated her. Each mailing composed a timeline of touchpoints: literal, emotional, timely. While listening to her tour of hand-lettered messages, I was provoked to reunite with my father’s Remington typewriter and dispatch. Impressions count, especially in Blazevich’s practice of message-making, where character counts: in each word, phrase, sentence—in each thought. Proactive, compared to passive, communication.

Whatever the medium, we’re lucky to live in a time marked by various ways to connect. Blazevich reminded the audience to keep in touch with the people who influenced, inspired, pushed, even questioned and contradicted our thinking at the time. To sustain a human connection with someone, who somehow improved our life, is remarkable.

Blazevich’s talk aligned with the death of pioneering comedian Garry Shandling, who was also a mindful correspondent. Journalist Amy Wallace recently recalled their communication over the course of their relationship. She shared his last email. Its last line is a testimony to Shandling’s attitude to communicate as much as possible, as thoughtfully as possible: “I just wanted you to know you were thought of. And to say thanks.”

The “dream project”

Blazevich claimed, “You’re not going to be commissioned to make your dream project, possibly ever, but definitely not in the beginning.” That term, “dream project”, turned my ears to tin. The vision of a “dream project” is a superstition that undermines the challenge to gain a project and execute it, then repeating the process toward winning work, even if it’s a piece of it.

I perceived everything that Blazevich presented in her talk as a dream project, because all of it could have remained unrealized and, therefore, unknown. To do creative work, whether “commissioned” or not, is a recurring dream come true. Stretched incrementally over the course of one’s career, a body of work is, in sum, a dream project—a collective dream made true. If fixated on the dream project floating in the distance, then what defines the work before, during and after this dream project’s inception? If not perceived as a dream project, everything else is judged invisible in the dream project’s shadow.

In retrospect, Blazevich should have shown nothing based on the inference that she has not yet reached her dream project. On the contrary, she showed work—invoked only through her desire to pursue each project and having the courage to commit to materializing all of it. Work becomes evident when it is seized, crafted and finished. The growth and potential of Blazevich’s creativity can be easily projected in the years to come. If this is not working and living the dream, or better yet, living and working a few dreams at a time, what is?

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This CreativeMornings/Chicago write-up was done during a trip to “A2”—Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Photograph of Jenna Blazevich by videographers Alejandro Moore and Ben Derico, who donated their time, energy and documentation skills to preserving the January 2016 gathering of the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings.

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Before being invited to become a CreativeMornings/Chicago speaker, Jenna Blazevich participated in “30 Sec Pitches” at the 39th monthly gathering with a talk by Jim Moran, Director of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Read my write-up and see my photos.

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Big thanks: to The Second City (Host), BraintreeGreen Sheep Water, Lyft, for being Partners of monthly Chicago CreativeMornings #49; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed who both spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to make CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

Read more about the people who make the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings possible.
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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.

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March 7, 2016

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Olivia Trimble of The Quilt Square Project

What are you working on—on the side?

In 2011, I began Sleet City Signwriting with a passion to revive traditional sign-painting in Northwest Arkansas. I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible clients over the past 5 years, such as Onyx Coffee Labs, Thrive, and Shindig Paperie. Additionally, I am the Community Development Coordinator for The Little Craft Show, a juried, indie craft show attracting over 15,000 attendees a year.

When I’m not painting signs or working on The Little Craft Show, I have a few exciting side projects that I’ve been working on. Most recently, I just installed my second public art piece in a series I’m calling The Quilt Square Project. This is a project in partnership with The Springdale Art Initiative and the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. What began as small quilt paintings for my friends and family has turned into a large-scale side project. The concept is simple, I research and find traditional, Ozark quilt patterns, add a contemporary color palette, make it an extra large 8-foot by 8-foot square, and then install it in a public space. I love this project for so many reasons: A quilt for me symbolizes hard work and comfort; Quilts are easy to recognize and most people can connect with them no matter what their background might be; A quilt takes time—it’s a labor of love and that’s precisely what this side project is for me.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

I enjoy staying busy. I enjoy painting signs for my clients, but, more than that, I enjoy getting involved in community projects. I love the satisfaction of starting a project and seeing it through. At the end of the day, I’m only able to have these side projects, because I have an incredibly supportive family and group of friends who consistently help me bring my crazy ideas to life. Managing these projects is a true labor of love and a constant balance of time and energy.

Photograph by Amber Perrodin, Founder of The Little Craft Show

Why have a side project?

Side projects are an incredible way to stay inspired and involved in your community. While it’s important for me to build my business, it’s equally important for me to dream a little bit outside of the box and challenge myself creatively. Side projects are often the root of something much greater and lead to bigger projects or passions that continue to evolve and keep me going.

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Diptych courtesy of Olivia Trimble.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with 50,000feet, an independent creative agency dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Please consider supporting Design Feast
If you liked this lovingly-made interview, show your appreciation by helping to support my labor of love—Design Feast, which proudly includes this blog. Learn more.

February 29, 2016

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Elise Metzger of Filigree Suppers

What are you working on—on the side?

My side project is a pop-up supper club series called Filigree Suppers. We host monthly events in rotating cities, mainly Chicago and New York City. Our aim is to bridge inspiring design and delicious food under a common theme. In our first year, we have worked with over 100 small businesses whose goods are primarily handmade, and made in the U.S.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

I started it with my long-time friend and creative collaborator, Brita Olsen, who lives in New York City. This is both of our side project, so we are able to be sympathetic to each other’s varying workloads, and pick up the slack when the other person is super busy. Personally, I set aside a few hours every few evenings, and pick a day each weekend to work on Filigree. It’s definitely a lot of work, but I also know that the more I put into it, the more I get out of it. The trick (which I am still balancing) is to take breaks before I burnout. In the short-term, I may get less done, but it gives the project new energy once I pick up speed again!

Photograph by Tory Williams

Why have a side project?

As a creative person, it’s really difficult to feel well-rounded in just one role. There are really rewarding aspects of my day job that I might not find in a side project. Conversely, I am able to use my side project to work on skills, ideas and executions that are not part of my day job. Having a side project helps to fill the gaps in my creative needs. I also get to meet so many amazing and talented people I might not have the opportunity to meet otherwise!

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Diptych courtesy of Carolina Mariana Rodriguez.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with 50,000feet, an independent creative agency dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Please consider supporting Design Feast
If you liked this lovingly-made interview, show your appreciation by helping to support my labor of love—Design Feast, which proudly includes this blog. Learn more.

February 23, 2016

Audience Takes the Stage at 48th CreativeMornings in Chicago

In December 2014, a call to the Chicago creative community was first made, inviting makers to nominate themselves to speak at the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings. A diverse way to discover and receive consecutive viewpoints (read my write-up). As 2015 drew to a close, the second “Audience takes the stage” event of CreativeMornings/Chicago gathered again in December, and had designer Jen Serafini, writer Anthony Roberts, quilter Mary Fons share their perspectives from their respective discipline.

Photograph by Stephanie Strauss, Volunteer

Designer Jen Serafini on Mentoring

The most remarkable part of Jen’s presentation was how she visually diagrammed the way social paths can lead to opportunities. By continuously seeking new connections, seeding and retaining relationships made throughout her career, she has fueled her ambition. Essentially, one point of contact feeds another. Her social-network visualizations revealed the invisible chain, however nonlinear, that led to a project. Applied serendipity.

Regarding working with a mentor, Jen urged a to-do with potential: “Make sure to take advantage of their valuable advice, because it’s free.” Whether or not the advice is “valuable” depends on time. And I felt the fatigue of “free.” Sure, no admission fee is paid to talk to a mentor and receive input. But it’s never truly free—particularly for mentors. Mentors share what they’ve learned from their experiences, which is marked by trials and triumphs. It’s a lifelong cycle. Many dues are paid—educationally, emotionally, mentally and physically, symbolically—to reach the next professional plateau. Recall the truth of novelist Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” For mentors to share what they know, galvanized after years of work, is a gift. My amendment to Jen’s tip: Make sure to take advantage of a mentor’s valuable advice, because it took a lot of time and effort for them to get where they are now.

Addendum to Jen’s talk: Read my post “Mentorship keeps me awake and aware.” I also interviewed Jason Early, a CreativeMornings attendee who believes in the importance of mentors genuinely paired with mentees.

Photograph by Chris Gallevo, Volunteer

Writer Anthony Roberts on Questioning

Anthony offered a relevant affirmation, primed as a social-media nugget: “I don’t want a definitive. I want a conversation.” No didactic binary interaction here. Only meaningful communication, human-to-human. He reminded everyone about the human capability to achieve this, not only with clients, but with every encounter—to have an interesting conversation that promotes personal and mutual understanding. His prescription: Begin with an open question, follow up with different types of questions and definitely listen.

A specific part of Anthony’s framework is the avoidance of, as he called it, “dumb-ass questions.” I’ve asked (and still) ask such questions. It happens. At the same time, it takes guts to ask a question, especially one deemed “good.” Now, per Anthony, one must first ensure that it’s a really good question. If this were a ground rule for having productive discussions, whether in the form of a critique or brainstorming or an in-depth interview, my bet is that people would feel self-conscious to speak up. The consensus would be nervousness. Asking a question is like taking a stand, which isn’t easy.

Even in a work-based situation, a fluid conversation should welcome most, if not all, species of questions. Who knows? Though open to interpretation, the dumb-ass question (when asked) may prove to be the iteration toward a bona fide solid question, well-assembled and courageously asked (when it matters).

Photograph by Stephanie Strauss, Volunteer

Quilter Mary Fons on Her Craft

Mary demonstrated the power of props in a presentation. She had volunteers hold and display the front and back of her quilt designs in a procession during the “quilt interlude” of her energetic talk (What was in her thermos that kept her hyper-hydrated during her presentation?).

Photograph by Chris Gallevo, Volunteer

It’s surreal to consider quilts in the digital age. Like its companions in craft—from woodworking to ceramics to jewelry to comics to letterpress printing—these disciplines persist in empowering people to claim and, particularly in the case of quilt-making, reclaim raw materials into new forms of making. It’s refreshing to know that new methods of expression coexist with their precedence, which remain in practice. Because what may appear and sound antiquated, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete.

Fons inserted that handmade things “will last forever.” A popular sentiment, a noble one, though it rules out the unpredictable nature of chance. Here’s to handmade products being kept in favorable circumstances in order to be experienced for generations to come.

Addendum to Mary’s talk: Read my interviews with Neiger Design’s Carol Neiger, whose side project is GivingQuilts, and Nathalie Willlams, an avid CreativeMornings attendee, who also makes quilts.

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Chief song while writing: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

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Big thanks: to Braintree (Host), Green Sheep WaterSkillshare, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, for being Partners of monthly Chicago CreativeMornings #48; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed who both spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to make CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

Read more about the people who make the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings possible.
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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.

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January 18, 2016

Vigorous health found in wellness & art: Artery Ink’s Mara Natkin & Gloria Ramirez

While going through the Etsy Pavilion at the One of a Kind Show in Chicago, I encountered the handmade work of studio Artery Ink. Their human subject matter and the style through they interpreted it got my attention. Here, the founders Mara Natkin & Gloria Ramirez share their story of making their craft a fulfilling livelihood.

At the One of a Kind Show, I was quickly drawn 
(pun surely intended) to the subject matter of your work: 
“art + wellness.” How did you arrive at this idea?
Ha-ha! We do love a good pun over here! Both of us, Gloria and myself, Mara, have been artists our whole lives. The ART part is easy. Gloria, who grew up in Mexico City, went to school for Graphic Design, and I had grown up with many artists in my family. I continued practicing all sorts of art through grade school, high school and then ended up going to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design for illustration.

We met in Milwaukee and knew that we wanted to do something with our art but “what” was the big question—we had no idea. We both worked in the service industry as waitresses, letting time pass by, without worrying much about it, eating a lot and drinking a lot too! It was in May of 2013 that my aunt passed away from a long battle with breast cancer. My grandfather died within the same week as well as Gloria’s aunt. As with any death, it can be very life-changing. After that, we really started learning a lot about the human body and how to take care of it. We realized we were, in fact, not taking very good care of ours at all! So we started to change what we ate, and we started to work out a little bit and making those small changes impacted our lives in enormous ways.

One night, Gloria woke up in the middle of the night in tears because of a stomach pain she was having. This kept happening for a few nights and we thought maybe she should see a doctor. We found a naturopathic doctor in Milwaukee and made an appointment. We went to see Dr. Sarah later that week, and she explained to us that Gloria was suffering from some major inflammation, which is caused by all the food we had been eating and all that we had been drinking! I couldn’t believe she was telling us about inflammation because we had just been reading a book called “Crazy Sexy Diet” by Kris Carr, who talks a TON about inflammation too! We thought this must be true, how have we not heard about this before? After explaining digestion to us, she sent Gloria home with a list of food items to stay away from and some other suggestions.

We followed this “anti-inflammatory” way of living for a month and we have never gone back. Our taste pallets changed drastically, and we were experimenting with cooking all sorts of new recipes every day. At one point, I thought to myself, “I am having SO much fun learning about how food can heal your body, and I’m having so much fun cooking and looking up new recipes, and reading about it—darn, I wish I was this excited about doing some sort of art project.” Then BAM, why not combine both ideas (art and WELLNESS) and somehow encourage other people to take better care of their own bodies by eating healthier!

How many show/venues do you go to in order to promote 
and sell your handmade products? How would you characterize 
the experience of working the craft-show circuit?
When we started our business, we were both also working at a restaurant, so our time was split in half. It was sort of like a side thing. We thought “this seems like a cool idea—we’ve got to give it a try!” We applied for a bunch of events in the Milwaukee area expecting to get into a few, but we got into all of them! We scheduled out our summer so we had an event (or sometimes 2) each weekend, so about 3–5 events per month. We had to take off weekends at the restaurant and cut down our schedule a little bit. Doing these shows was so eye-opening to us, because we started to meet SO many people who were also following their dreams and creating something that they loved and making a living doing it! Once the summer had ended in the first year, we had maybe 1 or 2 holiday shows, and then it was over—so basically back to working 5–6 nights at the restaurant and picking up shifts.

When it came time to plan our second summer, we really beefed it up, and we knew we wanted to expand into the Chicago area as well. I was born and raised in Chicago and still have family there, and Gloria was also born in Chicago and had frequently visited the city all throughout her life. It seemed like a no-brainer that we should be selling there. We went all out and we applied for triple the amount of shows we did the year before. We ended up having 12–14 shows per month this year, which meant we were in constant motion. This year we completed 31 events (which is actually 60 individual days of show—some are 2, 3 or even 4 days long). Midway through summer, we took the plunge and quit our restaurant jobs. We knew that what we had created was special, and if we had all the time we needed to work on it, it could really take off. It was a tough decision to make, and we didn’t make it easily, but in the end, it had to happen.

We think it is SO important for a newer business to do as many shows as possible, because it’s such a great way to interact with the people buying your art. Yes, shows are a TON of work and can be exhausting, but it is completely worth it. You can see what people buy the most of, you can see the way people react to your product, you can hear what they want and what they say about it, you can take special orders or listen to amazing stories that they have to tell you. In our opinio,n there is no better way artists should start their business than to apply for some shows and TALK to people! People are so much happier buying a product knowing that you made it, and you take pride in making it and listening to you tell them about it. People ask us at every single show, “Are you the artists?”, and when we tell them yes, the reaction is always a good one. Being there in person and selling your artwork really gets the product out there and then, because of that, people will go to your website. Nowadays, with technology booming, everything is online. There is something so nice about doing events and talking with people face-to-face; nothing can compare to that.

I was also attracted to your line work and the resulting texture.
How do you achieve your visual compositions? 
Because they’re compact with visual patterns.
Both Gloria and I LOVE patterns and have our whole lives. We have two very different styles of artwork and very different techniques, but we use both in our business and they complement each other. Gloria sticks to her pen and paper, with traditional drawing. Ever since she was young, she has been attracted to black-and-white lines, and with lots of repetition, she has mastered the art of it. My artwork is more graphic and all digital. I do use a pen tablet, which then connects directly to my computer, so it feels very much like I’m just drawing normally. A lot of our inspiration with pattern comes from nature, which is where our love of patterns really began. We love to be outside, walking, camping, being in nature in any way. When you look inside the human body it is very reminiscent of the natural world outside, and it contains so many amazing patterns and connections—it is art in itself.

How did you arrive at wanting to become artists 
who make their art their livelihood?
Art has always been a big part in both of our families. Whether it be wood-working, cooking, metal work, ceramics, mosaics, or acting we both grew up surrounded by creativity. The thing that made us want to turn our art into a business, other than just pleasure, is the message that our art gives out. We have become so passionate about living a healthier lifestyle that we couldn’t just sit here and enjoy it ourselves. We want everyone to feel this awesome! We sometimes sit on the couch and talk to each other, and say, “If we had one wish, we would wish that everyone in their life time could feel this good in their bodies.” We decided it was our mission to encourage and inspire people to feel like that! Maybe they just need a little nudge, or a little more info. That is why we include a little health, wellness or human body fact on the back of all of our cards and prints. We get all of our facts checked by our naturopathic doctor, too. The information we give out is JUST as important as the artwork, and maybe some info about the human body would make you appreciate your body more. Or maybe a little info about strawberries or peas (above card) would encourage you to include some in your diet!

How do you practice drawing in order to feel competent 
and confident at realizing this skill?
With every drawing, we get better and better. I wonder what our drawings will look like in five years, because even in two, they’ve changed so much. Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. With every drawing, we try out new techniques and different styles. We always try to get Bristol Smooth Surface paper for the original drawings, and we prefer Espon when it comes to printing and the quality of our prints!

Sometimes people come up to us at a show and ask “How many artists are there?”, and when we say “Just us two”, they always look surprised. It makes sense, because we have had some of the same cards or prints from the very beginning, and some that we just created last month—and with time, they all get better and a little different. Drawing is very important to us, and our business is on staying fresh. Especially with greeting cards, you always have to be coming out with new designs, and new images. That forces us to draw almost every day which is a great thing!

When and how did you arrive at the idea of Artery Ink
And how did you keep this idea? Did you write it down? 
Did you doodle it?
I love writing, so the first thing that comes to mind when I have any idea is to write it down. We had a lot of lists, but we mostly went on walks and talked about ideas. Ideas become reality when you share them with other people and you start talking about them. Like I said before, because of our lifestyle change, we felt that we needed to share this information in a fun and different way that related to our artwork. When you have a strong mission behind art, it makes it more powerful and guides it. Once you have found a concept you are passionate about, the rest flows!

What were some of the first things you did in taking Artery Ink 
from an idea to a reality?
One of the first things we did was research our name, buy our domain name, register for an email, design the logo, and ask our naturopathic doctor if she could check our facts for us. We then researched like crazy for the best printer around, the best paper, and little cellophane sleeves. We also had been seeing someone about doing our taxes, and he happened to mention he could help us with our business finances and bookkeeping. What do you know—perfect timing or what?! He helped us right away get a sellers permit and the correct documentation for selling taxable items. We were very careful and wanted to do this the right way; we didn’t want to have to go back and fix things later on. I think we both got that skill from working in restaurants for so long. You always have to take a little extra time at the beginning to make sure you got the correct order; otherwise, you’ll waste time later bringing the order back to the kitchen for them to remake it.

What still feels raw, and this doesn't mean bad nor good, 
from when you started Artery Ink until now?
The thing that comes to mind right away is our website and online sales. Neither of us, by any means, is a website builder. We created the website we have now through Wix, which is very user-friendly and relatively easy (it’s gone through about 10 phases, each time a little better than the last), but it is in no way near where we want it to be. It is very important to have a web presence nowadays, having a website is better than having none, but we both know it needs to be better. Through starting a business, we have come to realize that everything takes time, and we cannot do it all at once. We just have to make the best of what we have and continue to grow and adapt and work towards what we want. Sometimes we look at each other and say, “Can you believe we have a business?”, because being a business owner is still a very raw feeling to us as well!

Speaking of started, how did you make yourself committed 
to start? Because “Just do it” is easier said than done.
Easier said than done, is ohhh SO true. It was a culmination of being sick of working at a restaurant, and feeling lazy, and knowing we both have talent in art and not using it. We went to a farmers’ market one day, during the summer, prior to our starting the business, and we walked into this little craft section, and there was a booth with just one guy selling the cards he designed and printed. And we looked at it and thought to ourselves, “We could do this!” And the worst part is that we had wanted to start a greeting card line for a long time and just had been too distracted or unmotivated to do it. For some reason, seeing someone else do it with ease, got the fire going, and after that day, we decided to do it 100%. Every day we took one step to create a product we would be proud to sell. Some steps are small and not scary, like doing a drawing, or researching and applying for events, while others are bigger and scary, like buying a $1,000 printer, or applying for a business credit card, but we reminded ourselves every day: “One step at a time.” And the very next year, we were at the same farmers’ market selling our own cards too!

What is your work schedule like in making all of your artwork? 
And how do you manage your time?
Time management is very tricky, especially going from having a “work” schedule imposed on you to making your own. Our schedule varies, depending on the season. In the summer time, while we are doing events every weekend, we are working every day: printing, folding, stuffing, making signs, keeping items fresh, counting and doing inventory. We don’t have a very strict schedule during these times, it’s basically work until the work is done. On our slower months, we try to keep stricter hours.

We also feel like we are more productive when we stick to a healthy routine, which includes cooking, a little exercise, yoga, reading and writing—so we schedule time to do those activities as well. We work between 8–10 hours, probably 5–6 days a week, during the slower times, but regardless, we do something related to the business pretty much every day, whether it be an hour of drawing or updating the website, or taking new photos, or sketching out a new idea. The best two pieces of advice we can give anyone who is struggling with sticking to a schedule is (1) make a list of what you are going to do the next day right before you go to bed. You wake up and you already know what the plan is, (2) when you have your own business, you will be working basically ALL the time—there is no time off, so it is even more important to force yourself to take time for yourself to rest, take care of yourself, and remind yourself of why you love this. Then start again, making sure you enjoy every bit of the process.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
We are both big believers in creating a space that you enjoy being in. Otherwise, you just won’t get anything done! Our workspace has changed a lot. When we first designed our “studio”, we didn’t know what we would be doing in it; all we knew was it was going to be some sort of art, but that was all. Now that we have established ourselves a bit more, we know a LOT more of what we need around us and what we don’t need, and that has changed the space a lot. This year, we ordered a lot of our supplies in bulk—and when you go from 2 packs of paper to 25, well, you need a more efficient way to store it! It was very disorganized, but after the holidays, when we had a moment to breathe, we reorganized and made it a lot more efficient. The thing about the workspace is that we know it will constantly change. If we add a new product or start doing larger orders, we need to change something up. Keeping a clean, clutter-free space to produce our artwork has always been the best for us. The moment we feel uncomfortable, cluttered or unmotivated, we know it’s time to change up the space, and we will do so. A few things that a great workspace needs are good lights, and for us, at least, good music! We alternate between calming meditation radio for when we are feeling zen, and Katy Perry when we want to feel pumped, excited and encouraged!

What kind of art/illustration appeals to you? 
Who and/or what are your creative influences?
This is always a hard question because our main influences are not specifically a person or a specific artist; it comes more from nature. Like I said before, we are constantly entranced and amazed by the natural world. Flowers, plants, trees, the sky, the earth, animals, gardening, growing food, and how everything relates. We love so many different kinds of art and different kinds of music. Traveling has always been one of our favorite things to do, and we have been lucky enough to visit many places so far in our lives, and seeing the way other cultures and people live is also very inspiring and life-changing.

In running Artery Ink, what are some bona fide “best practices” 
in working well, in working as best as possible?
EAT BREAKFAST! Oh my gosh—just like we encourage through our artwork, accomplishing ANYTHING is easier when your body has been fed well. What you eat affects your mood, and everything works much better and goes smoother and you get more accomplished when you’re in a good mood.

Make lists, lots of lists. Carry a notebook with you wherever you go, because you get the greatest ideas at the most random times and you MUST write them down.

On a more serious note, one thing that we always talk about is ENJOY THE PROCESS. We remind each other of that every day. It’s not the result that’s the fun part, it’s DOING it. Once it’s over, it’s done. Even if it’s something that you don’t specifically enjoy doing, we remind ourselves to go into it positively. A lot of tasks seem overwhelming when you think about doing them, but we also remind ourselves to “just start it.” Once you make the first move, you’ll realize it isn’t so hard and you will actually be done faster than you thought!

Do you use any software/Web-based tools to run your business? 
If so, what digital tools do you use and highly recommend?
We use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for all of our artwork. I do all my artwork in Illustrator, and when Gloria is done with her drawing, we scan them and tweak them a little in Photoshop, and we do the entire layout for our cards in Illustrator. I have been using Illustrator for many years, and I love this program. It’s so versatile.

Who and/or what keeps you going in keeping Artery Ink going?
Other than jamming out to Katy Perry, we have a lot of things that keep us going. Most importantly, it’s each other. We are so lucky to have started this business together; it has made the whole thing so much easier to have two people, two minds, two sets of hands vs. one. We can bounce ideas off of each other and when one of us feels stuck, we call the other one over and say, “What should I do with this?”, and when someone with fresh eyes sees a piece of work, they often have all sorts of new ideas you’ve never thought about before.

Our families have been so big in our success as well. Always supporting us and coming to our events, offering help prepare for large events, coming with us to help set up our stands. We also have met some of the most amazing customers who tell their friends and families about our artwork so they come support us, too. We also have some customers who buy a few things every time they see us, because they want to keep the collection growing! We hear the best, most amazing and sometimes crazy stories about people’s triple bypass heart surgeries, or their dad’s lung transplants, or how watermelon saved someone’s life! We would never want to stop hearing these stories and meeting these people, they all keep us inspired to make more art and always give us new ideas.

For people who want to start a business focused 
on something handmade, what is your advice?
Our advice would be to stay true to yourself and do what you love to do, not necessarily what you THINK people want. Secondly, think about the cost of your artwork. We decided right away that we wanted our artwork to be relatively cheap. We could go out there and sell originals for $600, or $1000, but that leaves only a slim amount of people out there who will buy the artwork. Instead, we make cards $5 and prints for $15–20 so everyone can buy one. Put it into a frame and it looks professional. Not everyone is rich, but everyone should be able to buy a piece of artwork for themselves or as a gift, and you’d never know it was only $20 when it’s framed and hanged.

How do you handle disagreements while you're working?
We don’t really disagree too much. When and if we do, we will definitely always discuss both viewpoints and usually figure out some compromise, or we will try out both ideas and see which works, OR we will go back to the core of why we started the business and see which idea coincides with it better.

What does independence mean to you?
As it relates to creativity, making, working.
Independence to us means doing our own thing and not being worried what people will think of it. Feeling like we have a freedom of expression without being judged. Some artists get caught up in wanting their artwork to look specific or like someone else’s and it’s great to have influences but you have to let your own voice be heard (or in our case, shown) when you create.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?
We grow every day—our minds are constantly expanding because we have so much to learn. Growth to us is trying something new every day and evolving. The way we think now is not the same as it was a year ago, or even last week. We remind ourselves to always be open to new ideas even if we don’t think we like them at first.

How do you get the word out about you and Artery Ink’s work? 
How do you attract customers?
We do a ton of shows, and whenever we go out, we always talk about our business and connect with people everywhere we go. Word-of-mouth is the biggest help, and keeping your product consistent yet fresh keeps people intrigued and coming back!

If a person approached you and said, “I want to draw 
and sell my drawings,” what’s your response?
We would say, “Awesome! Go for it—believe in yourself, don’t wait, and the time to do it is now.” We are lucky that working in the service industry has given us a lot of practice in talking to people and engaging with them, so when we do events it comes very naturally to us. If you are an artist maybe on the shy side, practice makes perfect so get out there, SMILE, say “Hello”, and talk to everyone that stops by!

How did you discover and arrive at the name for your business?
We originally wanted to go with PUMP because the heart is a pump and we thought “get pumped” was a cool thing to say in regards to getting excited about taking care of your body. When we thought about it more, we realized we also wanted it to relate to art as well—so we started thinking about words with “art” in them, ARTery was perfect! We also added the INK at the end because all of our work is ink-based, whether that be pen and ink or printer-ink, or screen-printing ink, it’s all ink!

How does the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contribute 
to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/
Both of us grew up in big cities in Mexico and Chicago, so coming to Milwaukee for both of us was a downsize. We realized that it was a great advantage to us, because there is less competition, and it’s easier and cheaper to start up something. Milwaukee has changed so much since the time we have moved here, and now the art scene is growing rapidly. We have SO SO SO many AMAZING local craft fairs, farmers markets and festivals every single weekend. There are new all-local shops opening up every month, and Milwaukee has the best city pride around. We wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else to start up our business. We do want to travel the world and bring our artwork to as many places as possible, but Milwaukee will always be our home and we love it here, and we love all of the people who have supported us and helped us grow. We couldn’t have done it in any other city. The opportunities for artists and small businesses in Milwaukee are outstanding and continue to grow every single day.

Do you attend the Milwaukee chapter gatherings 
of CreativeMornings?
We currently do not attend, but have heard a lot about them and have a friend who partakes in some meetings. It’s on our list, but we have been caught in a whirlwind these past two years and are just catching up right now!

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All images courtesy of Artery Ink.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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