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Maker Stories

Yao Cheng’s Watercolors go with the Intuitive Flow

July 8, 2013


Artist and designer Yao Cheng was born in China, but early in her childhood, joined her parents in the United States. She has, she says, “a deep love for anything watercolor,” and is always happy “when it’s just me, my brush and that new piece of watercolor paper in front of me.” Painting for her is “a very quiet and personal place I can go to when I’m feeling down or stressed out…No matter what happens elsewhere in my life, I can always pick up a brush and paint until I feel better.” (Being talented enough to consistently produce beautiful paintings probably helps!)

Yao feels “incredibly lucky” to be doing what she loves for a living, and her love of patterns, textures and rich colors comes through vividly in everything she creates. She shared some of her thoughts and feelings about her artwork with UncommonGoods.

Probably the strongest consistent element in your work is your connection to nature. It’s hard to tell, looking at your watercolors, whether nature itself (for example, the ocean) is expressing things, or whether it merely bring up incredibly powerful associations and emotions in the viewer. Which is it, to you? Is that ambiguity intentional?

Nature is very influential in my work in many different ways. I look to nature when I’m painting florals, landscapes or even to reference color palettes, but more than that, I think there’s a lot of beauty in the way leaves of grass, for example, move. Because of my education background in textiles, I tend to find patterns in nature and that’s what comes through a lot of the time in my work. So in the painting “Field of Grass“, I wanted to capture the wind as if you are standing there, watching as the breeze combs gently through the grass. I think that I approach my paintings from an instinctual place, so it is the immediacy in emotion that I am trying to communicate. For example, with the painting “Ocean Waves“, I had a very visceral reaction to the dramatic ocean waves and I wanted to capture that immediacy and energy in the waves.

You posted on your blog, “My paintings are honest, original and reflect how I feel at the moment. There isn’t anything more meaningful than that.” What do you mean by “honesty” in this context?

I think it is important to always be honest with how I am feeling about a piece of work and communicate that visually. So maybe it’s the calm and warmth of the waves creeping onto shore in the painting “Beach” that I want to capture by using a saturated pink, you know? It’s the immediate reaction to an image or idea that I want to keep at the center of my work.

Art for me is most importantly a way to express my feelings or ideas at a particular moment. As long as I am creating work that comes from a genuine place in my heart, then I know I have accomplished something. And if my art can make someone smile or brighten their day in some way, then that’s all that matters.

Do you feel there’s a progression, path, or journey in your painting, with some sort of direction, whether you know it or not at the time? If so, how would you describe it?

Yes, definitely. The progression happens a lot in the painting process. I tend to jump right into painting most of the time because I like to not completely plan out how I will finish a painting. I try and approach each painting from a fresh and intuitive place.

I find the intuitive way of painting to be freeing, and I have actually learned a lot from the process of not knowing and seeing where it takes me. Sometimes it’s a color that I didn’t mean to use that will take in a different direction while in the middle of creating a painting. Especially in the way watercolor blends, I have to let go of control in a lot of ways and allow the colors to blend how they would like! It is a very loose medium to work with and at first, I became really frustrated with it. But now, it is really what I love about the medium and so I try to embrace that aspect.

You’ve blogged about your love of faded images, the poetry of objects that hover between being visible, and how the empty space in your art is more interesting to you than the objects — and that these are related to the Taoist philosophy you studied in college. Does it describe some of your own feelings about these things? Is this part of Chinese calligraphy as well?

I would say that empty space is a very important of all of my work. I really love how in Taoism the empty space is seen as the breath and source of everything. In this way, I think that what is not visible in my artwork is what I try and emphasize.

For example, when I am painting geometric shapes, I am interested in that transition from what is here and how it disappears slowly across the page. The push and pull between these two realities is fascinating. Through the use of watercolor and the translucency of the pigment, I can really play with that transitional stage between what is here and what is not.

Chinese calligraphy has had a deep influence on the way I now paint. There is true poetry in the way a brush mark can express a feeling or idea, and that’s what I try to capture in my work! I learned Chinese calligraphy when I was studying abroad for a few months under a calligraphy master. I learned a lot about how to make expressive marks that speak to an emotion rather than just being an image, it was a wonderful experience.

Another quote from your blog, “As much as I love creating work, speaking about it doesn’t come as naturally to me. I think it’s because creating visual work is a completely different language to me than verbal communication, so a lot of the times I don’t know how to express in words what I was thinking or trying to say through my work.” Are there any paintings you can think of about which this is especially true? Do you try to paint what can’t be described in words?

This is especially true in my abstract paintings. You asked about the poetry of the objects in my work and I think of it more as a visual poetry when I am painting the abstract works. Trying to describe how I feel when I paint triangles dancing across a page and watching them interacting with the space on paper, that is hard for me to put into words!

Just as feelings are complicated and in multitudes of layers, my paintings sometimes have a lot of layers of different feelings or perspectives that I have a hard time finding the words to describe. For me, I think visual imagery is a more interesting and powerful way to tell a story or communicate a thought.

You posted that your UncommonGoods paintings “took you out of your comfort zone to paint work that’s more involved, and in the end, more beautiful.” Can you tell us a little more about this?

I loved creating this collection of paintings for UncommonGoods! At the time, I was painting a lot of abstract pieces and while they are visually interesting and complex, I had not made many paintings with landscapes. So with this collection, I was exploring landscapes that inspired me for the first time. It was a great way to expand my horizon a little bit and paint a different subject matter!

I would say that the layers of painting and time involved made it more extensive for me. Rather than creating a painting in one sitting, which is the case with most of my other works, I spent much more time to create the layers of images. The leaves painting, for example, took the most amount of time because first resist was laid down to preserve the color of the grass and then different layers of colors are laid down on top to create the colors in the field and the sky. It also took a few tries to capture the movement of the grass!

Do you have any big ideas for future work that you’d like to share? And/or words of inspiration?

My fiancé teases me all the time by telling me there is not enough time in the world to do everything I want! Right now, I am working on expanding my design services to wedding invitations as I have found it is the perfect culmination for my floral paintings, patterns, and graphic design to exist all at once. My fondness for calligraphy is also a great hobby of mine, so I am excited to explore more in that realm!

I am also working on expanding my art prints with some silkscreened pieces to bring in a different texture and size to my work. When I used to feel uninspired or out of ideas, I would just get frustrated and go do something else. But now I have found that inspiration is endless! There are so many ideas and beautiful things and colors in the world, I just have to open my eyes a little wider and pay more attention!

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Etta Kostick

July 1, 2013

Stained glass is often associated with large-scale pieces; sprawling mosaics, iconic cathedral windows, and ancient works of art. This meticulous craft doesn’t have to be reserved for the grandiose, though. As Etta Kostick proves, stained glass provides an illustrious splash of color to handmade jewelry.

Etta combines the techniques that were passed to her from her family of glassblowers and her talent for sculpting jewelry from silver and other metals to create her bold hexagon bracelets and the rings and bracelets in her collection.

The artist creates her pieces in her Chicago studio–a bright, inviting work space within her own apartment. Although we didn’t catch her hula hooping in her living room (see “How do you recharge your creativity?”), we did convince her to take us on a virtual tour of the place where she captures light and luster with glass and solder.

Continue Reading…

Maker Stories

Self-taught Metal Artist Chris Crooks on the Danger & Pleasure of His Work

June 28, 2013

You could say that Chris Crooks’ art makes a lot of sparks! It’s true factually as well as metaphorically, as you can see in this photo of him at work on one of his 16-gauge steel creations. Chris loves working in metal because, as he says, “The possibilities are endless. If you can dream it, you can do it.”

He took a somewhat winding road to get to where is now, running his own successful metal art company. After graduating from the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 1984, he worked in advertising, then ran a printing business with his wife, while painting during his free time. Wanting a change of scene, the couple moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1990. There, Chris started a company making solid cast statuary. It was while collaborating with a metal art manufacturer that Chris met his true love, materially speaking: Metal, he realized, was so much more dynamic than plaster. It was in 2001 that he began designing and making his first line of metal sculpture, inspired from the southwest and the Sonoran desert. We were curious to know more about his path to creative fulfillment and success — so we asked him about it!

What’s your studio like? Do you do all the work yourself, or do you have assistants to help with certain tasks?
I rent a space in an industrial park. I started out from my garage, as the business grew, and my wife’s and neighbors’ patience stretched, it was time to move to an industrial space in downtown Tucson. There I can bang and grind at all hours of the night and stretch out a bit. It’s a 1000 square feet of pure metalworking nirvana.

Do you display your work in your own lawn or garden? If so, what kind of reaction have you gotten from it?
I really don’t display much of my garden art, but my friends and neighbors make up for it. I generally don’t give people my art as gifts unless they actually ask, since you are never really sure they like it as much as they are telling you, kind people as they are. With their response to the garden art though, I am never at a loss for a present.

How did you end up working in metal?
It seemed like a natural progression from sculpting in clay to working in metal. My first pieces combined the two, using the metal to augment the plaster, then the plaster to decorate the the metal, and then no plaster at all. Metal is just so fun and versatile, I feel like I’m just getting started.

Do you work regular hours, or do you work when you feel like it?
Well, when you work for yourself – you’re always motivated. OK, maybe not always. Generally, I work something like 60 hours a week. I really don’t have much say in the matter, especially when UncommonGoods comes calling! As a small business owner it really doesn’t feel like work.

What are the biggest challenges to doing this work?
Beyond the logistics of getting all the orders out the door, the biggest challenge is coming up with new designs. New designs and product is the lifeblood of an art company. Fortunately, coming up with new designs is also the funnest thing to do.

Is it dangerous sometimes? What do you do to keep it safe?
Yep, it certainly can be dangerous. I’ve learned my lesson more than once not to disregard safety precautions. Never the same precaution and never more than once. Whenever I’m training somebody, it reminds me how dangerous it can be.

How much metal do you go through in a year?
I use about 400 sheets of 4 x 8 foot metal a year of varying thickness.

How do you get it all to your studio?
It is both picked up and delivered.

You studied Fine Art in college – did you expect to be an artist, or did you think you’d always have a “day job”?
I always wanted to be an artist. I didn’t know if I could pull it off…didn’t really have a clear vision of what being an artist would mean for me. I got a day job at an ad agency out of college, that was fun for a while. Painting was not as rewarding as sculpting, and metal sculpting is completely enjoyable and engaging. It seems to be working so far.

What were your paintings like, back when you were in advertising — were they in any way related to the themes of your metal art? And do you still paint?
Here’s one of my Bar Fly paintings, and recent painting on metal.

How did you learn the skills of your metal art?
I am completely self-taught.

What do you like about living the artist’s life?
I always wanted to make a living doing something genuinely enjoyable. To get up in the morning raring to go, and never having enough time to do everything you want to do. I remember watching the Crocodile Man Steve Irwin cavorting about wrestling crocs and generally living life large. He was just so happy. What a way to live life. Crikey, now I got some of that.

Do you miss anything about having a regular job/working for somebody else?
Not really. Routine is nice, as long it’s not every day. Coworkers, company paid health care and a 401K are definitely positives.

What do you do for inspiration?
I get back to nature as often as possible to recharge. Honestly, whenever I find the time to be creative there’s generally tons of ideas ready to go.

See Chris' Collection | Uncommongoods

Maker Stories

Chloe Bulpin’s Design Floats to the Top of our iPhone Case Design Challenge

June 27, 2013

Last year we hosted our first iPhone Case Design Challenge, offering artists a unique way to bring their art to a larger audience in a very accessible way. We wanted to put fine art in the pockets of our customers, and we did that with the winning piece and the semifinalists that our buyers loved so much they made them into cases too.

With as amazing as last year’s pieces were, this year gave them a run for their money. From mixed media collages with vintage photos to experimental photography, it was a close race. But the winning design came down to a mysterious subject swimming through cool waters. The judges and buyers were mesmerized by her asymmetrical beauty.

Meet Chloe Bulpin, artist of Swimming and the newest member of our UncommonGoods artist family.

What is one uncommon fact about you?
I consider myself nomadic. I have lived in 5 different countries starting with Australia.

When did you first realize you’re an artist?
From a young age, my family knew the best way to keep my toddler self occupied was to sit me down with a box of colored pencils and a stack of paper. In 4th grade, I joined my elementary school’s art club. I think the realization came when the principal visited the club and asked to have my painting for the school’s office. Prior to that point, art had always been something I simply did for myself. Receiving recognition for your work is always fulfilling and brings with it the drive to create more to share with others.

Where do you get inspiration for your art?
My inspiration derives more often from conceptual, rather than visual, triggers. Recently, I have found interest in the environmental changes and influences that occur on global and local scales, as wells as within our bodies. I think of images as potent vehicles of communication because they can reach large audiences without having to be translated. For me, the inspiration comes from the larger issues which I aim to bring attention to. The art itself, then, visually communicates these issues.

Describe your artistic process.
The only routine of my artistic process is that I start with written notes of my ideas or inspiration from readings to establish a goal of what I’d like to communicate. I then go to my sketch book and work out composition and materials. I’m still experimenting with various mediums and techniques. But I think it’s a positive thing to keep experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what you expect a medium to do. The risks keep me engaged in the process and curious to see how to best execute my ideas.

Describe your work space.
Condensed Chaos. At the moment, being that it is summer, I have an easel and a table set up at home with images scattered about. However, during the academic year, I’m working in the Illustration Studies Building at the Rhode Island School of Design. Usually, I have an easel set up with a couple of drawing horses upright as tables, a huge stack of paint tubes, a glass palette, cups of paint brushes, reference images, and my laptop blasting music.

What advice would you give to another artist interested in entering one of our design challenges?
Enter your work despite your inhibitions. As an artist, you must realize that there is a continuous process of experimentation and practice to keep creating better results. Therefore, in a competition where you have an opportunity to enter your work with very little to lose and much to gain, it’s a waste to pass up the potential. I would advise that you enter the work which you really strove towards perfecting and don’t worry if you feel that you can do better. Although often infuriating, your drive to want to improve ultimately will lead you to doing so.

“As you think, so shall you become” – Bruce Lee.

Maker Stories

MG Stout on Moving, Staying Motivated & Making Art

June 24, 2013

Artist Mary Gallagher Stout (Also known as MG Stout) not only captures animals’ unique personalities though her stylized pet portraits, but also conveys a bit of her own personality though each of these soulful pieces, which seem to be dripping with warmth and emotion.

Mary admits that she’s faced some challenges on her way to becoming a professional artist, and she graciously spoke candidly with me about discovering her passion for art, using her work to promote social change, and making the decision to transition to a new studio space in order to put her paintings in prime public view.

You mentioned in your UncommonGoods artist bio that you studied philosophy in school. How did a philosophy degree turn into a career in art?
Here are the cliff notes-I never felt like I was good at anything. I doodled privately and I studied philosophy because I wanted to learn how to think. My ambition was to become a professor. University life seemed to suit me. After I received my BA, I applied to a few graduate programs and moved to RI with my fiance. The following year brought a wedding, a new baby and a severe case of postpartum depression. The love of my family and ART saved me.

What the what? Art saved you? How so? Among the laundry list of psychological issues from which I suffered, and there were many, I became agoraphobic. I was terrified to leave my house, and heaven forbid it should rain–I’d cry all day. *I was a delight to be around.

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law knew that I wanted to paint the sanitarium white walls of my home and suggested that I grab a brush. I painted practically every surface in the house. I did murals, faux finishes and furniture. I think I even painted a few shades! To my surprise, people were really impressed with my work. When my faculties returned and the anxiety passed I started a decorative painting business and have been painting ever since.

*My company actually was the opposite of delightful.


What lead you to start painting animals? How did the custom aspect come into play?
I used animal imagery as an analogy to raise awareness of the vulnerability of the arts and art programming. Endangered species, the environment, and the arts need community support to thrive and flourish. The National Endowment for the Arts budget is the first to be cut when funding is being dispersed. I wanted to demonstrate how art impacts and enriches our lives and so I co-produced a free community event at the Workhouse Arts Center called ART OUT LOUD- a fusion of art and music.

I painted my first pet portrait in honor of my cousin’s dog, Mattie, who passed away unexpectedly. She was old, but seemingly healthy. The whole family was so upset and I wanted to celebrate the life of an amazing dog. I worked on the piece in my studio, which is a public space, and started getting orders and requests from visitors. I knew then that I was onto something.

How many pets do you own? Do they spend much time in your studio?
I had two dogs. Champ died of bone cancer last year and nearly broke my heart. Scottie is 15 years young and while his skin is much looser, he is a sweetie pie. Neither spent time in my studio because they like to misbehave when they are not home.

Would you consider your studio an extension of your home, or do you prefer to keep work and your personal space separate?
My husband prefers that I keep my studio work separate as I seem to get paint everywhere!

How did you know it was time to transition to a new studio space?
I set professional goals for myself and made a 5 year plan. I juried into the Workhouse Arts Center and became a full-time studio artist. I spent the months before I moved into my studio in VCU’s [Virginia Commonwealth University] Summer Studio Graduate Residency Program there. It was intense and kicked my ass into gear. I signed a 3 year lease and dedicated that time to finding my voice. I gave myself permission to paint a lot of crap. As a decorative painter, lacking a fine art degree, I felt like a big phony baloney. So I painted a bunch of introspective stuff and experimented with various media. I had my aha moment when I started my *REAL Life Drawing series. Pastel on newspaper! Drawing my observations of the city. I found my groove.

Year 4 was about making sellable artwork. Yikes! Did I just speak of money? Heck yeah I did. Artists have bills that need to be paid too. As a professional artist you need to have work that pays the bills so that you can afford a studio to make art just for art’s sake. The problem with my old studio was that I was making decent work, but nobody was seeing it. Truth be told, most of my sales happened off site. It just seemed logical to move.

*Sunbury Press published my DC inspired artworks in a book titled REAL Life Drawing, My Eye on Washington DC, by Mary Gallagher Stout

What do you look for in a studio space?
The first concern is location. Is it metro accessible? My atelier needs to be in a place that people can get to by hopping on a bus, train, trolley, or bike. The studio also needs to have good lighting, and enough space for to be divided into a workroom and gallery. Finally I need to be able to have 24-hour access. One can’t ever be certain when a thunder-bolt of creativity may strike!


What was the last thing you packed? What was the first thing you unpacked when you got to your new space?

It was the same thing- my paint palette.

How far is your new studio from your old? Did you have to move all of your supplies and works in progress a great distance?
I’ve added about 20 miles to my drive so it is a bit of a hike, but completely worth it. Old Town Alexandria is a destination. This town is buzzing with art enthusiasts, and animal lovers! The marina is literally one block from my new spot and there are dozens of local eateries and shops.

I’m in heaven. I share this space with two other prolific professional artists, John Gascot and Gina Cochran. We make a great team. We inspire and support each other and are eager to produce community-centric exhibitions and creative workshops.

Maker Stories

Frost Glass’s Banded Lacework Design Wins!

June 6, 2013

I’m never happy to see a design challenge end, but I admit I took a sigh of relief two weeks ago when Candace, Jim, and Justina met via Google Hangout to pick a winner in the Glass Art Design Challenge. I wasn’t only glad we had an amazing winning design, but that my desk could be free from all of these beautiful, yet very fragile samples. I tend to be a little too clumsy to host such a design challenge.

But the greatest joy I get is making the phone call to a design challenge winner to let them know that the judges picked their work to be featured in our collection. When I called Patrick and Carrie of Frost Glass, Patrick told me that they have always loved the UncommonGoods catalog and wondered when would be the perfect time to submit their work to us. It delighted me even more to tell him that the judges loved the colors and interesting design elements in their Banded Lacework Glasses.

 

Meet Patrick and Carrie Frost and help us welcome them into our UncommonGoods artist family!

What is one uncommon fact about you?
We are both uncommonly determined and happy people!

How did you begin in glass arts?
Each of us got “hooked” on glass during our time in college. Carrie studied and received a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and Patrick got started with a BS from the Illinois State University. This is a common case for many artists working in glass that they become enthralled upon the first encounter, and there are many university programs across the country where this can happen.

The real education began for us after school however – the real education and understanding that drives your glasswork comes through years of study and education through alternative means. Volunteering at craft schools, working for other glassmakers, finding ways to be involved in workshops, looking for residencies, work-study programs, whatever it takes to keep going until you are adequately prepared to start working for yourself full time. Every person you work with and all of your experiences culminate to give you your true skill set and vision for what you would like to create and how you will execute your plan.

Where do you get inspiration for your glass designs?
Our designs are based upon a process where we look for a function that needs to be filled, and then create a design that can perform that function in the most interesting way possible. Each of us has a vast body of knowledge that encompasses techniques both traditional and unusual, which came from numerous experiences with master glassmakers from around the world. We love the style of the Mid-Century Modern and feel like it was an important time for design so some of the functions, shapes, and colors come from this era. Sometimes when you think you have done something really unique you will open a book and see something very similar has been done 50, 100, or 2000 years ago!

Describe your artistic process.
Our process up to this point has been to generate a line of glasswork that embodies the idea of elevating everyday experience. We hit upon an idea of experiential luxury after doing some research and found it was an interesting concept that applied to a lot of the things we were doing at the time. Our glasswork is designed to give you an experience through its function, as well as by transforming the space in which it resides. This connection with the client and their home creates a really unique bond between the artist and consumer that is unique to a handcrafted object.

Describe your workspace.
At the time we share a small private studio with a good friend, it has been a real saving grace after spending 16 months or so on the road. Trying to start a business from a mobile office is difficult, especially when you are lugging around all of your tools, glass, etc! We rent a small house, which is almost entirely consumed by glass our office / “war room” features a large-scale desk calendar that is dismantled, stuck up page by page to the wall to give the entire year-at-a-glance (gold stars are sometimes used to note an especially productive day). Being here allowed us to take all of our equipment and belongings from 5 separate locations and put them in one place. Having our work, office duties, photography, packing and shipping consolidated gave us the real opportunity to launch our business.

What advice would you give to another artist interested in entering one of our design challenges?
This is a great opportunity it doesn’t cost anything to enter there is really nothing to lose! Even the opportunity for a jury to look at your work usually costs money; here you get a team of professionals to evaluate your design for free! The semi-finalists get great exposure on the website through the voting platform and there is another opportunity for honest feedback and insight into your work. We made a goal several years ago when looking at an UncommonGoods catalog to some day be featured in their collection, and it took this long to do it. Without ever having that thought or goal to begin with it never would have happened!

Maker Stories

Inside the Artists’ Studio with Kasia Wisniewski & Nicholas Foley

June 3, 2013

Living in New York City you learn very quickly not to judge a book by it’s cover – every door hides a secret in this city. Upon walking up to Kasia Wisniewski and Nicholas Foley’s building I had no idea what was in store. Only a few blocks from my own place, and on a block with manicured brownstones, Kasia and Nick’s door was gated and uninviting. But upon being greeted and swept upstairs to their apartment by Kasia, I was surprised to be standing in the treasure hidden from the street. Their home is what I imagine Marie Antoinette’s place would look like if she were a Brooklyn artist – a mix of Baroque accessories, Mid-Century furniture, antique sewing machines, dress forms. And right there, among their beautiful furniture and artifacts, was an industrial laser cutter, taking up what I imagine could be a sizable second bedroom.

That’s another thing about New York City – you have to make it happen by any means possible. For Nick and Kasia that mean taking out a wall, building a ventilation system, and giving up precious real estate to fit the laser cutter that helped Kasia leave her job in luxury fashion design and start working for herself. But nothing is wasted – they have used the cutter to create Kasia’s wall art and jewelry, to cut stencils to create other designs, and Nick even used it to cut wood to create a suspended indoor garden. Getting to tour their space and talk about their work was truly inspiring and a reminder that nothing is earned in this city without a little sacrifice.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
We are collectors! We’re surrounded constantly by reminders of things we love- from books and photographs to piles of fabric and knick-knacks from our travels. Living in Brooklyn has forced us to be creative with a limited space, so we’ve put our passions front and center. Nick is starting an indoor vegetable garden in the corner of our living room, so a lot of it is creating our own inspiration as well.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Working from home means we’re working on and off from the time we get up to the time we go to sleep – but when you’re doing stuff you like, it’s not work. I usually take an hour or so to go for a run around midday and we always watch something funny during dinner at the end of the day.

We also have a blog where we detail our food and design experiments, so working on that is sort of a treat for us as well.

What are your most essential tools?
Our most essential tool is our laser cutter- we use it not only to create products like our You Are Here map, but we also use it to create tools for our other projects, from stamps and stencils to jigs and frames. My industrial sewing machine (a birthday gift from Nick to me) is another Collected Edition MVP.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Transitioning from a full-time job in a high stress fashion company to being my own boss was terrifying. I think the hardest part was really realizing how fast time goes by when you’re working on projects by yourself. At first I would beat myself up if I didn’t have something solid and concrete at the end of the day – but mistakes and revisions are 95% of the design process.

What advice would you offer yourself of 5 years ago?
I would encourage myself to follow my instincts and believe in my vision. I think all designers suffer from insecurity, but if you focus on making good work and being true to your aesthetic, others will get onboard.

How do you set goals for yourself?
We both have a very clear idea of what we want our lives to be like in 5 years or 10 years – but the path to get there is still developing! We are both big fans of lists – both small detail and big picture. I try to set manageable goals I know I can reach, while always keeping in mind the endgame.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Every victory is celebrated by figuring out how to win the next victory.

What quote keeps you motivated?
This Samuel Beckett quote pretty much sums up creative entrepreneurship. I think there are very few designers that ever feel completely satisfied with their work – you should always be aiming to “fail better” on the next go-round.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
I’m starting to experiment with casting. I love using tutorials from sites like Instructables to inform my experimentation. We also have an electroforming set-up that we both worked with some in college but is now lying dormant – that’s another avenue we have been exploring and requires a lot of trial and error to perfect.

How do you recharge your creativity?
The only time I can ever really relax is when we go away – whether on a proper vacation or just a day trip. A change in scenery does wonders for the mind.

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
Since so much of what we do is custom, each piece is really a collaboration with the client. My favorite thing is to work closely with a customer to bring an idea to life – it’s a beautiful thing to know that what you do brings happiness to another life.

Maker Stories

Finding Security in Reclaimed Art – Meet Sarah Nicole Phillips

May 30, 2013

After an overwhelming response in March, we decided to keep our Art Contest running all year round. With twelve months to send in artwork, I was worried that the well might run dry with new ideas and exciting designs. Our first month proved me wrong with a collection of amazing submissions.

Our interim art buyer Melissa chose Security Blue Grass from the top voted semifinalists for its aesthetic, originality, and use of reclaimed materials. Those three elements make its designer, Sarah Nicole Phillips, the ideal Uncommon artist. Meet our newest artist and help us welcome her to our vendor family!

What is one uncommon fact about you?
After high school, I traveled for two and a half years straight, during which all my possessions fit into a backpack.

When did you first realize you’re an artist?
I knew I had become an artist when I purchased a used 54” 5-Drawer Steel Flat File from a guy on Craig’s List, to store my art. In New York City, space is a precious resource so my bed is lofted on top of the flat files. I do not believe this sleeping arrangement has affected my dreams.

Where do you get inspiration for your art?
I draw inspiration from observing the tensions, conflicts and contradictions of contemporary life. I spend a lot of time consuming news media, but just as important is placing myself in situations where lives are smashing up against each other like crowded subways and commercial streetscapes at rush hour. I always carry a small notebook with me to jot down something I see, or draw something that catches my eye. I am conscious of the waste we create and how we manage it.

I have attended several artist residencies in bucolic, rural settings. These quiet places allow for ideas simmering on the back burner to boil over, but I need the background hum of a city to stimulate ideas for new bodies of work.

Describe your artistic process.
The process begins with me scribbling sketches in my notebook. Most of these sketches are fragments of ideas blurted onto paper and are never realized into final pieces. Once I hone in on an image I’d like to create into a collage, I make a full scale drawing that serves as an image template. I search through my supply of patterned security envelopes and select which ones I will use to construct the collage. I have several bankers’ boxes full of envelopes to choose from, sorted into categories according to imagery, color, tone, and other characteristics. The envelopes come from myriad sources; friends and family and sometimes strangers bring me discarded envelopes generated from their workplace or home office. I arrange a “dry assemble” before using adhesive to stick all the pieces down. The final step is to run the collage through an etching press to ensure the thousands of individual pieces are never going to become unstuck.

Describe your work space.
I have a bright, airy, live-work space on the edge of the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn, NY. Source photographs and sketches are tacked onto the walls. I work sitting at a long table, and pin works-in-progress onto a big white wall that I can stare at, or glance at passively as I walk by to refill my coffee mug. My indispensable tools are a self-healing cutting mat, metal rulers and various cutting blades. The windows are open, as long as the wind isn’t strong enough to blow apart works-in-progress. Public radio or podcasts are always playing.

What advice would you give to another artist interested in entering one of our design challenges?
Submit work that you not only know is strong, but that you are genuinely proud of. If selected as a finalist, you’ll be discussing the design challenge with your with friends and colleagues; it’s much easier to talk about your work with enthusiasm when you feel truly engaged with the work.

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