Becoming Arounna Khounnoraj

Arounna Khounnoraj is a Canadian artist and maker working in Toronto where she immigrated with her family from Laos at the age of four. While her education includes a master’s degree in fine arts in sculpture and ceramics, it was through subsequent residencies that she found her current focus in fibre arts. In 2002 she started bookhou, a multi-disciplinary studio with her husband John Booth, where Arounna explores screen printing and a variety of textile techniques such as embroidery and punch needle. She creates objects such as bags, home goods and textile art. 

In recent years Arounna work has created a social media sensation. From wall art to cushions and bags, her punch needle pieces highlight her botanical and abstract designs and her sense of colour have brought a modern, new life to an old technique.

She is the author of Punch Needle: Master the Art of Punch Needling Accessories for You and Your Home, which was published in April 2019. In 2020 she released a book on Visible Mending and she is currently working on her third book based on Embroidery.

A group of punch needled surfaces and artworks leaned against a white wall.

Becoming Arounna Khounnoraj

What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, illustrator, maker, business person, educator, etc.?

It’s hard to choose just one, I consider myself an artist first but being self employed I really rely on my self taught business skills and what I try to do with my writing and social media is to share with my followers the different ways I work and techniques they can apply to their own work.

Where did you grow up? Were there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now?

I was born in Vientiane Laos, but came to Toronto, Canada with my family when I was four. Growing up in Toronto was a major influence. Even though I lived downtown in a very urban setting, Toronto is, nevertheless, a city of neighbourhoods that are very eclectic and diverse so I experienced a variety of cultures. It’s also a city with pockets of nature and I think that all combined, an environment like that helped me create work that is also eclectic but with an emphasis on natural things.

Of course family life was also influential. As immigrants we lived modestly and made much of what we needed and used. Food, clothing, repairing things ourselves when they are broken helped create a definite DIY mindset that has always stayed with me.

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

I grew up in a household with makers, not necessarily artists but definitely makers – using our hands. So, I don’t think it ever occurred to me to be anything else but a maker too.  I have always made things with my hands and it brought me the most joy so it only seemed natural to go to art school and follow a path of making art.

What sparked your interest in mending? 

When I was younger I would mend my clothes whether they needed it or not so I had some experience. But more recently, mending just kind of happened since it is really just an extension of the kind of hand work and stitch work that I was already doing. Studio work for me has always been about trying new things and new techniques, whether it was patchwork, appliqué or decorative stitching, it was already part of my studio practice. Having a family and kids especially, certainly gave me a new application for these activities. 

But also, I‘ve always been the kind of person who not only believes in an economy of means, but I hate to waste materials, both in my own studio and in life in general. So reuse, and by extension mending, is a  natural part of how I work. 

Arounna and her daughter in a light-filled living space.

What are three words to describe your style?

Natural, simple, organic

What is your educational background and how has it shaped or changed your current career

I started with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Ontario College of Art and then Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, then finished with a Masters from University of Waterloo. 

School has been very influential in shaping my current path. I worked in a variety of media, ceramics, multimedia sculpture and fibre arts, while at school and it is certainly there that I found the artistic interests and methodologies that continue to define my work. Jumping ahead a number of years when I started to make utilitarian work, especially products, I found that those disciplines and ways of working in a studio continued. I’ve always thought of our workplace as an art studio, a multidisciplinary space where artistic interests and vision could be applied to everyday things. Working with materials, details of design, surface decoration and use is not that far from what I was concerned with at school.

Have you ever made a big career switch? If so, what prompted that? Are there aspects of a prior career that you incorporate into what you do now? 

Not really, I’ve always been making things one way or another and finding a way to market them. The only real switch was from working in a studio art practice that entailed singular installation work in sculpture, to production work with textiles and printing.  That happened in a rather unplanned way with a residency that I accepted in a textile studio and simply being open to spending some time trying something different.  After I finished, I continued to work on smaller, more personal fabric based items concentrating on drawing and printing as forms of surface design. Although, differences aside, I think both have a lot in common in terms of artistic vision, and by the things that inform them – natural imagery, organic forms and belief in the handmade. 

What inspired you to become a textile artist?

A layout of craft supplies, punch needle projects, and art.

More than anything else, working with fabric was always an activity that I enjoyed and was always around me. I always had a connection to it, starting when I was young. As I grew older it became an even more important activity. I became aware that working with fabric was more than a personal activity. The very idea of sewing, or stitchwork is so related to the concept of women’s work and domestic work. I was always inspired by the ideas, the techniques,  and the continuity of the work as tradition. Seeing the work of others who take an idea and pass it on as something wonderful and beautiful is amazing, and being a part of that is inspiring.

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?

If I have to pick one, I suppose the piece(s) I’m most proud of in recent years are a series of little stools that John and I made together. He designed the wood stool specifically to fit a punch needle seat. We had always talked about collaborating on such a piece and it was great to see it happen.

Where do you find inspiration for new creations? 

I’m not sure I look for inspiration for new pieces. The possibilities for what I’m already inspired to do seems endless. I think every maker or artist becomes aware of different possibilities they could explore in their work. So, perhaps just new applications and working at larger scales. 

a patchwork project bag made by Arounna Khounnoraj

How do you make social connections in the creative realm?

Working in the studio on your own work is quite often so focused, and busy, that it’s sometimes hard to connect to other makers in real time. But having spent as much time at craft shows as I have, I’ve been able to meet a wide range of artists and makers that I find time to connect with, creating a soundboard for each other.

In addition, through social media I’ve been able to connect with so many people all over the world who work in similar activities as I am, or simply enjoy what I do. Social media has allowed me to connect with teaching opportunities, collaborations with others and enjoy the work of others.

How has social media influenced your work?

I cannot tell you how important social media is. It really works in partnership with other aspects of business and studio work. Most importantly it helps tell the story of who you are and what you do. And when it comes down to it,  to make connections, the narrative is really important.

Social media and studio work are definitely connected, but it is more than just documentation. I spend a fair amount of time creating work and instructional content not just for web sales but specifically for social media. Sometimes too much time. In the end, I can’t say that my work in terms of design has changed in response to social media, but it certainly has changed the way I work, and the success of a product.

What artists and creatives do you look up to, both historical and present?

When I just started our business I was still in art school mode, and I was looking at artists like Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. But I remember seeing the show of makers from Gees Bend at the Whitney around 2002, and I was blown away. There are a number of people and studios I am fond of now like Mina Perhonen.

A collection of patchwork blocks made by Arounna Khounnoraj

What books, movies, shows, or music are making you excited these days?

I sometimes watch TV and movies when sewing, just something to have in the background. I’m fond of British Crime dramas and anything post apocalypse.

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from?

One piece of advice that I always try to remember is that if I like my work, I know that someone else will like it too. I think it’s a variation on trusting yourself regardless of how things are initially received, or how fast or slow work progresses. Trust yourself, trust your direction, just work hard at making the most of it. Not sure who sent that my way. 

What is your workspace like? Has it changed at all since the beginning of the pandemic last year? 

We were fortunate enough to buy a storefront that had a small shop in the front and a small studio in the back and our home above. Over the years we renovated and expanded to include a sewing area where my mother and I have machines; a small shipping area, and studio space – printing and cutting table. There is also a quieter, more private studio space on the second floor for when I feel like stepping away from production. 

Since the pandemic, only family members are with me, and the showroom space has turned over to more work/organization space (and plants). It’s definitely quieter, but we’ve tried to maintain a degree of normalcy. 

A patchwork blanket made of indigo squares in various shades.

How do your surroundings influence your work?

There are a couple of things that influence my work. Firstly, having a diverse series of spaces that are specific to each task allows me to work efficiently, and gives me enough space to work at anything that comes to mind. Secondly, I live upstairs, so I don’t have to leave to work. Some might see this as potentially burdensome, but with young kids it was great, and it lets me be connected to work whenever I want, which I find both convenient and liberating actually, since I love to work.

Describe some habits that keep you motivated and productive. How do you climb out of a creative slump?

I have a tendency to be a little impatient, but in a good way. Not sure if that’s a habit, but it means that if something is on my mind, if I have something to do or a design that needs development, I’ll just do it. I don’t like leaving things lingering, I’d rather finish things or make decisions as soon as I can. It means that things are always moving along, and seeing work in its final form, especially when I’m excited and happy about it, is really motivating. 

I also make sure that every day I have time to sit back and draw, whether analogue or on an iPad. I find it relaxing actually. Letting your mind just go, focusing on nothing else just for a little while can be very helpful to keep you in your groove, and suggest new ideas. As long as you have work on the table, there is always something to do.

What is a typical day like for you? 

Depending on the day, after the kids are off to school, or virtual school, I usually do emails first thing. We do shipping two days out of the week so that pretty much structures our day for us. If it’s a non shipping day I’ll make lists of any orders. If anything needs to be made we’ll start that, otherwise I’ll either cut or print fabric or both for my mother who does a lot of the sewing, so we always have stock, as much as we can. Afternoons tend to be working on social media posts or photography, taking advantage of the afternoon light. Shipping days are similar except with a lot of packaging. When it’s not too busy I fit non production work in, working on new projects and finally, at the end of the day, a little drawing. 

What is one skill you wished you learned when you were younger?

My mum is a wonderful cook and I really wish I took more interest when I was younger to be as accomplished as her. The problem is that she was always happy cooking for us and I was happy letting her.

Someone stands on a bench holding a white punch needle blanket above their head. The punch needled parts are in lots of colors and look like confetti dots sprinkled throughout the blanket's surface.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-teach a new hobby or skill?

My advice would be to not hold yourself back. Try everything even if it’s for one time only.  You will never know how it could add or change the way you work and it might enhance it for the better. Don’t feel you have to be an expert in one thing and only have to do that one thing forever. These days there is so much access to online help, courses and many great kits available.

Nobody likes to talk about it, but can you share any advice regarding financing your business?

Our business was financed by our part time jobs when we were starting.  Don’t worry if you have to have a job in order to finance your business, as you figure it out you will be less dependent. I would try to focus on not growing too fast, to really understand the work that you want to make and understand your audience. Knowing these two things are actually the most important business decisions you can make. If there’s equipment or material that you need that you can’t afford, think about renting it or borrowing from someone who does. If there is something that you can’t do right now, then try it a different way. The important thing is to work, try new things, but keep working.  When we started we did every craft show that we could. Some good, some not so good. But even a little income was good. Same for online. Be patient and learn to trust yourself, (and it is something we have to learn). Eventually you will find a rhythm and your income will start increasing. 

Is there anything more you would like to “become?” 

In terms of both inspiration and work, one of the defining aspects of my work has been its relationship to nature, working organically, and specifically, my love for botanical imagery. I have always been interested in plants and I think if I wasn’t making, I would like to learn more about botany.  I think somehow cataloging  them by painting/drawing or by photographing them.

floral punch needle pillow in warm oranges, pinks, yellows, and greens.

What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years?

My 10 year goal is to try to move away from the constraints of production work and focus more on designing, perhaps working with other studios in creating my work.  For the work I do myself, I would like to do larger, more art based pieces that would allow me to slow down, focus, and really delve into a project.

 

Where to Hang Art – 4 Tips to Find the Perfect Spot(s)

The Secret to Hanging Art

…is that there really isn’t much of a secret. If it’s in your home and it’s art that you like, you’ll be happier looking at the art on your wall than wondering where to hang art. Yes, really.

a chaunte vaughn photo hanging against a textured green wall above a lamp by a headboard.

Make a decision

Yes, it’s that simple. Just pick one piece (it doesn’t even have to be that good). Base the rest of your pieces from there! Loosely coordinate colors or subjects, or put everything in matching frames. Scratch that – if you don’t want anything to match, let your taste be the unifying factor. Once you’ve decide where to hang your art, it will come together. If that lack of directions drives you crazy, pick a theme like plants, photography, animals, abstraction, portraits, watercolors, you name it. 

Interior shot of a green nursery. In the foreground is a white rocking chair with a few toys on it. In the background is a wooden dresser.on it and in the background is a wooden dresser.

Build Your Collection

Consider this section the inside scoop – if I could select art for your home, these are some pieces I would choose. Abby Low’s pieces offer a shot of color and geometric print and are a great place to start. Flowers are beautiful, and I can never get enough of them! I love Adriana Picker’s work. Also Picker is just the perfect name for someone who paints flowers. Consider the location of your art – these food prints by the amazing Amanda Jane Jones would be so cute over a dining table. Looking for something a little more high-brow? This cubist-style piece is a fave of mine! Photography is oh-so chic, and Chaunté Vaughn’s compositions are drool-worthy. A little bit of cheer is always welcome, and I found just that in Erin Jang’s print!

Put it somewhere fun!

Deciding where to hang art is the last step. And the fun part! I rarely see a piece of art and think it doesn’t belong where it’s at. That’s the fun part about art – it makes wherever it is placed more lovely! Growing up, my dad decided he wanted control over where the art would be placed and guess where he put it. The bathroom. All of his favorite pieces of art, including the pre-k finger paintings went in the hall ball. His rationale went like this: “Where in the house has the highest foot traffic? Where are guests most likely to see?” Though it might seem like a strange place to put your most treasured works, it kinda makes sense. 

Openness is Essential To Creativity print by Lisa Congdon among plants and booksIris Apfel print by Rosie Harbottle against a sage wall surrounded by stationary and paper plants.

Get Creative

One trend that I’ve noticed lately and loved is art just… leaned up against a wall. This is an awesome example because it shows the organization well enough to replicate it. This is another example of art leaned gracefully, nay, artfully, against a wall. I love the way this particular arranging method works with transparency. 

a photo by chaunte vaughn in a bookshelf surrounded by colorful books.

Bookcases are another clever place I love to put art in! Let’s be honest, books are art. Add to the look with a framed piece like this or like this. Perhaps you have a lot of art to show off, and it just won’t fit in a bathroom, bookshelf, or propped up somewhere. The gallery wall is the perfect way to showcase your pieces! My friend Meta Coleman wrote a piece for us a while back on how to style the perfect gallery wall, or salon wall as they used to be called. It is a gamechanger!!

Four illustrations from fairytales hung above a child's kitchen toy set.

So no more head scratching over where to hang art! There’s no need to hire a pro when you can learn do-it-yourself online. 

You can find all the art pictured in this post and much more in our shop! Check it out, and maybe you’ll find a new favorite artist.

I’d love to see how you hang art in your space. Tag us with #LarsAtHome to share. 

My new advisory board role: Part 1

Nepal

As you might imagine, Internet was spotty, but also crucial for my job, so when the connection went down on the construction site, I hiked with a couple of others to the next mountain (people who know me now are like…what?!??!?!? hiked?!?!?! YES, HIKED!) and plugged in at the phone tower. In order to get up there, I passed a number of small houses complete with mini farms–chickens, goats, luscious hydrangeas. It was so beautiful. It was also typhoon season, which brought on spectacular views AND a constant thread of crazy rain storms. (I wish I could find my hard drive from 10 years ago with all the pictures!)

We must have made a scene because we were soon joined by a few villagers. Through a translator or hand gestures, I can’t remember, we got to talking and they shared their beautiful handiwork with me. Handmade pewter plates and textiles and more. I was floored. Their work was exquisite.

At the time I was super interested in manufacturing so I was trying to come up with ways to work together. But, like I mentioned, I was fresh out of graduate school and had recently gotten married and moved to Copenhagen, Denmark so I wasn’t in a spot where I could feasibly make too much happen, both financially or logistically–I, myself, was trying to navigate a new country, social system, network, not to mention everything that comes with marriage. I couldn’t take on too much more.

Women Makers in Nepal

What I learned in those weeks was how crucial women were to the building and heart of the the village. In fact, these women, young and old, were the ones who traveled up and down the mountain with huge baskets on their backs full of heavy rocks, the building material of the memorial that was being constructed. There was also a community center designed for the women of the village to host their individual business like nails, micro blading, and making these really cool pom pom blankets and I got to spend some time there. They even dressed me up in their traditional clothing and I felt like a super model because my normally average height in the US was now considered very tall. Ha!

The business origins

Oftentimes the origins of their businesses started from places of sorrow. For example, the owner of the micro blading business began her venture after her husband left her and she could no longer fall back on her family because they had disassociated themselves from her, which is common for the culture. They became enterprising because of the need to survive. Witnessing it for myself instilled in me a desire to be involved somehow, someday, but I didn’t know how to do so when I was also at a point in my life when I also needed to be enterprising.

Kathmandu

After the memorial was dedicated, we spent some time in Kathmandu, which was truly an out of this world experience. It was my first time in Asia and everything felt so foreign, but SO exciting–the colors, the pace, the smells. One highlight of the trip was visiting a rug factory where some of the luxury rug companies that you might be familiar with are made. They showed us how they dyed the yarns and how they turned those yarns into the intricate weavings that become full rugs. Women and men sat atop scaffolding that can lift them higher or lower depending on the size of the rug.

Family involvement in factories

What I found most interesting of this factory visit was how the children would gather in the work space after they were done with school. Sometimes they would sit right next to the parent. My memory is now fuzzy, but I want to say that I recall someone nursing their baby while working. As one who currently works from home and nurses her 7 month old baby, it feels like a privilege, but also super complex. But that’s a story I want to dive into at a later date.

10 years later

As you might know, over the years I continued to work on The House That Lars Built, the blog I had started in 2008 for graduate school (you can read more about it here). It has grown into a multi-person company where we encourage people to make things with their hands. We believe that there is a project and a time frame for every person because making something with your hands has the power to transform your well-being. And when you get in touch with your hands you tap into your soul, which is very powerful connector to your identity and culture.

Knowing this, and witnessing first hand how important the handmade economy is around the globe and even more so now than it was 10 years ago, I’ve found an organization that I have invested time and money into and will now be working with as an official advisory board member: Nest, a non-profit that supports women makers in the handmade economy.

Nest and the handmade economy

I became familiar with Nest a couple of years ago when we joined in on their 25 days of Making. Later that year we worked with 18b to donate profits from our shops for Giving Tuesday, which continued to last year. Most recently, we shared how they’ve been involved with helping some of the quilt makers from Gee’s Bend put their beautiful work onto their new Etsy shops.

As an advisory board member, I wholeheartedly support the organization in the fulfillment of its mission, vision, and strategy. I will be sharing more about the organization next week and an exciting project we are working on together. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, you can read more about our partnership and learn how to donate here.

Becoming Loria Stern

In 2011, Loria Stern started attending adult education classes entitled “Medicinal and Edible Plants” where she learned about foraging and the power of plant medicine. She started combining her culinary skills with the knowledge she was learning about botanicals. All the while she was posting her bespoke creations on Instagram. In 2016 her work was highlighted in Vogue Magazine and she received over 30,000 followers overnight. Fans were asking where they could purchase her treats so she started selling them on her website. The first day she posted her treats, she received over 20 orders. Since that day, her business has grown into a successful baking operation where she employs 4 helpers with living wages. She’s still growing her business, writing a cookbook and pitching a TV show. Exciting things are in store for this hardworking woman!

Loria is wearing a floral dress and standing in a kitchen surrounded by colorful produce.

Meet Loria Stern

What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, illustrator, maker, baker, business person, educator, etc.?

Well, I consider myself all of these things but more so one than the other depending on what day of the week we’re talking about. I would say I started out as an artist and maker, and then became a baker and now my daily tasks are more of a business person and educator. 

Where did you grow up? Were there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now? 

I grew up in Ojai, CA, a small quaint town nestled in between large mountains but just a 20 minute drive to the beach. The town had a lot of nature–my childhood neighborhood streets were lined with tall oak trees. There was and still is a huge element of health consciousness and spirituality in Ojai and I think those elements absolutely influenced what I do now and the person I’ve become. 

Loria stands with her back to the camera. She's surrounded by fresh cut flowers and she's wearing a straw hat, and there are misty mountains in the background.

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger? 

Of course I wanted to be a professional tennis player! That dream ended around 14 years old and then I wanted to be an artist. I guess that dream has come true except through a different medium (culinary arts vs. the visual arts).

Rolled out cookie dough with colorful pressed flowers pressed onto each round circle of dough.

Is there a person who has been influential in your chosen career path? 

Not really one single person, but more so a number of different friends who loved eating the foods I cooked and baked for them and encouraged me to follow this path.

What sparked your interest in edible flowers? 

I’ve always loved flowers (who doesn’t?!) but it wasn’t until I started learning about the medicinal properties of botanicals in my 3 semesters of the adult education classes that my love for combining edible flowers + botanicals with cooking and baking, really opened up an entire new craft for me. 

Rolled out cookie dough with colorful pressed flowers pressed onto each round circle of dough.Brightly colored flowers pressed onto sugar cookies on a wooden background.

What are three words to describe your style? 

Creative, happy and cool.

What is your educational background and how has it shaped or changed your current career? 

I graduated with a BA from college and spent my last year painting and drawing. I was in an art show in my final year of college and sold several pieces. As noted earlier, I also took 3 semesters of adult education classes post college– “Medicinal + Edible Plants” and learned a lot about treating ailments naturally with wild, edible plants. I also attribute my dedication as a competitive tennis player to my strong work ethic, which I think is the most important aspect of my current success. 

Loria sits cross-legged on a teal blanket surrounded by pressed flowers in books and a cup of tea.

Have you ever made a big career switch? If so, what prompted that? Are there aspects of a prior career that you incorporate into what you do now? 

I did not really have a career after graduating college in 2006–I more so worked a bunch of odd jobs to pay the rent–teaching tennis, nannying, working as an assistant, etc. It was not until 2010 when I worked my first job as a prep chef that I really learned my love for the culinary arts and that I wanted to make this a career.

What inspired you to become a baker/florist/gardener? 

My love for nature, working with my hands and discovering new alchemic combinations.

Brightly-colored flowers pressed onto green matcha cookie dough.

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why? 

I love making tall tiered wedding cakes and delivering them to the venue. It is always so rewarding.

Tall wedding cake frosted with white frosting and purple and yellow flowerscake frosted with blush pink frosting with purple, yellow, and white pansies pressed onto it. It's styled in a pink draping fabric with a vase of flowers.

Where do you find inspiration for new creations? 

In nature first and foremost. 

How do you make social connections in the creative realm? 

Many via Instagram, I’ve met some of my best friends and have found a beautiful, supportive community of my work there.

What artists and creatives do you look up to, both historical and present? 

Gah, there are so so many! Truly too hard to just pinpoint a few.

Horizontal photo of Loria wearing a floral dress and holding a tray of baked cookies. Flowers are pressed onto the top of each one.

What books, movies, shows, or music are making you excited these days? 

My father was a jazz clarinetist and music pervades much of my childhood. I love all types of music and have found there is a time and a place for every genre of music. I love documentaries and listening to podcasts. But I try to stay away from negative media as it definitely affects my mood.

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from? Do you have a personal motto? 

Work hard and always do your best. Hold yourself and others accountable. Treats others how you’d want to be treated.

Horizontal photo of Loria measuring sugar into a yellow mixing bowl. She's in a kitchen and surrounded by flowers and a turquoise kitchenade mixer

What is your workspace like? Has it changed at all since the beginning of the pandemic last year? 

I moved to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara just one month before the pandemic began. I had to find a new commercial kitchen and employees within that time and it was extremely difficult to say the least. Looking back, I feel so grateful for the commercial baking space and my LA helpers. 

Loria stands in a field of zinnias wearing a white dress and a straw hat. She's holding a basket full of flowers.

How do your surroundings influence your work? 

So much. I realized I am creatively motivated by my physical space. I love natural light and need to be close to nature. 

Loria bends down to pick wildflowers in a meadow. She's wearing a white dress and a straw hat.

Describe some habits that keep you motivated and productive. How do you climb out of a creative slump? 

Exercise is always a good idea and I have found it to be the number one cure for all sorts of slumps. 

What is a typical day like for you? 

I enjoy waking up early. I drink coffee first thing in the morning, then I’ll mosey around my backyard garden with coffee in hand. I’ll stroll up to my home office, check business and personal emails, and then the day is off and running. I usually pick edible botanicals from my garden then meet my team at the bakery. We start cranking our baking orders and then before I know it, it’s 6pm! Then I’ll come home, meet up with my boyfriend and we’ll cook dinner and watch a show.

Loria decorating a pan of focaccia with flowers and vegetables. She's shaped them into a floral scene.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-teach a new hobby or skill?

To learn as much as you can about the hobby / skill. There is so much readily available information that one can learn online that school is not necessary as long as there is curiosity, dedication and a strong work ethic.

Loria standing at the head of a banquet table full of food and flowers. It is sunset and there are mountains in the background.

Do you have a secret talent? What is one skill that you are working on? 

I’d say tennis is my secret talent for those who are just meeting me now! Otherwise, I’m working on learning how to surf but it’s extremely hard!

Two pans of botanical cookies with pressed flowers. The ones on the top are a vanilla shortbread and the ones on the bottom are pink.

Nobody likes to talk about it, but can you share any advice regarding financing your business? 

Gah, I am still trying to figure that out. I have not accepted investment from outside sources however am currently looking into it to grow my business!

A plate of baked floral shortbread stacked up. In the background there are lots of flowers scattered.

Is there anything more you would like to “become?” 

I’d like to become more well-traveled. I want to visit Japan, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Sweden, and the list continues! I want to visit these places and learn about new ingredients and cooking techniques and share those with an audience so that they can live on and evolve into our current day’s food. 

A film photograph of Loria walking away from the camera through a field of wildflowers. She's wearing a white dress and a straw hat and there are trees and mountains in the background.

What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years? 

First and foremost, I hope to remain healthy! Secondly, I hope to open up a physical commissary kitchen with a retail space, classroom and on-site edible flower garden so that I can teach my botanical infused culinary arts to the greater community. There is so much information that I find so inspiring and interesting, I am sure others will as well.

Loria sitting on a bed with teal bedding and flowers in a bowl. She's wearing a beige jumpsuit and there's low, moody lighting.

Can’t get enough of Loria Stern?

We don’t blame you! Follow Loria’s work on her Instagram @LoriaStern and don’t forget to check out her website, where you can buy her delicious, beautiful creations!

Years ago we wrote a post about using edible flowers, and I hope that this interview with Loria Stern makes you even more excited to incorporate beautiful botanicals into your meals (like this edible flower pot).

Read more Becoming interviews here to keep the inspiration flowing!

Loria walking through a meadow of flowers wearing a white dress and a straw sun hat. She's holding a basket of flowers and the sky is blue.

All photos are courtesy of Loria Stern.

Becoming: Sarah Cambio of Flower Lane

I’m so glad that I found Sarah Cambio’s business, Flower Lane! Her work is so high-quality, beautiful, intentional, happy… I’m not about to run out of adjectives describing how much I love what she does. I loved getting to know her a bit better, and I hope you do too!

Sarah Cambio is the founder of Flower Lane; a small shop that handmakes embroidered linen crowns. Inspired by all things whimsical and nostalgic, Flower Lane delivers keepsakes that can be cherished forever. Sarah immigrated from Germany to the US when she was 11 years old. Not knowing how to speak English, she spent that summer learning before jumping into school. She currently lives in Maryland with her husband and three children. 

A light grey linen kids birthday crown with the phrase "May you find a muddy puddle to splash in wherever you go."

Becoming Sarah Cambio of Flower Lane

What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, illustrator, maker, business person, educator, etc.?

I think I see myself as a hybrid between a designer and maker, but slowly learning how to be a business person. I love making things with my hands but also really enjoy the business side. There is so much to learn and I love that! 

Where did you grow up? Were there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now?

I was born in Germany and immigrated to the US when I was 11 years old. I grew up in what many here know as a Waldorf type setting and I think that has always inspired me. When I think of Waldorf I think of whimsy things, traditions, and seeing the beauty of childhood. 

Handmade linen kids birthday crowns in pink, yellow, mint, orange, and blue.

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

So many things! I never had my heart set on just one thing and thought it would be so cool to be everything from an FBI Agent, a teacher, or social worker. 

What sparked your interest in making kids birthday crowns? 

I was inspired by crowns made from felt and wanted something similar for our daughter’s 3rd birthday. I taught myself how to sew and added my own twist; using linen, adjustable ties, wooly pom poms, and embroidering the child’s name. 

What is your educational background and how has it shaped or changed your current career?

I graduated from High School with a full scholarship, attended college for 2 semesters, dropped out, and a decade later completed my certification as an Emergency Medical Technician. I volunteered as an EMT for about 2 years and quit because Flower Lane was taking off–a complete 180 from what I pursued my education in.

A grey linen kids birthday crown with rainbow pom poms and the name "tillie" embroidered on it. It's on a pink background.

What inspired you to start a business?

I’ve always dreamed about having my own business and felt so inspired by those around me who were running theirs successfully. It wasn’t until we got pregnant with our 4th that I decided that this is it! 

A few months prior I taught myself how to sew with a $20 Facebook Marketplace sewing machine. It took me forever to figure out how to sew in a straight line and a circle was basically impossible! I purchased patterns and jumped right in and learned how to sew clothes while teaching myself how to use my machine at the same time.

A handmade rabbit doll on top of pink kid's clothes.
Sarah made this rabbit and these kid’s clothes when she was first learning to sew.

Once I understood patterns, sewed straight lines, and learned about fabric, I began making stroller clips because that’s what I wanted for my baby. A cute little toy that clipped onto the canopy of the stroller. 

During this time we lost our baby. I felt alone and depressed. There was a lot of grieving. I went back to sewing clothes as a way to work through my emotions.

linen clothes in neutral colors against a wooden backdrop 

In September of 2020 I opened my Etsy store with the stroller clips I worked so hard on. They were a complete failure. I took a month long break and almost quit but something was telling me to keep going. 

A waldorf-inspired handsewn doll wearing a pink linen dress. The doll has brown braids, pink cheeks, simple features, and is on a beige background.
One of Sarah’s first projects

This is when I shared my birthday crowns. Something I was holding in my back pocket until that coming January – our daughter’s 3rd birthday. They sold out the same day I posted them! 

I continued sharing, updating, and building a small Instagram community the rest of 2020. This was also the same time my best friend mailed me her embroidery machine and I started customizing crowns with the child’s name. 

Handmade Flower Lane birthday crowns

This business has been such an emotional journey for me and I’m so grateful for all the good that has come from Flower Lane. 

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?

I’m really proud of how much my husband and I have learned in such a short period of time. We both come from non business backgrounds and it’s not a walk in the park. We have to be a team and work together to run Flower Lane every day while also juggling a busy family. 

Where do you find inspiration for new creations? 

If only there were a few more hours in each day! The one thing all of my ideas have in common is that they are inspired by childhood and family traditions. I want to make something that can be used again and again and brings back a feeling of nostalgia. 

Two kids wearing linen birthday crowns and playing. A girl is wearing a pink dress and white crown, and a boy is wearing a blue sweater, yellow shorts, and a grey crown. They're in a light-filled room.

What artists and creatives do you look up to, both historical and present?

This question had me a little stumped because I couldn’t think of any artists, specifically. I look up to people in my life not for being an artist but for the person they are. I’m inspired by people who create and live a purposeful life. 

What books, movies, shows, or music are making you excited these days?

I love getting lost in a good fiction book, enjoy watching The Walking Dead, and listening to 80’s rock. 

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from? Do you have a personal motto?

I have missed out on  many opportunities and wasted so much time because I never believed in myself. Either I wasn’t qualified or my work wasn’t good enough.  Stop seeking permission from others to do what you feel you are called to do. Be confident in yourself and don’t wait. The right time to start is now!

Two hands tying a bow on the ties at the back of a linen kids birthday crown. There are a few other crowns along the top of the image, and the background is blue.

How do your surroundings influence your work?

It’s so important to surround yourself with things that inspire you. I have a hard time working when there’s chaos. I like for things to be aesthetically pleasing but also functional. Flower Lane has taken over a large portion of our lower level and we had to really think about how to make the most use of our space. 

Sarah Cambio's workspace. There's a big wooden island, open wooden shelves filled with materials, and a fiddle leaf fig. Sarah's daughter is wearing pink and sitting by the shelves at a computer.
Sarah’s daughter sitting in her workspace

What is a typical day like for you? 

My day always starts with a cup of coffee, breakfast for our youngest, and checking emails. This is also when I check on our chickens; Emily, Annie, and Betsy!

Our youngest goes to daycare a couple of times a week and those are very busy work days for me. On the days she is home, she plays in her play area in my office. Lots of breaks get taken on those days. 

Our oldest two are helpful and my husband puts in a lot of hours during his off time. It’s not the most ideal schedule but it actually works for us! 

We have lunch around noon and before we know it it’s time to take our older two kids to their activities. One plays hockey and the other does MMA. We’re busy around here! 

During the summer months, dinners and bedtimes are late. Once our youngest is in bed my husband and I work a little more and then watch a show or two before bed. 

Every day is a little different here! 

two flower lane embroidered birthday crowns on a blue background

What is one skill you wished you learned when you were younger?

How to sew! It’s such a useful skill to have in your toolbox. Our oldest daughter learned how to sew at the same time I did and I love that. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-teach a new hobby or skill?

We have so many resources these days to get started on a new hobby and skill. Watch YouTube, practice, and learn from others in the field you’re interested in. Stay inspired and surround yourself with what you want to learn.

flower lane crowns in orange, yellow, pink, blue, and light blue on a yellow and pink background.

Do you have a secret talent? What is one skill that you are working on?

Finding a rhythm between family and work. I’ve been a stay at home mom for almost 12 years and this is new to all of us. Learning to prioritize and understanding that I can’t do it all myself is something I’m working on.

Nobody likes to talk about it, but can you share any advice regarding financing your business?

I’m a big believer in not acquiring debt and knowing your numbers. Focus on one thing at a time and use that profit for growth. 

Is there anything more you would like to “become?” 

I would love to write a book someday, to be an author! I also have this random idea of owning an ice cream truck. Like a really cool one that serves waffle cones and scoops of the best ice cream. I miss the ice cream shops in Germany and I feel like we need that here! 

Jasper's yellow Flower Lane crown in a field of daisies.

What is your long-term goal? or What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years?

Business wise I have big dreams for Flower Lane and one of those includes moving the business out of our home. We already work with talented individuals in our local community to create these sweet crowns and I would love to see us all together in one space someday. I would also love for my husband to join me full time.

Personally, I dream of finding our forever home. A place where we can gather with our children and grandchildren someday, make memories, and hang stockings from the mantle. It’s such a simple goal but I think that’s ultimately what drives me and keeps me inspired. 

Jasper sits in a field of daisies wearing a yellow Flower Lane crown and a striped yellow shirt.

More Inspiration

Be sure to follow Sarah on Instagram @shopflowerlane and look at her website here! You can buy our Lars x Flower Lane crowns on our shop here.

If you want to read about more inspiring creators, business women, and designers, you can look for more of our becoming essays here!

Becoming: Luna Ellis of Arlos Cookies

Have you ever seen edible artwork? That’s exactly what Luna of Arlo’s Cookies creates. Delectable, bite sized pieces of art, in cookie form! Growing up on a little island off the coast of Belize, Luna uses her love of color from her homeland and her current love of design, textiles and plants as her daily cookie inspiration. You can find her spending time with her family, enjoying the great outdoors, and dreaming up her next cookie design at her home in Utah.

Becoming Luna Ellis

What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, illustrator, maker, business person, educator, etc.?

Oh man, I feel like a hybrid of all of these! I grew up as an artist, had a career in design, I’m also a current business owner and educator! What I love most about what I do is that I get to be all of these things!

Bohemian-style cookies decorated as hearts, stars, moons, cactuses, macrame hangings, and pendant with names.

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

I really wanted to become a doctor, then when I realized how much school that was I designed to go the design route. 😉

Where did you grow up? Are there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now?

I grew up on a teeny tiny (like realllly small) island off the coast of Belize called Caye Caulker. I had an amazing, free living childhood. Actually the bright Caribbean colors are what made me first fall in love with design and influenced a lot of my work when I was in design school.

Decorated pink parrot cookie surrounded by green leaf cookies.

What is one skill you wished you learned when you were younger?

How to be more out-going. Can that be taught?! Or public speaking.

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from?

Go with the flow. Don’t stress over the small stuff and always remember what is really important to you in life, whatever that may be. I have so many influential women in my life and pieces of this advice are from all of them in one way or another. 

What is your educational background and how has it shaped or changed your current career?

I went to school for visual communications with an emphasis on design. So I always knew that one way or another I want and need to be doing something creative. 

What sparked your interest in baking? What attracted you to this field?

I made a super hard decision to leave my career behind and stay home with my son, Arlo. Once day I was browsing Pinterest for 1st birthday ideas and came across decorated cookies! I looked at them and thought “I can do that” and I did! I became instantly hooked. 

Decorated cookies in the shapes of dinosaurs, party hats, and pendants with the name "Arlo" arranged in a flat lay.

What are three words to describe your style?

Calm, Modern, Feminine.

What inspired you to take your baking and designs to the next level?

Shortly after started I quickly realized that decorating cookies was filling a void in me. I always had some part of design in my life from my line of work in digital marketing to my hobby of hyper realism portrait drawing. For a whole year I was doing nothing, and then I just clicked with this (as weird as it sounds). It’s like I still have the digital design that I love (when planning out sets) and the hands on creative work in the decorating that I loved about drawing. 

Christmas-themed decorated cookies. They're shaped like houses, presents, a wreath, a stocking, Santa Claus, and ornaments.

Is there a person who has been influential in your chosen career path? 

This is a hard question, because I feel so lucky and blessed to have so many encouraging people in my life and have made so many “cookier” friends over the past two years. But if I had to just choose one person I would choose the owner of Brighton Cutters, Amanda. I connected with her early on in my cookie journey and from day 1 she has always been so encouraging and supportive. 

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?

I honestly love ALL of my cookies and each set because my new favorite. There are a few pieces that I’m really proud of though! One is a cookie based off of Gia Graham’s work. She’s an illustrator/letterer/designer and the piece says “There’s room for all of us.” I just love the meaning behind it so much. 

A square cookie decorated with pink and green flowers and decorative text reading "there's room for all of us"

Where do you find inspiration for new creations? 

Everyday life! I’m constantly taking photos for inspiration of things I see. Textiles, wildflower fields,  home decor, the list goes on! Sometimes if I’m having a hard time planning something out, I’ll just bake my cookies, mix up the icing & colors and start decorating with no plan and let my creative mind take over. 

What artists and creatives do you look up to, both historical and present?

Oh man.. where do I even start? I love Amber Davenport, her use of bright colors gives me all the tropical feels which just brings back so many great childhood memories. I love Megan Warne from Downtown Dough T.O. She’s an amazing, supportive, kind human and a fellow cookie decorator & designer who lives in Canada! Also my mom, Cindy Novelo, who is a musician, yogi, and life coach. I could literally go on all day!

Hyperrealistically painted cookies featuring a dog.

What books, movies, shows, or music are making you excited these days?

I don’t even know if my music is in these days, but depending on my mood you can find me listening to bluegrass, folk/indie or reggae 😀 

What is the most challenging part of your work? How have you, or how do you, overcome those challenges?

Honestly, working too much. I love what I do so much that I’ve found myself just ignoring all other parts of my life and only focusing on Arlos Cookies. Being a business owner and a mama is hard! When this starts to happen I literally just will sit by myself and talk—yup, talk! I’ll remind myself what’s most important to me right now, which #1 always is Arlo and spending time with him because these years go way too fast! Then I’ll set goals for myself, like stop working by 4 pm. If I am working and Arlo asks to play, it helps to take a break and play! When my work life and real life are balanced, I find that my anxiety and stress go way down. So if I ever find myself super overwhelmed I’ll reevaluate my schedule and goals!

A little boy blows out three candles on a birthday cake. There are cookies decorated with dinosaurs on a plate next to him.

What are some stereotypes of your job that you wish to break?

“Cookies should be cheap.” Cookie artists are making edible art, not large batch chocolate chip cookies! They take hours and hours and lots of planning!

Nobody likes to talk about it, but can you share any advice regarding financing your business?

I feel like I’m still learning every day! As far as selling cookies go – charge your worth! A rule I live by is once I’m turning away too many orders because my schedule is full, that means it’s time for me to up my prices! I started at $4/cookie two years ago and now charge $18-22/cookie. Again, it’s not just any cookie, it’s literally edible art!

A collaboration between Arlos and Lars! Colorful geometric and floral patterns on ornament-shaped cookies.

How do you deal with negativity, stress, and/or anxiety?

Disengage from social media, go on a hike, or hug Arlo!

What is your workspace like? Has it changed at all since the beginning of the pandemic last year? 

I started out working at home. I took over our kitchen table and our house and life started getting over-crowded with all things cookie making. Now I have my own little cookie space near downtown SLC where I can escape to, clear my mind and be creative! 

How do your surroundings influence your work?

I need somewhere calm, quiet, and clutter free or my creative mind just shuts down!

A bohemian-themed room where Luna makes many of her creations.

Describe some habits that keep you motivated and productive.

Lists! Also important to me are going for a walk and realizing when I need to take a break! 

What is a typical day like for you? 

Lately, I’ve been waking up and getting in a walk or workout. Then I sit and enjoy some coffee—hopefully all before Arlo wakes up! Then we’ll have a little play time before heading to the kitchen to bake, make icing etc. 

Then we play some more, go on a bike ride, and have lunch! Arlo gets to pack a bag and he knows he can fill it with toys. Whatever fits he gets to bring to my studio. He’s the sweetest and will sit and play while I get some decorating work in!

Some days I have all to myself and these are usually my busy decorating days where I’m sitting at my desk decorating cookies from what feels like sun up to sun down. 

Five cactus-shaped cookies in various shades of green.

How has social media influenced your work?

Without social media there would be no Arlos Cookies! Arlos Cookies first started out as an Instagram page that I created to share my cookie work so that I didn’t annoy friends/family with the constant cookie pictures. And now, thanks to Arlos Cookies’ growth on social media, I was able to turn this from hobby to business!   

How do you make social connections in the creative realm?

I have to go back to Instagram again and thank this platform for all of my social connections I currently have. I’ve met so many creatives on social media that I would not have been able to connect with without Instagram!

Do you have a secret talent? What is one skill that you are working on?

Hmm, I like to knit! But I haven’t knitted since I took up cookie making. I was by no means great at it, but I loved doing it! And also drawing! A few years back I had the opportunity to take an intensive, week-long workshop with German artist Dirk Dzimirsky. If you don’t know who he is you have to check out his work!

Cookies decorated with floral line drawings and the King St. Vodka logo

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-teach a new hobby or skill?

Just go for it! If you love what you’re doing, passionate and true to yourself success will come!

What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years?

Educate more! I have lots of dreams as far as educating and teaching others and I hope to one day make them all a reality!

Is there anything more you would like to “become?” 

I think about this a lot actually. Maybe one day I’ll go back to school, learn more. Maybe become a nurse?!

Decorated cookies on a glass coffee table.

More inspiration!

Can’t get enough of Luna and Arlos Cookies? Neither can we! Check out Luna’s instagram @arloscookies and her website here.

If you love these Becoming interviews as much as we do, you can find more here! We’ve interviewed so many amazing women, and every time we feel so inspired and wowed by their lives and trajectories. If you have someone in mind that you’d love for us to interview, let us know in the comments!

Becoming: Michelle Franzoni Thorley of Flora Familiar

Michelle is holding up a painting of a woman holding a young girl in a Mexican cemetery surrounded by marigolds, nopales, and mountains. She's against a green brick wall.I’ve been following Michelle Franzoni Thorley of Flora Familiar for a long time, and I’m so excited to share this interview with you all.

Michelle Franzoni Thorley is a Xicana artist with a mixed ancestry from Europe, Mexico, and Africa. Her work is deeply inspired by her own family history and her great desire to see herself and her mulitracial identity represented in the arts.  Franzoni Thorley is a family history enthusiast, visual artist and social media anti racism educator.  Her work and words can be found on instagram @florafamiliar.

Michelle is wearing a red dress and rebozo. She has red flowers in her hair and she's standing in front of a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda.

Becoming Michelle Franzoni Thorley

What do you consider yourself?

I am a Xicana visual artist, a family history enthusiast and a social media anti racism educator.

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

When I was younger I wanted to work with animals and have a million cats! I really love animals.

Where did you grow up? Are there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now?

I grew up in Utah in a very conservative city in Utah county. I was almost always the only person of color at school, church or in my neighborhood. That was very difficult and I had to face racism at a very young age. Those experiences have really driven me to speak out against racism in our schools today. I don’t want any other child to have to go through what I experienced. I also grew up as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant and the daughter of a single mother. Both of my parents taught me the importance of being kind and sharing resources even when they are few. They both taught me about problem solving. My mom especially influenced me to be creative.

Michelle stands in front of a saguaro painting as well as some other paintings and sketches.

What sparked your interest in family history? What attracted you to this field?

I have a lot of European ancestry and it was all very well documented with some great photographs. This was a stark contrast to my Mexican ancestry. There was almost no documentation. I began to question why that was and I began learning that doing family history for BIPOC is completely different. Most people of the European diaspora do not know this and I started using my instagram account and my art to bring more awareness to this subject.

What inspired you to become an artist?

I grew up with a few undiagnosed learning disabilities and the only thing that came natural to me was art class. It was the only time in school that I didn’t feel afraid or stupid. Art became a refuge for me but it was never something I imagined myself doing as an adult. I took an art class my senior year of high school and the teacher approached me at the end of the year and said how sorry she was that she didn’t know about me. It was too late in the year to find a scholarship for me. I knew I had the ability to be very creative and make art but I never really had access to the resources or education to do much with it. In my mid 20’s I was in a terrible car accident that damaged my spine. After that it was very painful to do many things including painting. I really thought that that was the end of any chance to become a professional artist. It was about 5 years ago that I decided to just try again. I sat with an ice pack to numb the pain and watched youtube videos in my basement at night after the kids were asleep. I only had a plate knife and 2 tubes of paint but I continued to keep trying and with the help of instagram, I am here today.

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?

I am proud of my Saguaro painting because it was my first time painting in many years and I started it in my basement with only a pallet knife and 2 tubes of paint.  I was shaky and afraid but I started somewhere and that painting means a lot to me.

Two tubes of paint and a palette knife on a cardboard box. The beginnings of a painting of saguaros. A finished painting of saguaro cactuses.

Family history is a huge part of your art. When did you make the connection between what you were doing as a family historian and your work as an artist?

A huge reason why I even started painting in the first place was because I love old photographs. And as I mentioned before, I didn’t have very many, I especially had very few photographs of my female ancestors.  I wanted to see their faces so badly that I decided to paint them.  Painting my ancestors and my family history also became a way for me to process difficult things in my childhood as well as difficult things I found in my family history.

An unfinished painting of a woman against a plant background.

What is one skill you wished you learned when you were younger?

I really wish I would have learned to trust myself more when I was younger. There were many negative stereotypes placed on my head as a child as to what I could or couldn’t do or who I could be. I heard people say “she is from a broken home” and didn’t want me playing with their kids. It is difficult to not internalize that. I wish I would have spent more time trusting myself that I had the power to do and be whatever I wanted. Luckily, I did trust my spirit and I’m grateful to where that trust in myself has gotten me.

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from? Do you have a mantra?

I am a huge Brene Brown fan. Her work on authenticity and shame has helped me to continue on and not give up on myself.  In one of her books, she mentions the Theodore Roosevelt speech called “the man in the arena” and if I have a mantra it would be to “dare greatly.”

Paintings of cactuses against a white wall.

What books, movies, shows, or music are making you excited these days?

Well you probably can guess that I am a sucker for family history themed anything! A books I love is “Me and white supremacy” by Layla Saad.  This book is about so many things that I’m passionate about such as combating Racism, changing the World, and becoming a Good Ancestor.  I just watched a really funny and thought provoking movie called “American pickle” by Seth Rogan. The show I am obsessed with right now is Rutherford Falls on Peacock TV.  This show is a game changer and is really helping to get the message across that there needs to be room for the family histories of all Americans.

What is your educational background and how has it shaped or changed your current career?

I am the first woman in my family to have the opportunity to go to college and receive a degree.  It was something never really discussed or thought about because it seemed so impossible. I know that education is a gift. An art education is a gift and the ability to make and sell art is a huge privilege and I never want to forget that.

A painting of a woman in white surrounded by blue and yellow light and with a golden halo.

Is there a person who has been influential in your chosen career path?

Like much of the world, I am greatly influenced by Frida Kahlo. I remember seeing a portrait of her in an art class. She had a unibrow like mine and she was surrounded by plants and animals. I really saw myself reflected in that painting. Later, after my car accident, I thought of her often when the pain was too much to take. She really understood pain and loss. She understood what it means to “Nepantla.” Nepantla is the Indigenous Nahuatl word that describes what it feels like to be a Mexican American. The feeling of being in between your whole life and searching for your authenticity.  When I found out that my ancestors lived only a few blocks from Casa Azul during the time Frida lived there, I was so excited and I really felt a connection to her work and herself as a person.

 A sketch of babies swaddled in cloth.

Have you ever made a big career switch? If so, what prompted that? Are there aspects of a prior career that you incorporate into what you do now?

I have been working since I was 15. I have had many jobs and I am very familiar with the concept of imposter syndrome and how it takes time to learn a new skill.  You have to literally start somewhere. I think that knowledge and ability has served me well in the career I’m building today.

What is your workspace like? Has it changed at all since the beginning of the pandemic last year?

I began working in my unfinished basement and then we moved into a townhome with no basement. My kids currently share one bedroom so I can have 1 of our 3 bedrooms for my studio. It’s not ideal and quite cramped. The pandemic made it necessary for my husband to work from home as well and my studio became even smaller. As of now this is one of my biggest problems and a big problem for mother artists in general, finding space to create. I’ve had many people reach out and want to tour my studio and in the beginning I was embarrassed that I don’t have a studio like most professional artists but you have to start somewhere and this is where I’m starting. I currently don’t hold studio tours of my corner of the master bedroom but I am hoping to get to a point in my career where I can rent studio space outside of the home. This is my goal for 2021 as my lack of studio space is preventing me from working at this point.

Michelle stands in a dim room painting at an easel.

Where do you find inspiration for new creations?

Much of my inspiration comes from my experiences in family history as well as a desire to see representation for people who look like me and families that look like mine.

What is the most challenging part of your work? How have you, or how do you, overcome those challenges?

As a mother of 3 young kids, finding time and mental energy to create is so difficult. And then you add in the pain from my spinal injury and it becomes very hard to get anything done.  I have to constantly be reminding myself that I can go slow and it’s important that I make sure that I am surrounding myself with people who do not put pressure on me to do more than I can.

What are some stereotypes of your job that you wish to break?

As a daughter of an immigrant, there are a lot of stereotypes of what kind of professions we can have. The pressure to do well and have a job that is going to make money to provide for our families. Because of this, the profession as an artist is not one that is commonly sought after by first generation Americans. This is something I would like to break.  We need the lens and the insights of immigrants, first generation Americans and BIPOC.  We need all of that goodness in the arts.  There is room for us here.

A clay sculpture featuring lots of flowers and plants.

How do you deal with negativity, stress, and/or anxiety?

I am a huge fan of therapy and in a way it is also a way of doing family history. We all come with generational trauma and unresolved toxic coping mechanisms. This generation is probably one of the first generations that have had access to mental health care without stigma.  We are the ones that are starting the healing process for generations of people who went through really difficult things.

What is your long-term goal? or What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years?

When you live with chronic pain, it’s sometimes difficult to look too far into the future.  I hope I can continue to manage my pain.  I hope I can sharpen my skills as an artist and share my lens and life experience with others.  I hope in the next ten year there are many BIPOC artists who are successful and changing the world with their art.

Is there anything more you would like to “become?”

Oh, so much more!  I want to become kinder to myself and people around me.  I want to be a part of the shift in society that understands what racism and white supremacy costs everyone.  I have a million ideas for paintings in my head and I want to become a more accomplished artist and have the time and the health to be able to paint all I have to share with the world.
Michelle paints in a light filled room with plants around her.

You can find more Becoming interviews here, and you can see our Cinco de Mayo feature of Michelle Franzoni Thorley here

Our favorite Gee’s Bend Quilts

I’m excited to share the Gee’s Bend Quilts with you because it’s old news that I’m obsessed with quilted things and the rich heritage related to quilting. You’ve seen my quilted coat fascination (on more than one occasion), the coat that I enlisted Romy of Sew Like Romy to make for me last year, the quilted eye mask that I made from some of the extra pieces, and you’ve found out about the big feelings people have about repurposing quilts. I even quilted a patchwork bandana and scrunchie this spring. I know, I know, we get it! Lars loves quilts!

Gee’s Bend History

Gee’s Bend is a small, Black community surrounded by the Alabama River where families have been passing down a quilting tradition since their enslaved foremothers, who lived on the local Pettway Plantation. repurposed whatever material they had access to into colorful quilts. At different points in history the Gee’s Bend quilters have used deadstock corduroy and discarded work clothes in their work.

Gee’s Bend quilts have gained a reputation for being some of the most vibrant, artistically boundary-bending quilts in the American art tradition. They remind me of some of the best Modernist paintings in that the Gee’s Bend quilts are full of color, geometry, and an acknowledgement of the human hand.

 

Even though the Gee’s Bend quilts are now acknowledged as a vital part of American art history, many of the quilters aren’t consistently paid their worth. When I realized that you can buy Gee’s Bend Quilts directly from the artists on Etsy I knew I had to share! So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite Gee’s Bend quilts and quiltmakers!

Quiltmakers

You can read about lots of the individual quiltmakers here. I love reading up on each artist’s story and seeing the ways that their families have passed on quilting traditions. For example, here’s a quilt by Amelia Bennett, who used to quilt with her neighbors and passed her legacy on to her daughter Sally Bennett Jones.

A multicolored quilt made of concentric squares and rectangles.
Amelia Bennet, Housetop 12-Block Variation, photo by Stephen Pitkin

Many of the living Gee’s Bend artists have work available on Etsy. I’ve linked to each individual artist’s shop, so click on their names for more!

Sharon Williams

Katie Mae

Doris Pettway Moseley

Doris Pettway Hackets

Caster Pettway

Lou Ida

Emma Pettway

Claudia Pettway Charley

Stella Mae

Delia

Mary Margaret Pettway

Kristin Pettway

Loretta Pettway Bennett

I love the ingenuity of these Gee’s Bend quilted masks!

I would love to hear about your favorite artists, especially Black artists whose work you’re loving! Let me know in the comments!

And if you’re interested in supporting women makers around the world like those of Gee’s Bend, consider donating to Nest.

Becoming: Justina Blakeney of The Jungalow

I’ve been a big Justina Blakeney fan for years. I admire her focus and drive in creating the beautiful home furnishings and interiors brand, Jungalow, which brought the re-advent and modernization of the bohemian style. She’s smart, talented, and on a mission to bring good design to the world! I’m constantly learning from her as a person, business person and artist, shop owner, and author.

One of the things I admire most about Justina Blakeney is how she has figured out what she wants and works her rear off to make it happen. For example, she sets time aside every day to work on becoming a better illustrator and artist showing me how you just have to make time to improve. Without further ado, meet Justina!

Becoming: Interview with Justina Blakeney

What did you want to be when you were young versus when it was time to decide what to actually do?

I knew I wanted to work in a creative field. I went through various phases of wanting to be a trapeze artist, a teacher, a newscaster, and a singer.

What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, maker, business person etc.

Yes. All of those things. (except maybe maker haha)

How did your childhood influence what you have become?

My parents gave me a ton of creative freedom and did a good job of balancing and creating boundaries for me and letting me feel free. I think this gave me both confidence and a feeling of security which has served me very well in my career.

Did you feel pressured in any way to pursue a certain career path?

Yes, but the pressure was internal. I did not feel it so much from outside sources. For me, the pressure was about trying to make money vs. following my heart. I’ve found a good balance in what I do now.

How did you get started in your field doing what you do?

I’ve had about 25 different types of jobs and all of them (from working retail, to working in restaurants, to owning my own store, to consulting with small business owners, to being a freelance graphic designer and interior designer) all somehow have taught me skills that I use every single day today. I will, however, say that it was my blog (which I started in 2009) that a major catalyst in getting me where I am today.

What did you study? Did you go to school specifically for what you do?

I studied World Arts and Cultures and Italian at UCLA and then went to fashion school in Italy where I studied design for one year. So, I guess the answer to the second part of the question is “kind of.”

Did you have anyone along the way that was instrumental in the trajectory of your life?

EVERYONE. But especially my big sister Faith, who is an interior designer but has always been super chic and stylish and creative. My parents are a really obvious one, but they’ve ALWAYS supported me in everything.

What’s your workspace like?

Messy, fun, colorful, layered, inspiring, always changing, maximal, crowded.

You were one of the first people to produce original content for your blog. What lead you to think that it would be a viable career, especially in the early days when you weren’t getting paid for it?

I didn’t think it was necessarily a viable career, but I loved doing it and so I just did it for fun and because it was helping me to find new clients for my freelance business at the time. Honestly, I never thought in a million years I could make it big off of blogging.

You started out doing craft books. How did that come to be? Did that change your trajectory?

After fashion school in Italy, my sister and I opened a small shop. We were selling vintage T-shirts and so many of them were HUGE (and Italians are often petite) so we started cutting them up and making new styles out of them. People loved the designs and they were hugely popular, so we thought to self-publish a manual to show people how many designs you could make from a simple T-shirt! We thought of the book as more of a conceptual tool than a craft book, but the book was picked up by a craft book publisher in the U.S. and then the publisher commissioned us to create several books after that. I was in my early 20’s at the time and I was STOKED.

Did you always have an ultimate plan?

My plan has always been to figure out how to be my own boss, be creative, get rich, do good in the world. The details have always been a bit fuzzier.
A colorful bohemian room with a pink, cyan, and blue rug, yellow curtains, and warm wooden furniture.

Jungalow has morphed into a full-fledged brand. Did you always have that in mind? Where do you see it going?

Yes and no. I can’t say I’ve always had exactly in mind what Jungalow has now become, but I always allow myself to dream BIG and see where it takes me.

What sets your brand apart from other brands?

Me! I inject as much of myself as I can into my brand so that it can be true to who I am, and stand out in the crowd.

Do you like being the face of your own company? Does it have any drawbacks?

Yes, I’ll admit that I like being the face of my own company. I enjoy public appearances, I’m pretty outgoing and I love people and so I like that aspect of the gig. For me, the benefits outweigh any drawbacks, but I’d say the main drawback is that I sometimes spread myself thin wearing too many hats.
A brightly-lit room with a modern rug by Jungalow. The room has shelves, plants, a wicker rocker, a big window, and a sunbed.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Every day is different and I like it that way! I live one block from my office and after I get my daughter ready for school I walk to our local coffee shop, grab a latte and go on a walk for 30 minutes, listen to the news or a podcast and head into work. I work with my team on all kinds of projects from working on our online shop, to designing new products or creating concepts for new collections, shooting new styles or posts for our blog and social channels, answering press and media inquiries and interviews (like this one 😉 ) and  having meetings with partners or folks we work with.

What’s a piece of advice that you’ve carried with you and who is it from?

My dad always said “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” and I couldn’t do all that I do if I was always fixated on fixing every tiny thing. I’m very big picture, and every day I knock down a ton of pins. It keeps me productive, and most of all, it keeps my learning. 

What piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in a creative field?

I would say to keep on creating. Don’t get stuck inside your head. Do do do do. Make make make. Share share share. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Then once you do, make sure you have an awesome accountant and a great lawyer who can help make sure your biz situation is on lock.

What’s coming up for you in 2019? And your company?

We have some fun new product launches happening this year, I can’t say too much about them yet, but one of them rhymes with “Shmall Shmaper” 😛 . A very large focus for us this year is growing our online shop, it grew about 200% in one year so that’s been so exciting to see. I also am hoping to purchase a building for Jungalow soon and open our first in-person location. L.A. is so expensive, so it’s gonna take some time for that to happen, but when I put my mind to something…I make that sh*t happen 😀 .
Blush wallpaper with botanical accents by Justina Blakeney. The space is decorated with a green desk, books, and a sun-shaped wall decoration.
*Edit from 2021: You can find Justina Blakeney’s wallpaper collection here!

What does your dream retirement look like?

Rich and beachy with lots of mojitos, grandkids and pottery classes.

What do you do when someone copies your work?

Depends on the circumstance. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry, sometimes I lawyer up 😀 .

A Jungalow hypnotic quilt set on a light wood bed. The space has windows and plants and is airy and funky at the same time.

Are you where you want to be in your life?

Hells yes and simultaneously NEVER!! haha.

Anything more/additional you’d like to “become”?

I’d like to become an agent for good in the world. Also maybe a podcaster, but we’ll get to that another time 😉 .

A tiger rug by Justina Blakeney Where you can find Justina:

Justina’s new collection with Target Opal House just came out and we’re all heart eyes for it. Here are some of our favorites. You can see the rest of our favorites over here!
Jungalow for Target Opal House
Thanks for your thoughts about “becoming”, Justina! We’re so pleased to have you. Stay tuned for more interviews soon!

Becoming: Louise Pretzel from the Lars Print Shop

I’m so excited for you to meet Louise Pretzel, an illustrator extraordinaire and our newest addition to the Lars Print Shop!

Louise Pretzel is an illustrator inspired by vintage kitschery and the styles of yesteryear. Formally trained in the art of graphic design and traditional illustration, Louise brings a fresh take on a range of subject matter with favorite themes including decadent desserts, foraged wildflower bouquets, and nostalgic mid century oddities. She currently lives in the midwest with her husband and two fluffy dogs, where she works out of her home studio.

Meet Louise Pretzel!

What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, illustrator, maker, business person, educator, etc.? 

When I was first starting out my career, I considered myself solely a designer. As of today I definitely consider myself an illustrator as well!

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

Hmm, definitely not an illustrator! I think at one point when I was trying to figure out what I should be, I thought being an anesthesiologist or radiologist sounded like viable career paths without actually considering the fact that I was terrible at math and science, lol. It wasn’t until about my junior year of high school where I realized that I could pursue what I actually enjoyed doing as a hobby (art and design) as a full time career. 

Louise Pretzel sits at her desk painting. The desk has paper flowers and a framed illustration of a rabbit on it.

Where did you grow up? Are there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now?

I was born and raised in Southern California. Probably the biggest thing that influenced me to follow a path into art and design was actually practically living out my childhood on Neopets and Myspace, spending countless hours blinging out my pages with graphics made on a pirated bootleg version of Photoshop. Those were the days! Another big aspect that influenced my illustration style and aesthetic was going thrifting and antiquing with my mom and sister. Looking back now, since moving to the Midwest, I can say I was a bit spoiled with such easy access to so many great vintage and flea markets like the Rose Bowl.

What sparked your interest in illustration? What attracted you to this field?

Growing up I was always on the artsy side and took traditional illustration classes in high school and college. I ended up pursuing graphic design in college, since that seemed to be the “financially viable” path to take as an artist. I actually didn’t even consider being an illustrator, or even realize it was something I could be! But I would say that spark and interest in illustration was something I always had ingrained in me, but I just needed the right opportunity to allow myself to fully embrace and explore that path professionally.

What inspired you to become an illustrator?

My first job out of college was a graphic designer role, doing layouts for stationery and home decor items. We actually had two in-house illustrators, but at some point they both quit which ended up sort of forcing the graphic design team to take over the illustration duties. From there I had a lot of opportunities to create new original art, which really sparked my passion for illustration, and also provided me a space to experiment with different styles and methods of creating which was so great! That ultimately gave me the confidence to start creating illustrations on my own outside of my 9-5. 

A print of Louise Pretzel's elephant leans against a pink wall with wooden tree toys in front of it.

What are three words to describe your style?

Kitschy, whimsical, random? Haha. I am the worst at describing myself! I’d be more interested in finding out how other people describe my style!

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from? Do you have a personal motto?

Probably the most helpful advice that was instilled into me throughout my life came from my dad. He is a financial banker-type of guy, and he always encouraged me to negotiate, know your worth, and to walk away if the offer isn’t right. That has been essential advice to me as an artist, and has helped me walk away from a few opportunities with no regrets. And without fail, when I have walked away from those opportunities, a better one came my way! 

What is your educational background and how has it shaped or changed your current career?

Having pursued graphic design in college, I think has really helped me as an illustrator. It gave me a lot of the technical know-how in terms of actually applying my art to products, knowing the essentials of typography and layouts, and being able to fully understand the printing process for setting up my files for clients. 

A print of Louise Pretzel's Rocking Horse leaning against a gold wall with pastel wooden blocks in front of it.

What are some stereotypes of your job that you wish to break?

I personally have trouble sticking to one style, it’s probably the biggest stereotype for an artist to be successful that you need to have a signature style. Maybe that’s true! But in that case maybe I don’t want to be successful. Lately I have been trying to just stick true to what brings me true joy as an artist, and a lot of that comes with trying new styles and experimenting with ways of creating. I think about having to stick to the same style for all of eternity… that sounds a bit boring! 

What is a typical day like for you? 

I usually wake up when the sun rises, fix myself a cup of coffee, and let my two little white fluffy dogs outside. My mornings are usually spent cuddling with my dogs on the couch, and catching up on email and social media. From there I pretty much just go into work mode with some breaks throughout the day! I love to take an afternoon break with some tea and cookies. Later on in the day I might do some gardening, take the dogs on a walk, fix dinner, and end with watching a movie or episode of whatever I’m currently binging with my husband. 

What is your workspace like? Has it changed at all since the beginning of the pandemic last year? 

I actually bought and moved into my home during the pandemic, so I was able to set up my home office knowing that I would be spending a lot more time in it than I probably would have otherwise! I’ve surrounded myself with most of my vintage poodle collection, as well as plenty of art prints and paintings I’ve created over the years. Probably my favorite thing in my office is a vintage 1960’s student drafting table that I picked up from FB Marketplace which I promptly painted pink, and now use as my painting and crafting table! 

A collection of vintage poodles and other fun kitchery.

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?

Actually, probably the spring garden print I created for the Lars shop! I love all the fun garden critters hiding within the flowers and foliage. I was actually inspired by my own garden for this print, which I made during the height of my tulip garden blooming, so it also feels a bit personal. This was actually my first year of being a homeowner, and subsequently, my first foray into gardening in a yard of my own. It was so exciting to see all the tulips pop up from the bulbs we planted in the Fall. I think the garden print captures that feeling of magic and excitement of seeing things begin to blossom in early Spring. 

Where do you find inspiration for new creations? 

I absolutely feel most inspired after a day of thrifting and antiquing. I always have my phone out taking pictures of the weirdest & kitschiest items I can find, as well as any amazing vintage color palettes, patterns, and typography. 

What artists and creatives do you look up to, both historical and present?

Historically, I look up to painters and textile print artists, often from the 50’s and 60’s. Artists like Tammis Keefe, Paule Marrot, and Vera Neumann to name just a few! Present day, I absolutely love the work of Emily Isabella, one of the artists in the Lars Shop! Her work is just absolutely splendid. I actually feel a bit honored to be sharing the same digital air-space as her in the shop! 

Louise sits at a desk painting a pink pretzel.

What books, movies, shows, or music are making you excited these days?

I just finished bingeing the last season of Shrill and I am pretty devastated it’s over. While I work on illustrations and client work, my go-to background noise is Married At First Sight. I’m also gearing up for the next season of the Bachelorette. Me and my friends always get together and do a fantasy league (of which I am currently the reigning champion). It’s the perfect excuse to get together, drink wine and eat more cheeses than anyone ever should in one sitting! Much needed after a year of quarantine. 

What is the most challenging part of your work? How have you, or how do you, overcome those challenges?

For me, the biggest challenges I face are finding the motivation to create new work and also imposter syndrome. I feel like those two feed into each other and create a cycle of self doubt. But when I find a moment of inspiration and I sit down and just make something that I love, I look back on those negative thoughts and I’m like “what were you thinking?! You’re amazing!”. It’s definitely a cycle of major highs and lows! 

A print of Louise Pretzel's Grasshopper leaning against a light blue wall with wooden rainbow and tree toys in front of it.

Do you have a secret talent? What is one skill that you are working on?

My secret talent is that I can yodel (poorly). But I always thought it would be cool if I could harness that skill (anyone know any professional yodel instructors out there? lol). As for skills I am working on, I only recently started illustrating more on my iPad, so I love learning new tips and tricks and experimenting with new brushes.

Is there anything more you would like to “become?” 

In terms of my illustration career, I don’t know what will come next! It’s actually only been about a year since I started doing my own illustration work as a daily practice and “putting myself out there” which essentially all began at the beginning of quarantine, so in that regard I feel like my journey as an artist is only just beginning, which is exciting! Outside of illustration, I have grand ideas of being able to someday move to a more rural area where I can have some chickens. 

Shot of Louise sitting at her desk from behind. The image is symmetrically composed and a corkboard with colorful notes and drawings hangs against the wall.

What is your long-term goal?

Aside from the chickens, I’d love to just keep illustrating and see where it takes me. Quite honestly, I have little to no expectations that this will bring me any great success. What is most important to me is that I keep the passion and joy of creating, always. If I can continue that, then I will consider myself wonderfully successful! 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-teach a new hobby or skill?

Just do it! The hardest part (at least for myself) is getting that initial spark or motivation to simply begin, so I understand how it feels to be nervous about starting something new. I think the greatest advice would be to just begin and then keep moving forward, even if you think it’s terrible during the beginning, I think you often are surprised at the final result. 

A print of Louise Pretzel's Pull Duck Toy against a gold background. Pastel wooden block toys are arranged in front.

More to Love

If you loved reading about Louise Pretzel’s trajectory as an illustrator and creative, you’ll love looking at her work! You can find her prints for the Lars Print Shop here, her website here, and don’t forget to follow her on Instagram @LouisePretzel.

In addition to Louise Pretzel’s interview, you can read about more of our lovely Lars Print Shop artists and illustrators we’ve interviewed! Here’s an interview with Julie Marabelle, Becca Stadtlander, Cat Seto, Libby VanderPloeg, Amelia Giller, Justina Blakeney, Rachel Kiser Smith, and more!

Stay tuned for more Becoming interviews, coming soon. 

Becoming: Rachel Kiser Smith from the Lars Print Shop

About Rachel Kiser Smith

Rachel Kiser Smith is a visual artist residing in Florida. The layered textures and simple lines of her artwork are a playful pursuit of beauty and joy.

You can find Rachel’s work in our print shop here and on her instagram @rachelkisersmith. Without any more delay, meet Rachel!

 

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

I remember a home video of my dad asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer was, “a mommy!” I honestly still don’t have many ambitions beyond being a great mother but I’ve leaned into making art more and more over the years. It’s the slow process of discovering and honoring what brings me joy.

A styled shot of Rachel Smith's Daffodil I print in progress with paint pots and papers around it.

What sparked your interest in painting?

When I got accepted into the art education program in college, I figured out that I could sign up for junior and senior level art classes. So early on I was shirking my education courses and taking figure drawing and oil painting. I took a materials class where we made our own paint by slowly mixing oil into ground up minerals. We made gesso and boards to paint on. I loved the process of getting into the materials and trying new things.

What did you study? Did you go to school specifically for what you do?

I didn’t stick with the art education program. But I didn’t ever commit to fine art either. After learning Spanish as a missionary in Argentina, I took a Hispanic American literature class and it felt like the perfect match. I ended up graduating with a degree in Spanish and visual arts. People always asked jokingly if I was going to teach art lessons in Spanish. I haven’t done that yet, but both skills are coming into play in unexpected ways in my life now.

Coneflower I print by Rachel Smith

What is your workspace like? Has it changed at all since the pandemic? 

We have a room off of our living area that the whole family can use for creative mess making. We brought in a big table and painted it white. Whenever it gets too stained, we just slap on another coat of paint. 

Since the pandemic, it’s become the homeschooling room as well. I’ve actually loved having the kids home, working on their own pursuits alongside me. But I needed somewhere I could leave my projects out, so we squeezed in another table. It just got its inaugural coat of white paint. 

Where do you find inspiration for your paintings? 

I rarely get ideas for a new painting unless I’m in the process of working on one. So I’ve learned to just start making stuff—sketching, painting color swatches, moving paper scraps around. It creates visual cues that I can follow, and ideas start to come. The work creates the inspiration.

Rachel paints at a table. In the background, some open shelves line the wall.

Now that you live in Florida, does its lifestyle and culture influence your work? 

Jacksonville is on the coast, but it doesn’t have the same vacation or retirement vibe of cities further south. It’s a pretty hardworking port city with immigrants from all over the world, as well as all the cultural complexities of the South. And it has a different kind of beauty than the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. Living here is teaching me to see differently, which is always helpful in art.

What is your favorite part of painting (i.e. conceptualizing, actually putting the brush to canvas, finalizing, etc.)?

Mid-process, most of my paintings feel like they’re not going to work out. But after some struggle, there’s often a moment when everything comes together. It’s a feeling of finding something I didn’t know I was looking for, and it keeps the process endlessly interesting.

How would you describe your artistic style? What makes it distinctive? 

Layered, textured, a lot of attention to color and negative space. I hope it comes across as being a bit playful and still a bit sophisticated.

Rachel Smith works on a project. In the background, her daughter draws at a table.

What is a typical day like for you? 

I’ve found that anything important but not urgent has to happen before 11:30 a.m. or it doesn’t happen at all. For me right now that’s a morning routine that fills me up emotionally, physically, and spiritually; reading great books aloud to my kids; doing some math with them; and spending at least 10 minutes on a personal creative project (it adds up, I swear!).  Afternoons are more flexible—errands, appointments, caring for my home, and making art.

Coneflower ii print by Rachel Smith

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you? 

“Use more paint.” A professor once told me that during a critique. It reminds me to not be afraid—of the materials, of waste, of messing up something I’ve already made. And it’s a bit of a metaphor for living an abundant life.

What advice would you give to someone who dreams of pursuing a career in a creative field?

Take opportunities that light a spark within you, even if you don’t know where they’ll lead. Ignore all others. 

Rachel shows an open view of her sketchbook with painted and collaged shapes, as well as pencil-drawn marks.

What artists and creatives do you look up to, both historically and present? 

I’m drawn to artists whose work has shifted over time and has a bit of playfulness to it. Alexander Calder’s scrappy circus and his giant mobiles. Matisse’s early cubist paintings and his simple line drawings and cutouts. The conceptual art of Mary Blair and the creation of the Small World ride fascinate me. Kaya Doi is my current contemporary artist obsession.

What has been inspiring you lately? 

Flowers! I’ve been foraging, arranging, and trying to grow my own flowers. So fun to dabble in something new. I’ve also been looking at floral motifs in folk art and vintage appliqué quilts lately.

Poppy I print by Rachel Smith

How has COVID 19 affected your work and aspirations? Are there additional personal or professional interests you’d like to explore?

At the start of the pandemic, a children’s book publishing house that I love (Enchanted Lion) ran a kickstarter campaign to keep their lights on. It hit me hard that it might not always be as easy as it’s been to make and share art. That motivated me to get working consistently on a project I’ve had on my mind for a long time, a bilingual picture book in Spanish and English. It’s a full circle moment with my college majors.

Is there anything more you would like to “become?”

I’d like to finish my book and become a published author/illustrator! And I hope to be someone who accepts others as they are while helping them see and reach their potential, and to be that same advocate for myself. 

Daffodil II print by Rachel Smith

Find More:

For more inspiration check out more Becoming interviews on the blog.

 

Becoming: Interviewing Actor and Artist Tricia Paoluccio

Meet Pressed Flower Artist Tricia Paoluccio

Tricia Paoluccio grew up on an almond farm in Modesto, California where she learned the art of flower pressing as a child. After moving to New York City to pursue her acting career, Tricia made unique one of a kind cards and botanical collages on handmade paper, selling the orginals in boutiques and on the street.

Tricia continued honing her skills and making art even after she became a professional actor, working full time on Broadway, on television, and in film. Tricia has been commissioned by luminaries in the fashion, publishing and music industries to create botanical designs, and has been doing original art commissions for many interior designers around the country. Her first gallery, featuring fine art prints, a wall mural and a botanically wrapped Steinway Grand Piano at the High Line Nine in Chelsea, NYC was extended three times due to its popularity.

Taylor Swift in her 2021 Floral Folklore Grammys dress, standing on a red carpet and looking at the camera.

While in quarantine during the pandemic, Tricia began teaching Zoom classes on the art of pressing flowers and is thrilled her classes seem to attract such interest from people around the world. Her goal is to elevate this art form, which has been around for centuries, and to celebrate the resilience and beauty of wildflowers.

Here’s our interview of Tricia Paoluccio!

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

As a kid I used to say, “I want to grow up to be an archeologist, anthropologist, marine biologist, actress, singer, dancer, baton twirler and a judge.” In reality I became a professional actor who has sung and dance on Broadway and I have played a judge on tv!

What sparked your interest in floral art? What attracted you to this field?

My mom gifted me a beautiful little book in the 1990s by a woman named Penny Black. She inspired me to make pressed flower cards by hand. I began pressing flowers with a press my brother made for me (I still have it to this day). I sold my cards to family members for the holidays. When I moved to NYC in the 90s to pursue an acting career I brought this flower press and handmade papers and used to make collages and cards and I sold them on the street and  to boutiques. It was a simpler time—so long before social media. I would walk into stores with a batch of handmade cards and ask if they wanted to sell them in their stores and sometimes they would say yes and that’s what I did to make a little extra money when I was first starting out.

You were born and raised in Modesto, California. How has your childhood influenced what you have become?

I would say being born and raised in Modesto is one of the most important influences of my life. I LOVE my hometown and I love my parent’s farm where I grew up. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs with sidewalks. I was a country kid. Our closest friends and neighbors were/are all farmers…living around these people shaped me so much – my love of working outdoors doing farm chores, raising chickens, gardening, canning, the sunshine and beautiful California weather and the abundance of natural beauty everywhere……so much of what I love comes from growing up in this environment around people who this was their way of life.

Tricia Paoluccio sits in front of pressed flowers in color coded trays in a light-filled room

What is one skill you wished you learned when you were younger?

I don’t know. Learning how to drive more confidently? I’ve never owned a car so I have never driven by myself.

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from?

Well I think I am very good at failure. It doesn’t get me down. My dad is an inventor and his entire career is made up of trying and building and making and experimenting and so often it doesn’t work out. But his job is in the getting there. And I think having a dad who is so incredibly resilient and optimistic –  literally nothing can get him down – was so so helpful to me as I embarked upon a career as an actor. I audition for things ALL THE TIME that I don’t get and I literally have amnesia about it. I think I could get every job I audition for and in reality I get just a few jobs a year! It’s the actors’ life to be in the business of auditioning, and you have to be very sensitive in your soul, but very thick skinned about rejection. And I possess that blend of sensitivity and toughness (I guess some people might call it TOTAL STUPIDITY),  but I kind of like it. I am able to fully invest and then fully let go on a day-to-day basis and I don’t dwell on jobs I don’t get. I totally forget them.

Is there a person who has been influential in your chosen career path?

My mother influenced me greatly in her love of beauty. I think she was one of the first people to fall in love with Martha Stewart and she had those big Entertaining books around our house. She would teach me how to set the table and pick the flowers and make things look pretty. She is funny bc she would say, “I don’t care how it tastes—I just need it to be pretty.” Now, truthfully, I need it to taste good too! But, her love of beauty definitely influenced me greatly.

What are three words to describe your style?

Wild and structured, yet free.

Yellow flowers glued to a white paper above blue, pink, and purple flowers on a wooden surface.

What is your educational background and how has it shaped or changed your current career?

I went to a liberal arts college and was a theatre major. I believe being an actor helps me in how I work as an artist. The most inspired performances are unselfconscious and totally free, but you can only do this if you have a craft. It’s very hard to do 8 shows a week without that. And so, as an artist, I feel like it’s the same.  I don’t struggle or plan. It is not effortful. When I work I am hardly even thinking—I let it be instinctive—and it flows pretty quickly. And that is blended with a strict attention to craft—how I press my flowers and how I glue. I feel like I should write a book called The Zen Art of Gluing. 🙂 So all great art I think is a blend of inspiration and letting go, in combination with having a disciplined craft.

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?

I think I am especially proud of the Steinway Piano I designed. It was such a wild request and so difficult to envision how would it turn out. And I’m just so pleased with the collaboration with Steinway and the company who printed and wrapped the piano. They’re total experts in their field. That piano brought a lot of joy to my gallery space. I was able to produce a music video on it with the incredible Chloe Flower and NYC dancers. I feel very proud of that music video we created with choreography by James Alonzo and I also felt proud to produce a music video like that safely during a pandemic.

A botanically wrapped Steinway piano in a white gallery with botanical flower prints on the walls

Where do you find inspiration for new creations?

I find inspiration after I’ve pressed all my flowers and they are fully dry and ready to go, when I organize them and lay them out. I’m inspired by the shape and color of the botanicals I press and all compositions stem from just looking and feeling these pieces directly. I really don’t have outside inspiration. I get it from looking at the ingredients I have.

What artists and creatives do you look up to, both historical and present?

Well, Penny Black—the British pressed flower artist who wrote that book 30 years ago—was really ahead of her time I think! I have tried to find her because I would love to thank her for inspiring me! But aside from visual artists my biggest artistic inspiration is Dolly Parton. She’s a national treasure and I love her and her music.

What books, movies, shows, or music is making you excited these days?

Oooooh I am way behind on my reading. I’m working my way through The Crown, I loved Schitt’s Creek, and I loved The Queen’s Gambit, but any free time I have for tv goes to Forensic Files. Sorry. And Shark Tank! I’m currently in a cabin in the remote foothills of CA though, so I don’t have a tv, but we play nightly Monopoly!

Tricia Paoluccio reaches into a tray of pink flowers next to a tray of yellow flowers.

What are some stereotypes of your job that you wish to break?

Ah. Well, I guess there is a world belief that if you are an artist you are bound to be poor—  the suffering artist stereotype. But I feel grateful I have made a living as an artist my whole adult life. And that’s through so many different ways. I also feel like some of my best work has come out of suffering or sad times, and I feel that artists are really lucky when they know how to do that. I know its so individual and every career path is different but I guess I believe—well, I’ve seen—so many actors and artists make their own way. Whether by writing their own films, or webseries, or creating their own things, I think its really wonderful to have a job where there’s always potential to be successful or potential to make money. Suffering becomes fuel for making great things.

Installation shot of large botanical floral prints in a gallery

How do you deal with negativity, stress, and/or anxiety?

I turn to my spiritual practice. I have a strong faith that all my good comes from God. Not a person or a job or a circumstance. No accidents.

Is there anything more you would like to “become?”

I would love to be a forensic scientist. Or at least play one on TV. I’d also love to do more work in the prisons. I volunteered for many years at a prison Chaplain in NYC and it was incredibly rewarding work. I really loved serving there.

Installation shot of large botanical floral prints and a botanical wrapped piano in a gallery

What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years?

I hope to create a new brand using my pressed flower designs in a variety of ways. I’ve been working on this goal very seriously for the past two years and am about to launch this new business with incredible partners. To be announced soon!

What is your workspace like? Has it changed at all since the beginning of the pandemic last year?

Ah, well, in NYC I don’t have a workspace. I have my dining room table and my floor. In California on my parent’s farm I turned the upstairs of their tank house into my art studio and I LOVE HAVING THIS SPACE. I also have a large empty room above the garage at their cabin which I use. I’m VERY messy. A total slob. I can clean it up to make it look stylish and cute but my reality is total mess. I don’t care, I like it. My dream space and my only requirement as an artist is having a space I don’t have to clean up or keep neat or put my supplies away.

How do your surroundings influence your work?

Well, I need space to spread out. In NYC I don’t have that which is why I like to spend time in California where I can really work. When I do work on projects in NYC I make my family eat on the ground on a picnic blanket so I can keep the table full of flowers!

Describe some habits that keep you motivated and productive.

I like to sing, or listen to music sometimes, but I’m actually very quiet. I can’t have a TV on or that kind of distraction. I like quiet. I love being alone.

What is a typical day like for you?

Oh my goodness that is so hard. In what city? At what time of the year? My days are totally different day to day depending on If I have an audition or if I’m working on art or just doing house chores or helping my kids!

Inside of a botanically wrapped piano

How has social media influenced your work?

This is interesting.  I created a web series which made fun of social media, specifically spoofing the world of mommy bloggers. I created a character named Addie who had four boys living in NYC. She forces her husband to quit his job to devote himself full time to their family culture and the making of her blog. She has 17 followers, but delusions of grandeur—that she is going to inspire other mamas with her parenting advice and crafts…. I thought it was so funny. It got optioned and we were pitching it to to networks, but then the pandemic hit and I’ve kind of let it go. But each episode was Addie and Jared’s attempt at making a little video for their 17 followers and the episode shows what really happened…the reality vs. the illusion. It’s at www.mommybloggerseries.com if anyone is interested? I would have loved to have done an episode with you where Addie is desperate to do a collaboration with you! Because you do everything in an organic way and offer so much substance and my character does not, but has delusions that she is a guru. I think its really funny and I’m so proud of it.

I have so many different social media accounts: my personal one, and one for the webseries (@mommybloggerseries) and then my art one (@modernpressedflower). I feel like in order to be sane I have to keep all these world separate. My art account is purely flower/art focused and it doesn’t feel personal to me. It has been so helpful when I want to share information about something I’m making and selling, or like when I teach a class…now people can know about it! Growing your social media account as an artist is huge and so even though I knocked it and made fun of that in my webseries, I’m grateful for the power of it to help me sell my art and be discovered!

Yellow, purple, and red pressed flowers on a white background

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-teach a new hobby or skill?

Practice.  A lot. Don’t worry about if its good. Just make art. Keep doing it. A lot. Every day make something. Don’t judge it. Learn Patience. Fall in love with having a craft.

How do you make social connections in the creative realm?

I love following artists and makers and chefs and florists and people who make unique and beautiful things. I love to promote others and have been so grateful for the support I’ve felt as an artist on Instagram.

Tricia Paoluccio picks up a pressed flower from color coded trays in a light-filled room

Do you have a secret talent? What is one skill that you are working on?

I do have a secret talent. I can channel Dolly Parton. And during the pandemic we got a grant to write a two person show. We wrote a fantasy friendship between a fan and Dolly Parton, and I get to play Dolly and sing all her music. And the show was sent to Dolly and she loves it! In fact, just recently Dolly signed the official contract which gave us the world-wide rights to her music, and to do this show with her likeness! And she approves of me! This is the craziest thing, to imagine she saw me and heard me channel her and she loved it. It’s truly the biggest accomplishment of my life. It’s a lifelong dream come true and all of this is to be announced for real at some point, but if you are at all interested in following this journey, then follow my personal IG (@triciapaoluccio) bc thats where I will announce news of this show. We think there will be a national tour before coming off Broadway in NYC and then going to the UK. It is crazy to be typing this. Honestly my cup runneth over a million times over because this is a dream come true.

Nobody likes to talk about it, but can you share any advice regarding financing your business?

During the pandemic I decided to start teaching classes on how to press flowers over zoom. I’ve been so grateful for how this income has enabled me to run my business and pay all the different people who help me run my business. I think that I underestimated how much it actually costs to make art because I would just focus on materials—how much did it cost me to make—but I wouldn’t take into account my time, and all the things you need to pay for when you create a business: a website, graphic designers, photographers, printers, copyright licenses, lawyers, supplies, technology etc etc. It pains me to see artists on instagram charge so little for their work.  I know how much time it takes to press flowers well. I wish that we could all meet somehow on zoom and talk about how hard it is to make this art, how time consuming it is and agree collectively to not undersell ourselves!!! I understand the risk in charging more than the next person. But I think we all need to be realistic about what it actually entails and lift each other more so that makers can actually make a living.

Color-coded trays of pink, orange, and blue pressed flowers

Make sure you check out Tricia Paoluccio’s website, and keep an eye out for her floral pressing workshops!

If you’d like to read more Becoming interviews about floral artists, you can find Ann Wood’s, Julie Marabelle’s, Lynne Millar’s, and Tiffanie Turner’s by clicking on their names here, or find the whole Becoming set of interviews here!