Welcome to DELVE Interviews, a look into the unique paths of artistic and creative individuals. These conversations are a branch of our DELVE Workshops and Events, where we celebrate and discover everyone's unique paths as artistic and creative forces and share the tools and advice we all need to meet our goals.
Today we're excited to be speaking with Rachel Kroh, an artist and printmaker in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. She is the owner of Heartell Press (pronounced here-tell), a line of letterpress greeting cards and art prints made with hand-carved woodblocks. Rachel has graduate degrees in both printmaking and religion, and the sympathy, love and encouragement cards she creates for Heartell Press are partly inspired by the community and music work she has done in churches part time to support her art practice. She’s interested in how people find meaning and connect with one another, during hard times and good times.
We love Rachel's work (definitely buy some of her beautiful cards and prints) and are so happy to get to know her and her work on a deeper level. All of this January we have been exploring dreams, resolutions, goals, planning and balance. Reading the interview below illustrates all of these topics on the most inspired level, and we are so thankful to Rachel for sharing her wisdom, insight and glimpses into her life with us!
Can you describe your path as an artist – from where and when you began, until now?
I’m not someone who discovered a talent at a young age and pursued it with single-minded purpose. I experimented with all sorts of different media growing up, including watercolor, ceramics and photography, but I also was interested in dance, music and poetry. I discovered printmaking in college and I’ve been hooked ever since, but I also studied other subjects, especially religion. I grew up Unitarian and have always been fascinated by how people of different faiths find meaning and connection. Religion and art feel closely related to me. They are both disciplines that involve a practice of walking up to the line of what we know and looking out over the edge.
I did an apprenticeship at a traditional letterpress in the mountains of British Columbia after college. I loved the rhythms of setting type and printing, but seeing the printers I worked for struggle to make ends meet had a chastening effect on my dreams of making a living as a printer. So I enrolled in a graduate program in religion and art history at Yale Divinity School that happened to have a great scholarship program. I realized pretty quickly academia wasn’t going to work as a substitute for making art, and when I finished my degree, I packed up my car and drove straight to Chicago to pursue an MFA in the Print Media department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
I had never been so happy as I was those two years, making all kinds of terrible art, working through ideas and learning so much. However, the question of how to pay the rent was still waiting for me when I received my diploma. A friend who I’d known while I was in divinity school offered me an interesting part-time job (with health insurance!) doing administrative and community work for a new progressive dinner church she was starting in New York, and since I knew the city would be a great place to build my career as an artist, I packed up again and headed back east after graduation.
I did that job for five years, spending as much of my spare time as I could in my studio and showing my work in galleries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I was painting mostly, using gouache and watercolor on paper, and I also made a few large-scale sculptures. In 2014 I came to a point where I realized that I wanted to be spending a lot more of my time in the studio than I had been. My mom was also sick that year, and it made me realize that life can change without warning and gave me the courage to make a big change in my job that freed up more of my time.
My experience caring for my mom also inspired the idea for Heartell Press. I realized that I wanted sympathy cards to send her that were warmer and more sincere than the ones I could find in that category in stores. I started working on my first collection of cards in the summer of 2014 and launched the website in October of that year. It took me a while to decide to give up painting and step back from showing fine art in galleries in order to give all my attention to the business, but once I made that decision it was a big relief. Working on Heartell Press is the most satisfying iteration of my art practice that I’ve ever had. It allows me to draw on my experience working at the church and seeing how people help one another to bear the hard times and share joy and gratitude for all the good things we experience in life. I like the relational aspect of stationery– it feels good to be able to make things that are useful to people in an immediate, emotional way.
Can you describe a day or week in your professional life?
One of the things I love about running a business is setting my own schedule. That said, I love routines and habits—the fewer decisions I have to make in a day the better! I start the day with a cup of coffee and some kind of exercise, have breakfast with my husband and get to the studio (in an industrial building a few blocks from my apartment in Gowanus) by 10.
I like to do a little tidying up when I first come in, sweeping up wood shavings if I was carving the night before, or cleaning up the press area if I was printing. I am one of those people for whom a neat space equals a clear head. I spend the morning working on whatever my top priority or most challenging task is for the day. I am sharpest in the morning so I try to use that time well. In addition to my work on Heartell I also have a part-time job running a small nonprofit, so I split my admin time in the mornings. I check my email last, right before lunch when I’m starting to get hungry, so it doesn’t take over the day. I always take a break and go out to the common area in our studio building for lunch—there’s a window there and lots of nice plants and since my space doesn’t have windows, it can be disorienting if I don’t take a break and get a little sunshine.
After lunch I work on tasks that don’t require as much brain power and are more hands-on—shipping orders, carving, printing or packaging. I also like to schedule meetings for the afternoons. I leave around 6 or 7 to have dinner at home. A couple of nights a week I might go back after we eat to do some more carving or printing, but I try hard to keep that time for rest and spending time with my husband. I also take Saturdays off—I’ve found it’s really important for me to have one day a week when I just don’t work at all and just enjoy the city, go to a museum or for a hike. I go to bed around 10 or 11—I like to sleep!
What is a major goal you have set for yourself in the past year that you accomplished? How did you do it?
My big goal for 2015 was to create my first wholesale catalog—an important sales tool for selling to stores. It took me a while to figure out exactly what my catalog needed to be—there isn’t really an equivalent in fine art and it was a new idea to wrap my head around. I did a lot of research and found that as I met other people in the stationery industry, business owners were generous in letting me look at their catalogs to get a sense for what the range of formats are. One of the biggest hurdles was product photography—that took a lot of practice but I found that once I got the hang of it I realized I enjoy styling photos with props and assembling them into a kind of story about the cards I make and who they’re for. I made an online version for 2015 using a software program called Issue, and my 2016 catalog will have a printed version as well.
How are you preparing for your first trade show?
Oh my goodness, there’s so much to do! I’m having a blast, though. It’s such a fun project to design a booth and think about how my collection will look to retailers. I visited the National Stationery Show in 2015 to get a sense for what the booths look like. Last fall I attended Trade Show Boot Camp, a workshop put on by a group of people who’ve had success building wholesale businesses and exhibiting at trade shows in stationery and gift industries, and I’m so glad I did. I got a lot of great info there about pre- and post-show publicity and the mechanics of selling wholesale. I also love being a part of a community of alumni, who have been so helpful and generous about sharing information. The culture of stationery is so different from the art world that way!
Having experience showing my work in galleries helps a lot, and especially working in sculpture. I’ve had a lot of practice building installations and hanging work for display. But the exciting thing about the National Stationery Show is that instead of putting a ton of effort into a show that happens only once, the work I’m doing now will be the beginning of a yearly cycle of exhibiting at the show, forming relationships with retailers who I’ll see the next year when I exhibit again with new designs and products. I love that wholesale is really about relationships—and I love getting to know store owners and understanding what’s important to them. I never thought before about how owning a store is such a creative thing, and many of the people I’ve met so far have interesting stories and invest a lot of meaning into the curating they do for their shops.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from managing all your projects?
Patience. Now that I’ve found my life’s work, I want to do everything all at once! But I’m grateful that I’ve been able to develop Heartell slowly. Everyone makes mistakes at the beginning and I’ve been learning by trying different things and refining what I’m doing as I go. I took a lot of time designing my first collection—some of those designs I have re-carved five or six times —and it was a long process to find the right combination of paper and ink and printing method and packaging to fit my vision. I feel very clear now about what Heartell is all about, what the visual style and color palette are as well as the tone and the content of the messages. It makes all the other decisions I have to make easier that I have a strong gauge for what is and isn’t consistent with the project and the brand.
Where is one of your favorite places to go to be inspired?
I just got back from an amazing trip to California, and it was so inspiring! We started in LA and drove up the coast to Big Sur and then San Francisco, and I ended the week in Sonoma at a workshop my nonprofit hosted (we teach a style of community-based oral songleading to musicians so it was a fun workshop with lots of singing). Some of my favorite stops were the Huntington Library and Museum in LA, Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, and walking up Bernal Hill in San Francisco. I have a list of new California-inspired ideas for new cards, so look for those in the coming months!
Are you inspired by Rachel, too? Do you need help fulfilling your professional goals as a visual or performing artist, or creative entrepreneur? That is our specialty: helping you to identify your goals, clarifying a manageable plan, and helping you to create the tools you need to communicate your work to the world in a beautiful, compelling way. The best thing to do is email us and let us know who you are and what your goals are and we'll set up a time to talk for 20 minutes. There's nothing to lose!