Favorite Makers: Rachel Kroh of Heartell Press

by Debbie Baer April 06, 2016

Rachel carving
RACHEL AT WORK. SHE CARVES ON FINE GRAIN PLYWOOD FROM JAPAN MILLED ESPECIALLY FOR WOODBLOCK PRINTING.

Meet Favorite Maker Rachel Kroh of Heartell Press! Chelsea and I met Rachel two years ago at a holiday art fair. She noticed my dress and we of course noticed her beautiful cards. As entrepreneurs still figuring out how to get our businesses off the ground we had a lot in common. I'm inspired by the quiet strength of Rachel's work and how she fearlessly draws on her own experience to create cards that help people communicate feelings as diverse grief, support and joy with their loved ones. Rachel Kroh makes space for people to connect.

WE MET AT HER STUDIO IN GOWANUS. IT SEEMED LIKE SHE'S GROWN HER COMPANY QUITE A BIT IN THE LAST FEW MONTHS. WE STARTED BY TALKING ABOUT THE DECISION THAT LED TO THIS GROWTH.

You know for a long time before I started my business I was making paintings, and working more towards a career in fine art. It’s taken me a while to transition away from that and make the decision to focus completely on Heartell. 

I love painting but as I’ve gotten older it’s become important to me to make my work sustainable. And people in stationery are dedicated to helping people be more connected to each other–that relational aspect of this business satisfies that in me the way the fine art world never did.

And I’m really tired of dividing my time. There’s only so much creative and executive energy. Ever since I started making art, except for the two years that I was in grad school, I’ve had to divide that energy between making art and making a living. The beauty of Heartell is it can be both my art and my living and that’s awesome.

DID YOU HAVE GUIDANCE AS YOU MADE THE CAREER TRANSITION?

I took a workshop called Tradeshow Bootcamp last summer. It was all about how to do a trade show and how to sell wholesale to stores. There’s just so much to know and there's only so much information you can find on the internet. There are industry standards and details that people don’t necessarily write about online. I learned a lot from that. It was also a huge confidence booster because it made me realize how much I have learned and I got great feedback on my cards while I was there.

Heartell cards
SOME OF RACHEL'S CARDS.  AREN'T THEY JUST SO LOVELY?!
FEEDBACK IS SO HELPFUL!

Yeah! And the bootcamp was the first time I showed my stationery to any retailers. After six years of making paintings and showing them I thought I had the confidence to put my artwork out into the world. But I think because it's a new product and a different industry it’s taken me a long time to have the guts to show my cards to the people who need to see them in order for me to make this a successful thing. It was a big boost in my confidence. I started doing all the work I had been thinking about doing for a long time but hadn't quite gotten to the point where I was willing to put myself out there.

I TOTALLY HEAR WHAT YOU'RE SAYING. SHIPPING OUT THE KICKSTARTER REWARDS FELT THE SAME WAY. IT'S LIKE, I WORKED SO HARD AND NOW IT'S TIME TO HEAR WHAT PEOPLE REALLY THINK. IT'S SCARY BUT IT'S A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE THE PRODUCT AND LEARN FROM YOUR CUSTOMERS.

You can trick yourself and think it needs to be perfect before you launch. For a long time I was like, "my cards have to be perfect before I send them out because someone’s going to see them and I don’t want them to get a bad impression." But I’ve learned you’re always going be changing and refining things. It’s such an organic and unpredictable process to build a following for your work. I think the more you put stuff out there, the thicker your skin gets and the more you are able to learn from those experiences. The thing about starting a business is that no one cares at all. You’re job is to make them care and the only way to do that is to show them your stuff over and over again and to make them remember you like 17 times later.

SHOW THEM YOUR STUFF AND ENGAGE WITH THEM WHEN THEY FIND FLAWS.

And learn from that. It’s great because it becomes a process. There’s something about hearing from the people you’re trying to reach, from the people you’re trying to provide for. Being able to hear their feedback and learn from it, it’s like you're making the product together.

YES. IF 50 OF THE 75 PEOPLE I TRIED SELLING THIS THING TO SAID NO BECAUSE OF "X" THEN IT'S LIKE OH, OKAY, I GUESS "X" HAS TO CHANGE. 

Right.

AND TO PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE LIKE THAT YOU MUST REALLY FEEL THE NEED TO SHARE SOMETHING. I FIND THAT WITH A LOT OF OUR FAVORITE MAKERS, THERE'S THIS REALLY STRONG NEED TO SHARE WHAT THEY'RE MAKING WITH THE WORLD.

I feel so strongly about what I’m doing with Heartell because I’m filling a need in the market of greeting cards, I needed something and wasn’t able to find it.

Rachel printing
I FORGOT TO ASK RACHEL IF HER SHIRTS ALWAYS MATCH HER PRINTING INK FOR THE DAY.
FOR SURE. I'D LOVE TO HEAR YOU TALK MORE ABOUT THAT WHAT NEED YOU'RE FILLING.

So in 2012 my mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was definitely the worst thing I’d ever experienced until that point. For me it was kind of glimpse behind that curtain–realizing the people you love aren’t always gonna be with you and that terrible terrible things happen for no reason. For me it was hard to figure out how to deal with that and how to integrate it into communication with my mom and with other people. I felt a really deep need to be honest.

When I first found out I tried be positive and be grateful for the mom I love so much. I tried to keep a brave face and then it all came crashing down. And I realized I had to just feel my bad feelings–there was no way around that. I started to feel frustrated by the kind of tendency in our culture to shy away from those feelings, to numb them or paper over them with well-meaning messages of condolence or sympathy or whatever. Nothing out there acknowledged that, wow this is terrible that this is happening and that it is not okay, it’s never gonna be okay. In the rare moments during that time friends were able to be real with me it was just a relief.

I live far away from my parents. They live in Utah and I live here. It was really hard having to go through that experience and be far away from her. I would go home whenever I could, but I had a job and had to stay in New York. So I spent a lot of time in stationery stores, looking for cards to send my mom. But the thing about the sympathy section in stores is that a lot of the cards are very formal and cold and kind of hold the person you’re sending sympathy to at a distance. “With sympathy,” and, like, I talk to my mom on the phone every day so I’m not going to send my mom a card that says, “with sympathy.”

IN LIKE THAT TINY LITTLE CURSIVE.

Right or like a moon and a bird or whatever. It needed to be warmer like a little more sincere expression of just the love that I was feeling for her and the sorrow that I had. I started having these ideas for cards to send that were just more down to earth. Since then, Emily McDowell–I don't know if you know her but she's great-

IS THAT THE LADY WHO HAS THE KIND OF FUNNY CARDS FOR CANCER?

Yes, she has whole collection of empathy cards. This was three years after my mom was sick and after I started Heartell and I was like “man I wish those had been around” and now I'm really glad they're there.

But even so, humor is another way we deflect pain. There are all these things in our world that we use to not feel our feelings like food, TV, or hard work. So even the funny cards that keep it real still don't have stillness and quiet and space for whatever is really happening, whatever feelings are really welling up in you.

At Divinity school I had practice every week being quiet, having silence, listening to people share their most hurt parts and also their joys. Making space for that every week definitely exercised a muscle. That’s what I’m trying to do with Heartell.

Gratitude CardRACHEL HAND PRINTS EACH INDIVIDUAL CARD. WITH A BIG TRADESHOW COMING UP SHE'LL PRINT MORE THAN 250 OF EACH STYLE. 

We’re all capable of living our lives with open hearts and with courage and to be present to each other no matter what's happening. But it takes practice, it takes practice. There are tools and there are strategies for finding ways for things to live more openly and with more presence.

PLEASE, TELL ME WHAT THOSE TOOLS ARE AND HOW TO USE THEM!

I mean, meditation, quiet. I think they're different for everyone. There are all kinds of religious traditions for it. There are secular traditions too–I read a lot of personal growth books. I also read a lot of business books, do you?

I DO, ESPECIALLY NOW THAT I FEEL LIKE THE COMPANY IS GROWING.

I don't know if you know Tara Gentile. She's great. She has a book called Quiet Power Strategy that I'd really recommend–you can listen to the audio book in a day. One of the things she talks about is how you need to figure out what kind of conversation you're trying to be part of.

For me I'm trying to be a part of a stationery conversation that's about design, color, and print. I also want to be part of another conversation about bravery and courage and pain and presence. I love Brené Brown (Ed. note: I do too!! Listen to her interview on On Being and you'll be a fan too.). I love Cheryl Strayed, her book Wild really got me through a lot.

I SEE YOUR WORK HAVING ALL THOSE CONVERSATIONS. I ALSO FEEL LIKE YOU SEND A LITTLE BIT OF LOVE WITH EACH CARD.

I'm so glad you see it that way. I do put a lot of love into them. And also, part of the reason I got into the stationery business is that I want everyone to have some art in their lives. Art should be like food, it should be one of the ways we are able to get through the day and get through those hard feelings that we have and express those joyful feelings.

THERE'S A LOT I LOVE ABOUT YOUR WORK, WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR WORK?

I’ve spent so much time thinking about this, since art isn’t a career that one chooses for practical reasons. My mom has been reading her old journals lately, and she wrote to me to share something she had recorded that I said when I was nine. “You know mom, I don’t think art can be judged,” my nine-year-old self said. “Art just kind of is,” my mom replied, “Isn’t it.” “Yeah, it’s just—ART,” I said, holding my arms open wide.

Rachel in studioART!

I guess I still feel the same way I did when I was nine. I love my work with Heartell because it is a way for me to make art and share it with people. So much of the way we think about art has to do with judging who is the best, whose art is worth more, who is worthy to make art at all. Art schools and institutions tend to generate a scarcity mentality that makes people feel scared, like they have to be one of the few chosen ones in order to participate at all. But really, everyone who wants to make art can do it.

Creativity is one of the gifts of being a human–for me it is as necessary as eating or sleeping in order to feel healthy. It is just a matter of finding other people who find value in what you make. It’s subjective, not a universal judgement coming from on high. The stationery industry depends on there being lots of different kinds of styles available. People love to have choices when it comes to greeting cards and paper goods! It’s a fun challenge to create things that others find useful, and I feel so lucky that I’ve found a way for making art to be the thing I do to contribute to the world.

Holy moly, don't you feel like making some art now? Or at least looking at some? You can buy Rachel's cards at the Heartell website. Here's the link. 

At The Willary we proudly serve women like Rachel who make amazing things happen in the world every day. If you're new to us, Welcome! And check out our Core Collection of functional, durable, and versatile clothing Made for Makers.





Debbie Baer
Debbie Baer

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