Today's chat is with the talented Chattanooga artist, Kate Roebuck, of Bowerbird Collective. There are so many wise words tucked into this conversation—from advice on partnering with a major brand, to the value of striking a balance with our creative self by devoting time to one's community, and to the idea of giving ourselves permission to be patient with our art and our creative self. It takes time for things we make to evolve and grow and become the realized bodies of work they will become. (Added bonus: she had me laughing out loud with a sense of humor that may just rival her artistic abilities!)
Hi, Kate! Thanks so much for chatting with me today. OK, how did you become an artist?
I am not entirely sure which avenue lead me to art… but I know there were several “beginnings.” My mom would claim that she set up a little easel in my play room when I will a tiny little thing and I would stay there all day long painting and drawing.
My dad might tell you The first “piece” I ever made—at the ripe young age of six—was an ode to my daddy, entitled, “Beer Bottle Opener,” (crayon on printer paper). I created this work on the bleachers of my older brothers' hockey games, under the tutelage of Gail, a hockey mom and friend of my parents.
My babysitter Rose would tell you: I used to get all the printer paper in the house and make huge, multi-level houses for my barbies out of paper. (They would take me all day to create and would take up the entire room!)
I guess I would say any of these could be true. We had a sewing machine in my basement and at 6 years old I decided to learn how to use it. Neither my mom or dad knew how, and there—next to my brothers' nasty hockey equipment (yuck!), I would sit for hours—toiling over the littlest of things. My first completed sewing project was this pin cushion (above)—beautiful right?! It's a reminder that you should never say, “I can't!” And...you always have to start somewhere!
What was your training?
I started off as a fashion major at The University of Georgia in Athens, GA, but switched to pursue fine art, specifically with a BFA in textile design. I furthered my love of textiles and pattern through working for a textile design company, Hable Construction, for 5 years.
The constant factor throughout all my training seems to be a solid mentors. Growing up I had friends and family, in high school I had an amazing art teacher that pushed me to break the rules, in college I had two great professors—Glenn Kauffman and Clay McLaurin—who taught me to work hard for what i want, and post-college my friend/boss Susan Hable— who taught me how to love those around you while loving what you do. I think that as an artist, its hard to let people into your creative process—many people want to “protect it” as their own. But from what I have seen through these mentors, community is about sharing and building something together. And that's exactly what these mentors have done for me.
How does living in Chattanooga, Tennessee influence your work?
Last August, my husband and I moved to Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga from Atlanta, Georgia, and I left my job to pursue a career in fine art and to root myself more fully in my community.
I rent a studio space that I love and I have great studio neighbors—It's like having coworkers. My space and my neighbors give me another community of artists to talk and share ideas with, to grab a mid-afternoon cup of coffee, or to snap a photo when I need one.
Chattanooga is a pretty traditional art market and I am pretty far from traditional. At first this seemed like a hinderance, but now I just think—it's a challenge! Chattanooga, on the whole, is a city that's very interested in art though I would say that its residents are more familiar with traditional oil landscapes or portraits. So, this is my opportunity to show them something new!
What are you making right now? Are you painting and printing?
Currently, my studio is abuzz with different projects! I usually have at least one painting going, one weaving project, and then something random. I'm trying out different printing techniques on canvas and working on large oil paintings. I am also really into gold leafing everything right now… so there is a trail of little gold flakes that have traveled into my neighbors studios! My biggest fear is that, because I enjoy trying so many things, I will never be really good at onething. I try to remember that it's all part of the process—one medium informs another—and not to be so hard on myself all the time, because I have the best job in the world!
How does your background in textile design inform the painting work that you're doing right now?
My background in textile design relates to the way I see color, pattern, layer, and form. In textile design, we are taught look critically at the way a shape repeats itself to make negative space, how layers of color relate to one another, how simple forms become more complex with placement, and how line, form, and different motifs create a whole that is much larger than its parts. I try to carry these ideas and meditations into my work as a fine artist.
The way I paint also has its roots in the tradition of textile design. Before the computer (Can you even imagine that?!) a pattern (art that can be repeated) for fabric was painted in gouache and ink by hand on paper—which is no easy feat. Today we have things like Photoshop and Illustrator to help us with this job. A textile designer needs to have both a creative and mathematical brain (maybe more mathematical than creative); for me this goes all the way back to building multi-level houses for my barbies out of printer paper!
What's Bowerbird Collective? What made you decide to launch it?
"Bowerbird is a curated collection of ideas told through the artwork of sisters, Laura and Kate Roebuck. Born from a desire to grow closer with one another and our community, Bowerbird is an artists' collective where we exhibit and share our work." That's the esoteric version… the down-home version is this: it's a web-studio where we can show and sell our artwork, and it's a project for us to work on together.
Bowerbird started in 2010—our husbands (who are brothers) were both in law-school together and we were tired of sitting around, listening to them talk about “the law.” We needed a project to work on together. It began as a shop on Etsy where we sold goods we collected and artwork that fit into a themed collection. We discovered that this business model worked for us, and we enjoyed the artistic process (but not the buying process). Over time, very naturally, it blossomed into a little artist collective for the two of us. Laura is a mother and I am working at what seems like multiple “full-time” jobs; for each of our lives right now, this set-up is what fits us best. We can go at our own pace, but when we are together we are able to share advice, ideas, and thoughts about what to work on, and how that will fit into our web-studio.
Is there any significance to naming your studio after the bowerbird?
The name is the most beautiful part of Bowerbird Collective. A bowerbird, native to New Guinea and Australia, is a creature who’s deeply rooted in color, creativity, and collecting. The male bowerbird creates its nest, called a bower, which is a shape that is specific to each individual bird. So, one bowerbird’s shape may be tall like a teepee and another may have a cave live shape—but they always make their bowers in their own shape. Once the Bower is made, the bird will collect objects of similar shape or color to put around the Bower as a display—one may choose red shot gun shells; another may only collect blue objects. Finally, once the Bower and its display are ready, the bird does a mating dance around its Bower to attract a mate! Nature is so crazy!
That is so fascinating. Even birds find artists alluring! Love it. Let's shift gears a bit and talk about collaboration. What's it like working with your sister-in-law?
Working with someone you love is wonderful. Susan and Katharine Hable (two sisters who own Hable Construction) gave me this advice: if at any point it isn’t working, it's not worth ruining the relationship and there needs to be a “no hard feelings, let me out!” deal! Throughout the last 4 years we have come to understand how one another work. We both have very different strengths and weaknesses. Laura is calm and relaxed and rarely stresses about things she doesn’t need to. I have a "must check these things off my list today, and by today, I mean yesterday!" personality. We need one another for balance, which naturally makes us a good pair. She needs me to give her a kick in the butt and I need her to help me see that life is more important than having the items correctly listed on our website! I love her, and I need her—she keeps me sane and helps me remember why we are in this together.
What's your workspace like?
My workspace is a 16’ x 14’ room in the heart of Chattanooga’s, South Side District. I love the area—I can walk to yoga, coffee, the grocery, the library or the bank during my day. Most of all, I love the people in the rooms around me. I have made great friends with the other artists here—they are the reason I love coming down to my studio each day.
How do you balance running your own studio and making art with having another job (and personal life)? How do you find the time?
Balance is the name of the game! I work three jobs that are pretty demanding—I am a Lacrosse Coach at an all girls high school, I am on the board of a new semi-pro women’s soccer team in Chattanooga, and I am a full-time studio artist.
The other day, a friend who is looking to start her own business came to me for some advice (clearly I have her fooled into thinking I actually know what i am doing!) My first piece of advice to her was to set some goals. These goals can be for the week, the year, or for your life. Once you know your goals, try to treat your time as your most valuable asset. When you work for yourself, managing your time can be the biggest challenge.
One of my goals is to root myself more deeply in my community—which is one of the reasons why joining a Board to create a semi-pro soccer team in my city appealed to me. Another goal is to get outside of myself—to invest my time in someone other than me. For this reason I decided to become a lacrosse coach (also, spending time with 30 high school girls is hilarious and inspiring!) These goals take time away from my art goal for the year (which is to get into a few galleries), but these endeavors are worth it to me. I know myself well enough to understand that I like to have several coals in the fire at once!
Congrats on being featured as a 'major new talent' by One Kings Lane (with prints of your work for sale as well). How did that come about?
Obviously, I have a lot of people fooled! It was such a big honor to be asked—the other artists featured are great company. I keep telling my husband that I really must be a good con-artist or just incredibly blessed because I keep getting hooked up with great people and deals and I am constantly surprised!
Do you have any advice for artists on licensing or partnering with a major brand?
I feel fortunate to have worked with such amazing women, Susan and Katharine Hable, who have given me the opportunity to see and be privy to how “business” goes. The Hable sisters were gracious enough to let me in, explain how contracts work, how to protect yourself and your business, and how to create and develop business relationships with grace.
It pays to have someone who understands “law-jargon” because most artists' heads will start spinning if they see a contract and will sign their lives away. Get someone to read over a contract—that is, get to know a lawyer. If you live in a university town, there are tons of law students who would trade a beer for a few minutes of their time to translate a contract for you. Your artwork, in lawyer-jargon, your “intellectual property,” is really valuable, so don’t get too excited and start giving it away.
Working with One Kings Lane has been great—they are very clear about their deliverables (what they want and when) and also VERY fair. One Kings Lane has been such a good experience—and is now my Gold Standard!
What kind of business development work do you do? Do you reach out to magazines, or do you market to galleries to showcase your work? Or do they find you?
“Business Development” is a very eloquent way of putting it. I love it. I was talking to an artist friend a while ago—she mentioned how she started in her small community of Oxford, Mississippi and has since expanded her reach outward, slowly radiating from that point. Recognition all over the world does not matter to her; instead it's the way she can relate to people through her artwork, and using her artwork as a bridge in her community, and then her state and region. I thought this was pretty genius and I try to work similarly.
Within the last 5 years I have lived in three different southern cities: Athens, GA, Oxford, MS, and now Chattanooga, TN. In each of these cities I have tried to make the city my primary reach, and then focusing my efforts on a few secondary markets outside of my city for “panache.” I enter juried shows, reach out to local galleries, and keep my eyes peeled for websites, blogs and call-for-entires that would be “the perfect fit” for my artwork elsewhere. Sometimes you hear back from the secondary markets, and sometimes you don’t. You have to have tough skin!
Who inspires you right now?
Besides all the people I have already mentioned, my studio neighbor Mia Bergeron is an inspiration. I love her work and could never paint like she does. She is a figurative painter who is very conceptual, and has such a beautiful personality. There is literally nothing about her that isn’t wonderful. I also love the work of Helen Frankenthaler. I can’t help the obvious “girl power” factor—she was a strong, powerful woman, and so ahead of her time. I love that!
What is your advice to someone who is launching a studio or project?
I can keep this one short—which is not my gift, ha! My advice would be to show yourself a little grace—and let it come together naturally. When I set out, Bowerbird Collective was something entirely different than today, but it (and I) needed that time to grow and mature.
What are you looking forward to? Any upcoming projects that you are really excited about?
I am always excited about something! I am really looking forward to another project in June for One Kings Lane. I am moving in with family (around the time this conversation is published) while my husband and I build a little cottage in the woods. I'm hoping to have chickens, sheep, and a clipping garden. I am researching grants because I need some money for a pretty cool (at least, i think it is cool!) screen printing project. Stay tuned…. I am looking for some galleries to apply to both locally and elsewhere. The list could go on and on!
Ooh... that cottage in the country sounds like a fantastic project. And I know I will definitely be checking out One Kings Lane this month to see what you're up to! How can people contact you or follow your work?
Image of Frankenthaler painting: source unknown. All other images are via Kate Roebuck and Bowerbird Collective.