Our 3rd Lou & Grey Girl Talk panel featured Designer and Illustrator, Julie Houts and Painter, Caroline Hurley. Both ladies shared about all things design, textiles and carving out a path in the feed of art, how they deal with fear and the things that help to bring their magic back when they burn out. Our favorite OKREAL quote: “If you do what feels right, that will lead you to the right answer.”
Caroline: I started my company about five years ago, not knowing I was starting a company. Now, I have a shop in Brooklyn, and my day-to-day is textile making. I make everything that involves the home: pillows, blankets, throws, quilts, rugs. Everything is made with people, not factories. I produce in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for my block-printed things and Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico for all of our woven things.
Julie: I’ve been working as a fashion designer for seven years—that’s my day job—and the Instagram illustration has all happened very quickly. I’ve always drawn—my sister and I went to art camps growing up, and I went to art school when I was 18. I stuck with painting and drawing there, before transferring to Parson’s for Fashion Design. The Instagram started as drawings for my girlfriends, for fun. It was all a joke. No one followed me, I was just doodling. Then it grew into a different animal.
Caroline: I had so many lives before this business, so many weird part-time jobs. I was a travel agent for a while. I was a teacher, I was an executive assistant. While I had those jobs, I also had a studio where I would make things. The last job that I had was teaching preschool art, and I was able to leave work at 3pm and be in my studio by 4. This allowed me to have the brain space to create work, out of which came these block-printed pieces. I started my business while I was teaching full-time, and continued to teach for about a year and a half while it grew. I would teach these three year old kids, throw glitter around, make art with basic shapes and then bring that stuff back to my studio. A lot of my work is inspired by that happy time in my life. It’s very free, minimal and uses a lot of space.
Julie: In elementary school, I felt like I could draw an eyeball the best. Ha! So I think I knew on some level I was OK at drawing. But I still don’t think that I am very good. That moment has not come for me. Every time I draw something, I’m like oh God, this is so painful. When I started to get more followers, I thought, I guess something about this is resonating. In the past year I thought hmm, maybe I’m a little funny. My drawing is kind of like therapy for me. I draw myself often, or at least half of me is in the picture. I often don’t know what I think about something until I draw it out—then I’m like oh, now it makes sense.
Caroline: I think this all became real when I realized that I could make a living staying in the studio, and that I didn’t need another job to support myself. That was a revelation for me. Five years into the business, that part is still challenging, but it’s something you have to roll with. You just have to know that the orders are going to come in and that money will go back into production and it will keep running. I never had any investment—I would make a throw and that money went back into making another throw. I never had a business plan, I never thought about structure. I’ve only just started to do that now. My whole business was guided on ‘Do what feels right.’ And generally, if you do what feels right, that will lead you to the right answer. So that’s how I’ve gotten to where I am: intuition.
Julie: I’d say one of my challenges right now is time management. I have my full-time job which I’m trying to do well at, and I work at night and all weekend. Which is OK because it’s stuff I want to be doing, and doesn’t feel like work, but it basically means that I say ‘no’ to things a lot more. As the Instagram grew, it took me such a long time to figure out things like: how much money do you charge people for a drawing? How many rounds you are willing to do? There’s a real learning curve. No one explained to me that you have to tell people these things, and manage your own time because no one is going to manage it for you. So I definitely had some sleepless nights in the early days. In terms of finding my own voice, I used to envy other illustrators and try to emulate their work. And it was never that good, because it wasn’t the way I drew. It always ended up feeling goofy. I was never going to be a beautiful fashion illustrator. Eventually, when I just drew what came naturally and didn’t take that much thought, and realized I could add text, it opened up a whole new thing for me.
Caroline: A voice equals not having to try so hard. You’re not performing, you’re just making what you feel like making. That’s how I started, making things for my friends. And it was just because I liked it and I thought they would like it.
Julie: It’s been weird coming from a place where I was just making things for myself, things that I thought were funny—and then all of a sudden getting feedback from people. I think my immediate reaction was like, I wasn’t doing this for you. Now, I have a thicker skin. It’s not that I tune it out—I read every single comment, to a fault. But I had to learn that not everything is going to resonate with everyone. Most of the criticism I receive is when people feel like they’ve been seen by me in some way, and I haven’t represented them correctly. It’s like they feel betrayed. It’s hard for me to understand that dynamic or how they imagine that playing out on my end. I also have a lot of men DM’ing me with their take on feminism, which is so fun.
Caroline: Instagram can be a pitfall for anyone. You’re looking through these people’s beautiful lives and you’re like, ‘Wow. I’m really not nailing it.’ We are so used to this facade and it’s not realistic.
Julie: I feel like that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at with the drawings. We’re being fed this idea of perfection which is such bullshit, it bothers me so much. That’s what I’m trying to dismantle a bit—this idea that anyone has it together, really.
Caroline: It’s natural for everyone to have doubt and fear, and as a business owner with employees and artisans to pay, I feel that. There is a lot more on my plate. I have to implement a practice of meditation and yoga so that I can let things roll off my back. That helps to remind me that at the end of the day, it’s all going to be OK. When I first started and I was balancing the books, I would think—how am I going to make this work? But it would always somehow work. Every day there is something that you have to solve that feels unsolvable. Either fulfillment is going haywire or the invoicing system is not working or you’re not getting the set of rugs that you need because the color is wrong. You have to let it all ride. You can’t solve everything at once. You have to trust that you and your team will figure it out.
Julie: I feel like the more projects I take on, the scarier they get, because I think—do they know that I don’t know how to do that? Are they going to find out? I’m writing a book now and I don’t know how to write a book. But your experience starts to build on itself. Something that might have scared me two months ago is less terrifying. Now I’m like, yeah I know how that works.
Caroline: At my core, all I want to do is throw paint around make weird things. And somehow that has formed into this business. So there are definitely these moments where I’m like, I’m not cut out for this. I just want to go back to being a painter. But luckily, I’ve attracted people in my business who are good at solving problems. I might be able to solve that particular problem, but it would take a lot longer.
Caroline: In terms of routine… I’m really picky about my water. I really like Essential water, which has really high pH, is really expensive, and really bad for the environment because I keep buying these bottles. My employee, Stephanie, is very conscious about sustainability, which is why I hired her. I want to implement that in my business. She’s constantly pouring me water from the water fountain and saying, ‘Try this.’ So, Essential water and snacking throughout the day. I also have a specific order to my desk, and if it’s not organized I cannot focus. Everyone on my team knows they cannot put certain things on my desk.
Julie: I’m the exact opposite. I need whisky and my couch and the TV going and I’m all spread out eating a huge plate of Indian food. A lot of self-soothing activity.
Caroline: When I had all of my various jobs in the past, I had a range of people to call on for advice, who were more like friends and family. But that’s changed since starting a business. My friends and family aren’t able to give the kind of advice I need on a collaboration with a massive textile company. The things that I am solving right now are a bit more complicated and require a knowledge of the field that I am in. So I’ve gathered mentors along the way. I can’t tell you how important it is to have a community that wants you to grow.
Julie: I talk to my friends about everything. I think I drive them crazy at times because it’s obsessive, but they’re helpful and I trust and value their opinions. I ask my parents questions a lot, and they come from a place of fear about a lot of things. Which is actually a good thing when I think I’ve gone a little too far, they are quick to pull me back in. I do wish I had some professional, all-knowing mentor that has been through it all, who can be like, ‘Oh no you idiot, just do this and you’ll be done.’ I’ve been scrambling a bit to figure out what this illustration thing means, but now that I have my footing a little more, I’m starting to take on projects that are further down the line. Through that, I’m starting to figure out a murky path.
Caroline: I know I said I didn’t have a business plan, but I think I had a quiet plan. I was reading in the journal that I had three years ago, where I wrote that someday I was going to open a shop. So there is something to that quiet dream that sits there and manifest itself. You have to learn to listen to yourself. You can’t go wrong. And knowing that it’s never going to be 'done.’ There is no finish mark. Keep evolving, stay true to yourself, have fun.
Julie: I think that I always assumed that I would get to a point in life where everything would all make sense… that I would know things for sure. But what I am learning is that it is confusing the whole time, at least for me. It’s OK to be confused and to not know. It’s OK to be a little bit freaked out, 98% of the time. If you get to do what you want to do, it’s worth it.
Designer and Illustrator
Designer and Painter