With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching I cannot think of a better month than February to arrive at an artist’s studio, and be greeted by an awesome pink door. Minneapolis based artist and illustrator, Ashley Mary, is one big-hearted and lovely lady! We hit it off immediately, and Ashley really dove into all my questions with such truthful and articulate answers. These monthly features are here to remind us all (myself included!) that we are not alone in our struggles as creatives or small business owners.
I’m grateful to Ashely Mary Art for opening her studio up to (pretty much) a stranger — look at all the beauty our photographer and fellow creative, Erin Francois, was able to capture! Enjoy the interview, and if you’re looking to visit Minneapolis yourself, don’t miss this city guide with some of Erin and Ashley’s favorite hometown spots.
Women Who MAKE Interview – ASHELY MARY ART
- Name: Ashley Mary
- Age: 32
- Current title/company name: Artist, illustrator, designer, stylist
- Years in operation: as a full-time freelancer three years, artist for nine
What are your first memories of making [art]/being creative?
A few pop into my mind. I had one of those spinning paper toys that you could drop the paint on and it would swirl and splash into a little design. Aging myself! I remember playing with that and loving the surprise of art when the paper stopped spinning. I was a big Lego kid too. I really loved crafts of all sorts: needle point, friendship bracelets, sewing things for my dolls, coloring, playing with boxes. I had a very large imagination so usually what I was making was a part of a larger story I was acting within like “house” “school” or putting on performances from my garage for neighbors who I served my mom’s LaCroix to. I was definitely a theatrical booger (and still am, keep me away form a karaoke bar).
How did your education or past work experience give you the confidence to go out on your own and become small business owner?
I only took a small handful of art courses in college, but it was going back to school at MCAD that changed the course of my creative life. I learned a whole new set of tools to bring my analog world into the digital. Learning tools like Photoshop and Illustrator have been game-changers for me. I used to do a lot of public speaking in my last job, it was very relational too, I got to listen to people’s stories a lot. And I think both of those skills make me better at marketing myself and working with clients to get them what they need. I’m not super shy and that’s helped me introduce my work to new people.
Tell us about the process of launching your business. What are the best parts? What are your biggest challenges?
It was NOT overnight at all. I was painting always just on the side after I graduated college. It wasn’t until I left my first job, where I was for five years to pursue a design career, that I started to do creative work full-time. While in school, I freelanced and contracted for a few places. I spent more than 20 hours a week at an agency called KNOCK Inc for about two years, until I stepped away from that work load to pursue painting, illustrating and prop-styling full-time under my own name. Baby steps. I painted for about eight and a half years until I started my own business rooted in painting. And each year I try to say “no” to a few more projects that aren’t moving me towards my goals and leave a little more room to say “yes” to those that do. You’re catching me in the first few months of my adventure! Crazy.
Best parts. Every day looks different and I really thrive in that environment. I get to work with a large variety of people on a large variety of projects which I also love (I’m a creature of change). I get to paint most days, the best part. I can exercise, nap or hang with friends in the middle of the day. Getting to be in charge of my own schedule. I also love being able to focus my workload on things I love and areas I want to grow in.
Worst parts. Bookkeeping, pricing, not knowing where my next project is going to come from (no steady paycheck) no paid vacation, no health benefits. Having to be in charge of my own schedule (making sure I use my time and resources well AKA don’t start internet shopping or cleaning out my closet out). I’m in my own head a lot which is riddled with insecurity, which is a big ole pain in my Ass. I’m responsible for everything in my business, horrifying and exhilarating. Little boundaries with work (I can essentially work all the time).
What is your favorite part of the creative process? What inspires you and why?
Right now I’m very into making little collages from paper and then painting the collages in a large scale format on canvas. That process leaves less guess-work in the studio and makes painting more efficient which is a nice break from working out my painting as I go (which is my typical process). I save a lot of pictures that have great color combinations and tack them up in my studio as inspiration. I’m very inspired by color in general. I see color stories I want to bring into my paintings in everything especially movies, interior design, and fashion.
You are an artists and illustrator, but also do a lot of styling work. Styling is a mysterious career title to most. Can you tell readers more about the job and the hard work that goes into styling?
I haven’t been prop-styling for very long so I am no expert but here’s what I’ve learned along the way. Styling can look a lot of different ways. The two versions of prop-styling I typically do are:
- I am an art director AND prop-stylist. I am invited to create a vision for the space and/or shoot. From that vision I source all the props necessary, get all the props to the shoot (this can include wardrobe, food, plants, furniture, etc.), style the items (arranging them to look their best for the shot), and then return all the props.
- OR 2) I am only the prop-stylist. You are told the vision for the shoot and you need to find props that fit within the art director’s vision and mood board. On set, you might follow more direction from someone else, really working to make sure the team who has hired you is happy and that their vision is achieved. In many cases, these are opportunities for you to suggest and try-out arrangements you think will highlight the scene/product best too. You’re not a puppet by any means but you working with art director and following direction more.
In general, prop-styling is all about paying attention to small details, being overly prepared and anticipating what could go wrong or what you might need to achieve a shot (like glues, tape, fishing line, etc.), having a good understanding of color and shape composition and having good instinct for what will look good within the time you’re given to figure it out.
Prop-styling is not for the weak at heart! You have to spend hours shopping (in stores and on-line) and pulling from lots of places to find the perfect item. You have to physically lug everything around, keep track of it (don’t break it), and know how to deal with lots of receipts (which I am the worst at). It’s a lot of organization. And you really have to understand the vision for a shoot and know how to execute it with props. You can bring 20 different mugs but if you don’t have the “one” mug the art director is picturing in their head, it doesn’t really matter that you brought 20 other mugs. I’m constantly learning where to go for what, what websites and search terms to use, and my prop-kit grows with each shoot after I realize I’m missing a key tool (like a marker to fill in wood scuffs?!).
So, why do I do it? I love it! I love the physicality of the job (gotta burn off that donut somehow). I love to make and to arrange things, I think I’m good at it and have an instinct for it. I love working with new people every shoot. I love creating spaces, that is the BEST experience to me. I love that each shoot if different. I love the hunt!” Oh, you want a theatrical mask that looks both sad AND happy? DONE!” “ You need fake fire hydrant to paint blue? You got it!” It’s weird and energizing work, and in the end you have a lovely and interesting image.
What is the best advice you have for other female entrepreneurs?
Woof, what a question! What advice can people give ME?! A few things I’ve learned in the last few years.
- Work with others. It’s a great way to network, build relationships, and spread the love around (especially on social media platforms). And also it gives people space to do what they do best. (I learned this the hard way trying to take my own photographs of things…leave it to the experts!)
- Get a good accountant right away. Mine has taught me 100 lessons every tax year and each year I get my shit together a little more. On that note a financial advisor, lawyer, and book keeper can help you loads too.
- Share your work. If you don’t, people might not know what you are capable of or be able to imagine what you can do for them.
Do you have a design philosophy, and if so, what is it?
There are no real rules at the end of the day. Any rule I’ve heard about design is ultimately a suggestion/opinion. So with that in mind: be weird, be yourself, and be kind.
Imagine your business in five years. How would you like to grow?
Too many ideas! I try to write them down at the beginning of every year (I’m a very big resolution nerd). I would love to do more surface design and collaborations with other brands. I would also love to work more with interior designers and galleries to get my art in more places around the country (and world, girls gotta dream!). At the end of the day, I want to paint more and if opportunities like surface and pattern design can grow from that foundation, I would be elated.
Was there a moment you felt like you got your big break? What was it?
Getting the opportunity to sell some self-branded product in Target was huge. It was unexpected and I was very green to the whole experience, learning all the lingo, steps, and mistakes along the way. I wear a lot of hats in my business and they don’t all fit great, so navigating the things I’m not great at can feel like pulling teeth (or end in lots of tears). My cosmetics bags hit Target stores in 2015 and my phone cases hit in 2016, and both chances have felt huge for my business (and big moments of learning for me too).
What do you enjoy most about the creative community in Minneapolis?
It’s big, friendly, and there are LOTS of lady bosses. The majority of my work and collaborations are actually with other creative women and that’s kind of amazing to think about! I’m very proud to know and get to work with so many of them and I think I’ve only scratched the surface really. People are up to collaborate and be spontaneous.
Centered By Design is my business name, but it’s also the idea that we can find a bit of sanctuary each day through design, that good design can center us and make us feel great. Does your design process center you in any way?
Of course! I chose to be a creative because in doing so, I am most myself. When I force myself to do work I’m not good at, I can feel the tension in me and sometimes it’s fiercely uncomfortable and de-energizing. I find I am my most at peace, most myself, most WHOLE when I am creating.
Ashley’s Minneapolis Favorites:
Favorite spot to get inspired: Outside on a run. I’m a runner and do a lot of it on the Mississippi River in NE Minneapolis. I do my best thinking on runs.
Favorite florist: Honestly I don’t have one, I’m embarrassed to say. I don’t hang out in flower shops enough (except for wholesale warehouses). I should change that. My fav spot to grab flowers would be our farmer’s markets in the summer.
Favorite place to shop for home décor/furniture/thrift:
- Golden Rule @goldenrulecollective
- The Foundry @thefoundryhomegoods
- Forage Modern @foragemodern_mn
- Hunt and Gather @huntandgathermpls
- Room and Board outlet
- I can’t give away all my secrets but that’s a good start there.
Favorite place for coffee: Spyhouse in NE. @spyhousecoffee
It’s painfully close to my house and I am a creature of proximity. Its big industrial space is full of light and makes for a great camping ground for my laptop and me.
Favorite place for a sweet treat: Milk Jam Creamery @milkjamcreamery
You can find more of Ashley at ASHLEY MARY ART
Thanks as always for reading along, please leave me a comment if YOU or a woman you know should be profiled on this series!
XO – CLAIRE