I’ve known Heather Ross for almost five years now. We first met in New York, at a show celebrating our collection based on the work of famed Alabama photographer Charles Moore. Heather arrived with my editor, Melanie, and I was bowled over by her beauty AND her spirit. When Alabama Studio Style launched back in 2010, the book went on a wonderful (digital) Blog Tour with a stop by Heather’s blog. The interview that ensued is one of my favorites to date.
Heather Ross is almost universally beloved in the sewing and craft communities. Her designs are whimsical and totally unlike any other options on the bookshelf. She excels when designing and illustrating for textiles and paper, with lines of fabric and stationery; she has also illustrated children’s books and has even worked on a line of surfboards for young girls. She has published a range of books, from the highly popular Weekend Sewing to a children’s book called Crafty Chloe.
Heather Ross Prints is her newest publication, which includes DIY projects for the home, including sewing and craft projects, and featuring her whimsical illustrations. It’s one of the most inspiring DIY books we’ve seen recently, with a crash course on basic machine sewing, a tutorial on transforming your own illustrations into digital designs through Photoshop, a generous selection of tear-out printed pages for gift wrapping and other crafts, and a CD of prints to use for the projects. It’s the kind of DIY book that makes non-DIYers want to DIY.
We were able to catch up with Heather for a brief Q&A on her process, inspiration, and business acumen.
AC: We’ve tried for years to get together and I thought that it might have just happened last week month as we travel to Woodstock, New York, for Alabama Chanin’s One-Day Workshop; however, once again, I missed you. I believe that there was mention of a cocktail of some sort? And what is this drink you had promised? (I’m always on the lookout for a new recipe.)
HR: Oh, there’s always a cocktail of sort, especially for my crafty guests. This was going to be a surprise, BUT, here’s what you do. You put a big bunch of fresh mint and a few lemons (Meyer, if you can get them, but that’s mid-winter citrus) in the bottom of a big mason jar and smash em up good with a wooden spoon. Then dump in some vodka, about a shot glass and a half for each person, and a bunch of ice. Shake it up until it’s all frothy and the glass is all cold-steamy. Use a bar strainer (this + a mason jar = better than an actual cocktail shaker) to divide the contents straight into as many glasses as you’ve got drinkers, top off glasses with simple syrup (so easy to make) or fresh squeezed citrus, whatever you’ve got, grapefruit, lemon, lime, blood orange, whatever’s in the bowl, some sweet and some tart. Now take a thyme sprig and loop it into a little wreath, twisting its ends over itself, and drop that on top. Mmmmmm…
Above image courtesy of Heather Ross.
AC: Your illustrations are really fun and beautiful with a bit of humor. How do you find a way to transfer humor onto fabrics?
HR: As soon as I was old enough to understand that art could make you feel something, I wanted to make art that made people happy. Funny is just a mix of happy and ridiculous. Ridiculous is easy.
AC: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? How do you move from inspiration to final product?
HR: I find the best inspiration in text, stories about other people’s lives that include some reference to something loved or beautiful, and then I try to imagine that feeling as an image. I always start with a sketch. I use Moleskin sketchbooks and cheap plastic mechanical pencils, the bright yellow kind. I carry around kneaded erasers, which I love because they swallow up all of the little bits when you erase things. I think they are very good for exercising your fingers while you think, too. I scan my sketches and finish them in Photoshop. It always feels like cheating, but I love the control it gives me. LOVE THE CONTROL.
AC: Your parents were both artists and you have said that your home was always filled with art and handmade things. Knowing there is a strong theme of childhood in your work, we must ask: What is your earliest memory of making? Do you believe that your parents’ art inspires your own work?
HR: I remember making clothes for the little wounded animals that my tomcat brought in. It began with little slings and blankets, but it ended with rigor mortis-assisted dioramas. Romeo and Juliet was a very common theme.
AC: You have spoken of a strong pull toward nature and wild things. While you say that nature plays a more vital role in your work today than ever before, does the process of creating in New York differ from your approach in the country?
HR: Yes. I walk through the trees in the Catskills, on the land around my house, and I feel the urge to apologize to them for loving the city as much as I do. I love the sushi. The opportunity. The shopping. The deliverymen. I know I’m also supposed to say the art and the creative energy but it’s really more about the food.
AC: Do you have different criteria for what kind of design is best for stationery? Or fabric? Or books? Are there some designs that just won’t work on fabric, but are perfect for paper goods – or vice versa?
HR: I think stationery needs a single motif, a perfect graphic. Fabric needs something that will become a pattern when repeated, and it needs to be flat.
AC: Do you have a favorite artist? Writer? Musician? Designer? Do other artistic media somehow filter into your designs?
HR: Someday I hope to own a painting by Andrew Wyeth. It was seeing his work that made me realize that so much of the shared American experience comes from open spaces, tall grasses, farmhouses, and snowy fields. So many of us are the descendants of pioneers, farmers, and lonely houses. I didn’t understand that until I saw his work for the first time. I also love the poetry of Walt Whitman, even though I think he was probably someone that you were really bummed about being stuck next to at a dinner party. It’s just a hunch. Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are favorite poets.
I have a thing with Van Morrison. My twin sister and I were originally named Tupelo and Domino. I wrote him a letter about it when I was seven and he never wrote back, but I forgave him. Sort of.
AC: You sold your first company, Munki Munki, because you felt you were moving too far from the creative design process into the business management role. What have you learned through that process? These days, how do you maintain that balance between art, work, and motherhood?
HR: The nice thing about motherhood is that it doesn’t give you any time to think about things like this.
AC: What advice would you give to a budding artist wanting to create something relatable, lasting and saleable? Or is this combination simply luck of the draw?
HR: I think it’s something that you learn over time, through trial and error. The most important thing is to never assume that by tracing somebody else’s career you will find the success that they have. Letting go is the hardest thing, letting yourself fail, but it makes you so strong. First it makes you sad, but then it makes you really, really, really strong.
AC: What’s next on the horizon for Heather Ross?
HR: I’m almost finished with an illustrated book of essays about my upbringing. I’ve found the whole process, and the idea of it actually existing in print, to be terrifying. Gah. I’m also designing some stand-up paddleboards for my favorite licensing client, Walden Surfboards, and illustrating a book about a little witch who lives in the woods and is super messy. She loses her little black cat and he turns up in her hair. It’s been just the right balance, I think.