LEELA HOEHN

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Tell us a little bit about yourself - what are you up to now?

Right now I’m in a period of transition and growth. I’m evolving as an artist and designer and I’m not exactly sure what that looks like just yet. After working on overdrive for the past 6 years to build Native Bear I’m finally at a place where I feel like I can let go a little bit and get back to some practices that I left behind, like painting. When I started this little brand I was really just trying to form a creative job where I could work from home but things continue to grow. Everything I’ve made in the last few years has had the purpose of being sold and being marketable. While I’m still creating those designs I feel like I’m in a place where I can experiment again and that’s exciting to me.

 
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Native Bear has grown quickly in the last 9 months so I’ve also been spending a lot of my time on backend work and establishing systems that will help run things smoothly as we keep growing. Sounds really boring but that’s honestly where my mind has been lately. How to make things run smoothly so that I can sneak off to draw and paint. I also just co-founded a new print, design and consulting business called Tower Press with my friend and studiomate Susannah so I’m also learning how to juggle a new gig. She handles processing the print orders and I’m more on the consulting side and some design. I love a new exciting and risky project. I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at jumping in head first.

 
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What's your favorite thing to create for Native Bear? Why is it your favorite?

That has changed so many times over the years but I can say that the planner has become my favorite. Last fall we introduced the Native Bear planner and the response was overwhelming. It kept us busy up until we sold out in February this year and now I’m about to release the new ones in June. I have always been obsessed with notebooks and planners and I used to spend so much time trying to find the right one that worked for me. I always felt like the imagery on planners and all the cutesy inspirational stuff was too much for me to look at everyday. I wanted to create something that was inspiring, pretty to look at, but had a little bit of depth to it. When you think of what a planner is it’s a record of your life in 12 months. You’re looking at this book and this imagery every day. While I can appreciate the cutesy girly fun stuff that I see other brands doing I know there are just as many people out there like me that don’t identify with that look. 

 
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Your use of color is fantastic - can you talk about what inspires those colors?

Thank you! I wish I had a fancy answer for this. I tend to gravitate towards warmer tones like gold, orange and  red for some reason. I love a vintage dingy look combined with a pop of orange or gold metallic. When I create designs with blues and cooler tones you can usually tell I tried really hard haha. I don’t have much of a process for how I come up with color combos because my process is definitely based on what pops into my head and what feels good to me. I learned some color theory when I was in high school but I don’t whip out the charts or stare at Pantone swatches when I’m working. When I’m coming up with a lot of new designs I will print several test prints and put all the designs on the wall in front of my desk. I like to see how everything works together and if I see a color is missing or I have too much of a color in the collection I will tweak things. I try to keep in mind the broader picture of how designs look together as a collection as well as how they stand on their own. It’s really just based on my personal preference and what I’m feeling at the moment.

 
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What do you think the appeal of paper goods is in an increasingly digital world?

Our digital world is exhausting. I think most of us feel this way, even if we are completely submerged in it on a daily basis for work and everyday life. I feel like we have a primal need to slow down and we’ll continue to find different ways to do that even as technology gets to the best of everything. Paper goods is still appealing because it’s generally something that you can personalize in some way to make yours. Writing in a journal and drawing in a sketchbook will always act as a way to vent and safely express yourself without the peanut gallery. A planner gives you the opportunity to sit and really think through your daily tasks and yearly goals and it’s like a record keeper of how far you’ve grown. Greeting cards will always feel like a thoughtful touch to a gift or a way to show love to someone you care about. Paper goods are simple items that require your unique personality and participation to bring them to life. Expressing one’s feelings is never going to become antiquated. 
 

 
 Photo credit: Ashley White

Photo credit: Ashley White

 

What's one thing you really want people to know about Native Bear?

I often get asked how I came up with our name. ‘Bear’ is a family nickname and I picked the word ‘native’ because it means to be of a certain region or to have origins in a particular place. I came up with the name before I had any home goods available but I new that I wanted to create items that conveyed a sense of home, wisdom, and belonging in the name. Not sure if that’s what I’ve done, but that was the original motivation. When I came up with the name 7 years ago I think I was really looking for a sense of home for myself and my identity as an artist and human in this world.  

 
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You quit your day job with only $500 in your bank account to pursue Native Bear. Can you elaborate on that experience? Were there moments when you thought you would fail? How did you get through those moments?

I was working as a bartender at the time. I had quit my big girl job as a marketing assistant and needed a gig that was more flexible and didn’t require as many hours. I had to quit the bartending job after only two months when I started to feel like I wasn’t working in a safe environment (aka my boss was a shady dirtbag) so I wasn’t expecting to jump into full time Native Bear as fast as I did. While I wouldn’t tell someone to quit their job without much financial cushion I have to say that it was the best thing for someone like me. I learned a LOT about managing my money in the next few years. I don’t come from an affluent family and I’ve always done my own thing, but my parents never really taught me anything about money management and they certainly don’t teach you that in school. Starting a small business will teach you real quickly just how bad your habits are! There were times that I was anxiety ridden and panicked about bills for sure. I would do any craft market that came my way and did for about 3 years.

 
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My main thing at the time was custom hand carved stamps, particularly wedding invitation stamps that would literally take me 12 hours to sketch, carve, and complete. It was a labor intensive craft that I loved at first but after a couple of years felt like I had created my own prison lol. I had to learn that yes, money and paying your bills is a necessary thing, but as soon as you get the chance should evaluate how you got to where you are and see where you can improve. I needed to increase my quality of life and I needed to break out of the design limitations of block printing in my spare bedroom. I never set out to be a block printer/stamp carver and I was ready to left that craft go to make room for what I really wanted to create, which was a full line of goods toting my illustrations. I slowly started to phase out the stamps and started to add in new greeting cards that were illustrated by me and printed by a local printer. I started to gain some interest from retailers more and more and eventually outsourced my tea towel printing as well. A big part of the process has been learning how to be patient and methodical with my growth. 

 
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f you could look back on your career and do one thing differently, what would it be and why?

I guess I would have cut the stamp carving out a lot earlier than I did, but I can’t say that for certain. I’m one of those people who really believes that you’re where you are for a reason. I feel like I can’t go back and change anything because that would mean I would have to unlearn the lesson that came with it.

 
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What's your number one goal for the next year? What steps have you already taken to achieve that goal?

Business wise our goal is to double our revenue from last year and to make the planner a permanent product offering that gets released twice a year. We were overwhelmed by the response last fall and were not prepared for the volume. This year I have my husband working with me full time and we have a part time assistant and they help keep the orders packaged and shipped so that I can stay focused on other things. That’s a totally new thing for me. I wouldn’t be able to keep doing this without help and I’m so grateful to have a solid team!

Personally speaking, I am working on a collection of paintings to have by the end of the year. That may seem like a far off deadline for some but I’m trying to be realistic about myself and the amount of work I have ahead of me. I try to schedule in a painting day once a week but I’m hoping to increase that by the middle of this summer before the fall orders start rolling in. Painting still feels like a personal indulgence and I’m still figuring out what my practice looks like but I’m excited to be back in that process again.

 

 

Check Leela out on Instagram and her website.

And check out her Ten Facts feature here.

Main photo credit: Ashley White