SMALL BUSINESS, CREATIVITY, COMMUNITY AND A LEAP OF FAITH: MEET TWO OF MY PERSONAL INSPIRATIONS

The past few weeks have brought a range of exciting things. I’ve finished the largest piece of art I've ever done, went on a peaceful camping trip and had the opportunity to talk with two San Francisco women that truly inspire me to my core. The latter is what I want to delve into here because the experience of diving into their practices, hopes for growth and love of community is an unparalleled experience that left me beyond inspired. I was compelled to get back in my shop and channel the energy that I felt through them. So who are these ultra-influential women? They're Rachel Robertson from Rare Device and Elaine Hamblin of Kosa Arts. I wanted to share their stories with the world, so I partnered with American Express,  which they both welcome, to uncover their realities.

 

Rachel Robertson of Rare Device

I got my start in the world of creativity and making a living working with my hands at Anthropologie, a clothing retailer. I was a Display Artist, and thus quickly was drawn to Rachel, who was the senior Display Artist there at the time. I was in awe of her. Everything she made was flawless and done with a heart full of enthusiasm. She was one of the first ladies that really taught me about giving the art world my best work and challenging myself to push beyond my boundaries of what I thought was great. I have been utterly inspired watching Rachel's career unfold, and along with my friends at Amex, decided to visit her world.

 

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Rachel is the Creative Manager at Rare Device on Divisadero Street in San Francisco; a gorgeously curated shop that maintains an emphasis on the maker behind the products. There, you can find some of Rachel's own textile jewelry; a beautiful representation of who she is and her inspiration. Sitting there with her was incredibly powerful for me. She told me about how transitioning from a corporate background in art to being immersed in a world of makers has influenced her work and how she found the confidence in showing her craft.

She began as a retail display manager and display artist (which is how I met her). She had always made things on the side as well, but admits that she was “pretty shy” about showing it until about 10 years ago. 

“A good friend and artist, Christopher Bettig, helped me gather the courage and gave me a few opportunities to put things out there in the world,” Rachel says. “I am still pretty shy about some of my work, but it's gotten easier.”

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Her venture into working full time in the creative realm happened in 2015, which she describes as a “huge leap.” She’s been a part of Rare Device now for the past 2+ years and couldn’t be happier. 

“…It's been incredible to be a part of a creative, supportive and local business. I feel so surrounded by creativity at all times both in my work and in my personal life, that I often have to remind myself that the world isn't populated just by artists and creatives,” says Rachel.

It’s not without struggle though. Putting herself out there has been a major challenge that she continues to work on, and forces her to really see what serves her. 

”As a natural introvert, as so many artists are, I had to recognize my tendency to hang back in the shadows,” she says. “I work on fighting that every day.”

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Her days consist of green tea and toast in the morning, followed by some time in the studio on weekdays before she heads into Rare Device

“My studio is only a block away from home which gives me no excuse! I will usually work on jewelry or small drawings and listen to music,” says Rachel.

From there, she bikes to the store, where she puts together product orders, does some merchandising and sometimes helps out with gallery show installations. Rare Device customers love that she has American Express as a payment option and it comes as no surprise. Over 1 million more places in  the U.S. started accepting American Express® Cards in the last year.

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 When she’s not working with customers, she likes to keep her creative juices flowing. Rachel will spend at least one full day of the weekend at her studio. Currently, she is working on a personal project making necklaces to give to fellow creative friends. Each piece will be directly inspired by their work, for instance, based on their color palette or materials that they use. 

“I want to give back to the women that have been inspiring to me and also use this project as a stepping stone for experimentation, helping me to incorporate new ideas into my jewelry pieces,” she says.

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Her mantra? 

Make something every day, even if it isn't any good,” she says “Years ago, I remember asking a professor for advice and he basically just said to keep working and making.”

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Elaine Hamblin of Kosa Arts

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The moment I met Elaine Hamblin I felt drawn to her. The connection was real. Hearing about her shop, her need to constantly create, her love of community, and willingness to get deep hit all my inspiration buttons. I was beyond honored to spend some time at her shop Kosa Arts in Oakland to learn about this incredible woman.  

Elaine’s creative background comes from a fine arts degree with an emphasis on textiles from California College of the Arts in Oakland. From there, she did costuming for Bay Area dance companies as well as created her own line of hand-painted fabrics. Following that, she worked several design assistant positions with Bay Area designers, and then maintained a long career leading Technical Design teams at Gap in San Franciso and New York and Levi’s in San Franciso.

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When she entered the creative realm full time, she says it was “long overdue.” She took it as a personal dare to enter the corporate world to see if she could get in and to learn how the industry worked on a global scale. She continued her creative outlet while working in the corporate arena by working on costume design outside of work for dance companies such as Bandaloop, Epiphany Productions, and Jo Kreiter. During that time, she longed to get back to developing her line of apparel as well as showcase other makings in the form of a concept shop. 

“When things started brewing in Oakland, I wanted to join in the community and bring in a slightly elevated shop showcasing artisan made goods, similar to those I had grown fond of while living in NY,” says Elaine.

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She came to the realization that she needed to just take the plunge.

“There came a point that I couldn’t not go for it. I felt my soul was yearning for creativity and community engagement. I learned so much from the corporate world, especially not coming from a business background. I learned not to take the business side of it personally or emotionally,” says Elaine.

This is where, despite her background, she found some difficulty – in developing the KOSA brand apparel line. She left the apparel industry with the intention of showcasing only home goods. While working on her business plan, she set up at the 25th Street Collective, which was a sewing collective and storefront for sustainable start-ups and at the time happened to have a handful of clothing designers. 

“I ended up designing a line of tunics that I introduced into the shop. The line is what keeps the shop open,” she says “The struggle is that I am now trying to run two businesses, but I’m grateful because my love of designing and craftsmanship has been rekindled.”

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Elaine holds mostly a consistent schedule where a good day means she’s up early and out for coffee by 6:30am, goes for a swim downtown, walks to work (which includes stopping in local cafes to say hi), and works on her clothing line (cutting/ sewing) before she opens the shop. It’s there that she relies on Amex

 “Many people prefer to use Amex, and are happy we accept it,” she says. I definitely have repeat customers because of it. I appreciate that Amex supports small businesses.” From luxury brands to thrift stores, American Express® Cards are accepted at more places than ever.

Most days she is in the shop, ordering goods, stocking shelves, making sales and working on patterns when it’s slower. 

“We have a drafting table in the shop so we can incorporate product construction in the daily business. We host workshops by local makers, mostly on the weekends when it's slower and we frequently go to small business events in the evenings,” says Elaine.

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Elaine is inspired by the creative process in itself and is moved by a multitude of elements within that including:

“Imagination of what a material can become. Using my hands to form one element into another. Creating and transforming environments. Element of surprise. Transforming materials in an unexpected way. Pure craftsmanship.”

"Sustain the creative spirit" is Elaine’s mantra. “We hope to inspire others to appreciate the quality of living with hand crafted, thoughtfully made items,” she says. “As humans, we have a deep need to engage with our natural world creatively, with our senses, and to develop a high level of skill for our personal development.”

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Thank you American Express for this opportunity to dive deep into the lives of two of my biggest inspirations, and for helping to support small businesses and artisans like these two ladies. Over 26,000 more places in the San Francisco area started accepting American Express® Cards in the last year, which I'm excited about because that means I can use my card to support the creators I love.

Editor, Jen Woo