Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Better Part of He(Art) 1: Q&A with Stamping Artist Bonnie Downing

Quick Facts:
Bonnie Downing, Stamping Artist
her website: Flights of Stamping Fancy
where you can buy her art: Stampingbird's Shop at

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Rubber stamps have come a long way from their humble position as an office supply or a quick and dirty way to put return addresses on Christmas cards. Visit your local crafts store or etsy-dot-com and you'll see works by artists that are expressive, personal and quite beautiful. One artist who is responsible for elevating this craft into an art is Bonnie Downing. Downing's work mixes retro charm with a savvy eye towards a more modern sensibility and palette. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Bonnie and ask her a few questions about her work.

Faulkner: One thing I'm always curious about when talking to other artists is what kind of schedule they have set aside for their work. Do you have time set aside specifically to work on your stamping?

Downing: I usually work in the evenings and on Sunday mornings

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Downing's work space aka Stampingbird's Headquarters

Faulkner: Is it particularly quiet then? 

Downing: Yeah - Sunday mornings particularly are great, because the light's just right in my office, and the sun's not shining right in my eyes yet... and I can open the windows and watch everyone walking their dogs outside. Sunday morning seems to be prime dog-walking time around here.

Faulkner: So in a way, the dog walking is like your "working music"? 

Downing: Yeah, I'd say so... for some reason, actual music is kind of hit-or-miss for me - sometimes it's just distracting My real "working music" is dvds, though.

Faulkner: That's interesting.  What do you usually have going while you work?

Most often, Buffy, Joan of Arcadia, Veronica Mars - those are the ones that hold up to multiple viewings, which works well for me because I can listen without watching, and tune out when I get into something without missing anything I haven't seen several times already. I think music tends to engage me creatively a little TOO much - I need something in the background that doesn't take up too much brainspace.

Faulkner: Gotcha.  So you're not pulling inspiration from your working background so much?

Downing: I really don't get much from my background, aside from just something to listen to/watch when I'm not having any ideas and need some downtime

This is going to seem like a chicken/egg question. Do you get inspired to do projects based on tools ie stamps or paper that you find or do you look for tools to match an idea?

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Downing: I don't come up with brand new ideas very often - I'm usually building on an older idea (like in my blog post a few days ago), or have made something I like and want to try out all kinds of different variations (like my bookplates). And yeah, I do that too - I'll pick a fun paper, or a new embellishment I think is really neat, or a tool I haven't used in a while, and decide what I can make from it. I used to be a terrible hoarder - I'd buy cute stuff and like it so much I couldn't bear to cut it or use it, but that's a good way to end up with a pile of outdated materials, so I started challenging myself a year or so ago to pick something I wasn't inclined to use and use it.

Faulkner: Your blog is nicely done. I'm looking at your "Always" card.  It's a lovely piece! 

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Downing: The "Always" card was what came to mind while I was pondering quotes - the bird feels a bit Thoreau-ian to me. Or Whitman-ish.

Faulkner: It does have that feel both in terms of subject and the period look. What was the process for putting it together?  Were you going for a particular feeling or a function and this is how it came together? I especially like the bird, is it a precut piece?

Downing: Actually, I put Versamark and brown Palette ink on the stamp together, so that I could emboss it in brown, and did the embossing, then cut that piece out and stamped the bird just in brown on a separate piece and put the embossed one over it... I really like that technique for giving it a little dimension And I let the bird's body be sparkly and embossed but the legs are flatter.

I started with pink glitter and the patterned strip behind the bird - I couldn't resist the pink glitter at the store the other day, so it's really inspired me to do some pink pieces, and I love the paper set that the patterned paper comes from, so I had it out. I made that little strip first, by doodling on the patterned strip with a glue pen and adding glitter, then set it aside to dry while I worked up the rest.

The "textile" embossing folder that I used on the background is one of my go-tos - I really like how elegant it is, and I thought it would work well with the design on the glittered paper.
And I just happened to have the "Always" set out on my desk - I don't use the little bird nearly as often as I'd like, so I thought I'd make it the focal point.

Faulkner: It comes together well!

Downing: Thanks! Ha - I actually just now had a great idea for some more bookplates, looking back at that card.

Faulkner: Ideas can strike at any time! How long have you been doing this kind of work?

Downing: I know I started in August, but now I can't remember what year - I think it's been about four years now.

Faulkner: What is it about stamping that appeals to you?

Downing: Honestly, at first I wasn't that into it - a friend invited me to a party to launch her hostessing for Stampin' Up!, and I thought it was fun, but way too much of a money-suck for my finances at the time. Then I remembered that my grandma had done some stamping, and asked for whatever materials she wasn't using, and she gave me a big box of stuff. I had it in my head that having her stuff to start out with would save me money, but it pretty much ballooned from there.

Faulkner: That's neat.  What kind of stamps did she have?

Downing: She had a lot of Christmas stamps - when my grandpa was alive, he played Santa for different functions around the city, so they were really into all things Christmas. Her main thing was embossing paper ornaments as little handouts for the kids at their events. When my cousin and sister and I were little, we played elves for some of their events, and we spent a lot of time tying bells to the ornaments with Christmas ribbon.

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Faulkner: Sounds like there are some nice memories associated with those stamps.  It's interesting how they are used to create keepsakes and can be keepsakes and keys to memories themselves. What was the first stamp you bought for yourself?

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Downing: There really are some good memories. I've sold some of them over the years - when you start stamping, somehow everyone comes up with a stash of old stamps from when they did it, and you end up with a LOT of bunnies-in-tutus - but I have a few that are really special.

Or country patchwork cats?

Downing: Oh yeah, lots and lots of cats. I think the first one I bought was the Stampin' Up! Sketch An Event set. I actually have one really bizarre cat stamp that I've held on to - turns out it's a rare one that people actually buy on purpose.

Faulkner: Really?

Downing: Yeah - it's a stamp designed after this:

Very odd.

Faulkner: (facepalming)I have that stamp I have no idea why I bought it either.

Downing: Really? Small world - I just thought it was so funny when I found it in a box. I haven't found anything to use it on, but I keep holding on to it for that perfect thing.

Faulkner: It is pretty unusual. Kliban was an odd duck. 


Faulkner: Are there any stamp designers or companies that you prefer?

Downing: My favorite company for the last year has been Papertrey Ink - several of their designers are really excellent. I particularly like Lisa Johnson, who runs the blog Poppy Paperie. I think I've used her poppy set, Remember, more than almost anything else lately. Alli Miles is another favorite - she created Wise Owl which is far and away my favorite owl set.

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Those are nice!  I think I saw some of your work with those on your blog.

Downing: I do use them a lot - I had some fun with the owls last week on a progression-of-inspiration post, and I use the poppies on several of my bookplate designs

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Faulkner: Has there ever been a "Stamp that got away"?  Something that you didn't get when you saw it and then thought, Dang!  I should have bought that one!

Downing: Hm - I definitely have a long wish list, but I can't think of many that I wished later I had. There is a cute castle-and-dragon set from Stampin' Up! that everyone seems to want - it tends to sell for multiple hundreds on eBay - and it's really cute, but I tend to try to take inspiration from what I have and spend time planning designs around sets on my wish list, rather than pine after what I can't get.

Stampin' Up! is kind of the original big stamp company, and they have a retirement system that's designed to create a lot of demand around the outgoing sets, while at the same time making them difficult for demonstrators to use profitably so they have to buy all new ones - even when I really like a set that's retiring, I tend to be put off by the frenzy, so I'm really happy I've found another company that I like so much that doesn't use the retirement/demonstrator model.

Faulkner: So the idea is to appeal to the collector in stampers?  Is there anything you'd like to see in stamps that you haven't yet?

Downing: There's actually one old thing I'd love to see come back - it was really a genius idea, and I'm not sure why it disappeared from the market. It was an alphabet set that snapped together, so you were able to get nice even spacing between letters and have your words always placed on a straight line. The design also made it possible to use much smaller letters than other alphabet stamps offered. I think you can still find them if you look hard enough, but it was such a good idea, I wish they'd expanded and added more fonts. Especially since one of the dogs ate all my 'e's - it's hard to find much you can say without 'e's.

Faulkner: So the dogs found the e's tasty?

Downing: Apparently - I think I had them stuck together into the word "eye" or something, so if it had just been the 'y', I'd have probably been okay, but the missing 'e's are a problem.

Faulkner: Yeah, that could be problematic.

Downing: I have been meaning to get some of the Papertrey alphabets, though - the clear stamps make it a lot easier to get alignment and spacing right.

Faulkner: Those are pretty.  How do you like working with etsy?

Downing: I'm still learning - I had someone ask today for a custom order slot, and I'm not really sure how to do that yet, but overall I'm liking it. The interface is really nice, and it's really easy to set up entries.

Faulkner: Is this the first venue you've used to sell your work?

Downing: No, I've done open houses and craft fairs with friends in the past - the craft fairs were both a bust, but the open houses were great, I think because people came knowing what we were selling and prepared to buy. There's so much variety at craft shows, and so many professional crafters and MLM sellers, that a booth with just cards isn't very eye-catching without a lot more investment in display equipment.

Faulkner: etsy sounds like it would be a lot easier.

Downing: It is - I've never had to deal with shipping before, but that's not too difficult. It's great not having to worry about providing change or setting aside a full day to sell $16 worth of merchandise.

Faulkner: Do you ever see yourself opening up your own online store? 

Downing: I don't know - if there comes a time that I'm selling enough to justify building my own store rather than paying etsy fees, I might, but my items are pretty small-ticket, so the fees aren't too high. It's possible that I'd start a separate site and route my etsy store and blog both to a central location, but it's not in the works right now.

Faulkner: How do you like blogging? 

Downing: I really like doing a craft blog - I did a personal blog for a while, and I have to say I prefer this format where I have something concrete to write about, and there's always something visual to add.

Faulkner: There's such a great community of creative people out there.  Do it and etsy make you feel more connected to other people who share your passion?

Downing: Yeah - I think the main place I get that, besides the fantastic blogs I have on my RSS (for nearly constant new inspiration), is - it's a great site for resources and community, particularly when I'm considering some new company or tool and want to find out what others think about it. They also have daily challenges that are a great way to get my juices flowing when I'm low on inspiration.

Faulkner: I remember looking at that site some time ago and enjoying the critiques.  Of what you've made so far, what has been the most satisfying piece?

Oh, that's a tough one. Actually, no it's not. I made a stationery box a while back - it took an entire weekend, but I just loved how it turned out.

Faulkner: Oh that is nice!  What do you want most for your work to bring to people who experience it?

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Downing: The knowledge that they're loved and appreciated enough for someone to have spent so much time and thought on a card or gift for them - even a handmade item bought on etsy or at a sale has a degree of care behind it that's warmer than a mass-produced item. Even though I make my own cards, I think my favorite in my rack right now is one a friend gave me for my birthday - she got it off etsy, and spent quite a bit of time finding one that was really perfect for me and obviously painstakingly crafted.

Faulkner: You have a link to the handmade pledge on your blog.  Do you think more people are understanding the benefits of supporting artists?

Downing: I hope so - I think it's a great idea. When you buy something handmade, you have a connection to a particular person on the other end of the transaction - something is going from their hands to yours. It's something you can't get from a factory. You can always tell when you receive something from a crafter how much love they put into it - I think almost everything I've bought from etsy has come with a little card or token with a handwritten message - I think that's just such a warm, personal thing to do, and only takes a minute for the sender to do. And of course, making your own gifts and cards reaps huge rewards, too - you get to exercise your creative muscles, sometimes save some money, and give a gift that's truly from the heart.

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Casey said...

I really enjoyed this interview. I know Bonnie personally and I learned a lot about her as an artist. I have always loved her work and think it is inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

Phyl said...

What a wonderful interview! So full of personal insight as well as information about stamping. And I love the photos of samples of Bonnie's work. Thanks so much!

jas faulkner said...

Bonnie is gracious, funny and so much fun to interview!

Lindsey Thomas said...

I'm constantly surprised at the range of creativity of Bonnie's art - from the careful layering of colors, the beautiful images, to the crazy characters that just make me smile. Us non-artistic types have a special appreciation for those who entertain and amaze us!