Featured Designer: Rachel Kroh of Heartell Press

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Heartell Press is a beautifully designed line of greeting cards, lovingly created and handmade by artist and designer Rachel Kroh. Created using woodblock prints, Rachel’s cards are heartfelt and thoughtful with carefully crafted messages and images, intended to let recipients know that they are cared for. If you’re looking for the perfect card to send encouragement or gratitude, these are the cards for you – full of warmth and love.

Please tell me about the beginnings of Heartell Press. What made you decide to design a line of stationery? What is the origin of the name Heartell?

In 2014, I had been working as an artist in New York for five years, supplementing my income with day jobs, and I came to a point where I knew I wanted to be spending more time in the studio than I had been able to. At the same time, my mom was being treated for ovarian cancer, and I was having trouble finding cards to send her between visits. I started having ideas for warm, sincere sympathy cards using woodblock prints and began researching the stationery industry. I made a change in my day job situation that freed up some of my time, spent six months designing the first collection, and launched the website in October of 2014.

The name Heartell (pronounced here-tell) is a play on the phrase “heard tell” as in “I heard tell Betsy Jones got married last Saturday.” I like the folksyness of it, and also the fact that when you put hear and tell together you can read the word “heart” as well. I wanted the name to convey the idea that telling one another what we feel in our hearts can be a regular, everyday thing. I like that greeting cards are things that live in our homes, like quilts or ceramic dishes, and become part of our lives and relationships with one another, and I wanted a name that emphasized that way of thinking about stationery.

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Each of your cards start with a woodblock that you design, carve and print. How do you move from idea to printed card? 

Ideas for the words on my cards come to me from anywhere I observe people caring for one another, whether it be in my own relationships and conversations with friends and family or in novels and poems I read. I collect lists of phrases. The images are often inspired by time I spend outside with my husband. We love hiking in the Hudson Valley or on trips, and visiting parks and gardens around New York and when we travel. I also love visiting museums and galleries and looking at the work of other artists in books. I’m always trying to take in as much as I can. Sometimes it’s just a pattern in a tile floor or a wrought iron fence that catches my eye. Ideas can come from anywhere, so I try to be vigilant about recording them in my sketchbook or by taking photos with my phone.

Once I pair an idea for a phrase with an image, I draw with pencil on legal size bond paper. I tried all kinds of fancy paper but for the first stage good old copy paper and a mechanical pencil is my favorite. I refine the drawing in layers using vellum, charcoal and markers until I have a strong black and white image. Then I scan the drawing and add the text, working on the drawing some more in Photoshop or Illustrator if there are straight lines or geometric shapes.

Then I print the design out on laser paper and use a blender pen to transfer it to the woodblock to use as a guide for carving. The carving is the best part. It’s very relaxing and meditative. I use Japanese carving tools and Shina plywood because of its fine grain and strength. Then I print it using my Chandler & Price Pilot letterpress. I usually have an idea of what color I’m going to print it in, but sometimes I change my mind and experiment as I go. If the card has two colors that means there are two carved blocks, so I repeat the process for the second block, first printing the initial color (called the “key” block) onto the second woodblock using acetate so that the images will line up exactly.

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What appeals to you about the process of printmaking?

In woodblock printing, the carving and the printing influence how the image comes out, and I like sharing the design process with the materials that way. Because there are no gradations of value–the ink is either present or not, unlike the variations of gray in a pencil drawing or watercolor wash–it requires me to refine the image to its most elemental parts. I like the challenge of making simple images that are compelling and strong.

I love that paper is an ephemeral, everyday material, so prints live more in the realm of regular life than in the cloistered world of museums and galleries. Printmaking also appeals to me because both images and text are native to the medium, and I get a lot of my inspiration from writing and reading.

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The sentiments on your cards are so very warm, heartfelt and thoughtful. What made you design the encouragement series?

When my mom first got sick, people sent all kinds of well-meaning cards and she was glad to have them. But so much of what’s available in this category falls short of acknowledging either the extremity of the pain people who are ill or grieving experience or the magnitude of the love friends and family are capable of expressing during those times. My mom was overwhelmed by how quickly and fully people showed up for her. I’ve heard from other people that one of the things that makes it possible to get through cancer treatment is the outpouring of love that communities provide. But she also felt alienated when people tried to smooth over what she was going through or minimize it by telling her “everything will be ok!” or, God forbid, “everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes we experience pain and sadness for which there is no explanation, and we just don’t know if everything will be ok. Sometimes thinking positive isn’t enough to heal what’s wrong, and sometimes we just aren’t going to “get well soon.”

I wanted to create cards that would let people’s love shine through without trying to fix, explain or ignore the truth of the suffering that we all at some point in our lives experience. Pain is part of life, whether it’s caused by illness or loss, or challenges like divorce, depression or addiction. As much as we try to push it away, the only way through it is to feel it. Feelings are just feelings, they don’t last forever, but if you bury them they’ll eat at you. People need to feel seen, they need to have their experience acknowledged, and just being present with someone and being able to say, “I’m here, I’m with you” can make them feel loved and cared for in a more profound way than trying to change or solve or reframe the situation in some way. I hope my cards can make it easier for people to be fully present to each other, no matter what life brings.

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You have a beautiful series of cards expressing gratitude. What are you grateful for?

Thank you for your kind words! I am grateful for so much: the health of the people I love, for having so many wonderful things to eat and a home to live in, for being able to live in New York and experience diversity and creativity and industry on such a grand scale. We run in Prospect Park in the mornings and I feel gratitude for the trees and plants, the birds and dogs (we go during off-leash hours to get a fix since we aren’t allowed to have a dog in our current apartment). Flowers inspire a lot of gratitude in me–they seem to appear out of nowhere, in so many colors and shapes!

Lately I’m especially grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been offered in my life and the chance to pursue my creative work as a way to make a living. There are so many creative people in the world who aren’t able to let the impulse to make things flourish in their daily lives, and I know I’m so lucky to have this time and the support of my family to follow my dream.

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What is your favorite kind of pie?

Oh man, I love them all too much! If I have to choose, salted caramel apple from Four and Twenty Blackbirds is my favorite cold weather pie, and key lime pie from Steve’s in Red Hook is my favorite pie for summer.

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You received your MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and are an exhibiting artist. Do the themes you explore in your paintings impact your card designs (or vice versa)? How do the two relate for you? Both are very much art-based, but the mediums you use are different…

Both my paintings and my woodblock prints spring from my curiosity about how people relate to one another, how they connect. Ultimately we’re all alone inside our heads and yet we need each other to survive and are connected in so many different ways. My paintings are about how our identities are forged through our relationships with one another. I studied art and religion, and the dynamics of how a person becomes part of a group while remaining an individual has always interested me. The prints and cards are more about being in individual relationships and the mechanics of that, while the paintings are a way to explore the stories we tell and the communities we’re part of.

In terms of my process, paintings are much more challenging than prints. I’ve worked hard on my technical skills–drawing the figure and landscape from observation, working with values and composition and color. All that work has helped me to be a better designer and printmaker, and I think making prints has taught me patience which has helped with painting. I only started painting toward the very end of grad school, and I think it will take me another 30 years or so to be good at it. Printmaking is something that comes more naturally to me.

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What is one of the most memorable pieces of snail mail you’ve received?

When I was little, my Grammie used to send me a lot of mail (she lived in Massachusetts and we lived in Chicago). She loved being outside and knew all the names of the trees and flowers and birds.  I remember she once sent me a piece of birch bark she’d found in the woods. She wrote a note on it and I thought it was the most incredible thing, especially since I was a city kid and the woods seemed full of magic and mystery.

Why do you think handwritten correspondence is important?

You can read an email or text on your phone on the train, when you’re half asleep or while you’re doing three other things. When you get a card in the mail, it draws your attention in a different way. You’re holding it in your hands and the paper and the color and the handwriting engage all your senses in a different way. I make stationery to help people to be present to one another, and there’s nothing like finding something special from someone you care about in a pile of junk mail and bills. Sitting down at the table and opening it up pulls you into the present, into a moment of connection with another person, even someone who can be physically many miles away. It’s a small thing but it can be so powerful, and if we string enough of those kinds of moments together I think it can change the way we experience our lives and our relationships with one another.

 

 

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