Janine Kwoh is the creative force behind the cleverly named Kwohtations greeting cards. These cards are unique, heartfelt and genuine – cards for occasions that may go unrecognized, cards that celebrate diversity and and provide solace during life’s difficult moments. Some of my favorite sentiments include: I would fail life without you, It’s OK, my shit’s a mess too and Yay – You’re pursuing your dreams. Janine lovingly crafts each card, using letterpress, block printing and paints.
The idea to create Kwohtations came about over coffee with one of your friends, while you were musing about life’s random moments, misadventures and triumphs. If only there was a card for that. How did Kwohtations develop from that initial conversation?
In 2011, my friend Amy and I were chatting and laughing about all of the wonderful, unfortunate, and strange situations we’ve found ourselves in (and gotten ourselves into) as we’ve bumbled our way through complicated relationships and ambiguous feelings, building our communities and chosen families, defining and pursuing our own definition of success, and all of the twists and turns in between. We kept recalling situations and saying, “There should be a card for that!” After that conversation, I went home and illustrated some of those ideas just for fun, and that became the seed for Kwohtations. If I had to sum up the method behind developing Kwohtations, it would be this: have lazy, meandering conversations with people who spark your heart, carve out ample time to do absolutely nothing, and see where your imagination and boredom takes you.
Why stationery as a means of expressing your creativity and yourself?
I chose to make stationary because I think greeting cards reflect what we as a society think is important to acknowledge or celebrate. We send cards when we think an occasion is meaningful enough to demand more than the customary email (e.g. birthdays, new baby, weddings). The types of greeting cards that exist sends a clear message about which we think are the milestones and people that are important enough for us to be commemorating, and conversely, which are not. I think it matters that we challenge these assumptions, and that we lift up the wonderful diversity of identities and life experiences that exist in real life beyond the traditional card aisle. Why shouldn’t there be a “Yay, You Have a New Pronoun!” card next to the birthday cards? Kwohtations is my tiny soapbox where I can express not just my creativity and experiences, but also my unshakeable belief that the freedom to be who you are and love who you do is an unalienable right and that the diversity in our identities and choices is a source of beauty, power, and celebration. And there should be cards for that.
Your card designs start out as drawings that you then carve into linoleum blocks and then print. Please tell me a little bit about your artistic journey and process.
After a trip to Morocco where I saw some beautiful block printed tiles, I watched a few YouTube videos on linoleum printing, bought a piece of linoleum, a cutter, and a tube of ink, and started turning my hand-drawn illustrations into prints. For the first couple years, I was stamping and painting all of the characters by hand, and also painstakingly stamping all of the words, letter by letter, using rubber stamps. As I started to sell more cards, I searched for alternative, more efficient ways to continue making cards while keeping their handmade quality, which opened up to me the wonderful world of letterpress. Now I have a three-step process: I print the words on each card using an antique printing press, block print the character outlines, and then paint them in. The fact that I still make every single card by hand is such an integral, meaningful part of my process, but also increasingly a source of tension as I continue to grow the business. Kwohtations has changed organically throughout the years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will undoubtedly continue to evolve as I and the business change.
How do you balance your day job (which sounds really fascinating) with being a creative entrepreneur?
I’m still struggling to find a healthy balance of my “real” job, Kwohtations, a social life, and time for myself. During the day, I’m an Associate Partner at a venture philanthropy fund that’s working to help close the opportunity gap. It’s challenging and fulfilling work, but also means that when I get home all I want to do is put on head-to-toe sweatpants, eat cheese, and watch endless episodes of Criminal Minds. Tactically, the balancing act forces me to make the most out of the time I have. I often feel paralyzed by everything that goes into running a creative business (Prepare for markets! Write a blog post! Finish bookkeeping! Post to Instagram! Fill orders! Design new cards!). I’ve found that if I decide beforehand exactly what I want to accomplish the next day and when to do it (e.g. 7-8AM: paint cards, 8-9PM: design custom order, 9-10PM: write emails), that helps me focus in on the immediate tasks at hand rather than the entire laundry list of things to do. I’ve also realized that a lot can be accomplished in 10-15 minute increments – I often manage my social media on the commute to work, run to the post office during lunch, input receipts while I’m waiting in line, etc. That helps free up longer periods of time for important things like spending time with friends. Generally, I try to be kind to myself. I often feel like I’m trying to do everything and as a result, am doing only some of it poorly. But at the end of the day, I’m still trying and learning and seeking moments of joy, not just as it relates to Kwohtations but in all areas of my life, so that’s really about all I can ask for from myself, even if I mess up a card shipment (sometimes) and eat breakfast for dinner consecutive nights in a row (often).
What has Kwohtations taught you?
Kwohtations has taught me so much, and much more than I thought it would. It has given me the creative confidence to bring half-baked ideas to the world and see what happens. It has reminded me that friendships and community can spring from unexpected places. It has deepened my understanding of others’ experiences that are different from my own. It has opened my eyes to a need for more vulnerability and honesty in our social dialogue. It has guided me toward an authentic voice and grown my confidence to use it. It has reinforced for me the power of art as an outlet for individual transformation, and is increasingly prompting me to think about how it can be an effective tool for social change.
Where do you draw your inspiration from, and how do people respond when they see your cards?
I draw a lot of inspiration from what I observe and hear from others, and the cards also often reflect what I notice myself thinking about or struggling with. Real people inspire me – people who are complex and contradictory, and just trying to do their best to find joy and be kind. I try to make cards for those of us who on some days feel like we’re living at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, and on others feel like getting out of bed is our Everest, and who want to find every reason to celebrate when things go right, and to feel less alone when they don’t. I want to make cards that bring to light the variety of our experiences, and also acknowledge head-on truths about being human that many of us share – like how confusing feelings are, how much courage it takes to be fully yourself, how family is however you define and build it, how truly terrible and life-altering grief is, and how none of us really have our shit 100% together. For those reasons, my favorite response from people when they see my cards is surprised recognition: “This is me!” At the end of the day, we all just want to be seen, so that line is what I’m ultimately hoping to achieve.
What is one of the most memorable pieces of snail mail that you’ve received?
I’ve kept almost every single piece of personal mail that I’ve received for the last decade, and now and then I’ll curl up and read through them. Kind of like catching a whiff of a familiar perfume or when an old song unexpectedly comes on, each note unfailingly transports me back to a time, person, or place that was meaningful to me. Whether it’s old love notes, handmade birthday cards, well-traveled postcards, or thick packets of scribbled letters, I cherish them all. Even as people and relationships change, these pieces of mail are like time capsules of those who wrote them and what we meant to each other. I find such an intimacy to handwritten notes that I don’t think can be recreated in an email – everything from the handwriting to the words inside to the choice of stationary is reflective of the sender at a particular moment in time, and all of that is captured and preserved on these pieces of paper. I just think that’s really special.