Imagine the joy of doing what you love, not just as a weekend pleasure but as a life’s work for which you are widely recognized. Meet five women who turn inspiration into art every day.
Reveling In The Imperfect
Sarah Ryhanen, Flower Artist
“I like beautiful messes,” says Ryhanen, 34, when asked to describe the weedy, wild, and highly textured floral arrangements she creates at her Brooklyn flower shop, Saipua. “I’m always hunting down the most hauntingly beautiful flowers I can find. But often what I’m drawn to are the imperfect stems that you can’t get at the flower market, where everything is factory farmed in South America.”
Ryhanen’s passion for mess is what inspired her and her partner, Eric Famisan, to buy 107 acres of rocky clay soil in the Hudson Valley, 150 miles north of New York City, three years ago. The mission of what they call “the farm at the world’s end”: to grow the rare perennials and wildflowers that are hard to source commercially. (Saipua floral arrangements range from $75 to $350.)
“Arranging flowers is addictive because it’s instant gratification,” Ryhanen says. “You can create beauty in a matter of hours.” In contrast, she has learned that farming requires a different, slower-burning kind of passion; her devotion to flowers has meant that beekeeping, field planting, and barn renovating always come before fixing up the farmhouse, which dates from 1825 and still lacks an indoor kitchen. “I can grill anything now—even in January,” Ryhanen says, laughing. “It’s a definite mess.”
Searching For Impermanence
Michele Quan, Ceramist
“A long time ago, I had this fantasy of being a potter,” Quan says. “I thought there would be a barn out in the desert somewhere, and I would throw pots on a wheel and work with my hands all day.” Instead, Quan spent 12 years as cofounder and designer of the cult-favorite jewelry line Me & Ro, until the birth of her daughter in 2003 inspired a career change. “I wanted to do something creative where there were no boundaries and I could make whatever I wanted,” she says. So Quan, now 51, signed up for a Saturday ceramics class and reignited her fantasy.
“Clay lures you in,” she says. “It’s so tactile and responsive. You can pinch, push, move, and smooth it endlessly.” She also loves that it’s made from rock and is permanent once it’s kiln fired—a quality that juxtaposes nicely with the theme of impermanence running throughout her work, with its motifs of ever-shifting moons, suns, and stars. “I read somewhere that impermanence lies at the heart of existence,” she says. “That’s what I’m forever trying to capture.”
Today, Quan designs and sculpts a range of ceramic art, jewelry, and objects for the house and garden, which are sold online and at boutiques in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas (prices range from $45 for small ornaments to $6,500 for large pieces). She works with a team of three artists in her Gowanus, Brooklyn, studio to craft every item by hand. “Even when you’re reproducing the same item over and over, there is beauty in the making,” she says. “I could sit and paint straight lines forever and be happy.” There is no barn or desert, as she once imagined, but there is “a kind of giddiness,” as she puts it. “You see how the magic of the kiln made a piece even better, and it all feels worth it.”
Turning Daydreams Into Design
Karen Combs, Wallpaper Artist
“I’ve been a paper freak forever,” says Combs, an artist who experimented with painting, drawing, photography, and bookbinding before discovering her passion for wallpaper. The Chinese wallpapers in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as well as her own large-scale art installations, which involved pasting screen-printed designs to the walls, provided the inspiration. “I had a vision of making functional wallpaper as a form of artwork,” says Combs, who is in her fifties. She spent months learning how to make her own ink and create large-format screens to print her designs, a process she describes as “pretty much a nightmare.” But the archival French-made paper she works with kept her coming back: “I love the surface, how it takes paint and ink, and that it’s the perfect color. I call it peony white.”
Combs’s papers now decorate many celebrity homes, and her designs have been used as a backdrop at London’s Royal Opera House. (She is based in Los Angeles; her papers start at $100 per sheet). For her designs, Combs draws from Chinese Qing dynasty paintings, art nouveau metro stations in Paris and even funkadelic album covers. She often starts with the title of the paper in mind—“That’s frequently the key to the whole puzzle,” she says—and then makes a series of drawings to capture her idea. “I often feel a bit lazy at the start of a project—or maybe it’s just an extended phase of daydreaming,” she says. “But once I start creating, there is a powerful momentum to get to completion. I just really, really want to see what the finished thing will look like. Curiosity is my driving force.”
Striving To Enlarge People’s Perspectives On Life
Ashley Lloyd Thompson, Surfboard Shaper
Lloyd Thompson, 34, will spend up to 15 hours crafting a single surfboard, alone in a shaping bay near her house in Santa Cruz, California. “I lose time in there,” she says. “I love how the foam feels in my hands and how the board looks under the lights.” Every surfboard begins life as a standard-issue foam and wood base called a blank; from there, Lloyd Thompson saws, sands and shapes it into something unique. Like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike.
Lloyd Thompson rode her first surfboard at age six and was surfing professionally by the time she was in college, when she fell in love with the art of making the boards. “Surfing used to be a male-dominated sport, and surfboard shaping was a male-dominated craft,” she says. “I saw this void of women and wanted to change that.” Lloyd Thompson found she had an innate understanding of the different physical needs of female surfers, some of whom have smaller stature and a lower center of gravity than men and who tend to approach surfing with more fluidity—all of which affects how they use their boards. But regardless of a client’s gender, she customizes each board for his or her specific measurements and surfing style. “Sometimes I design for a particular surfer,” she says. “Sometimes I design for a particular type of wave they’re trying to catch.”
In addition to hand shaping each blank, Lloyd Thompson chooses colors and creates custom artwork for every board; resin is tinted with color, then poured onto the board’s fiberglass by a local team. “I can be inspired by a piece of sea glass or the color of a retro car,” she says. Classic fiberglass surfboards of the 1960s are also a major influence on her aesthetic. Lloyd Thompson’s boards (which sell for about $1,000 each) have developed a cult following in the California surfing world as well as among surfers in Japan, Australia and Spain. She has also made boards for many professional surfers, including world champion Cori Schumacher, and for musician Neal Casal.
For Lloyd Thompson, it always comes back to the board. “I did ask myself a few years ago, Am I bettering the world by making surfboards?” she says. “And then a friend told me that her board changed her life. I truly believe the right board can open your perspective on surfing, and when you do that, it also opens your perspective on life.”
Holding On To Light
Alison Berger, Glassblower
“I am obsessed with trying to hold and contain light,” says Berger, 51, who often winds up staring over people’s shoulders at parties, mesmerized by a shaft of light coming in through a window. “How do you capture the light at 2 o’clock on a winter afternoon? And how is that different from the light at 3 on a summer afternoon? It’s a code I’m constantly trying to crack.”
Berger uses glass to conduct her light-capturing experiments; the material itself is another source of her passion. “I never get tired of the smell of a glass shop in motion,” she says. “There’s burning wood, smoke from the tools, melting beeswax.” The history of glass is a major influence; many of Berger’s light fixtures, vessels and other pieces are inspired by nature and flea market finds as well as by historical objects like Galileo’s inventions, though the source isn’t always obvious from looking at her work. “I’m not making museum-gift-shop items,” she says. “I’m getting at the essence of a piece—the thing that’s almost in your peripheral vision.”
Berger’s obsession with light has resulted in work for films and music videos as well as a line of accessories for Hermès and an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. (Prices for furniture and lighting range from $2,100 to $20,000.) Each piece starts as a series of sketches; Berger draws on her background as an architect to map out the details. “Often the glass is better when it’s a little bit off,” she says. “It’s perfection meets spontaneity.” Once she gets into her Los Angeles workshop with her crew, it’s not unusual for them to make something 20 times before she knows it’s ready. “I want these pieces to be right,” she says, “and I want them to be in the world for a reason.”
This story first appeared on More by Virginia Sole-Smith.
Iskra Banović is our seasoned Editor-in-Chief at BlueFashion. She has been steering the website’s content and editorial direction since 2013. With a rich background in fashion design, Iskra’s expertise spans across fashion, interior design, beauty, lifestyle, travel, and culture.