Native Bear is a stationery and gift line based out of Atlanta, Ga featuring the original illustrations of Leela Hoehn Robinson – but you can call her ‘Bear.’
How did you start your small business?
I started Native Bear in 2011 after I carved my first stamp, an image of my dog. I wanted her to be stamped on a bunch of my wedding favors and block printing was a quick, easy, affordable way to create that image for my DIY wedding…I realized I was kind of good at it. The process was fairly quick, and it was very satisfying to be able to print as much as I wanted without having to blow a bunch of money. I decided to start Native Bear using this same production method and offered this craft I had stumbled upon as a service. As I got better and better at carving, I started offering custom stamps and these were actually the first thing Native Bear really specialized in — wedding stamps, save-the-date stamps, pet portrait stamps, all kinds of stuff. I got really good at carving for a while mostly doing people’s logos or I creating my own designs. I would carve into linoleum and then mount that on wood to sell the actual stamps to brides to handprint their own invitations. It wasn’t exactly a cheap thing to buy, but something about the tactile nature of a stamp on paper is something that people really wanted.
“I freed myself up a little bit more to use more color, more texture, and was able to test out different types of products.”
How did your brand grow from this to the original artwork you produce now?
I started to transition away from hand-carved linoleum blocks when my back was killing me. The labor-intensive nature of it became limiting. I knew I had a lot more to offer design-wise, and hand-carving linoleum blocks wouldn’t give me the versatility I really needed to do the designs I wanted. I started slowly weaning myself off the custom work, focusing more on building my designs, and experimenting with new methods of printing…I freed myself up a little bit more to use more color, more texture, and was able to test out different types of products.
Tell us about the hand-drawing process you use for your designs?
Everything I do is simple line drawing. I go through different phases with an image. There isn’t really a rhyme or reason with why I let designs go a certain way, it’s just really dependent on what the trends are or the way I’m feeling. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable as I’ve developed this brand to do the things I want to do, and I’m paying a lot less attention to what I “should” be doing or what I think I should be doing. I start with a simple pencil sketch. After I develop it a little bit more, I like to trace over the lines and get a good, bold, black line going. Then I take that simple black and white image, transfer it to the computer and then do the colors there.
“I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable as I’ve developed this brand to do the things I want to do, and I’m paying a lot less attention to what I “should” be doing or what I think I should be doing.”
For a while you were still printing your designs yourself; how did you transition away from that to your current printing method?
So the great thing about block printing is that you’re very limited by the actual materials. I only did one or two-color prints with the block printing, which was really fun just because there’s something to be said for being limited by your materials and having to be as creative and resourceful as possible. I really enjoyed that process. However, over time, I realized in order to grow as a business — which I feel like that’s what every maker wants; they want to be creative, but they also want to make a living — I knew that I needed to (either) create or look into other methods of production. I actually decided to take some of the block printed images, scan those, manipulate them and then print them digitally. I tested that out for a little while because I still liked the look of the block-printed image, so that was my first step — basically transferring old, block-printed images into digital prints. Now, I’ve let that go and don’t really do any block printing anymore and it’s just all my own freehand illustrations.
“…There’s something to be said for being limited by your materials and having to be as creative and resourceful as possible.”
What sort of freedom has this new process created for you?
Now that I can literally draw and use any color I want, the options are endless. It’s a lot more freeing. Block printing is wonderful, and I love the tactile nature of it, but digital printing allows me the ability to exercise any type of imagery. It doesn’t take me a whole lot of hours to carve the block. I don’t have to rely on myself for the printing. Now I can print in bulk. And just having that ability has liberated me creatively…to not constantly have my hands on every single thing. I think a lot of makers get real bogged down where they feel a little guilty if they have to let go of the process a little bit, I definitely felt guilty about it. It took me a while to let that go. And then I realized people don’t care. They love the handmade nature of it because it’s my design. As well as the fact that it’s local, as well as the fact that everything I source is in the U.S. if not in Atlanta. There’s a lot of reasons to be handmade by indie brands.
“I think a lot of makers get real bogged down where they feel a little guilty if they have to let go of the process a little bit, I definitely felt guilty about it.”
Where do you get the inspiration for your art?
I used to get a lot of my inspiration from southwestern motifs. That kind of was in my earlier development of what Native Bear was. The name itself resonates a little bit of that southwestern vibe. The real reason I called it Native Bear was because I knew I wanted to have my name in the brand. My nickname is actually “Bear.” To me that’s my name. That’s what my family calls me, I answer to it. But the word native was kind of used for the literal sense of the word native. I wanted it to resonate in the home and belonging kind of way — a native plant, a native animal, a native person — an original origin feel. But in the beginning I was really into the Southwestern style. I still am. I still love those motifs and colors. I think I just got more comfortable with my own personal artistic style. I really love bold lines. I really love psych rock poster art. I love rippling, vibrational lines. I mean I just love that look. And I love how it resonates. I like my products to have a vibration to them. Whereas I used to be a lot more natural, earthtoney, I’ve taken a little bit of a turn. It’s still the same, I just use bold colors and I’m much more comfortable now with my own take, and my own style, and my own boldness.
How do your customers respond to your art?
I get a lot of interesting responses to my art. I’m always flattered when I get contacted by healers or yoga instructors — a wide range of people — but these practicing healers come and say “I love your stuff,” “I’d love to have your stuff in my studio,” or “I’d like branding assistance.” I have that customer, then I have the young twenty-something, thirty-something someone who’s just looking for not super feminine, not super masculine. It’s just a little bit of both. I think that my style kind of appeals to the male and the female, which is what I wanted. I’m not strictly a stationary brand, but a lot of stationary brands are very feminine. I am very feminine, but I feel like there are a lot more elements to that femininity. It’s not just all soft pinks and calligraphy. That’s just not my thing. And I think a lot of women specifically relate to that and feel the same way.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Leela.