Guest Post by Sarah Baumann
About a year and a half ago, halfway through my Junior year in college, I made the then-nerve-racking but now-seemingly-very-obvious decision to open a small Etsy shop.
I had been playing around with hand lettering and calligraphy since I could remember, and I loved the feeling of creating something beautiful out of a few words. I felt connected to hand lettering, like I had magically cornered the market on all things “lettered”, and this was my time to shine. Unfortunately, I would soon realize I was late to the party.
I started the shop with a few prints- all hand lettered, all done in the modern calligraphy style. I started an instagram for my work and sought coaching from a girlboss hero of mine, Laura Joseph. Laura encouraged me from the beginning to find my niche- she warned that hand lettering was becoming a bit crowded and accessible, with courses online and in-person workshops popping up everywhere. I began to see what she meant- I was constantly stumbling upon instagram accounts for people with the exact same skill set, and finding Etsy shops with similar products but in more size and color options (and cheaper) than mine.
I became accustomed to having the same conversation with new people I would meet, “OH You do calligraphy?? Wonderful! So does my brothers girlfriend! And my mom and my best friend and my dog! They all sit around with pointed pens together!” Okay not really, but you get it. But I had a few orders coming in, and a couple custom orders (mostly from friends and family).
Most importantly, I had the stubborn belief that what I was doing was in fact, different and unique and special, even if I had no way to prove it.
I decided not to pursue an internship or a summer job, but to move home the summer before my senior year and work on my Etsy shop. My mom bought into what I was doing, and together we cooked up the plan to have a “house show”, where friends and family could come over to eat snacks and buy products. I decided I needed some variety in my products, and as I was in San Antonio, got the idea for San Antonio-themed wrapping paper. Why? I have no idea. But I illustrated a design and added some watercolor--genuinely with no idea what I was doing, but excited about working on something new.
I posted the photo onto instagram.
Then I left my phone for about half an hour. I came back to a total shock--more likes than ever before on a photo (in far less time), and on top of that, comments and texts from friends and strangers asking when the design would be available, and what it would be. I was amazed. I didn’t have a plan for the product or any ideas at all on what it should be. My friends in other cities began asking for products with their cities on them, illustrated in the same style.
These whimsical, colorful illustrations have become the core products of my business--I’ve since illustrated 32 city prints and offer them in multiple sizes as well as on mugs and some phone cases.
The most shocking and rewarding part for me has been the meaning that people have managed to create from my prints.
I very much stumbled into this product line, but I’ve received countless stories from people about the impact of my products or from custom illustration work. Some have taken their city prints when they travel overseas, as a reminder of home. Some have bought the city prints from their hometown, their spouse’s hometown, and the town they share together. Some have ordered custom work that celebrates their wedding location or their new home together.
Beautiful stories of people creating meaning and importance out of these works, and most importantly, being able to celebrate their favorite parts of their favorite places with other people.
They’ve been conversation starters, first-home art, dorm room centerpieces, and goodbye gifts. I’ve been able to graduate and become a full-time illustrator, and I’m so encouraged now by the impact that these paper products have had.
However, I never would have been able to see this meaning at the beginning.
My place and purpose as a hand-letterer wasn’t as clear as it is now- and that’s okay. Lots of people that I talk to aren’t really sure what it is they want to end up doing or making, but I think it’s important to just start, even when you aren’t sure. It gives you an opportunity to be mentored and guided toward something that will bring joy and fulfillment to you and others around you.
I’m grateful for my journey so far, and I know that it isn’t over. I have lots more to create and do, but nothing would have happened had I continued to wait and wait until my plan was perfect. My encouragement to anyone starting something, or waiting to start, would be to just go for it- don’t wait until the idea is perfect in every single way. There is surely meaning and value and something very exciting waiting right around the corner.
Sarah Baumann is an illustrator and artist in Memphis, Tennessee, originally from San Antonio, Texas. She creates whimsical watercolor illustrations in her unique style that incorporate hand lettered elements. Her main focus is her "City Illustrations" series, which now includes about 32 (and counting) city-themed watercolor illustrations.