Artist Ashley Brown Durand is a one-woman army and that’s just how she likes it. She also aims to keep it that way even as orders for her handcrafted banners continue to reach new heights of demand from adoring fans near and far. Inspired by past women warriors from the Suffragette era, Brown Durand wears her heavy workload like a badge of pride and takes special pains to make sure each and every banner she sews by hand is both precisely made and crafted with heart.
Happily situated in a small collegiate town in west Massachusetts, we spoke with her about her day-to-day routine, being a creative entrepreneur and her latest collaboration with Schoolhouse.
First off, can you tell us a little about where you work and live?
"I moved to Northampton, Massachusetts after college and have made it my home for the past 7 years. It's sort of a quintessential New England college town. It's progressive and artsy, populated by students (the historic Smith College overlooks downtown), creatives, & activists, and is surrounded by beautiful farmland and equally great small towns. I truly love it here in western Massachusetts."
What does a typical day look like for you from start to finish?
"Most days look pretty much the same: sewing & ironing all day long! I have a home studio right now, which makes getting to work really easy, but it also means that I often have a hard time leaving work. I typically wake up and get right into the studio. I tend to have a more productive day if I sit down at my sewing machine first thing. I put off doing anything administrative as long as I can because sitting at the computer always sucks up more time than I ever want it to or allow for. I'd always much rather be in the studio making things than sitting at the computer! This is why I am am eternally terrible at email. Being at home is great because my husband also works from home and will bring me lunch and nudge me to take time to eat. My days are especially long right now, while in heavy production mode for the holidays, so having him here to remind me of the basic necessities like eating, taking breaks, and getting fresh air is really great."
Who or what inspires you in your work, and also your daily life? Who do you look up to?
"I feel inspired by many things. Feminism and women's history have played very influential roles in my life, both in my artwork & in my outlook. My original "IT'S OK" banner was inspired visually by handmade protest signs from the women's suffrage movement. I'm drawn to the past - I love traditions, like quilting, that get passed down through generations of women - and the pieces that get passed down as well. I am inspired by old objects that are worn from use and love; objects that hold a sense of history and where they have been."
What’s the most difficult aspect of owning your own business and working as a creative professional?
"Trying to do everything myself, but also being too stubborn to let others help. My little business grew pretty organically over many years, and then, suddenly, it was my livelihood. Every aspect feels very personal to me, and it's difficult to hand over responsibilities to other people...so I don't! I have one studio assistant who occasionally helps me with a few hours of ironing or some piecework sewing, but for the most part, it's just me making every single banner start to finish, including the pieces I've created for Schoolhouse. It can be hard and overwhelming sometimes, but I've learned over the years that it's just how I prefer it.
My assistant used to work in my studio with me 3-4 days a week, which was great for production, but I didn't like how it felt like I was suddenly overseeing a small factory, pumping out banners as quick as possible. It just felt...weird. So for now, with my current product line, I'm keeping my production methods really small. I love what I do. I love that the pieces I make can bring positivity and hope into the homes of those who purchase them. Because of the meaning behind my work, it feels important to me to have control over how each piece was made, and the energy that went into making it. I often receive notes on orders about why a person is needing a banner, or how they are giving it to a friend in need. A recent customer told me her mother passed away from cancer and she's getting the banner because her mom always told her to "be brave". I thought about that woman and her mom the whole time I was making her banner. It's heavy and maybe not the best way to be running a business, but it's important for me to be doing it this way. To feel connected to each of my customers, to know that it's more than just an object or a job."
Do you have a personal motto or ethos that describes how you work and approach to your art? How do you deal with burnout?
"This is a funny question, because any personal mottos I have to keep me going have manifested themselves as banners. IT'S OK, BE BRAVE, BE KIND, LET IT GO, FIGURE IT OUT...I'm literally surrounded by these sentiments all day long, and while the majority of my energy goes into providing these affirmations for others, they are just as important for me. When I'm feeling burnt out, I usually just need to take a break. That might mean I need to sit outside while eating my lunch for 20 minutes, or it may mean I need to be done with work for the day. Sometimes allowing myself to work on a project that is not work-related for a few hours feels really good. Stepping back and noticing when I'm just puttering around, jumping between jobs but not really accomplishing anything is the most important. You're not going to get anything done like that, so you may as well just take some time off and get back to work later."
Can you talk a little about your latest collaboration with Schoolhouse and your “Choose Joy” banner?
"Schoolhouse reached out about designing a new banner for the holidays. Their phrase, "Choose Joy" feels classic & festive, and it's a really positive, empowering statement that I love. Of course you can't choose everything that comes your way in life - very little of it, actually - but so much of what we experience can be about our own perception. There are probably more times than we realize that we can choose to be happier and more joyful. That's maybe what this banner is about. It's certainly a helpful daily reminder, but the festive green lettering and warm brass rod also make it a nice holiday decoration that I look forward to hanging beside my Christmas tree."
What are you most looking forward to this holiday season?
"I'm looking forward to taking some time off! Last year I was way over-booked during the holidays and ending up working straight through. That felt awful, especially because this is my favorite time of the year (though I'll probably say spring is my favorite once winter has lasted too long!). I'm looking forward to getting all orders finished and in the mail, and then taking a few weeks to relax with my family and friends. I'm planning lots of baking, holiday movies, and snuggles with my husband and sweet old cat. Being cozy is one of my very favorite things. The holidays are all about being cozy for me, and I'm looking forward to lots of it!"
What are your favorite holiday traditions in your house?
"Baking, holiday movies & old albums (I have Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You playing as I type this), taking things slow, getting cozy. Winter can be tough as it drags on and on, but the start of winter, during the holidays, is magical."
Can you tell us about any projects you’re currently working on?
"I've been experimented with natural indigo dyeing to make use of the huge piles of banner scraps I've accumulated over the years. I'm planning to make zipper pouches and hopefully some quilts too. I have lots of ideas for quilts actually, and simply need to make the time to create them (or even just back the quilt tops I've already made!)."
What do you hope 2016 holds for you?
"I started teaching intro to quilting workshops this year and I'm hoping to do that a lot more. Quilting has always been a big part of my life and I'm hoping to bring it into my daily business work. I also hope that the new year brings a little more balance to my work/life. Every year I think I've gotten a little closer to figuring out the best formula for me, but it can be hard being your own boss and keeping yourself on a manageable work schedule, while also giving yourself time to live and relax. I'm going to keep working towards a good healthy & happy work/life routine in 2016."
Many thanks to Ashley for sharing her time and process with us. You can shop our exclusive banners made by this talented artist here.