Sep 2, 2013

Soul Craft: Ophelia's Gypsy Caravan

Before checking my email or writing my morning journal entries,I sit on my porch  holding my favorite mug filled with tea and watch as the world slowly wakes up. On chilly mornings when the weather is a bit too nippy for my taste, holding something warm is as important as drinking something warm. Hanna Howard, of the Etsy shop, Ophelia's Gypsy Caravan, knows all about the perfect tea mug. From whimsical to artsy, Hanna hand-paints quotes for "bookworms and super geeks" and her inspiration for her designs runneth over.

I'm elated to interview Miss Hanna Howard and view her passion, her soul craft.

Do you have any background education which led you to create your shop?

My major is in English, as I’ve said, and I minored in Creative Writing. I think I had enough art credits to have a double minor, but for some reason I never made that official. These things seem a good formula for the shop I have, especially since the item descriptions make use of my creative writing background. My primary ambition is actually to write young adult fiction, and I’ve found that painting is a good tactile supplement to the mental stress of writing.

How do you choose the quotes/designs for your wares?
I choose quotes based on several qualifying points. The first is, of course, whether I personally like the quote, and whether it fits the aesthetic and theme of my shop. So usually something literary or geeky. The second point is based on my own experience. I don’t like using quotes from sources I am not familiar with, because I feel like the mugs lose authenticity when my passion is not fueling them. The third point is whether or not I feel the quote has a wide appeal. There are lots of quotes I like that I feel wouldn’t really appeal to a general audience, or which wouldn’t go well on a coffee mug. In general, I want quotes that would be inspiring in the morning over a cup of coffee or tea; quotes that people might want to wake up to. Because this might be the first thing that person reads every day.

As for designs, they tend to come second. Once I know what the quote is (and what mug it is destined for), I choose a design that complements both. If I am ever feeling that a quote doesn’t necessitate any particular design, I fall back on floral and nature motifs.

How did you derive the name for your shop?

The name Ophelia’s Gypsy Caravan was part literary (Shakespeare’s Hamlet), part personal (my dog’s name is Ophelia), and part optimistic (I thought a gypsy caravan could include more than just mugs, if I wanted it to). But as my style tends to be bright and whimsical as well as geeky, I think it works well.

What led you to choose quote writing over putting other images on your mugs?

I’m a Words Person. I like images, too, but ultimately my soul craves stories, characters, diction. I have shed more tears over the dry, inky pages of books than over any other medium of entertainment—and almost more than real life. When I get up in the morning and sit down with a cup of tea, I want to see something that gives me courage to face whatever is ahead, and helps me to remember that I am not alone on the journey. Words do this for me in a way that images cannot. And to see words that mean something significant to me personally is like getting a cheery wave, or a pat on the back, or a tight hug. It wakes me up and gives me joy.

What is the process used to design a mug?

The process, once I have assembled a list of quotes to use, is really just layers of painting, and then baking and washing. So I’ll usually paint the lines of the design (and the lettering) with the black paint pen, so I can get the most precise, detailed lines possible. There is little to no pre-sketching, which means I do some wiping off when I am not satisfied, or when I goof something up. After the black is dry, I brush on color with a thin paintbrush, usually doing one color at a time on all the mugs I am working on. Then, after all the color is dry, the mugs go into the oven, where they bake for an hour to set the paint (my paints are special ones for ceramic), and then cool. I always wash them in the dishwasher after this, just to make sure the paint set well.

How long does it take to design a batch of mugs from start to finish?

This depends on the size of the batch, of course, but usually I’ll paint 50-80 mugs in a batch, which takes anywhere from three weeks to six weeks, depending on how much time I have to work on painting.

Do your mugs come from a mold or do you hand create them?

I actually scavenge my mugs! I don’t make them at all—I only paint them. This has its drawbacks, of course (mostly that I don’t have access to the same mugs over and over, whenever I need them), but when I can find mugs from various sources, it adds variety and interest to my inventory, and saves me the time it would take to make them. It also keeps my prices down a bit, because hand-thrown mugs are expensive to make. I get my mugs from a range of sources, from secondhand and antique shops to discount warehouses, which helps keep things interesting for me. :)

What are some of your favorite books?

Oh, there’s a question with a long answer. Top of the list are Harry Potter, and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I have read those books more times than I can count, and both live beside my bed, to be taken up whenever I need them.

But some others: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, anything by C.S. Lewis, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and all the rest of that series) by Douglas Adams, The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, most anything by Robin McKinley. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Heidi by Joanna Spyri, Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (and the rest of her books), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, East by Edith Pattou, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon… And, oh so many others. I’ve recently enjoyed the Cinder books by Marissa Meyer, The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

A Note from Hanna:

Since I hand-paint everything and have only one part-time helper (my insanely talented cousin, Libby), my shop often experiences long periods of “draught,” where nothing new is posted and the stock dwindles down to nothing while I work on painting new stock. If you visit my shop and find that there is nothing to buy, you’re always welcome to place a custom order through any of the custom listings I have available, or simply join my mailing list (or follow on Facebook), and wait for the next batch to arrive.

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