In our brand spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Hollie Berry, owner of Hollie Berry Art. Hollie Berry Art sells torch painting prints on baltic birch, is based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has been in business for four years.
Robin: Why did you decide to start this business? Why this business and not a different one?
Hollie: I started drawing as soon as I had the coordination to hold a pencil. As a kid, drawing and painting were the only things I ever wanted to do in my free time. In school I would get in trouble all the time for drawing instead of taking notes.
There was never another path for me that would have encompassed my passions and my skills as fully as being a professional artist, the hardest part has just been learning how to market myself.
R: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
H: One of the first questions I’m always asked is, “How did you come up with the idea to paint with fire?” Well the short story is, I was just playing with different materials and tools and stumbled across the technique of using fire to rapidly age a wood carving I had made.
As I toasted a small hawk and watched the wood darken under the flame, the wheels started turning. I could use fire not only to age the wood, but to color it! Next, I took my propane plumber’s torch, a scrap of plywood, fire extinguishers, buckets of wet rags, and leather gloves onto my patio, determined not to inadvertently burn down my apartment.
As I began to carefully char the image of a group of people huddled around a campfire into the formerly blank wood surface, the primitive and ethereal effect the torch created captivated me immediately. I was hooked, and I’ve been refining and perfecting my tools and techniques since that day.
R: How do you make your product? What’s your process like?
H: I begin with a piece of raw, unfinished plywood. First, I use a soft vine charcoal to create a detailed underdrawing. Next, I begin blocking in my darkest values, gradually building darker and darker areas while preserving the natural tone of the wood for my lightest values.
I start with my largest torch first which is a weedburner, move on to my propane torch, then finally a microtorch for the finest details. Once complete, I photograph the piece in high resolution and send the digital file to a local art reproduction printer who prints the image on the highest quality baltic birch available.
I even have them line up the grain direction of the birch substrate with the original grain direction, which enhances the texture and makes the final result almost indistinguishable from the original. The first test print I ever got back from the printer was so impressive I wouldn’t have been able to tell the image was printed rather than burned if I hadn’t made the original myself.
R: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
H: Of course firing up the torches is my favorite part of the job! People often comment that it smells like a delicious campfire in my studio, or ask “Where’s the s’mores!” I try to structure my week so that I can spend at least 2-3 days actually creating new artwork.
What surprises many people is how much time professional artists like me spend on administrative work, but the truth is I’m a small business owner like any other. I aim for a ratio of 50/50 production to administrative work, but realistically it’s more like 30/70.
Answering emails, updating my website, writing contracts, editing reference photographs, managing social media, etc. far out-shadows the romantic vision of the artist in the studio enraptured by the act of creation for days at a time.
R: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
H: Luckily the startup cost for an artist is not high, but back in 2015 I got the nerve to commit to signing a lease on a studio space and buying a new work laptop using the money I made by painting my very first outdoor mural.
R: Where was the first place you started selling your product?
H: The first place I started selling my artwork was directly out of my studio in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
R: Where do you sell your product now?
H: I still sell prints directly out of my studio, but I’ve also sold at local art markets and boutiques around Tennessee.
R: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
H: I would love to see my work at gift boutiques all over the country. I especially think my many equestrian pieces would be right at home in the Southwest.
R: Do you have a favorite product? If so, which one?
H: I’ve always had a soft spot for horses, so I’d have to say that “Old Friends” featuring two salt river mustangs is currently my favorite!
R: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of your business? If so, how?
H: I work to create an active presence on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram. I’ve been growing a consistent following, and I even sell originals through social media from time to time. I love to interact with customers and get their feedback on my designs. I’m often surprised which are their favorites!
R: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with Hollie Berry Art?
H: With the torch painting technique, there’s no erasing! Once the wood is burned, there’s no unburning it. So there are definitely times where the fire had a mind of its own and parts of my design got darker than I may have liked, but you know what they say, there are no mistakes, only happy accidents!
R: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with Hollie Berry Art?
H: I was thrilled to create a massive commissioned original for a local boutique hotel in 2018. It’s now the signature artwork in a high end rooftop bar and visitors to my studio regularly mention how impressed they were seeing my seven foot tall diptych in person.
I was also awarded “Best Local Artist” by a panel of jurors at my first ever art show this spring!
R: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
H: It sounds obvious, but make sure you have a truly unique product that people really want to buy, then the wind will be at your back as you work to market that product. People crave a balance between familiarity and novelty.
Too familiar, and they’re bored. Too novel, and they’ll be put off. If you hit that sweet spot, I find that people are drawn to it like a moth to the flame. No pun intended.
R: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
H: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” -Chuck Close
“Entrepreneurs are the crazy people who work 100 hours a week for themselves so they don’t have to work 40 hours for someone else.”
R: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
H: I love setting my own schedule, and getting to travel and work from anywhere. I’ve always been very stubborn, independent, and self motivated, so I thrive as my own boss.
Since I have the rare privilege of being a full time artist, I count my blessings every day. Travelling to collect my reference photographs, creating fresh work in the studio, and seeing the faces of the happy clients taking home their pieces brings me joy every time.