Avery Thatcher can’t tell you about the punk rock dreams of Portland in the nineties. That was apparently over by the time she moved here in 2001. But she can tell you that even in the early 2000’s, secret weekend vegan brunches were the norm, and there were only dive bars in northeast then and not the ironic kind. That barely anyone showed up at the craft fairs where she sold her strange wares, a rotating offering that sometimes included pickles and other times featured her strange fashion creations. This was a generation of artists that had access to cheap studio spaces, and the only places you could dance to cool music were in peoples’ basements, parties Avery remembers with fond nostalgia. And in fact, if you’ve been a creative person in Portland for nearly two decades, it’s the kind of nostalgia that always manages to find its way into your stories eventually.
Today, Avery is the lead designer for Juju Papers, a successful wallpaper company she runs out of a small studio space in the Kenton neighborhood in northeast Portland. Her journey started long before she moved to Portland. It took a circuitous path, through many different businesses and countries where the experiences she accumulated as an artist deeply inform her creative work today.
How did you get your start in this business?
I’ve lived in Portland for 15 years. I came here as an artist, and in retrospect, I was also a little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit and had a million little businesses going as soon as I got here. A lot of people did in Portland at that time. It wasn’t the nineties, but musicians were still coming here to live out their punk rock dreams. Eventually, I started a business as a tile setter because I wanted to learn a skilled trade and I always loved pattern. I did that for a number of years, but it got to the point where there was absolutely nothing creative about I was doing. I felt a real craving to get back to doing something more artistic rather than something just craft oriented. I have great respect for craftspeople, but I needed an opportunity for creativity and I wasn’t getting that.
I started Juju in 2010. It took a long time to figure out how to manufacture the wallpaper, specifically how to find the materials to use and those I felt good about using. It’s hard to find the water-based inks we use and the paper we use, which is this really eco-friendly pulp paper that’s sustainably harvested and has a natural clay coating.
I traveled a lot in my twenties, spending time in Indonesia and South Africa where I discovered amazing pattern work and textiles. In South Africa, in houses in the Cape Town townships, they create these amazing interior patterns on their walls and furniture using whatever they have around, usually food labels. Their walls, their furniture…they’re all covered with these over-the-top patterns. At some point because of that, I decided that pattern was my passion and I wanted to start a wallpaper company where designing was my focus, where I wasn’t just doing the actual craft side of it, but had the opportunity to get back into the design of the product.
When I came home from traveling, I started doing a lot of wall painting. I painted patterns on the walls where I lived, and bought an old motorhome and painted the entire inside of it in pattern. It was something that was available to me with my existing skill set as an artist.
What does juju mean?
Juju means ascribing magical powers to your personal objects. It’s how I felt about what I was doing and passion I had when I was creating my first line; it was really magical for me. From my travel to West Africa, I took from it that there’s not as much structure to life as I thought there was. When you see that people live so differently than you do, it makes it easier to make a choice to not have to subscribe to the structure that’s set forth for you. Before I left to travel (I was in college at the time), I had a very specific chronology in mind: college, job, get married, buy a house. But when I went on that trip, I realized you didn’t have to do that. I have so much inspiration and developed so many life experiences as an artist as a result of that shift in mindset.
What’s been an important influence for your work?
When I started out, I came across another company that was doing really small-batch wallpaper. It’s called Nama Rococo and Karen Combs is the artist behind it. She was living my dream. I actually traveled to Massachusetts on purpose to visit her, and she was gracious enough to welcome me into her space and show me her work. She lived and worked there, and her work was beautiful and amazing and so well integrated with her home life. It all shared the same space, and still managed to look beautiful and neat; separate, but together. There’s a real art to that.
Walk us through your creative process.
I release all of my new designs in May. Throughout year, I take notes and draw and paint and do sketches. I used to be nervous about the creative process, but now I don’t care if they don’t look great when I’m initially sketching them out, especially if I’m just thinking about new concepts. I go into this process remembering that it’s not just about my creative vision. At that stage, I really take into account what’s going on in the world. If your designs don’t speak to what’s going on, it doesn’t matter. For me, it’s especially cool when I realize that what I’m doing is clicking with what I’m seeing in the world in fashion, graphic design, and art.
After the concepting stage, I do things in a very art school kind of way, putting my designs on big sheets of paper, hanging the concepts up on the wall, and critiquing them one by one until I’ve identified the ones I want to go with. I cut those into standard paper sized pieces, scan them into the computer, and turn them into a repeating pattern. From there, I never know what’s going to happen. The concept could look great on its own, but at this stage it might not work that well or have the gestural quality I envisioned. I print out the working patterns and hang those up and make sure I like the gestural quality. I make sure everything is perfect and refined.
What do you think it means to be a creative in Portland today?
There’s such a massive culture here of creative entrepreneurs. I do love that there’s a community of people in Portland that is putting so much emphasis on valuing craft and ‘Made in America’ products. I’m dependent on that for my living; I care about it and I’m passionate about it. I just wonder how Portland can and will continue to be a breeding ground for grassroots creativity.
What do you wish was happening more in the creative community?
I wish there were more basement dance parties.