68. profile: kwohtations

we are so excited to be profiling janine kwoh and her line of handmade greeting cards, kwohtations. janine started making cards on a whim a few years ago. since then, she has managed to grow a thriving business based on her quirky, hilarious and often touching creations. we love that she celebrates the events and occasions you don't often see represented in the card aisle. we recently spent an afternoon with janine discussing inspiration and advice - we also got a peek at her process and the work that goes into each unique card:

what are some unexpected everyday sources of inspiration?
thrift shops full of odds and ends. bookstores where you can claim a nook with a pile of books for an entire afternoon. the rare heart-to-heart with a stranger. unsanctioned art.

what is your favorite time of day to create?
really early in the morning, when everything is quiet. once the day begins, i start my daily juggling of professional, social and personal commitments. but at 6 am, there isn't anything else i need to be doing except what's right in front of me.

favorite or most inspirational place:
the public docks along the charles river esplanade is my favorite place in the city. i've gone there for impromptu picnics with friends; as a welcome break during long runs after work and solo weekend wanderings; and on a date to watch the sunset armed with a blanket and a bottle of wine. once, i sat out there by myself during a hurricane to watch the water and have a good think, which was as close to a spiritual experience as i've had. also, i think twinkly lights make any place instantly magical.

how did the idea to start a greeting card business come about?
kwohtations is kind of like a one-night stand that turned into a meaningful, committed relationship. it started as a funny, hypothetical "what if" conversation with my friend Amy, as in, what if we could send so-and-so a card for that time we said "i love you" too soon (or didn't say it at all), or crashed on their couch (for a month), or ran away (literally) from a date, or got really drunk (and ate all their cookies)? i made a few cards just for a laugh. i never thought i would try to grow it into a business, but the more time i spent making and thinking about cards, the more kwohtations took on a deeper meaning for me as a tangible way to celebrate real life and real people, and to provoke people into reflecting on what constitutes an occasion worth commemorating.


how do you balance a thriving creative business with your full-time day job?
i'm honestly still trying to figure that one out. i've managed it so far by dedicating the early mornings, late nights and some weekends to kwohtations. i've also learned to use small pockets of time - i always have a batch of cards in the process of being made, so i'm often running upstairs to do a little painting or stamping if i have even 10 or 15 minutes. i'm also trying to be mindful of scheduling in quality time each week with my friends and for myself, but don't always get the balance right and end up sleepy and disgruntled. on the flip side, having a creative outlet such as kwohtations has helped me feel more productive, confident and fulfilled, which i hope makes me a better friend, employee and overall human being.

you recently wrote an incredibly thoughtful blog post on the need for diversity in the card aisle. do you receive a lot of feedback from customers who relate to your cards in a way they haven't been able to when shopping for cards in the past?
one of my absolute favorite parts of the job is having a booth at flea markets and being able to talk to visitors and see their reactions to the cards. i spend a lot of time perusing card aisles, and the best cards are the ones that i have an immediate gut reaction to, like they were written with my life pinned on the inspiration board. so i always feel like i'm doing something right whenever someone holds up a kwohtations card and says, "this is me!". that's the very best feedback i can hope for.

do customers ever make suggestions or requests for cards?
yes, all the time. i always enjoy hearing what cards people ask for because it gives me just the tiniest glimpse into what's going on in their lives. for example, people have suggested cards for pet birthdays, horrible bosses, break-ups, adoptions, layoffs, etc. i'll also work with customers to make custom cards. for example, my friend's mom was getting a hearing aid so we made her a "yay, you're getting a selective hearing aid!" card. someone else wanted an irreverent way to congratulate her sister for moving in with her boyfriend, which was taboo in her family's culture, so we made a "congrats on shacking up" card. it's fun to help people think of ways to express their feelings and cope with hard situations with a little humor.

how do you see kwohtations growing and evolving?
i've been experimenting with using letterpress, essentially an old printing press, to print the cards instead of hand-stamping them as i'm doing now, which will allow for more consistent and efficient printing while still remaining handmade. that's the next big step. after that, i have boatloads of ideas for other ways kwohtations can potentially expend and evolve (kwohtations mugs! tea towels! children's books!). but i need to first do some soul-searching about what kind of presence and products i want to build, and how to create a successful business without compromising its initial mission to spread joy and bring people closer together by celebrating the diversity and absurdity of life.

what is the best piece of creative advice you've ever been given?
i stumbled upon this book, the crossroads of should and must: find and follow your passion by elle luna, which is a delightful cross between a self-help book and a work of art. i sat down and read it right there in the bookstore, and stopped short at this howard thurman quote she dedicates and entire page to: "don't ask what the world needs. ask what makes you come alive. and go do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive." i often hold onto that when i'm doubting the value of my creative endeavors.

what is the best piece of creative advice you have to give?
honor whatever it is you like to do when left to your own devices, whether it's cooking elaborate gourmet meals for one, salsa dancing, longboarding, writing a novel, building robots or a million other things other people would never think to do. i think a lot of us have ideas about what we "should" be doing based on which paths we've already started to go down and others' and our own expectations of what we'd be "good" or "successful" at. but for whatever reason, if you think that sewing sock bunnies or polishing door knobs probably makes you a happier person when you're doing it versus not, that's reason enough to keep doing it.

you can find janine's cards at davis squared, olive & grace and on her etsy store. she'll also be selling some weekends at the somerville flea and south end open market over the next few months - be sure to stop by and say hello!

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