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On the Road: The Design that Taught me I could Design


A lot of people assume I went to art school or that I grew up making art. I didn't. Rather, I grew up wanting to be a writer. From third grade through college where I was an English and French major I was obsessed with writing, but the truth was I never felt like I had much to write about.

I knew I had to go out and live life first, and I knew I wanted that life to be one that was full of adventure, which led me to music festivals. In the summer of 2001, I hit the road in search of that experience. Music festivals showed me a world in which people could support themselves by making and selling things, aka vending, and it was not long before I started making and selling things too.

I had entered festival world as a photographer, and photography led me to take a crash course in Adobe Illustrator at Parsons in January 2002, so that I could learn to design my own basics like business cards and letterhead. I wanted to learn those skills to support my ambition of becoming a photographer. It was the only design class I ever took, and never would I have imagined those were instead the skills that would become my livelihood.

That same winter I registered, and a friend of mine built me my first website, a simple twenty page HTML portfolio.  He taught me how to edit it, and from there I taught myself how to build websites. followed soon thereafter.

Meanwhile, I had a boyfriend at the time who taught me how to sew (yes, really), and he had me help him make padded pouches for glass pipes (yes, really) which was an item he had made for a while before we met. To decorate those pouches we used heat transfer paper with simple graphics employing my new Illustrator skills. When I say simple I mean SIMPLE. I wasn't drawing yet. Mostly I was clicking around a screen as my then boyfriend, who was a generation older and barely knew how to turn on a computer, would point and tell me what he wanted to see. Our designs together were a collaboration, and it was fun for a while, but we had very different interests and I quickly outgrew that.

The very first design I made on my own said Be Happy Now, indicative of my desire not to live in a I'll-be-happy-when world. It too was simple, but it represented a shift in my life where I began to take ownership of my creativity.  Eventually I broke out on my own and the first Little Hippie design was born in the fall of 2002, still using simple graphics. In the winter that followed I went home to New York City where I was establishing a pattern of spending the coldest months of the year creating the work that would support me throughout the rest of the year. By then I had driven across the country a couple of times and fallen in love with the open American road.

I had also fallen in love with surf art and beach culture, and the next winter, I would begin a routine of spending as much of the winter as possible in south Florida.

Handing out postcards in one of my parking lot booths with a smile and a Roxy skirt, as I did for a long time to build my business, my original social media.

However, it was in NYC that I found surf art. Quicksilver's women's brand, Roxy, was about a decade old at the time and very popular. The fast fashion brands Forever 21 and H&M hadn't invaded Manhattan yet, and the Roxy flagship in Times Square was one of the only places I knew to find clothes that had the fun young spirit I sought. Times Square was a short bike ride away from the tiny apartment I lived in for thirteen years on West 68th Street, and riding there for inspiration was something I did periodically for a long time. I never bought any of their t-shirts (when you make t-shirts you never buy them), but for years their skirts made up half of my uniform, while their shirts taught me about ink treatments and design techniques.

What I loved most about surf art was the classic style of a circle with a gradient fade for the sky and palm trees extending beyond the borders. I loved the colors, and the flowers that usually bordered the image, but I also loved the way the layout unique to surf art invited one to enter the scene, yet defied the boundaries of dimensions allowing the wearer to be both in the landscape and out of it.

Venice Beach, 2004. Please forgive me the sunglasses.

I had first been exposed to surf art when my family moved from Connecticut to San Diego for my 8th and 9th grade years. I was OBSESSED with snowboarding at that age, still a pretty new sport, especially for women, and moving from a cold to a warm climate inevitably led me from snowboarders to skateboarders and surfers. I used to love going to the surf and skate shops there and checking out all the clothes. Most of them were made for men, so I learned to wear men's clothes until better options became available. That probably has as much to do with why I started making art based apparel for women as anything, now that I think about it.

Sadly, I never learned to surf.  I tried a few times under less than ideal circumstances in Florida, but somehow never managed to combine my aptitude for swimming with my ability to ride boards.

This child is in high school now!

But I did learn to draw surf art, and it was actually surf art that taught me how to draw. In the spring of 2003 I was preparing to go back on the road for a tour of festivals that would also include some shows with The Dead, the then-incarnation of post-Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead. I wanted to make a "lot shirt" for the tour. A lot shirt, for the uninitiated, is a shirt that can be sold in concert parking lots as a tour shirt without infringing on copyrights. This is a popular phenomenon with bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident that of course started with the Grateful Dead, and most of these bands have rules in place for what is and isn't allowed.

For my 2003 summer The Dead lot shirt I chose to work with the lyric "Natural born easy" from On the Road Again. Back when I'd been making graphics for glass pipe pouches, I had drawn an icon of a VW bus . I wish I could remember that far back to recall exactly what led me to put that bus on a simple road going around a mountain with a gradient fade, but all I can say is it came somehow out of my love for surf art, my love for the road, and what was now clearly a latent instinct for illustration.

Regardless, this design that I've always called 'On the Road' is what I came up. The first version said "natural born easy" wrapped around the circle with "Summer 2003" on the back, but ever after I printed it without those words.

It's been years since the last time I printed it, but in honor of Little Hippie's upcoming 15th anniversary, I've decided to bring it back and make it available on everything from apparel and wall art, to tote bags and device cases.

This is the design that made me realize I can draw, but moreover it is the design that made me realize I could see things that others wanted visualized; that I could tell stories through imagery. In short, this is where it all started - with me alone on the road in a van, running a business from a laptop, in search of the sun, peeking round the corners of the many mountains that lay ahead.  I've recently started writing that story, and it will soon become a book. To sign up for updates on that project (separately from the general Little Hippie newsletter), please click here.

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