New York City

An Interview with Rachel Bone: Feminism, Scandinavian Folk Art and What It’s Like to Be a Female Artist


[NYC] Amanda - Rachel Bone - Entrepreneurs_o-1

Entrepreneurs by Rachel Bone. Source:

Rachel Bone is an illustrator whose work I fell in love with as a lost girl at the School of Visual Arts in New York City just a few years ago. The wonderful thing about going to college in Chelsea is the easy access to some of the biggest art galleries in the world. Pace, Gagosian, David Zwirner and the like were just blocks away.

On a cold winter day, my Ma (that’s my loving nickname for my mother) came to visit and we took the opportunity to go gallery hopping. Just as I strolled in from the cold through the doors of Nancy Margolis Gallery, I stopped in my tracks. Before me were these beautifully rendered gouache and ink illustrations that I immediately fell in love with. Women, animals, patterns, cars, beautifully rendered, soft and vibrating, all with a tinge of humor about them. By chance, I recognized one of her works as the cover for one of my favorite albums, Slim and Slender by The Spinto Band. That’s when I began researching her work and fawning over it.

Years later, I was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with her about her life, artworks and inspiration. Rachel is an accomplished artist whose work has been shown all over the country, and she’s also the owner and founder of Red Prairie Press and one of the founding members of Charm City Craft Mafia which is an all-volunteer artist collective that puts together craft fairs and art events, as well as free legal and skill workshops for artists and business owners in Baltimore, Maryland.

AS: When in your life did you realize that art was no longer just a hobby and that you wanted to make it a main focus in your life?

RB: I still think of it as a hobby. Not that I don’t take it seriously as a career, but I’m constantly surprised to find myself standing around in the studio in the middle of the week doing my own thing, and not working for someone else. I don’t really remember considering alternate careers away from the arts…although I spent a semester of college as an environmental science double-major until I realized how much math was involved.


AS: I’ve read that a lot of your works are about challenges faced by women in the modern-day business realm. How did this feminist undertone come about in your work? Was it intentional, or did it happen on its own?

RB: I read the other day that I’m not supposed to deny that I’m a feminist, and I won’t do it here. I never thought of my work as feminist until others started pointing it out. If anything, I thought of it as self centered (self reflective?) I use myself as the model for all my paintings, and I always have a personal narrative attached to them. However, I always liked the “choose-your-own-adventure” approach to art interpretation, because I think art should be different sorts of personal to everyone, and we should all have the right to form feelings from viewing it in whichever way we want. If there are feminists out there forming powerful, inspired feelings from my paintings, then more power to them. I do hope that’s the case. I love feminism, and would like to think I’m helping to fight the good fight.


AS: In relation to the last question, what challenges have you faced as a female artist? Have there been moments of discouragement where you felt like you felt like you wanted to give up?

RB: I made a painting a few years ago called “The Entrepreneurs” that was more of a direct comment on how women treat each other in the workplace. I’d had a job I hated right before quitting to do my art full time, in which my three female co-workers destroyed each other with verbal and emotional torture every day. I stayed quiet, ducked my head, and managed almost a year there before I finally thought “Enough’s enough!” and left that office. While I was there, all I could think was “Why so competitive and willing to harm each other? Why not help each other, and make this business thrive?” All I could guess was that the competition for business itself was so high, that they were taking out their aggression on each other, when they should have reserved their energy for forming better game plans as a team. The painting depicts a crowd of women standing in a civilized circle, going at each other with slingshots.


AS: 4. Are any of the women depicted in your works inspired by women you’ve encountered throughout your life?

RB: Definitely. I use real stories from friends, the news, my own experiences, and come up with more absurd versions. But because I don’t like giving away the narrative to any of my paintings, I will leave you guessing who’s who.


AS: The animal motifs in your works are obviously a dominant theme, not to mention beautifully rendered. How has your New Hampshire upbringing played into your pieces?

RB: I love and miss New Hampshire every day, and growing up there definitely formed who I am, if not my paintings. My parents, who are still there, are both in literature (Mom’s a librarian, Dad’s a writing teacher and a retired high school drama coach). Books, stories, and plays were a huge part of my childhood, and I was always especially interested in folk tales. Most of the animals in my paintings are there for reasons other than specific folklore, but I hope they invoke new ones in people’s imagination.


AS: The Scandinavian folk art that has so visibly influenced your artistic style has been transformed from something beautifully kitschy to intricately and uniquely rendered gouache and ink paintings. How and when did you first discover this folk art?

RB: My mom is big into folk crafts. She was always knitting, stenciling, braiding a rug or re-caning a chair, pickling this or making jam out of that. The house was full of antiques, and we learned to really respect the work that goes into traditional craftsmanship much more than valuing new things. I think that upbringing, combined with a solid obsession with children’s book illustrations; Trina Sharp Hyman and Tomie dePaola stand out in my memory. Later in my twenties, I started researching Mexican folk art, and took a trip to Oaxaca to see the textiles there. My more recent work is directly inspired by that trip.


AS: Had you ever had a moment of struggle in finding your own artistic identity?

RB: When I graduated from college I did so with a fine art printmaking degree, but it turns out you aren’t issued a bunch of printmaking equipment with your degree, so I found myself completely lost for what to do when I got to Baltimore. We lived in a tiny apartment in Southwest Baltimore that first year, and I started trying out gouache and ink because they were easy to clean and transport. I loved using them and never stopped. Later I started screen printing as a hobby, which lead to starting the business to make some versions of my work that were a bit more utilitarian and affordable.


AS: A cliche question, but it’s a question that everyone wants to know the answer to. Who are some of your favorite artists?

RB: I can’t think of a single artist I’m not inspired by, but I love folk artists the most. People updating the utilitarian… just for the sake of creativity.

AS: You’re a lucky lady to be such close friends with The Spinto Band. How and when did you all become friends, and how did your artwork eventually become the cover for their album Slim and Slender?

RB: I met the members of The Spinto Band in college. They are wonderful people, and were among my very first customers for screen printed t-shirts. That helped me launch my screen printing business originally and get me out of my last job, so I felt indebted to them. I’ve allowed them to use my artwork for a couple album covers free of charge… you’d have to ask them why these chose that particular one, which is called The Jellymaker.


AS: Do you have any advice for your fellow female artists?

RB: Be fearless, and do idiotic things and don’t apologize for any of them. Be a sponge and soak up information. Get comfortable with lots of alone time. And find and cherish a supportive group of friends. I would be lost without mine.


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