There is so much here in today’s post. I’m convinced that you will appreciate some aspect of this story. If you are a Wisconsinite, or if you enjoy Door County, if you believe in the power of Instagram, if you love art, if you run your own business, if you accept that millennials are very smart, if you are over fifty and your kankles get tired, then promise me you won’t simply look at the pretty photos. Swear to me you’ll read these paragraphs.
This is the story of Vicki Rawlins (left), a fifty-something woman who has been a practising artist her entire life. She has worked in clay, fabric, watercolor, pastel, oil, acrylic, and lately, flower petals. Certainly, Vicki is open to experimentation, yet it is her business partner, her millennial daughter, Brooke (right), who sometimes pushes her to think differently and take risks.
It was in 2014 when Brooke first suggested a side hustle to her mother — a shop selling Vicki’s paintings alongside the work of other up-and-coming artists.
Brooke said, “Let’s start online.”
Vicki said, “Online?!?”
They named their shop “Sister Golden,” a reference to the beauty of sisterhood, and within a year, it was successful enough for Brooke to leave her day job.
Then this happened:
In the studio one day, Vicki was playing around with some old flowers dying in a vase. She pulled them apart and did a little portrait of Brooke. She texted a photo to her daughter, who loved it. Soon, Brooke’s friends were requesting portraits in flowers, and Vicki became addicted to the process. Here is how she describes it:
Nothing taped, nothing glued, just Mother Nature balancing delicately on itself. The actual act of creating each piece, for me, is therapeutic, spending lots of time outside walking and foraging, truly in the moment, my eyes scanning every square inch of my surroundings.
Once back in my studio, the twigs go down to form the face. Sifting through fresh rose petals, I’m in search of the perfect pair of lips. Next, being very careful not to sneeze, I use my tweezers to place the white petal of a German Statice as the finishing highlight in the eye. There’s a freedom in knowing everything I’m doing is temporary.
After I finish the piece, I document it with a photograph, being very careful not to bump the table and Mother Nature’s house of cards. The last step is to recycle it all back into the earth or into my next piece.
A few years ago, I was walking through the cobbled streets of a French marché with a local. I had been complaining to my new friend about blisters on my heels and how I couldn’t find a store that sold band-aids on this early Sunday morning. This woman nodded in sympathy and then glanced down at the ground. There, at her feet, was a French band-aid, pristine in its package, which she picked up and handed to me. It was a kind of witchcraft.
This is how I think of Vicki. That when she goes on her walks to gather organic materials, she has the ability to summon things. That the perfect lip-shaped leaf presents itself to her like a bluebird landing on Snow White’s outstretched palm. That her collages fall gently and naturally into place.
Of course this is nonsense. As enchanting as Vicki’s collages appear, they do not compose themselves magically. Those twigs don’t snap into place.
It’s also easy to think that Vicki had a plan. That her exercise in collaging was something other than experimentation. But think of the first ten or twenty collages Vicki composed and then destroyed. Making art is hard work. It involves trial and error, risk-taking, failure, self-doubt, and blind faith.
Brooke posted the collages as quickly as Vicki composed them. Instagram with its curated squares of perfection was the perfect platform. Brooke kept Sister Golden’s look cohesive and used a strong hashtag strategy. Early on, they posted flower portraits of Joy Cho and Todd Rundgren. And soon, Vicki’s collages were featured on major media outlets like Martha Stewart Living, Design*Sponge, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, Pop Sugar, and many many others. Their online following exploded.
Again, Brooke pushed her mom. This time it was to print high resolution photos of the collages on archival paper and offer them for sale.
But, the very same platform that helped Vicki and Brooke reach a larger audience also made them vulnerable to knock-offs and counterfeiters. In the most dubious form of flattery, her botanical images have been stolen by T.J. Maxx, Shien, Pier 1, and other massive retail sites. “Everyone started stealing my pineapple,” says Vicki. “Copyright doesn’t do anything. Every piece I create needs to be registered.”
Sister Golden has successfully pursued claims against infringers, but it is a continuing challenge. “It’s the dark underbelly of social media,” says Vicki.
Okay, so now it’s 2016, and Vicki and Brooke decide to open a bricks and mortar shop. Thirteen years earlier, Vicki and her husband had built a second home in Door County and they loved the region and its laid-back Wisconsin vibe. They found an airy space in Fish Creek in an old Victorian. Vicki was especially excited about the extra space in the large back room.
“Such great storage,” she said to Brooke.
“No, Mom! It’s your gallery!” said Brooke.
They commissioned a sign for the front, installed a gorgeous window display, and waited for the word to get out. It didn’t take long.
That’s how I came to meet Vicki. I stopped in Sister Golden last summer, and was wowed by the African baskets, Moroccan rugs, handmade jewelry. I found a mirror for the guest room. And then I wandered into the back gallery and stopped dead in my tracks. Such charm! So magical! I had to know more and asked the woman working the cash register about the artist. She said, “Oh! That’s me!”
Brooke and Vicki believe that they both need to be in the shop. They enjoy meeting their customers. They get a kick out of the groups of women posing in front of their sign.
And they bring such different yet complementary skills to the business. They balance each other so beautifully.
Retail can be a grind, though. “I had no idea at this point that I’d be working so hard,” says Vicki. Her husband has semi-retired and has time to hang out with her. “But I’m gone,” she says. “And when I do get home, I have to put up my kankles!”
When I ask Vicki about what’s next, she explains that growth for Sister Golden will be finding really good people to work for them. People who fit, who will allow Vicki and Brooke a little space to grow and to rest.
It’s winter now. The waters of Lake Michigan are icy gray and Sister Golden is open on the weekends only. Vicki is taking a break in San Diego, where she goes on what she calls “drive-by clippings,” peering into her neighbors’ gardens for material. I imagine her resting her kankles, eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup and seeing landscapes in the floating particles of carrots, parsley, and onion.
Follow Sister Golden on Instagram here. Check out their website here. Watch a video about Vicki’s collages here. And if you’re in Door County, don’t miss their bricks and mortar shop in downtown Fish Creek, across the street from The Bayside Tavern!
Photos via Sister Golden.