Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 by Simon Hodgson
Jill Bliss's latest Chronicle Books publication, Drawing Nature: A Journal, unites three of her passions: design, teaching, and nature. Bliss, who received her MFA in 2004 from CCA's Graduate Program in Design, has now been collaborating with the San Francisco-based publisher for seven years. "This new journal is based on classes I've been teaching in local parks here in Portland, Oregon. I take 10 students and spend all day in the park, teaching nature drawing. The book is for all my customers, clients, and fans who can't attend the class."
The project has been germinating for some time. "It started in 2004, when I was at CCA. Making stationery was just a hobby until I put up a website and accidentally launched my business. Chronicle Books got in touch about publishing a journal featuring flower drawings I'd made in the Presidio -- California poppies, beach strawberries, and Indian paintbrushes. It's had 11 print runs. I've been told it's their best-selling stationery item." In fall 2011, Chronicle will print another series of Bliss's stationery and drawings, this one based on succulents from the Pacific northwest, including sedum, aloe, and euphorbia.
Rendering plants and animals on the page is second nature for Bliss. Ever since she was a little girl growing up on a farm outside Chico, California, she has reflected the natural world in her careful, brightly colored drawings. Her father was a Wall Street Journal typesetter who moved on to the computer industry, then moved the family from the Silicon Valley to Chico. "We grew prunes and walnuts. I still can't stand prunes," she laughs. "There were some years we were so broke that we had to make everything from materials that were at hand."
Her farm childhood influenced her profoundly, not only in her choice of subject matter, but also in her materials, lifestyle, business practices, and even diet. She's adamant about using recycled paper and fabric, and organic inks. In today's all-hiking, all-biking, ecological art world this might seem normal, but it was a challenge when she started out commercially in 2004. "Eco-materials were more expensive back then, so it was a real education process for my design clients. If they weren't going to use recycled paper, I just wasn't interested. As a result, I didn't have any corporate work."
As major companies have gradually come around to recycled materials, she's worked on projects with several firms, including Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. In March 2011 Target started selling a series of her journals featuring drawings of berries and wildflowers. For three days in mid-May she will attend the National Stationery Show in New York. "It's the annual show for all those who design and sell paper goods. I've been three or four times." It takes place at the Javits Center on the Lower West Side and attracts 11,000 buyers from bookstores, boutiques, gift and greeting card stores, and department stores as well as online retailers and catalog merchants. Competing for their orders is an equally diverse range of designers. "You've got people like Hallmark, and people like me."
As she plans her entry for this Hell's Kitchen-esque crucible of paper goods, Bliss takes strength from her rural roots. "Freelancers share the farm mentality," she says. "You never have just one crop, you have two or three. Don't put all your eggs in one basket." It's a business model that has stood her in good stead over her 11-year career. She is an artist, a freelance designer, a businesswoman, and a college instructor at Portland State University.
Teaching is fun, she says, but demanding, especially when students expect instant gratification. "It's a challenge getting the slackers to work, but I just approach it as another design problem. I aim to get my students very engaged. I make them become teachers to each other, instead of just standing up at the blackboard, regurgitating stuff." It's a philosophy she developed while earning her undergraduate degree at Parsons The New School for Design and then during her MFA years at CCA. "I learned the most from my fellow interdisciplinary classmates: from graphic designers to architects."
Jill describes Portland as "like going back to my childhood. The way I see it, there are people who do things and people who consume things. There are a lot more doers in Portland. I'm attracted to people who are self-sufficient." This year, she's also shifting her focus back to projects that are purely for herself, for example a series of animal drawings in which the figure of an elk depicts the other native species with which it lives: butterflies, a snake, an owl. "This next year will be really fun. I am looking forward to seeing how it all plays out." At the end of this journey is a place that's perfect for a painter of nature: her roots.