How to Build Your Instagram Following

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My first post on @downtownannapolis in February of 2015. 

I get asked for social media tips on the regular. Everyone wants to know how it's done, and what the special formula is.

I started @downtownannapolis over two years ago, and now have about 18.5K followers. Not bad for a small town/young lady working out of her bedroom- with no tax dollars or financial resources.

There are many blog posts and marketing books devoted to this subject, but I thought I'd share some advice and a bit more about my story.

Without further ado...this post is very long as is! 

Work with human nature- NOT against it.

I'm very intuitive so this comes effortlessly to me. It doesn't even seem like it needs to be said.

Some things just WON'T work because they go against nature. 

For example, humans are pretty narcissistic. Yes, we think of others but we're also thinking about ourselves. If you want a following, you can't exactly be The Truman Show (unless you're a Kardashian/Jenner.)

You need to create content that your audience wants. Otherwise, no one will care and no one will follow.

This can be anything- vulnerable posts that help someone feel less alone, reviews of products, industry-specific advice, beautiful photographs that take your breath away, healthy recipes using seasonal vegetables... etc. Come up with some basic framework for your brand.

Your personality (and nothing else) is a hard sell. It's helpful to be somewhat relatable and accessible, but it can't only be about you.

I sometimes create content that may be more for me than for my audience. It keeps me going and inspired. But then I post something that I feel is more "on-brand." I never abandon my brand, even as it evolves.

Know your strengths.

We all have something that makes us unique. Yes- all of us. Even if you think you're just completely normal, your normalcy has a story or charm to it. That's the entire premise of The Simpsons. Or The Lego Movie. 

Work on strengthening your strengths. Don't focus on strengthening your weaknesses.

This runs counter to SO MUCH advice in pop culture- which is often about strengthening your weak points.

For example, if you're terrible at public speaking, join a Toastmasters group!

I think there's something wonderful about conquering your fears, but at the same time, what if you're a skilled artist and you're ignoring your talents to strengthen something that doesn't come naturally to you?

If you're great at baseball and love it (let's say an 8/10) and terrible at lacrosse and hate it (let's say a 5/10), are you going to devote your entire life to becoming a 7/10 in lacrosse instead of becoming a 9.5/10 in baseball? 

No- that would be the dumbest thing ever. It doesn't make SENSE.

I'm pretty practically natured and find that common sense is in low supply these days. Start with what you're good at. Work on what you're bad at here and there (unless it's a huge problem that's really affecting your happiness and relationships.) It's okay to be bad at things! And your weaknesses start to fall away as your confidence builds.

My strengths are:

1) The ability to find common ground with almost anyone. I was always a bit of a floater and felt lonely at times when I was younger. It felt like I had no real "group"- even if I always had close friends. 

I could get along with nerds, and jocks, and shallow people, and deep people, and rich people, and poor people, and conservative people, and liberal people. Identity politics are the most confusing thing ever for me, because it's not a framework I've ever really used.

I look for humor and a basic goodness, and that's that.

This helps me act as a bridge. My platforms help me connect with all sorts of people. 

2) A basic orientation towards the visual and aesthetic. Again, this is pretty natural. My eye was trained after years of fashion in NYC, but I didn't start off at zero. I've always been artistic, and was painting and designing dream gardens and clothing ever since I was a little girl.

Instagram is pretty visual, so you do need to consider that. But you can create interesting captions if you're more of a writer than a photographer.

3) Intuition. I can sense when something is shifting and connect the dots quickly. I can see the big picture almost immediately. I think about the future when I'm making daily decisions, and how one choice may affect my life a year from now.

I'm very in tune with this because it feels like a superpower. I think a lot of people have this trait but don't listen to their own gut.

4) Humor. When in doubt, make people laugh. 

5) Vulnerability. I have a lot of heart. I'm pretty sensitive and feel things deeply. I don't mean I'm emotionally reactive (I've worked on this a lot over the years), just... I notice things. 

If a siren is going off nearby, I can't concentrate. If a tag is itchy, I feel it all day. I love textures, and colors, and fabrics. I'm very tactile and have a sensual nature.

I'm inspired a lot. I want people to connect with me. I go down rabbit holes. I look for the truth, no matter how painful. I'm curious. I'm extremely loyal.

These aren't things I hide. I don't really believe in "faking it 'til you make it."

I get not wanting to LEAD with weaknesses (ugh, duh) but I don't think vulnerability makes you weak. 

Things I'm NOT great at:

1) Putting myself out there. 

2) Asking for money for my hard work.

3) Time management. Plus I'm a late-bloomer. I feel like I'm a bit behind in a lot of categories.

4) Writing and creating content in a prolific manner. I'd rather produce less but spend more time on it.

5) Charming large groups of people- I'm better one-on-one.

6) Drinking. After two drinks, I just feel sleepy. 

7) Anything spatial. I have to flip maps around to the proper direction to read them.

8) Anything auditory. I don't have special musical talents and I struggle with books on tape, podcasts, etc. I had to relearn every college lecture alone with my textbook because I couldn't learn by listening. I had to see the words written down. UNLESS someone is telling a really riveting or emotional story- then I'm all ears. 

And so on... the list is endless, really. =-)

My strengths help buffer out some of the weaknesses. Because people relate to what I say or post, I get a lot of people messaging me first, or pitching things first.

So, while I've worked on putting myself out there (because it's necessary), I don't fixate on it. I fixate on what I'm good at.

Be disciplined.

For the first year, I spent 45 minutes every single morning and every single night working on growing my account. 

Liking hashtags and geotags. Commenting on posts. Sending messages to people. Organizing giveaways. 

There are bots that do some of this for you, but I did it by hand. You can end up "liking" some off-color posts if you're only relying on hashtags!

There's no shortcut- you have to put the time in. Figure out a schedule that is realistic for you- something you can maintain over time.

Leverage and create synergy.

You want everything to start to gel. To use your time, effort, and finances to maximum effect. You want to create flow and have all your work feel connected. 

Plot out your strategy- you want all of your social media and website efforts to help build the entirety of your brand.

Right now I'm at a stage where I want to start selling products (prints of original art), taking on partnerships and writing jobs, and expanding into the DMV (while keeping my focus on Annapolis.) All of that will further build my following. 

Plus, it's so much more creative and interesting. 

I probably couldn't do any of this when I had only a few hundred followers. No one would pay attention. But I was working on building my platform to get to this point.

Maybe my next goal will be to connect with other coastal towns on the East Coast.

As soon as one goal is hit, you need another one. That's just how it is. Otherwise, you end up suffering from "peaked with an Olympics gold medal at 16" syndrome. 

Be polite.

Don't feed the trolls. - Plato

Maybe years of retail have made me very relaxed when it comes to people being annoying. Sometimes people will just be rude, and there's nothing you can do about it. 

If someone says something snarky, you don't need to escalate it. Unless that's your brand.

Just hear people out, say thank you, and respond to your comments and messages when you can. I avoid sarcasm for the most part. The tone doesn't work well on Instagram. I try to be as literal or gracious as possible.

I'm not perfect, obviously, but this is important for likability. And likability is important if you want to grow your brand. 

Try lots of things. Adjust as you go.

Not everything you do will work. You may get crickets when you post certain types of content.

That's okay, just note it and move on. Maybe try again if you feel like maybe your timing or execution was just a little off, but the core idea had potential.

I try not to get stuck on things like low engagement posts. 

I know that "sunset over water" is always a crowd pleaser. Doesn't mean that I want to post that 100% of the time! Plus, I also know intuitively that people would start to get bored if that's all I did. 

You need to keep yourself on your toes so that your audience stays engaged.

Be specific but universal.

Somewhat contradictory but important to understand.

Any time an account is too specific (very niche subject, for example), they will limit themselves from growth. The account will plateau no matter what.

When an account is too generic- it won't connect with anyone. 

You need to differentiate. I don't post about large corporations on the regular (my followers like it when I feature small businesses), but I do shop at them sometimes and don't hide that. It's not "on-brand" but it's honest and relatable.

For better or worse, a cute pair of shoes that you found at Target will relate to more people than an interesting find from a small local store without an online presence. 

So I try to create a balance- about a third of my followers live in Annapolis but the rest are in other cities. Thanks Instagram Insights!

I was worried about the @downtownannapolis handle for a while- what if I wanted to move? What if no one outside of Annapolis followed it? What if I started to feel like I wanted to expand into other areas and markets?

I got over it. I decided that the focus would mainly be on Annapolis, from the point of view of someone linked to the area.

Suddenly the world opened up. 

A good role model for me was @newyorkcity. Liz has over a million followers and now travels the world. She posts tons of content from other cities. But her roots are in NYC, and she still posts content from there.

Take risks with your Instagram Stories.

This is one of the only places in social media where huge influencers feel comfortable going completely off-brand. Everything disappears after 24 hours, so there's less pressure and you can have fun with it.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I've liked people a lot more after following their stories, or been completely put off by someone.

But since they are so easy to skip through, most people will grant you some grace if you post content that doesn't suit their liking.

It's a good place to really connect with your most loyal followers- like a secret club.

Growth can be slow and linear at first, and then exponential.

This goes back to discipline. You want to build your account bit by bit, and nothing may happen for a long time.

And then suddenly, everything happens all at once!

As they say- when it rains, it pours. Try not to get discouraged, and practice self-compassion if you feel like you're not where you want to be.

It took me two years to get my first pitch from a brand, and for trade- not money. You may be working for free for a long time, and then suddenly something will shift.

Build your newsletter and website.

Instagram isn't yours- it's Mark Zuckerberg's.

You are not in control, God is not in control- Mark is in control. Plus shareholders.

The algorithm has changed things for influencers and I have a hunch Instagram will become more and more "pay to play" like Facebook.

It can be hard to drive traffic to your website but start one anyway. It's your home base. And if you want to build relationships with brands, you'll need something that feels more permanent.

I have a newsletter but haven't sent any yet. Baby steps. When we had our shop, the email blast was the number one thing that got people in our door. So I know it's important. It builds loyalty and connection, and as long as you don't send them too often (I unsubscribe from anyone who sends out daily emails, ha!), it's a great way to stay in touch.

Take social media breaks to refresh.

Living your life online is NOT natural. Technology is simply a tool, and you must limit it. You'll short-circuit otherwise.

It also helps with clarity of vision for your brand. Know thyself.

I'm starting to take a couple of days off a week. Maybe on the weekend, maybe during the week if I have something I want to post about on Saturday and Sunday.

Otherwise, I feel awful and want to delete everything and move to a penguin sanctuary. Start over and be off the grid entirely. Watch the aurora australis in Antarctica and forage for berries in Patagonia during the winter.

I don't think this is a workable option so I'm just going to unplug for a couple of days each week.

If you've ever read The Art of War, it's about creating a stillness in your mind so you know how to strike.

I don't engage in social media comment battles at all. Never. I'm allergic to anything that reeks of Divide and Conquer- a classic strategy to weaken a population. You may think you are fighting the good fight but no, you're just exhausting yourself. No one ever wins and nothing ever changes. 

Focus! And be relaxed and still in-between.

Connect with industry gatekeepers and influencers at your level.

I consider someone with similar engagement to be "at your level"- despite their number of followers.

These are the connectors- they'll introduce you to new content, new products, PR reps, magazine and newspaper editors, and other creatives.

These partnerships can help you build your brand quickly but it's always best to look for someone in a similar place in their career so that it feels mutual.

Involve your audience.

I have mixed feelings about IG accounts that only post other people's photos. I try to have enough original content that @downtownannapolis could stand alone if needed. If a picture isn't credited, it's mine.

That being said, I can't be everywhere at all times. And I love seeing what other people post. 

Sharing other people's work has definitely helped grow my account. People usually want to be featured (with credit, obviously.)

The more that your base feels that you're paying attention to them, the more that they'll pay attention to you.

There's no "secret."

Everyone wants the formula- the strategy to enjoy guaranteed success.

If I were to honestly break it down, I know that some of it is simply my handle name. Some of it is timing. Some of it is my disciplined liking of geotags. Some of it is fate and luck. Some of it is posting content that people enjoy. And some of it is some x-factor that I'll never quite understand.

There's no formula that you can completely replicate- you have to forge your own path. 

I got my first job in fashion (at a small company called Vena Cava) by emailing my future boss about a shirt she designed. I wanted to buy it. 

She liked my polite email tone and that I had a business degree. I had no fashion experience but I understood design. I was their first employee.

I learned everything at that job. It was my REAL education and I was there for five years.

Then I used the contacts I had in fashion to open my consignment shop in Annapolis. My New York friends provided me with interesting pieces to sell. It gave us a different spin and competitive advantage.

I used my manufacturing connections when we designed our capsule collection.

While running our store, I started @downtownannapolis to promote our shop and small businesses in the area. I already had a small following on our @shopnavette platform, and knew lots of business owners and locals because of this. So it was easy to connect and tell people about my project.

Then I worked on building the following bit by bit over the past 2.5 years. 

Now I'm starting to paint from my photographs of Annapolis, and will sell the prints both directly and to shops that I have relationships with.

I just got a freelance writing project and have connected with other people in the area that want to work together.

Who knows exactly what's next, or who or what will walk into my life because of this account.

Everything I've done led to the next place, but I didn't map it all out in advance. I've just gone with the flow. Let go and let God.

Don't ask for permission, don't give your power away, and don't bend the knee. Find your purpose.

I started @downtownannapolis largely because 1) there was a gap in the marketplace 2) I wanted to and 3) I figured I'd do a better job than 95% of people. Maybe not everyone, but most people.

I grew up in the area. I had a shop on Maryland Avenue. I lived downtown. I have a marketing and fashion background, plus visual media comes naturally to me.  I wanted a platform to market the area. I wanted a way to meet people. My motivations were very organic so I never felt like I was trying too hard.

The handle was open so I took it. That's all. I didn't feel like waiting around for someone else to do something I could do myself. I didn't want to hand my power over to the city or the tourism board or some politician.

No one is going to do the work for you. No one is going to care about your life or your business or your brand or your art more than YOU- so build the world you want. Just do it. No apologies. 

Any time I'm feeling a bit lost, I watch a Jordan Peterson lecture on YouTube. The man is brilliant and has the balls to discuss truths that no one else will. Check out this clip- The Nobler Your Aim, The Better Your Life.

You need a higher purpose to what you do- a reason for all your work. To take on a burden and bear it. Or as Jordan says, growing up and being useful is the new counter-culture.

It may seem silly to equate an Instagram account with higher purpose, but it's currently one of the best ways to strengthen a community. As long as you act in the general direction of "good"- for you, your family, and your world- it will be a net positive. 

And that's a wrap! Thanks for listening.

Q + A with founder Koren Ray of HOBO Bags

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The one and only (for now!) HOBO flagship store- 194 Green Street, right off of Main Street. 

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HOBO was founded in 1991 in Annapolis. They're now a global brand.

I think I got my first Lauren wallet back when I was in college- early 2000s. HOBO is one of the biggest success stories to launch out of Annapolis, and owning a piece is a rite of passage. 

They design leather classics that you'll hold onto forever. In fact, the Rachel wallet was featured recently on Cupcakes and Cashmere (in one of those voyeuristic "what's in your wallet/bag" type posts- I'm such a sucker for them) and it drove so much traffic to the HOBO website. She has carried her wallet for almost a decade!

I LOVE that I'm able to connect with so many inspiring business owners, artists, and creatives in my daily life. HOBO reached out to me and wanted to send me a bag (of my choice) for review. I don't do a ton of outfit posts (no on-call photographer- maybe in the future, ha) so I wanted to go a little bit more in-depth with their brand story.

I picked the Rozanne tote in black because I needed something VERY lightweight and simple, and liked the size and slight sheen. I've been using it every day for work and love it. Couldn't be happier.

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Raw on the inside, with pinking shear edges- perfect. Rug from a nice Iranian man in Germany.

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My Rozanne tote in the Hobo Instagram Story.

After spending an hour in the store (with Melissa and Beth, from the HOBO marketing team), I fell in love with a few other pieces- the Kingston tote in black velvet hide (a favorite of both Melissa and founder Koren), the Lauren clutch in olive hair-on hide, and the Eagle wallet in black velvet hide (such a great design.)

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It was so nice to FINALLY meet Melissa, their PR & social media specialist. We'd been in contact here and there over the years but had never met in person. I loved her timeless Kingston tote in the velvet hide- the leather is amazing. It's thick, pebbled, and SO SOFT.

Lately, I've noticed that HOBO really seems to have stepped up their game. I'm seeing new leathers and details (like the beaded guitar strap on the best-selling Sheila bag, hair-on hide options, quilted wallets, the popular studded Avalon tote), more collaborations on social media, and tighter branding.

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A new leather option- the hair-on hide in olive.

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There are lots of special finds and deals in the lofted section of the flagship store.

Melissa confirmed that HOBO is really honing in on their strength as a brand, and taking creative risks while still being true to their identity. They have a couple of new projects in the works (which I'm not allowed to reveal yet!) and some wonderful philanthropic collaborations coming up, like one with the Light House Shelter around the holidays.

You can learn more about their #LiveTheCode projects here.

I asked Koren a few questions about her story and loved every answer! 

Can you tell us a little bit about HOBO in the early days?

We started HOBO in 1991, right here in Annapolis, with nothing more than my mom, Toni Ray’s, life savings and her passion for authentic, quality leather goods. Her knowledge of leather craft came from her years owning an iconic leather shop in Washington DC. Grounded in the belief that our possessions should reflect our journey and deserve to be created with beauty, soul, and purpose, she designed a small line of handbags on her dining room table and took her first collection of leather handbags on the road in a beat-up van. HOBO was born.

At what moment did you realize that this could be something big?

When HOBO was about 5 years young, the Nordstrom buyer stopped by our booth at a trade show. She left a card and said she’d think about the line. My mom sent her one of our wrist clutches as a gift to say thank you for stopping by. A few weeks later, the buyer called and said she had used the clutch on her vacation and it was the best she had ever owned. She gave us a nice order and over the years we have remained one of Nordstrom’s strongest small leather goods vendors. Things started to fall into place after that!

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Wallets basking in the sun.

What were some of the most important lessons you learned as you grew your business?

Ever since I was very young, I’ve watched my mother, Toni Ray, as she faced the challenges of running a business, as a woman and as a single mother. When I was little I spent a lot of weekends at her leather retail store, watching as she ran her business with passion and conviction and treated those who worked for her with respect, honesty, humility, and humor.

Once we started HOBO, and I had the opportunity to work along side her every day, I understood much better what it takes to begin a business from nothing and how to sustain the growth. In particular, building a strong company has everything to do with the people you bring on board; how you encourage them to work to their greatest potential and how you get them to stay. I believe strongly in the culture that my mother created in the early years of HOBO. She led by example- demonstrating that she wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and take risks, even when we were a small company with everything to lose. Today, my husband, David Brewer, and I run the business with the same principles. We encourage our staff to take risks and challenge the expected. Our confidence in their efforts breeds a collective passion that is great for the brand. After years of admiring my mother’s leadership, I can only hope to follow with the same integrity, grace, and grit.

How has the company evolved over the years?

We started HOBO with a belief that the best possessions deserve to be thoughtfully designed with beauty, soul, and purpose. It all began with the craft of leather and a focus on authentic beauty with an emphasis on utility.

We love leather. No other material ages quite as beautifully. From a small collection of handcrafted leather bags, our growth and evolution over the years has allowed us to expand into other gorgeous leathers in an array of beautiful hues.

In spring of 2017, we recognized that it was time to invest in the brand, to more clearly define the brand point of view in order to position HOBO for the next generation of growth. Building on our longstanding culture of quality product and our authentic origin story, we revised our logo with a new Journey Symbol, to represent the wanderlust spirit of the brand and went to work updating our imagery and overall brand look. The result has been a natural, organic evolution; one that aligns HOBO with the momentum of culture, a propensity for heritage brands, authentic products, quality over quantity, and individualism.

As HOBO thrives as a second-generation, privately owned, and family operated brand, David and I still focus on creating beautiful, authentic leather goods that are made to last. We stay true to our passion and enduring design philosophy with handpicked leathers, timeless designs and a nostalgic tribute to the methods and soul of the 70s, creating bags that only get better with age.

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The Blaze Bucket Bag converts into a backpack. In my favorite velvet hide, yet again.

What are you most excited about, looking forward?

I am most excited about our upcoming partnerships through our #LiveTheCode platform. Our vision for HOBO has always been rooted in design with beauty, soul, and purpose and this transcends our products to the values David and I aim to live by. We are inspired by the heritage of the American HOBO who lived by a very specific code around respect, kindness, citizenship, and community. We are equally inspired by the many organizations in our community that go above and beyond to make a difference. We created #LiveTheCode as our way of giving back. Our upcoming holiday Peace.Love.HOBO program will keep our efforts close to home where our roots are, centered around a partnership with the Light House Shelter. For this special program, I designed a limited edition collection of leather holiday ornaments. During an exclusive shopping night in November, we will host an event at the HOBO Flagship store. All proceeds of the event will go to support the Light House Shelter.

What do you look for when bringing someone onto the HOBO team?

Creativity, integrity, self-motivation, and sense of humor.

What made you choose Annapolis as your company's flagship shop/HQ?

After twenty-five years of building the HOBO brand, we decided we wanted to open a store that embodied our unique products; stylish, functional handbags that help women express their own personal style. We thought about opening in New York or Atlanta, but decided that Annapolis was the place to be. We wanted to honor our heritage. It all began right here in Annapolis. We wanted to put down our retail roots in the heart of our hometown. When we found the three-story building at 194 Green Street, we knew it captured the brand’s spirit. This space blends the authentic beauty of our leather products with the local feel of Annapolis.

What has been your favorite collaboration so far?

As HOBO evolves as a brand, we stay connected to our past and our indie spirit by creating small-batch collections that are each touched by the hand of an artist, making one-of-kind possessions. We recently did a collaboration with a wonderful tattoo artist, Virginia Elwood, as part of our Artisan Series to support our #LivetheCode platform. We had Virginia tattoo her original designs directly onto our leather bags. The result was a limited series of art-in-leather, celebrating the beauty of the leather and bringing Virginia’s artistic vision to life.

What's your go-to HOBO piece?

My HOBO Lauren wallet, without a doubt. No matter how crazy my day or my life may get, I always know that everything I need is tucked inside my Lauren and I’m ready for anything at any time, from a quick stop at the store to last-minute dinner with my husband.

What's your favorite piece from this season?

Every design is like one of my children, so it is hard to pick a favorite, but this fall you will see me with either a gorgeous suede Kingston tote (perfect for everyday travels) or our iconic Sheila bag with a rockin’ guitar strap on my arm.

Do you have any leather care tips or special products you like to keep on hand?

I consider my mom the world’s leading leather care expert and she has been telling me for years that good leather does not need much care, just lots of love. The more you wear it, the better looking it gets; developing its own shine and character. However, we have recently developed a really wonderful HOBO leather care that I use on all of my bags from time to time to replenish and condition the leather.

Where do you get your inspiration?

As a child of the 70’s, I grew up in a world of artists, musicians, craftspeople, and leather while hanging out under the work bench in my mom’s iconic leather shop, Georgetown Leather Design. These influences remain the lens through which I see the world. I am inspired by the charm of all things vintage, by a nostalgia for bygone eras, and the beauty in imperfection. I follow my instincts, not the trends. My designs are equal parts beauty and flawless functionality with a nostalgic tribute to the methods, soul, and spirit of the ’70’s, informed by the past, yet unmistakably modern.

What are some of your favorite brands?

As I get older I find that I am actually less driven by loyalty to a brand and more driven by quality products, innovative ideas, and ethical practices. That being said, I do have a pretty steady crush on a few brands: Zappos, Lego, and Apple.

If you could only shop at five stores for the rest of your life, what would they be?

For practical purposes: Home Depot, CVS and Whole Foods and because I like to shop local and can’t live without plants or coffee: Bru-Mar Gardens and Ahh Coffee.

Best design city in the world?

Tokyo!

Next place you want to visit?

So many places, so little time! Australia and the Grand Canyon to start…

Most beautiful place you've ever traveled?

We found a beautifully secluded beach on the Emerald Coast of Nicaragua that has large boulders that have fallen from the cliffs and some of the most amazing tide pools and marine life I’ve ever seen. It was the most magical place I’ve ever been.

Favorite museum?

American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. I love this museum. It is an ever changing celebration of works by self-taught artists. So fun and inspiring.

Favorite local artist?

Do my kids count?

Best piece of advice you've ever received?

There is no way to be a perfect mother, but a million ways to be a good one.

What are a few of your favorite books?  

Absolutely, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Velveteen Rabbit.

Of course, I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series three separate times to each of my kids as they’ve grown up, so there is a soft spot in my heart for those books.

What are three things in your purse that you can't live without?

My HOBO Lauren wallet, sunglasses, Burt’s Bees lip balm.

What's your morning routine?

It often feels like I live a full day before 8am. With 4 kids, mornings are busy. I truly believe that the pace of the morning sets the tone for your whole day, so I try to make sure that everyone has a great breakfast, we have time to talk about the day and always say I love you before we walk out the door for the day.

Where do you take visitors when you want to show them Annapolis?

No trip to Annapolis is complete without a crab feast. Our favorite place is Cantler’s or grabbing a bushel and spending the day on our dock on the Bay enjoying crabs and sun.

Do you live in Annapolis full time?

Yes. Annapolis has been my home for over 25 years. It is a wonderful place to come home to after business travels around the world.

Favorite candle?

Jonathan Adler’s Hashish Candle. It reminds me of my younger rock ’n roll days.

Do you have a signature scent?

Narciso Rodriguez. My husband gave it to me years ago for our 5th wedding anniversary and I’ve worn it ever since.

What are a few of your favorite places in Annapolis?

Davis’ Pub for the greatest crab cake sandwiches in the world, McGarvey’s Saloon for the coldest beer and Quiet Waters Park for a peaceful retreat, run or bike ride very close to the city.

Painting oysters with Kim Hovell

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Artist Kim Hovell is a bit of a local celebrity in Annapolis. I met her through our shop, Navette, and she quickly became one of our biggest customers. We've now been good friends for about three years.

She's incredibly kind, talented, down-to-earth, and funny- which makes it really easy to want to support her in all of her endeavors. Kim's mainly known for her oyster paintings and beach scenes, but I love all her work. In fact, the only Kim Hovell original I own is of a nude she painted- I was drawn to the sensuality of the curves, soft colors, texture, and depth.

I also have several prints of her oysters. And to date, it's her number one most requested commission from private clients and galleries.

Kim occasionally hosts Sip and Paints at Maryland Hall and they quickly sell out within an hour or so. I've never been able to get a ticket in time- though the best way to be notified of these events is via her personal Instagram.

Painting has always been my absolute favorite creative outlet, but I haven't properly prioritized it over the years. I make excuses constantly- I'll waste money on the wrong supplies, I don't have space, I don't have time- but I'm at a point where I feel like I need it in my life again. 

I finally asked Kim if she'd give me a private lesson and answer a few of my questions, and she graciously obliged. I enjoyed it so much that I can't wait to set up a mini studio in my apartment.

All in all, I painted for probably ten hours over the course of three days. I wasn't moving quickly, but if you want lots of depth and layers, you have to build the paint. Kim starts a few paintings at once, and adds to them every day until they feel done.

Supplies List

We used Golden Heavy Body Acrylic Paints. I chose ultramarine, titanium white, light magenta, and a bit of yellow, brown, and neutral gray to mix in for shading. We used a lot of white so you might want to get this big 16oz jar.

I really liked using pink, haha. You could easily blend it yourself but this was so convenient. Check out the specs on the Golden website- I found it helpful.

We started off with acrylic spray paint to coat the canvas because it dries quickly, but you can also paint your background. Just let it dry completely unless you want to mix it in with your underpaint layer.

My favorite brush was one like this- dense, flat, and about 3/8" across. I felt like I could get both thick lines and thin ones with this brush. It was good for thick streaks of paint.

A wider brush and a fine brush will also be helpful. You can start with an affordable paintbrush set and see which ones you reach for the most before you invest in nicer brushes.

I also used a lot of water (to thin out the paint and to spill onto the canvas), paper towels (to scrape off paint and to test out colors), and Golden High Flow paint (this set has good reviews) to drop into the puddles. I had a lot of fun with the High Flow paint- it has the consistency of ink.

My canvas is 20" by 20". Nicer canvases tend to have more depth- the one we used was about 1.5" deep and probably retailed for around $25. There are cheaper canvases for practice, and you can also start on acrylic paper- it has a tooth and is thick so there won't be warping.

You can find these supplies on Amazon, Michael's/AC Moore, or at Art Things in West Annapolis.

Let's begin...

Go in (with lots of water) and do a rough outline of your oysters. I am using blue, white, and High Flow paint in a dark blue. I rotated the canvas a few times so that the oysters had a random orientation- otherwise, I'd probably end up lining them all up in one direction. This stage is the most fun (in my opinion) and I wish I'd created more puddles and more mixing between the colors when they were watery. 

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The paint is still very wet but I'm creating a bit more definition with the blues. I leave it to dry.

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After letting the last layer dry completely, I add in some white and dark grey/black to highlight and outline the shells.

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Layering in some pink and neutral gray for depth.

At this point, the oysters look wayyyy too defined- almost like agate or stained glass. I've put on more water and more high flow dark blue ink. I paint in a rose background but don't like all the separation.

In order to soften up the oysters, I've pulled the background color into the oysters. It's a couple of hours in and I'm finally loosening up. Takes a bit of time to get into the groove- I was very stiff at first.

New day and revisiting this painting. I'm moderately pleased but it's way too muted and flat. I was so thin with my layers that there aren't the goopy paint streaks of my dreams. I wish I'd worked with thicker paint (not diluted with water) right after my underpaint stage.

I add in a lot of titanium white to create some paint streaks. I also mix the white with a few other colors I've used to create different subtle shades. The painting brightens up a LOT. Kim gives me an ink pen to sign my rendering because I don't feel like risking it with a paintbrush. 

The final product. I like it! A decent first effort. I really just wish I'd gone thicker earlier, and let the paint work for me more, rather than me work the paint. I see too much of my brushwork and really wish there were more drips and streaks and points where the paint naturally flows together. 

Now, onto a few questions with Kim Hovell!

So, how did this all begin?

It all began when I signed up for First Sundays on West Street in Annapolis with the hope of selling a few oyster paintings to pay for life after I quit my job to travel through Europe.

At what point did you realize that you could turn this into a business?

It happened gradually. I keep trying to streamline and figure out how to not work nights and weekends. I still wake up in hot sweats that it isn't going to work out but so far it has just been getting better and bigger.

Where can we find your work? What are your plans for the future?

Locally, you can find prints at Twisted Sisters, Whimsicality, Side Street Framers, and Candles Off Main. I have prints and originals at Natalie Silitch and Here. A pop-up shop, wherever those ladies decide to pop-up next. I plan to have originals for sale on my site soon. I also sell on Etsy and have prints in shops around the country.

Do you have any tips to artists who are just starting out?

Just get out there! Sign up for shows, go to events, and meet your fellow artists and patrons. We are lucky to have so many great resources for creative people in Annapolis and the surrounding area. By far, the best part about this job is all of the wonderful people I have met.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?

I usually try to get out of the house and connect with those creatives. I am beyond lucky that I have a life filled with positive, genuine people who inspire me.

Best piece of advice you've ever received?

I don't think I could narrow it down because I am always asking for and receiving advice. A huge part of my career has been keeping an open mind and asking others for their opinions. I have taken a lot of missteps but I have had a lot of people help me get back on track.

What paint colors do you use the most?

I literally buy titanium white by the gallon- it’s just not economical to do it otherwise. And a lot of Blues! Pthalo Blue, Indigo, ultramarine- those are my favorites.  Then I like to incorporate burnt umber, cadmium red, and raw sienna.

What's your favorite piece you've ever painted?

I have a few but the one that stands out is the first oyster shell which is just called 'oyster'. My memories of painting it are so vivid, I was just sitting around my Baltimore rowhouse trying to kill an afternoon. My style has sort of changed since then and I really like painting watery pictures of a bunch of shells now.

Best-selling print?

By far 'Chincoteagues on Aqua'.

Please share some artists you admire.

I have been looking at a lot of Helen Frankenthaler lately. I also love Anne-Sophie Tschiegg, Roos Schuring, and Sally King Benedict.

Top museums for inspiration?

The Hirshorn in DC is my favorite. I also think the American Visionary art museum in Baltimore is a lot of fun. As awe-inspiring as it to see the works of masters up close, I’m consistently amazed at how creative the self-taught artists of the Visionary Arts Museum are. A friend just visited The Clark in Massachusetts, which is having an Helen Frankenthaler exhibit, so that is next on the list.

Most beautiful place you've ever traveled?

The first place to pop in my head is Glacier National Park. But I can't pick just one so here goes: the sunbleached shutters of the villas in Arles, France, the alpine lakes in Banff, Canada, the snow-capped peaks looming over Salzburg, Austria, the cozy villages of Bavaria, Germany, the vineyards of Tuscany, the hill-hugging towns of Cinque Terre; the perfectly English idyll of the Lake District; the Tetons; Point Reyes, CA, sigh... The world is a beautiful place and i have a lot more to see.

What are three things in your purse that you can't live without?

Tape, screwdriver, and hanging wire... not the answer you were looking for?

Favorite meal to cook at home?

Thai food.

Favorite candle?

I really like this candle from Candles Off Main called Saltaire (by Mer-Sea), it kind of has a minerally scent like you are by the ocean.

What's your dream weekend in Annapolis?

Anything on, in, or by the water.

Persian Eggplant and Okra Stew (Khoresh-e Bademjan / Bamieh)

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Persian Eggplant and Okra Stew

(Khoresh-e Bademjan / Bamieh)

Khoresh-e Bademjan / Bamieh was one of my favorite meals growing up. I thought it would be fun to make it with my mom so that she could teach me the realistic way to prepare Iranian food. 

This recipe is for a vegan stew that's a combination of eggplant and okra. It's how my mom makes it, so I think there are some shortcuts and substitutions.

A lot of cookbooks overly complicate Persian cuisine. It's usually very simply seasoned and you can nix the meat and make a whole pot of food for under $10- as long as you have some of the basic seasonings on hand already. 

My mom left Tehran in 1979, moved to Charlotte for school, met my dad, and moved up to the Annapolis area before I was born. That's the short version of a much longer story. =)

Ingredients

Serves 6-8

Time: 1 hour

2 eggplants

1 lb okra (frozen or fresh)

2 cans of petite diced tomatos

large onion

1.5 cups of water 

lots of olive oil

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

1 tsp turmeric

1/4 cup lemon juice (fresh or bottled)

1 tsp sugar

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Start by preparing the eggplants. Lay them out horizontally, cut in half, flip onto side vertically, and halve again. Either cut these pieces into 2 or 3 long chunks, so that every piece is more or less the same size. You should have 8-12 pieces per eggplant.

Salt generously (it will be rinsed off) and leave to sweat in a colander while you prepare the rest of the stew.

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Finely chop up your onion and brown with olive oil. You don't want to burn it, but you can leave them an extra minute or so beyond this photograph. The flavor of fully fried onions is pretty characteristic to a lot of Persian dishes.

Set aside in a pot with a cup of water (bring to a boil then simmer) once they are browned.

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Fry your okra in oil. If they are frozen, you most likely won't have to trim them, but if they are fresh, carefully trim the top. You don't want to cut into them too much or they will fall apart.

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Add the okra to your browned onions and water. Cover and simmer.

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Rinse off the salt and pat dry your eggplant.

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Fully brown (careful not to burn!) all sides of your eggplants. They will be thirsty for oil so add more as you go.

While you are waiting for them to cook, you can start to prepare the rest of the stew sauce.

Add the canned tomatoes, plus a little extra water (maybe 1/2 cup- there is some juice in the canned tomatoes) to your pot of okra and onions, and bring to a simmer.

Add in the seasonings (salt, pepper, turmeric, lemon, sugar) and keep testing for taste. If it's too sour, add in more water or sugar. If it's too sweet, add in more lemon. The subtle sweet/sour balance is important with Iranian food. 

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Once eggplants are fully fried, add them in carefully to your dish. You can roll the liquids gently over it (so the pieces don't break) and bring to a simmer again.

Prepare some rice and serve!

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This is a very small serving- mainly photographed this way for aesthetic.

Early Fall Wish List

Just a few things in my shopping cart at the moment. I'm sticking to the items I may actually pull the trigger on because, for content so seemingly fluffy, these posts take a very long time! Haha. Also, it's my birthday month, so...

Pintucked Lace Tunic, $98- I LOVE romantic tops with slouchy blue jeans and tailored outerwear/accessories.

Slim Boyfriend-fit Ankle Jeans, $30- Uniqlo (and Muji!) might be the two big chain stores I miss the most in NYC. Big in Japan.

Leather Bucket Bag, $145- A glossy navy crossbody bag in a clean silhouette.

Dover Italian Wool Blazer, $198- THIS COLOR. A blazer somewhere between camel and chocolate.

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Gingham Flutter Wrap Dress, $158- Classic/Retro/Hitchcockian dress for fall.

Ariella Tapestry Boots, $40- I saw these in person the other day at Target and was seriously impressed by the quality to pricepoint ratio. Selling out very quickly.

Ribbed Boat Neck Half Sleeve T-Shirt, $10- Comes in lots of fall colors, 100% cotton and ribbed, long and slouchy, the price is right... I miss Uniqlo SO MUCH.

Relaxed Striped Chino Pants, $88- Definitely want a pair of chinos or jeans with a ribbon or piping down the side seam, just haven't settled on the exact pair.

Cream Elinor Loafers, $158- I destroyed a pair of white Chanel loafers in NYC (*sobs*), so I may have to find a replacement pair this season. Wore them almost every day.

Violette Dress, $225- Discovered this brand on Instagram and now I want all of their girly 90s style dresses.

Lanolips Lemonaid Lip Treatment, $16- Sampled this cult lip moisturizer the other day and was seriously impressed. No petrolatum and lips so soft for hours.

Classic Retro-X Fleece Jacket, $198- Need a lamb-esque jacket for fall.

APC Candle in Toumbac, $50- One of my earliest candle splurges (maybe 10 years ago?) and now I'm ready to revisit. Smells like cigars but much better.

Ultra High-Rise Cropped Wide-Legs, $40 (from $148)- Tried these on months ago and loved the fit, the thick cotton, the stitching, and the frayed hem. The reviews are immaculate. It's a bit late in the season but may have to go for it.