This year, at Thanksgiving, I’m compelled to reflect on the year behind me, even though it’s not over yet. That’s because so much has changed for me this year, in a way I’m especially grateful for.
At 36, I feel more complete than ever before in my life. Not because anything is finished. Quite the contrary, I have this amazing feeling that things are just beginning. It’s just the foundation that feels complete. Many times over the last (almost) 7 years, since I relocated to the Netherlands, it’s been heavy lifting. But I chose this life. I think I chose it because I knew it would be hard … to start my life over again, in a new land and a new language.
In February of 2007, I took a one-way flight from New Amsterdam to Old Amsterdam. And I made a deal with myself. When I set foot on this side of the ocean, I wouldn’t speak English, a language that, after 30 years, felt like a form-fitting suit lined with cloud fleece. If something was going to come out of my mouth, it would be in Dutch, a language which I’d been studying once a week for a couple of years. In New York City, I’d found a native Dutch speaker who met me in Starbuckses all over Manhattan, sending me home with long lists of vocab. And I studied, I did, but I had a head full of words and no idea how to put them together. I had a box of beads, but no string, no clasps … no grammatical grasps.
I don’t know why I was so adamant about quitting English cold turkey (a fitting phrase for this time of year, don’t you think?) I had visions of immersing myself in Dutch for 6 months, at the end of which I would awake from a Dutch dream, knowing myself to be truly ‘fluent.’ Oh, how warped was my notion of learning a second language?? All these years later, I’ve only woken from a number of Dutch dreams (a number I can count on two hands) and what they all had in common was a feeling of stress and struggling to express myself.
What happened in those early months is that I started to say a lot less. I couldn’t express complex thoughts in Dutch. Telling stories was highly challenging; telling jokes was all but impossible. I didn’t know how to say things, so I didn’t say them at all. My personality changed: I became quieter, more serious.
At 30 years old, I was starting over, laying down the first stones of a new foundation. In my new world, I felt like I child. There were so many things I didn’t understand, so many ways in which I felt out of my depths. Everyday tasks of doing groceries or going to the post office forced me to confront my incapacity, my uncertainty. Standing in line, I would look up just long enough to observe that the Dutch people around me were so much better adapted to their surroundings than I, with their native language skills and their totally sick biking abilities. I ejected myself from conversations the way I ejected myself from my bike seat on the Brouwersgracht, for fear of making mistakes, for fear of crashing.
While I disengaged from the outside world, I was escaping to an inner one, where I had another language. It wasn’t English, it wasn’t Dutch, it wasn’t even made up of letters or words at all. It was a language of images, of colors and forms, textures and patterns. It wasn’t a new language for me, but the way I needed it was new.
This led me, in 2010, to establish Ellie Cashman Design. I started designing surface patterns for an agent in the US and an agent here in the Netherlands. I loved it, and whenever our two daughters (Ruby, then 2.5 and Juliette, then newborn) were at daycare or asleep, I was at my laptop (I can’t believe it now, but my first designs were done on a laptop with a 17″ screen. How spoiled I’ve become since then, with a 27″ iMac and a large Wacom tablet!)
Anyway, this thing called surface design seemed to combine my fine art and graphic design background. But it was such a big field, and I was just beginning to explore its many possibilities – to design for fashion, home interiors, wrapping paper, stationery products, quilting fabrics, tech products, you name it! I was looking at blogs like Print and Pattern and Pattern Observer and I was overwhelmed by all the inspiration I found there. I tried to emulate lots of styles as a path to finding my own. That’s what I was doing then, finding my style, experimenting with the technology – hardware and software – to see what was possible. Selling a design here and there.
Because it was something I did in my ‘free’ time, something I loved to do and did for myself (not for a boss) and because I wasn’t making any money to speak of, it still felt like a hobby. It was hard to explain to people what I was doing. I had no finished products to show. When my agents sold my work, it was out of a portfolio of dozens of other nameless designers. I was anonymous. I felt disconnected. I knew I wanted to get to these trade shows myself, that no one would do a better job of representing me than I could, but with two young kids at home, I didn’t have the time resources to create the volume of work that would make going to a trade show worthwhile. My big goal for 2013 was to do Surtex for the first time (a few months before Nathan was born) but halfway through the pregnancy I decided to take that pressure off of myself and I canceled my booth reservation.
Then, unexpectedly, in April of 2013, several months after I’d posted it, an image of one of my dark floral wallpaper designs went viral on Pinterest. I started getting several e-mails a week from people who wanted to know where they could buy it. At that time, I was talking to a potential manufacturer. I’d been waiting for years to be ‘discovered’ by a manufacturer, and it looked like it was finally going to happen! But then that partnership fell through. I think because the interest I was receiving via social media gave me the confidence to ask for an advance, which scared the manufacturer off. I’m so happy about that, in hindsight, because each week brought more e-mails.
At first, I didn’t know what to tell people. The wallpaper wasn’t available, yet, but I was working on it. I thought, “OK, if there are actually people out there who want to buy it, maybe I could look into having it custom printed.” And I posted a discussion on the Dutch Designers’ Association Group on LinkedIn, asking if anyone had good experience with wallpaper printers. I got lots of good tips, several of which I followed up on, and I ended up with a fantastic partner, a printer with a lot of experience, even a bit of a specialty, in wallpaper. The team there has since contributed to my creative process in ways I couldn’t have imagined! It changed everything when I started to design for a specific product, for a specific context and industry. My early work was missing that. I needed a focus, and in the early summer of 2013, I knew it was wallpaper.
In August, I started shipping out my first rolls of that dark floral wallpaper, and in the months since I’ve tracked packages online as they’ve boarded trucks, trains and planes on their way to other continents (5 so far!) I watch, literally in a state of giddiness and awe, as the wallpaper journeys from loading points to check points to delivery points. The UPS guy and I are becoming fast friends, as he’s patiently teaching me best practices in printing shipping labels, customs invoices and running a little business from the storefront of my front door.
This has been the perfect primer period leading up to the launch of my web shop, which really should be this coming week. The builders say they’ll be done by Tuesday. Then we’ll run a couple of tests, and be live by Friday. And, as I think about that, as I look back on the last (almost) 7 years and the last year in particular, and I feel incredibly thankful for what feels like the completion of a foundational stage, I think about a particular moment on a particular day of this past year.
It was in the early morning hours of August 19th, around 1:00 a.m. I was in a hospital parking lot, climbing into the passenger side of our silver minivan. My husband was in the driver’s seat, and our new baby Nathan, only three hours old at the time, was strapped into his car seat behind us. It was pitch dark and there was no one else around, just our two maternity nurses in their cars behind us, ready to follow us home. In the Netherlands, there are no hospital stays after normal, uncomplicated births. They send you home as soon as you can stand up again. That may sound strange, but the trade off is these maternity nurses who come and care for you for 8 days in your home. It’s a good trade, as there is just nothing like your own bed, especially when you’re cuddled up with your newborn in it, and someone is bringing you breakfast in it
When I closed the car door in that hospital parking lot, my husband and I were alone for the first time since all the delivery room drama had gone down. Suddenly, there were no doctors, midwives, or nurses telling us what to do. So there we were, in the darkness and the silence, searching for words while the still images from those few preceding hours rolled by on a mental reel.
We didn’t know anything about Nathan before he was born, besides that he got hiccups a couple times a day and kicked most at night. We chose not to know his gender. Because, we said, we’ll know it someday, and sometimes in life it’s actually nice not to know. And so we spent 9 months wondering, as we’d done with his sisters before him. In that way, I think our kids were just dreams to us, so abstract, until the moment they were there, and we could see and touch them, name them, and drive home with our dreams in the back seat. Healthy. Boy. That moment had come (again) and it was incredible.
In the silence, we scraped our minds for the words to describe it, and the word that came was “complete.”
And then there was nothing more to do but hit the gas, and go.
And that is how I feel now, about my family and about my work. The foundation has been laid. I’ve spent the last few years digging the hole, gathering the stones and putting them in place. So much of the activity was underground and unexciting, but at the end of 2013, I feel I’ve reached the surface, am maybe even breaking it and starting to build on top of it.
In 2013, there was an image, and behind that image, I found words again. I’m engaged in conversations, with my customers, my photographer, my printer, my web builder. On this side, I have something to say, and a language with which to say it.
Last Wednesday, after Ruby’s ballet class, one of her classmates gave us a baby gift. We came home, put Nathan in bed, and Ruby and Juliette did the honors of opening ‘his’ present for him. It was a book called Meneer (Mr.) René by Leo Timmers.
We quickly settled into our spots on the living room couch, with Ruby on my right arm and Juliette on my left, and started to read the story of Réné, a dog who is a painter. He goes to the market every weekend and tries to sell his paintings, but no one ever wants to buy them. One day, a magic man shows up and tells him that if he cuts his paintings out, they’ll become real. So he cuts out a painting of an apple, and in an amazing instant, he’s holding a real, edible fruit. Then he rushes home and paints cars and planes and big house, which he’s sitting in a short time later when a rabbit named Rose comes to the door and rings his bell, asking to buy one of his paintings.
He says he doesn’t paint anymore, that he doesn’t have any paintings to sell, and he sends Rose home empty handed. But that gets René to thinking, and eventually, he paints a painting of the magic man, cuts him out, and asks him to reverse the spell, so that his paintings will no longer come to life. Then he paints a regular old painting – a painting of a rose – and he heads off to the market and gives it to the rabbit named Rose.
To me, the message is: having things that you can keep is great and all, but given the choice, wouldn’t we all – as Réné did – give those things up to have one thing that we can give away?
I feel so lucky to have cast my line of life questions into a pool of possibilities, and to have had these answers come back to me. I feel so lucky to know what it feels like to bring life into the world. Nothing will top that. But as an artist, a respectable second place goes to knowing what it feels like when a rabbit named Rose rings your doorbell.
And now there’s nothing left to do but hit the gas, and go.