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Made in Chicago: 16 Sparrows

By Jess D'Amico in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 7, 2008 9:45PM

2008telegraph.jpgSome of us aren't sure how we ended up in Chicago, but it did call to us, and before we know it, we were unpacking our suitcase and calling it home. This happened to Donovan Beeson, 25 and Kathy Zadronzny, 26, proprietors of 16 Sparrows, a digital source for all things paper. Both ladies found themselves drawn here from warmer climates, Savannah, Georgia and Miami respectively, during the blizzard of 2003 and have never looked back.

16 Sparrows was Kathy's creative outlet aside from her corporate gig, but she soon found that the shop had grown so much she needed the help of her roommate, Donovan, creating more customized design work and together managing the shop. Everyone loves getting handwritten letters, but the designs on 16 Sparrows run from the classy telegram (pictured) to snarky cards. We want to buy a bundle so whenever the urge to write comes along, we have the perfect stationary at our fingertips, especially if it says, "Congratufuckinglations."

Kathy and Donovan shared with us girl scout memories, healthy cynicism, and life as a shut in.

Chicagoist: How do you make your art stand out from everything else out there?

Donovan: It’s a constantly evolving process, but Kathy and I tend to make the things we want for ourselves because they just aren’t available in the market. Kathy wanted to send something to a friend on a telegram; so she designed the Telegram stationery. We take a lot of inspiration from vintage design and then we add a bit of our own spice to it, with a healthy dose of wit and cynicism.

C: Where do you want to go with your art? Where do you see yourself in five years?

D: I currently have a full-time job other than 16 Sparrows and my individual art. While I don’t have a specific 5-yr-plan, I really want to be moving away from the full-time, pay-my-bills job and let art pay my bills. I want to focus more on illustration and handmade, one-of-a-kind pieces. Oh, and to work more and more with the Letter Writers Alliance.
Kathy: Donovan and I pay more attention to what we want to do with 16 Sparrows now and any future plans we have for the shop revolve around new products. I’m currently completing an MA in Art History, which has influenced a historical nostalgia to my designs. I would like to keep going in that direction and try to influence people to simplify their life, take time to enjoy design, and write more letters.

C: How did you start making stuff?

K: I was always sewing my own clothes and making my own books as a kid. Craft was always part of my life and ended up making a career of design and advertising. I wasn’t too pleased with working for a big firm and continued doing my crafts on the side to keep my creative side going. I never thought of making a business out of my cynical crafts until one night I just sat down at the computer and over the weekend made a little online shop. I didn’t think it would actually go anywhere – I just wanted to have a creative outlet outside of my 9 to 5 design job and thought I would only get a couple of orders a month. That was in October 2003 and by 2004 the shop was getting so many orders I had to ask my roommates to help me silk-screen envelopes, cut cards and package orders.
D: I was always a crafty kid. My father recently sent my old Girl Scout sash to me, and it has a proudly displayed Arts & Crafts badge on it. However, I got into the stationery business because of Kathy. When I moved to Chicago, she was my roommate and she ended up needing some help from time to time with her growing business. When she took off for grad school, she asked me into a partnership with her. From there, I’ve been developing my own things and doing more custom design work through 16 Sparrows.

C: Why is the sky blue?

D: I also have a Science badge on that sash. The sky is blue because that is the spectrum of light that is reflected back to us by the atmosphere, basically.
K: What she said.

C: What does your process look like?

K: Two girls in the midst of a pile of papers with a bottle of wine.
D: Generally, Kathy or I have an idea and we work on it and then send it to the other for suggestions. It’s mostly Kathy doing the main design work. I say things like “Can we make this blue?” and “Move that to the left.” Sometimes if there’s an illustration involved, that’s generally my department. I start with sketches and then work my final together through lots of different layers of tracing paper.

C: Tell us a secret. . .

D: I’m afraid of telephones and vacuum cleaners and large crowds.
K: I’m petrified of driving a car. (And no, I no longer own one.)

C: What's the Chicago art scene look like?

D: Honestly, I haven’t any idea. I’m a shut-in. I do participate in a monthly meeting for the Etsy Chicago Street Team, but that’s as scene-y as I get. We talk about crafts and craft culture, but a lot of our world is the nebulous Internet and not entirely Chicago specific. However, Chicago is a great city for crafts. There are tons of great stores like Greer and Paper Doll that will work with small sellers. And we have a lot of great fairs, notably Renegade Craft Fair.
K: You would think I would know being an art history geek, but like Donovan I don’t have time to go out and see artsy things (besides the craft scene) and any art I focus on is street art and graffiti since that is what my thesis is on. I leave the music and theatre planning to my boyfriend and just go along to what he’s picked-out. From what I have seen, Chicago is very nurturing to new artists and there are so many opportunities and happenings occurring all the time. I always tell my design friends that are just starting out to move to Chicago because it seems that the industry here is willing to give artists a chance.

C: Where do you see that culture going?

D: Personally, I feel like the Handmade Movement is only going to grow. It’s all about the growing consciousness of the consumer to want to know about who is making their items and where those items are coming from.
K: Because of how receptive the city and art industry is, I think both the art and craft scenes will continue to grow. People are more aware of the elements that go into creating a work or product and the people of Chicago are very proud of their city and what their peers produce. This type of environment will only foster new and exciting work.

C: Any advice for artists just starting out?

D: Only to keep at it. When I first graduated from college, I was convinced that I would never make a living with my art. I’m still not there, but it does get closer and closer all the time.
K: Do what you can to get near what you want to do. If you have to intern or volunteer or even sweep the floors in the company/gallery you want to work for, do it. It will get you close to the people you need to know to get where you want to go. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself, email people you admire for advice and go to symposiums/gallery openings/where-ever to meet people in your field. Most importantly, do what makes you happy and feels right to you.

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