[Alyson Kuhn] At the beginning of April, I made my first visit to Ashland, Ore., to attend the Shakespeare Festival, which was magnificent. I took a backstage tour that was truly inspiring. But the best set in town wasn’t in a theater — it was on Main Street, where Papaya! Living had opened just the week before. Yes, in Ashland. I had a chance to chat with artist-owner Anahata Katkin on her first day off in six weeks.
Papaya’s expansion — I’m tempted to say ascension — has been remarkable. Can you look back to your beginnings?
Papaya started in 2003, when the National Stationery Show was still upstairs and downstairs in the Javits Center. There were hundreds of designers on the lower level showing really creative and juicy work. Now the Show is so much smaller, and it’s more for the big players. You have to be able to afford to be there. We chose not to exhibit there this year so we could be part of a broader focus. The markets have all changed a lot in the last 10 years, and being in a more diversified trade show is important for Papaya. But we respect and honor the Stationery Show forum — I’d just love to see more independent designers return.
Design-wise, when we started, most things were minimalist modern or a tiny illustration in the middle of a big blank card, maybe a little letterpress. People would look at Papaya and ask, “What are you doing? What’s with all these colors?” We were aligned with the explosion of maximalism, and we met up with the market as it changed. I think it was just supposed to be: Everything coincided.
Cards and paper goods came first, then we expanded onto other surfaces. People wanted the artwork in their lives. We’ve done giclée prints since the beginning, when we were in Los Angeles. Manufacturing things overseas has completely changed the way we do business, the way we think. Doing wall décor overseas has really opened up the whole world for us.
Papaya’s look is so distinctive. Do you think knockoffs are in the offing?
The knockoffs are in the pipeline — they are coming as we speak. Fortunately, we were ahead of the curve, and the pack hasn’t caught up yet. But the card knockoffs are definitely here. By the time people are better at it, I’ll have developed a new style by evolution. But knocking-off is not a form of flattery, it’s plagiarism. I think emerging artists should work ethically, to respect those who inspire them.
How would you describe the interior and the merchandise of Papaya Living?
Creative abandon! Now when you ask, “What is your inspiration?” we can reply, “Let us show you!” It’s a “lifestyle treasury.” Many things in the store are from other vendors that I think are like Papaya in their approach. From exhibiting at trade shows for years and years, we’ve built up a good repertoire of people we want to work with for the store. It’s great. We don’t have to make everything. There are so many people who are good at what they do — and passionate about it. Let’s celebrate what they are up to.
I try to stay involved in all the buying and all the design decisions, with support from staff of course. We weren’t sure if we should do small town or big city, and we thought about Portland, which is similar to Ashland, only bigger. I’ve always tended to be a free spirit, to jump in … it’s a bit unusual for me to approach things from a mental place. It was a bold move to stay in our small town, but staying put has the least impact on the business and on our lives — we have so much support.
Has your creative process changed as Papaya has grown?
I moved out of the office! I don’t like people seeing my process — it stifles my energy.
I create about 30 primary images per quarter now. It used to be closer to 20 biannually. I do the main first thing, and then the team takes it and turns it into the other products. This year, for example, the calendar concept [for 2012] is within the artwork. Everything has my stamp.
I tend to work in batches, and people will say, “Ana’s on the wave!” I tend to have two weeks of being incredibly productive. I think designers can be hard on themselves. We use the analogy of musicians working on an album, when the creative impulse is flowing really strongly … and then they go into marketing mode.
And what about creative input?
The team influence is important as we expand. We now have two cooks in the design kitchen: Mindy Carpenter, who is so talented and an incredible powerhouse in our industry, and me, Ms. Eccentric Artist Person. Plus our actual design staff — so we have a lot of influences and opinions now. It’s a natural growth.
Do you send a lot of cards?
I don’t, but I buy a lot of cards. I keep them for inspiration. I am a huge collector of anything visual. I am not a big letter writer — I spend a lot of time on e-mail.
Flowers are a big element in your art. What do they evoke for you?
They are another passion of mine. I sold flowers retail at one point. I’ve always done art, ever since I was a kid. When I was around 19, I got into naturopathy, iridology and holistic health, and I segued into skincare. I worked as a facialist. Now I know it was for myself — learning to take care of myself. I like the idea of trying to inspire people to live in a way that’s a little more tactile and beautiful and kinesthetic.
Deep in your brain, is there a Papaya Day Spa?
I did think about various concepts for Papaya Living … I thought about a Papaya store with a flower shop and a spa. I’m in love with the tropics — and I may work these aspects in. Our company has always been very impulsive and intuitive and followed our gut. It’s an unusual “formula.” We don’t follow the rhyme or reason of other companies. It’s been eight years now. I’m still pretty prolific, and trying to ride the creative waves!
Papaya! Living is located at 33 N. Main St. in Ashland, Ore. Papaya products are currently distributed in 11 countries, with the strongest presence in the U.S., where you can find Papaya in nearly every city — and online at www.papayaart.com.