Katharine Leary is the founder and designer behind On Lilac Lane Designs and she brings a modern twist to the mid-century artwork known as string art. Each piece is made on reclaimed wood and is inspired by her love of Minnesota and various holidays. Katharine has been perfecting this craft for about six years and is going to be a vendor at Junk Bonanza this fall with over 250 unique string art pieces, DIY kits, and free demonstrations on her craft.
You can meet Katharine and see her work at the upcoming Junk Bonanza at Canterbury Park from September 26-28. This interview was happily conducted in collaboration with Junk Bonanza, an event for purveyors and shoppers of vintage finds, beautiful antiques, and artisan-repurposed pieces. When you visit Junk Bonanza, be sure to stop by Katharine’s setup to say hello and shop her beautiful creations. More info and tickets to Junk Bonanza available here!
Talk about the beginnings of On Lilac Lane Designs. What inspired you to begin this endeavor?
Honestly the beginnings of On Lilac Lane Designs started off very innocently. It was my junior year of college and Christmas was about a month away and I had no idea what to get my friends for presents. I was on a very tight budget and I really wanted to make each of them something personal and heartfelt. After poring over Pinterest for hours, I found an image for a 1970s bright orange owl string art piece. My interest was immediately sparked and soon enough I was at Fleet Farm buying some wood boards, wire nails, and white string. I gave each of my friends a string art piece of their home states and it was an absolute hit. I never would have imagined that those presents would have resulted in me having my own little business.
And it never would have even started if it wasn’t for my mom. My mom is part owner of an amazing antique store in Chaska, MN called Shop 501, and with some convincing, I soon had my own space to sell my artwork out of. I was going to college full time and filling my space every month at the shop and it was a lot of work, but I had so many great women supporting me. I really cannot express enough how much they did for me while I was selling my work from their awesome store. Right around my (super) senior year of college I stopped selling my work and focused on graduating and getting a job. But I always missed having that creative outlet and bonding experience with my mom. So being a teacher and having summers off, I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to start my business back up and take my work to Junk Bonanza. I have helped my mom at Junk Bonanza for years and I love how each vendor is unique in their own way and to be a part of this show really is such an exciting opportunity.
Have you always been creative? What forms or channels have you explored in your creative journey?
Being creative has always been a huge outlet in my life. Some of my earliest memories are drawing pictures at the kitchen table in my family's old house with my mom. When I was in school, I always gravitated towards my art classes. I loved that I had a place where I could be completely comfortable and express myself. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when my art teacher had a conversation with me about turning my love of art into a career. It never even occurred to me that I could have a job that could be centered around art. I was completely certain I wanted to a job related to art, but I wasn’t sure what type of job would be best for me. I tried graphic design, industrial design, and even thought about majoring in studio art and being an artist full time. I was struggling to find the right fit and my mom was the one who suggested I try an Art Education course. I come from a family of teachers, so I thought, why not? After the second day of class I knew I was hooked. So after a few years of college, I am officially on my second year of being an Art Teacher at Plymouth Middle School. Even though I make my string art as an outlet for myself, I think my greatest creative channel is through my students. Even if my business were to end tomorrow, I know that I am still constantly opening doors for my students to find their own inspiration. And with any luck, one day one of my students will look back on their own art career and remember me and how I helped them get there.
Do you typically seek reclaimed wood materials as a medium in your work? In general, what do you find interesting about the materials you use?
I am proud to say that every single one of my pieces that I have ever made has been done on reclaimed wood. I was really fortunate to have my business grow in a community of strong, creative, antique loving women who constantly supported me and brought me amazing reclaimed pieces. My string art has been made on old cabinet doors, salvaged bookshelves, floorboards, barn doors, 100-year-old school house wall boards, and of course, any red barn wood I can get my hands on. It really makes me excited to hear the backstory of where my wood comes from. For example, I met this great couple this summer who rescued wood from their great grandparents schoolhouse that was built on their family farm. They built and ran this school themselves, and together, brought education to thousands of kids in that rural community. I like to imagine that each piece of wood I find has lived its own sort of life journey and by repurposing it into my artwork, I am giving it a new life. One hopefully long lived in a loving home.
How does living in Minnesota influence your creativity or the work that you do?
Growing up in Minnesota, I think I underappreciated its value. The winters are insane, the summers can be hot and humid, we get random monsoon-like storms, and overall I didn’t really feel a connection to the state I lived in. When I started looking at colleges, I wanted to move to any other state I could think of with a good Graphic Design program. But as the time got closer and closer for me to leave for college, my school search got more and more local. I settled on the University of Wisconsin-Stout and lived in Menomonie, WI for six great years. But as soon as I could see graduation was around the corner, I knew my future was back in Minnesota. I think my time away, even though I really wasn’t all that far away, made me appreciate Minnesota more. I now have this bizarre proudness of the state I grew up in and love that I can incorporate that into my artwork. I think any person who lives here shares that same feeling of community over our state. It is with this sense of community where I find inspiration in my state themed string art. I really enjoy the idea that my fellow proud Minnesotans can buy one of my pieces and have it up as decor in their home to show off to the world.
What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve made? What makes them special to you?
As much as I enjoy making my Minnesota string art, I always tend to gravitate towards my holiday themed work, especially Christmas. Ever since I was a kid, Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I love shopping for presents for my loved ones, the music, going to the tree farm and finding the perfect tree, and above all, I love decorating my home for the holiday. I think it is because I love that holiday so much that I enjoy creating my holiday pieces. Knowing that someone else is going to decorate for their home at this special time of the year using my artwork is such a rewarding feeling.
There’s so much to learn along a path like this. What advice could you pass along to someone who is struggling with their creative path that you wish someone had given to you?
I think a piece of advice that I would have appreciated in times of struggling would be that it is so important to make something creative, no matter how small, every single day. It doesn’t even need to be completely related to the medium you are used to working in and can be as simple as making a doodle on a scrap piece of paper. Being artistic/creative is such a healthy outlet that not enough people utilize. There were times in my life where I was going to school full time, working a full time job, taking care of my dog, and nurturing my relationships—and I just had this ridiculous amount of pressure constantly holding me down. I had completely strayed away from being creative and expressing myself, and this would have been the perfect time for someone to have told me to go back to my creative roots and utilize that outlet. Thankfully today I do give myself those daily moments to do a quick sketch, make some string art, color in my sketchbook, and to just take a breath and recenter myself.
Do you feel like making and creating through your business allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself?
At the beginning of the school year, I always start off my classes with a presentation on myself and my class for my students. I think it’s important that students see teachers as human beings with their own lives, hobbies, and interests. And by sharing who I am with my students, I want them to see how I stay creative outside of work, which is through my string art. I show them pictures and I bring in examples so they can hold my work in their hands and ask me any questions they can think of. So when I see my students getting inspired by the artwork and my small business, I feel like in that sense I am contributing to something larger. I even have a few students who have made their own string art at home or have started their own small “business”. It can be such a struggle to figure out who you are as a kid and I really want to set the example that you should be who you are, do any hobby or sport that you enjoy, and always find inspiration to be creative regardless of what anyone might think or say.