Skip to content

U.S. orders $50+ ship free

Previous article
Now Reading:
My decision to stay small: a surprising insight from field guide artist Roger Tory Peterson 🌱
Next article

My decision to stay small: a surprising insight from field guide artist Roger Tory Peterson 🌱

This month has been a true whirlwind. We moved into our creaky, quirky 120-year-old home in Elkins, West Virginia, I traveled to Allegheny National Forest for a week to begin work on an illustrated map for the forest's Centennial, I turned in my book’s manuscript, AND I spent a week in the archives of acclaimed field guide artist Roger Tory Peterson for an artist residency at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. Phew!
As I pored over Peterson’s original paintings, writings and books during my residency, I stumbled upon a New York Times interview from when he was in his 80’s, just a few years before he passed away. 
Here is the excerpt that struck me as especially profound:
“To hear him tell it, the field guides are his burden. "Slavery," "a jail sentence" and "drudgery" are some of the ways Mr. Peterson describes the meticulous work that keeps him tethered to his studio, painting miniature bills and feathers. "I've been forced into it because I am known for the field guides and everybody wants more and more," he said.
He would rather devote his time to travel or to full-scale bird portraiture -- he has done hundreds of Audubonesque paintings -- instead of the tiny book illustrations. His large bird paintings place birds in their natural settings, whether marshes or mountains, and tend to be richer in detail and more evocative than the utilitarian illustrations. It has been a lifelong tug of war: between the "high" art he studied as a young man… and the guides that made him famous -- and rich.”
-from the 1993 article, In The Studio With Roger Tory Peterson; Reluctant Earthling

Well, that's a lot to swallow! Here I was on the first day of a week-long deep dive into this man's work, and now I know that he felt trapped by a lot of the work that he did for the ~50 books that he illustrated. It was only later in his career that he did more of the work that he wanted to do, and by that time he was at the end of his life. But instead of depressing me, these short sentences from Peterson felt like a gentle confirmation about a shift in my career trajectory that I recently made. 

A little backstory: The retail side of my art business has grown steadily over the past few years, and now my fine art prints are sold in independent brick & mortar shops all around the U.S. Last year, we began chatting with distribution centers to see if outsourcing shipping might be a good next step. But there were just a couple of things that didn’t feel right. First, it would cost A LOT for this service. This would mean that there would be added pressure to create and sell more products to account for that additional cost. Second, I would lose some of that personal connection that I feel with my shops and customers as I fulfill each order. 
Part of me was excited about designing new items and expanding the business. Maybe I could eventually create a full stationery empire, live that “boss babe” entrepreneur life that has been so glamorized by bloggers and Intagrammers over the past 10 years. I brainstormed new nature-inspired products that we could create (puzzles, journals, wrapping paper, greeting card sets, fabric collections, oh my!) and came up with a 5-year plan to make it happen. 
But when I started to imagine what day-to-day life would actually look like if we delved more fully into product creation, I realized that these changes would likely mean hiring employees, having lots of meetings, and pouring even more energy into marketing to make sure we were actually selling all these new products that I was creating. And you know what I realized? I like the life that I have right now. 
I like writing hand-written thank-you notes to my customers. I like getting to close my shop from time-to-time in order to do artist residences. I like keeping my expenses low so that I don’t feel the pressure to make tons of sales. I like being able to dive deep into book projects for a year at a time without the stress of running a demanding business at the same time. Now that I really think about it, one of my favorite things about my business is the smallness! 

It’s so easy to get caught up in doing things just because we 
could or should do them. I’ve experienced this phenomenon in other aspects of my art career, too. Early on, I decided to try my hand at teaching in-person watercolor workshops. I soon realized that while these were rewarding experiences, they were also exhausting and stressful for my introverted self. 
So, I decided to create some online painting classes and an instructional watercolor book so that I could share my painting tips in a way that felt like a better fit. And the funny thing is that as soon as they came out, people wanted more and more! It's was flattering, but I knew that the spark simply wasn’t there to crank out an entire series of instructional watercolor books and online classes one after the other. Right now, I’m most motivated by writing and illustrating nature books about the things I find outdoors and ways I’m learning to connect more deeply to the natural world. 
I think that this lesson applies to everyone, no matter our profession. How often do we find ourselves doing things that just fell into our laps? When we do something that other people respond well to, it’s easy to feel an obligation to keep doing that same thing. It almost feels selfish not to! But here’s the thing: We can actually serve others more fully and sustainably when we tap into our creativity in ways that energize us instead of depleting us.

So how can we avoid getting sucked into things that seem like we should or could do, but that actually deplete us? 
  1. Think about how that project or commitment will affect your day-to-day life. Do you feel energized when you consider this kind of life, or does it exhaust you?
  2. Are there ways that you can dig deeper roots with your existing projects and commitments instead of taking on something new?
  3. How can you create and serve in a way that fits your personality type and energy levels?
And while I’m grateful to Peterson for the hard work he put into making nature literacy more accessible to us all through his field guides, I think he also could have had a great impact on the world by leaning into making the artwork that filled him up instead of depleting him. And I think we can all learn a little something from the words of wisdom that he generously shared at the end of his life.


So last week, we prepared a spare bedroom in our new home to become the new “warehouse”, the shipping room where we process all my orders. The room isn’t huge, so we had to get creative with a shelving arrangement that would maximize the space and allow for organized storage and shipment of my art prints. I’m keeping this side of my business small for now, because that’s what feels healthiest for me. At some point, we might totally outgrow the space and need to figure something else out, and I'll probably create new products every so often when the time feels right. But for now I’m grateful to run this cottage business and nurture deeper connections with my current customers. 
Thanks for reading. I'd love to hear if any of this rings true for you in your own life!




Your cart is currently empty.

Start Shopping

Select options