Gettin' Made: Contreras to Popular Belief…

I'm really excited to share this indie artist and crafter with you; Melissa Contreras of Axelhoney is one of the reasons I got into the indie craft scene to begin with. We used to work together at t-shirt company Mighty Fine–while we we designed all kinds of licensed character tees during the day, I was always really impressed with everything she had going on with her own work on the side. We shared a table as the Lady Scouts at the holiday 2006 Felt Club and Bazaar Bizarre events in Los Angeles, and I was hooked!

After the jump, learn all about this influential artist and enter to win one of our best giveaway prizes yet!


OC Weekly: Tell us about your daily life – what's your day job these days? That's sparked some growth in the things you're making for your Etsy shop, right?

Melissa Contreras: I am working at a local jewelry store–Accents Jewelry on Main Street in Santa Monica. I work there 4 days a week, so I have some extra time to work on personal projects on my days off.  My ideal is to be making a living off of my art, working for myself. The owner of Accents is a jewelry designer himself, and most of the people working there are inspiring jewelry designers. He is very supportive and truly wants us to succeed. We get to take his lost wax carving workshop and he is always there to give us advice and answer any questions.

OCW: Anything you'd like to share about you and your family?

MC: My husband is really supportive of me, and he has allowed me to do what I do. It's pretty amazing; I know how lucky I am – a suffering artist who works part time, has health insurance, and lives a bike ride from the beach. Don't get me wrong, we are not living like fat cats. But we are comfortable living within our means and we make it work. And if I need a little help paying the bills or am feeling a little down and defeated he is always there to help me out and lift my spirits. My mom has always been very enthusiastic and encouraging about my pursuits, even though I know there was a time where my parents preferred I got a degree in biology… There was a time when I considered a career as a lab plate artist. With the advances in technology, that field is probably obsolete now.

On the next page, find out how long Melissa's been doing what she's doing.


OCW: How long has your Etsy shop been around? Do you sell your wares in any shops around southern California?

MC: I think I've had an account since Etsy was in Beta; I didn't actually set up shop until a couple years later. I wish I started using it sooner! I love it. I alway read their “Quit Your Day Job” articles and dream that someday it'll be about me! I don't currently have my stuff in stores, but a few great boutiques that have carried my stuff are The Kids Are Alright in Long Beach and Flock Shop in Chinatown near downtown LA.

OCW: How long have you been making things? What are the first things you can remember making?

MC: For as long as I can remember. I can remember my mom cooking play dough on the stove. God's eyes, friendship bracelets, seed bead bracelets, stained glass ornaments, dough ornaments, weavings, tie-dyed clothes. Maybe one of the strangest things, making a doll with the head made out of an apple, that was carved and left to shrivel to look like an old lady. I did that at a special afternoon event at our neighborhood library. Now, thinking back, I guess my mom really had me involved in a lot of crafty things. One wall of our dining room was covered floor to ceiling with my, as well as my brother's and sisters', art work. I also went to a school where we had art class once a week. I learned about perspective, negative space, composition – the most valuable art classes I have ever had. 

OCW: Your work has such a brightly whimsical feel to it while being slightly dark at the same time – what are your inspirations for your paintings? Is there an overall message to your work?

MC: Talking about my work and myself is one of the hardest things for me to do. I think there is an undercurrening theme of feminism in a lot of my work, about being a women. Being sweet, innocent, vulnerable, strong, mischievous and capable – all at the same time. It's also about celebrating imagination. The power to believe that anything is possible as long as you can dream it. That is what is so fun about drawing. You can draw anything, ANYTHING. There are no limits. I have been told that it seems I have created a different world where all these characters and places I have imagined and painted live amongst one another. And it's true, there is this little world in my head where all these things exist. I would love to one day really expand on that and flesh it out. The written word has never been my strong suit so for now I am content to convey it in little glimpses, little disconnected pictures.

OCW: You've been working on illustrating a children's book – tell us about that! When does the book come out, and where can we buy our copies?

MC: It was quite an experience. It was hard work, but I learned tons about the process and can't wait to see it in print. I haven't really shown anyone any of the illustrations; I can't wait to show it to all my friends and family! The name of the book is “Butterfly's Circus” and the author is Nikki Goldstein. It should be out this February. Since it's coming from Australia, I'm hoping it will be available at least, on Amazon; I will also be selling it through my Etsy store.

On the next page – inspiration and copying, and Melissa's thoughts on crossing the line. 


OCW: Did you know you're one of my main inspirations to start Hearts and Laserbeams? What are your thoughts on your own work sparking the creativity of others?

MC: Aw, thanks, Steph! I am so honored to hear that! It's just plain flattering. I always thought I was never good enough at art. I never imagined living as an artist. I saw a lot of people around me who were super talented with tons of potential and not really taking advantage of it. It really just takes blocking out those negative thoughts and going for it. Well, also a ton of hard work and persistence, too. I've worked so hard, sometimes I can't help but think the Universe really owes me, and I hope I get some payback soon. But mainly, I am just super grateful and the cherry on top is that I may actually be inspiring others to pursue their dreams, too.

OCW: In relation, do you see a lot of copycats out there that make things that look like other people's stuff? What do you think about it?

MC: There's a lot of creativity floating around out there, mixing together. Especially, today, we are all so connected. It is easy for a lot of people to be tuned into the same thing at the same time.  I think there is definitely a lot of sharing and inspiration that goes on. I am definitely inspired by what I see and I am aware that some things that come out of my brain are inspired by something I have seen in the past, even if I don't remember. I try and be totally honest. I definitely strive for pure (unattainable?) creation and to be totally unique.

It does bum me out to see people who have been heavily influenced by another artist. Copying is the worst. It goes against everything that it means to be an artist, to be creative, a creator. Personally, there have been times when I come across things that make me think….. hmmm, that look's VERY familiar. BUT I try not to waste too much time thinking about it. The only thing you can really do is keep creating, keep being yourself, making unique things. That is something no one can steal from you, your creative self. Everything is so easily attainable out there, you have to accept that you may be a victim of pirating. I think some people waste too much energy worrying about who's copying who. Of course, there are some situations where it necessary to take action but many times, you know…blah blah blah flattery.

On the next page – Melissa chats with us about the past, present and future of her work. 


OCW: List some of the different mediums you've worked in over the years. If you had to pick one favorite, what would it be?

MC: I've always loved plain old drawing. Sketching or doodling is my favorite. It's funny, I remember in high school being terrified of three-dimensional art. But in college I got involved in ceramics and really enjoyed it, I would like to work in clay again. I also took a miniature set design class in college. I LOVED it. Making silicone molds and working in miniature–probably one of my most influential experiences from college. A few years after graduating, I was working as a Graphic Designer. I really wanted to find a focus in my personal art. Much like I inspired you, I was working at the time with Tracy of Happy Owl Glassworks. She was my inspiration and I knew I wanted to come up with my own little crafty niche. She introduced me to and  a lot of other craft sites.

I was really drawn to the Qee bears that were popular at the time. I loved how each one was so unique, it could be decorated in so many different artist's styles yet still had the unifying quality of the same shape.  I thought doing something similar to this might help me focus my own work and kind of figure out where I wanted to go with it. I came up with my own Qee inspired bear shape, made a silicone mold and started casting my own polyurethane little “berrs”. The possibilities were endless, coming up with different possibilities was so much fun. I hand cast, sanded, primed, painted, and varnished each one. The time and effort (not to mention inhaling all those toxins) was crazy for the amount I sold them for. I then started making one of a kind tiny little mushrooms and other little characters-basically the same thing I was doing before but just cut out the toxic part and each one was uniquely shaped as well. The time and effort was crazy for the amount I sold them for. Are you seeing a pattern here? I just have no business sense. Seriously.

At the same time I was making paintings, as well. I started with acrylics and got introduced to gouache by a coworker. Gouache has probably become my favorite medium. I love how easy it is. Just add water. To start with a blank piece of paper and just build layer upon layer. And a lot of times, half way through I think the paintings total shit and I just keep working on it and working on it and eventually, (if I'm lucky) it all starts to fell right.

OCW: You've done a lot of great things with your art so far – what's next for Axelhoney? What are your big dreams for the future?

MC: I would love to have a line of products. Someone who I've always admired is Beci Orpin, creator of the brand Princess Tina. She has always had her hand in a lot of different ranges of products. Tees, clothing, bags, jewelry, vinyl toys, stationery. Yeah, that's what I would REALLY love to do. Well, I have done that, on a very small hodgepodge scale. Design things and have them produced and marketed. I mean, I love the idea of one of a kind, handmade, originals, and I would love to still do those, too. 

OCW: What's your favorite project been so far? Least favorite?

MC: One of my favorite projects has been designing a window display. I did it a few years ago for a show I had at  Black Market Boutique in West LA. I made 4 life size paper maiche people with bird masks and created a branch for them to sit in and the background. I still have those little birdies and still use them for shows and such. I get to come up with displays at the store I work at now, it's really fun and I like to use unconventional materials. Least favorite? Probably having to work for someone else. Translate their vision. I think I've found by voice and I want to be able to use it. May sound pretentious but it just doesn't sound genuine, doesn't feel honest or true when it is not my own voice.

On the next page, where you can catch Melissa's work in person and enter the giveaway for an original necklace!


OCW: Do you have anything coming up that you'd like to share?

MC: Axelhoney Jewelry will be available for wholesale early next year. If anyone knows of the perfect shop to carry my work, please let me know! 

Some if the shows I'm participating in soon:

•”3 Apples – A celebration of 35 years of Hello Kitty”  October 23rd – Nov. 15th. I am super excited to be part of this show at Royal T Gallery in Culver City. It is being curated by the lovely Jaime of JapanLA and I'm so glad she asked me to participate. I have worked with Hello Kitty making tons of tee shirt designs before, it'll be so fun to be able to put my own spin on her!

•”Wild Things” October group show at Headquarters Galerie N Boutique in Montreal. In celebration and inspired by the book and upcoming movie, “Where The Wild Things Are”

•”The Gift of Giving Show” — a benefit art show for smile train, planned and curated by the ever-giving and ever-elusive woolloomooloo.

And I am going to be featured in a few books coming out soon:

•From Uber books:  “Uber Games” and “Designers Playground“. “Uber Games” will be filled with artist's interpretations of their favorite video games and “Designers Playground” is all about showing artist's workspaces. 

•From Monsa: “Ultimate Illustration 2” compiled of illustrations from artists around the world.

Thanks so much for sharing your artwork with us, Melissa! She's got one more thing to share, and it comes in the form of an awesome giveaway! Comment on this blog post before midnight on Friday, September 4, and you'll automatically be entered to win a free Double Snake silver necklace by Melissa Contreras! This cast sterling silver necklace is valued at $52 dollars so get to commenting!

You're welcome to comment and discuss as much as you like, but one entry per person will be allowed. If you've won a giveaway in the last 30 days you'll be ineligible so others have a turn at greatness.

For more information on Melissa Contreras, you can visit her website, etsy shop or twitter. Got a lead on a store that would love her jewelry? Email her.

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