Studio Visit with Leah Duncan


Welcome back to the Studio Visit series! I'm excited to share with you a chance to peek inside the brains and hearts of some major talents as they trek along the uncertain path of creativity and make beautiful, impactful work along the way. Today I'm happy to introduce you to Leah Duncan! I'm not sure exactly when I first saw Leah's work, but I was immediately drawn to the beautiful colour palettes and playful motifs. A bit of that Texas sunshine really does shine right through her work!

This past summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend ICON9, an illustration conference that was held in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately timing didn't work out for Leah and I to do a in-person studio visit, but she was very generous to offer to do the 'studio visit' from a far. I find Leah's work and the numerous collaborations she has done to be infinitely inspiring. She also happens to seem like a pretty wonderful person too! So, without further ado, please meet Leah Duncan.

(A note about the photography: Normally I take the photographs for the studio visit series, but in this case, the photos are from what Leah sent me or from her website).

Introduce yourself. How would you describe yourself as a maker/creative? How do you spend your days?

I’m a self-taught designer and illustrator. I live in Austin, TX where I love the sunshine and tacos. I’m mostly inspired by my love of nature and my surroundings in my east austin neighborhood as well as the flora and landscapes of the southwest. I started out selling my work on Etsy and that quickly evolved into a textile and art collection that I sell in my online shop and in retail stores. I also release several fabric collections a year as well as collaborate with companies who license my surface patterns. My work has been in Urban Outfitters, Target, the Land of Nod, Schoolhouse Electric, Hallmark, and O’neill to name a few. 

These days I spend my time balancing motherhood with my 9 month old daughter and maintaining this amazing career I’ve worked hard to build. It’s been the very happiest time of my life but also incredibly challenging as I take on this new role as mom, which for me, will always take precedence over work.

Briefly describe your journey. Were there some pivotal things that helped propel you to where you are now? (Perhaps there were some struggles that you see, in hindsight, helped you get to where you are now?)

My career has been more about small moments than pivotal ones. Every day that I’ve woken up and done this thing that I love doing and kept doing it no matter what - that is what has gotten me to where I am now. Every struggle from sewing a broken zipper to switching to a new fabric representative have helped me get to where I am because as a small business owner and artist you face challenges almost every day. Not letting them stop you is what makes you successful, so you just have to keep going!

Your colour palettes and designs are so vibrant and full of life. Had you been developing this style through different mediums before you delved into the world of textiles?

I started as an illustrator selling my drawings in 2008. This was after working as a graphic designer for a few years after college. As a graphic designer I’d always found myself drawn to pattern and used it whenever possible in my work. As a child my doodles always seemed to be in groupings or with some sort of flow. Because I love seeing my work used commercially and on tangible goods it seemed like a natural progression to start delving into surface pattern design which led me to creating textiles.

What has your journey been like working with brands and licensing your work?

It’s been a big learning process! I decided ultimately to move forward without an agent after my first few contracts because I felt I could negotiate and handle that side of things on my own. That said, it’s taken many years to get a handle on all of the business aspects and navigating the many personalities you work with when working with a large company. On one hand it’s amazing because I get to create things I’m unable to do on my own, like bedding, rugs, and clothing. I don’t have to handle manufacturing of those things and payment is a simple royalty rate or design fee. The downside is losing creative control of the whole process which means seeing some projects end up differently than I would have intended. I think at this point I’ve built my brand so I’ve been able to get art directors to trust my point of view. That’s when collaborations have worked best for me. I hope I can continue on that path moving forward and focus on working with companies that are the best fit for my work and as a good friend once said,  "like my work for my work".

Do you have any rituals or a routine that helps ground you & primes your creative mind?

I used to run and do yoga which kept me focused and balanced. Now that I’m in mom mode I have less time for that, but a giant cup of coffee helps. : )

Fear and uncertainty seem to be an innate part of the creative process. How do you confront your fears, instead of letting them stop you?

I start every project with incredible anxiety over whether I will be able to translate my ideas or tell my story as I’d intended. Then, as artists, we put our work out in the world to be judged. It’s a very vulnerable thing art. It’s scary. So, yes, we artists really do have to overcome our fears to put pen to paper and create something we’ve put our hearts into. I’ve had many projects not turn out the way I’d intended, but for me, it’s all a part of the journey and most of the time I end up somewhere much more beautiful. Keeping that in mind and knowing I’ve always made it through in the past, plus pure love for my craft, is what keeps me going.

What kinds of activities/interests do you have outside of your actual art practice, that you feel informs or inspires your work? (or maybe just contributes to a richer life)

A lot of eating because I’m married to a chef! Traveling, spending time outdoors, dancing in my pajamas, and eating a lot of chocolate. Really just enjoying life as much as I can, soaking it in like a sponge, and wringing it back out into my work.

I’m a sucker for good quotes. Do you have a favourite you’d like to share?

Nothing will work unless you do.
— Maya Angelou

Any exciting projects that you are working on?

New fabric collections and a stationery line with a major gift retailer, but my biggest focus right now is being a mom.

Thank you Leah!

You can view more of Leah's beautiful work here: