Artist Spaces: Duluth woman turns home into a full-sized screenprinting press
You are invited to Natalija Walbridge's house-slash-studio, probably. The artist has a habit of telling the people who visit her booth at craft fairs and art shows to stop by, visit her Park Point home — and a few times a week, people take her up on it, she said.
But don't expect to kick back and settle into the sofa. Walbridge got rid of much of her furniture to make way for the full-sized screenprinting press, sewing station, computer desk, light exposure box and utility table that dominate the main room of the 900-square-foot home.
It's one thing to say she creates artisan waxed bags; It's another for customers to see that every step of the process happens under her roof. Thus, the open invitation.
"If people see this, they'll get it," Walbridge said during a recent visit.
Walbridge, under the name Dock 5, creates functional art: messenger bags, totes, dopp kits, yoga mat carriers, meditation pillows — each with her own hand-drawn regionally themed design. It's the relatively new collection by a Duluth native who worked in the fashion industry and then decided to start her own creative business.
'I was so amazed'
Walbridge, who is originally from Duluth, left for San Francisco when she was in her 20s to pursue a career in the fashion industry. Along the way, she was a design manager for Levi Strauss & Co., and an instructor at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. She also designed activewear.
She was still living in San Francisco when she bought the house on Park Point in 2000 as a retirement destination, but her plans changed when she was laid off in the mid-2000s.
Walbridge weighed what she could have in northern California, where studio spaces were getting smaller and more expensive, versus what she already had in northern Minnesota — a little bayside house opposite Hearding Island with a wide-open front room and good lighting.
It was all she needed, she said, to start her own business — making functional art screenprinted with her own hand-drawn designs. It took a week to fill the house with the large pieces of equipment that she acquired, mostly, online and through friends.
"I really used every square inch," Walbridge said. "I measured and planned and visualized, but even, so I was amazed."
Obliterating the living room
Almost all of Walbridge's home is designated workspace. The six-station screenprinting press is off the entryway near the front picture window. It has a red, square base with the name Ethel painted diagonally. Twelve arms extend like a merry-go-round.
She has an industrial walking foot sewing machine, with an industrial-sized spool of dark thread, which butts up against a white light box that is bigger than a storage freezer. She has a small desk near a north-facing window where she sketches her designs using Adobe Illustrator — and also works on the freelance projects that subsidize the art. At the back of the room, there is a work table large enough to cut fabric and tough enough to withstand pounding.
The space doubles as a dark room — which is crucial for when she exposes the screens. All of the windows have blackout curtains with magnets to hold the cover tight against the window frame. Artist Esther Piszczek was at a neighboring booth during an art fair and then later stopped by Walbridge's studio to purchase a bag. She was awed by the setup.
"She started from scratch and obliterated her living room," Piszczek said. "It's amazing what she creates in there. Her product is such high quality."
During a recent visit, Walbridge, 53, said she hadn't had a day off in more than a year. Don't ask how long it takes her to make a single bag. It's her least favorite question. The easy answer is an hour or 90 minutes. But:
"I laugh because it took like 40 hours to draw the (Aerial Lift) bridge, a couple hours to make a screen, a couple hours to cut the fabric to get it ready for printing," she said. "It's like asking a chef how long it takes to make dinner. You've been making it for days. This had to freeze, this had to simmer."
In addition to maintaining her stock, she also travels to art fairs to show her work. She has a regular, all-encompassing freelance gig with a sake company, and she's done work with Duluth Coffee Co., and Vikre Distillery — which both carry some of her products.
"It's been the scariest thing I've ever done, starting this business," she said. "Every single day, I reflect on how to find my courage again and again. I've let go of my full-time paycheck for the first time in my life. I'm trying to build a future for myself."
On the other hand, Walbridge said she feels like she is firing on all cylinders all the time.
"From freelance to sewing to coming up with new artwork, I'm using all the parts of my brain," she said. "I do my own marketing and accounting. Right now, I'm figuring out some new printing practices and thinking strategically about how to get through the next year financially.
"Everything I decide is going to make or break me. But I trust in myself and what I know. The talents and skills you develop in a lifetime, they don't go away. It's a matter of figuring out how to apply yourself. I know I have what it takes if the world will give me a little opportunity."
For more of Natalija Walbridge's work go to dock-5.myshopify.com or follow Dock 5 on Facebook.