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Sarah Reed McNamara

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I grew up in a small town called Fox River Grove, Illinois. I cannot talk about myself without talking about where I grew up because it shaped me. I loved growing up there. My earliest memories are of being outside with the freedom to play, violets in the backyard, my favorite forget-me-nots growing in the creek beds and watching the water spiders swim through the creek.

My childhood was not all charmed, there were some very difficult parts, but my philosophy has always been “forward and persist.” Resilience was born in me early on, which shaped me as a woman and informs all that I do as a mother, partner, artist and business owner.

I did not grow up in a feminist house per se and, for a large chunk of my early life, I didn’t have my voice. My high school years were fun, wild and full of transitions. In the middle of high school, I moved to Rockford, a new, larger city, which was a challenge, having grown up in a place where I knew everyone. I still remember the anxiety of eating lunch alone on the first day of school, but I kept my mantra: Forward and persist — you can do this. I was creative and loved the arts, and preferred quiet activity.

I found my worth working 20 to 30 hours a week at a retail store, while in school. I craved the independence that working gave me and loved to do retail displays and inventory and learn from my managers.

College is where everything came together for me — I loved it. I had an affirming realization of myself, and for the first time, I felt my worth. I could excel in my college courses, not just with grades but as a person. As a first-generation college student, my experience was a long one, but I would not change it. I always loved taking scenic routes, so that’s exactly what I did — it took me 10 years to complete college and graduate.

Early into my college experience, it became clear that I would be financially responsible for my education, and I began to balance working to pay for school and studying. I started at Rock Valley College, where I earned my associate degree, then spent time at DePaul University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying history. My time at UW Madison was met with peak burnout. I was overworked, depressed, confused and needed a break. I finally listened to my intuition and decided to drop out. I knew I would go back to college, but I needed to set the path.

A few years later, in 2008, I met my husband at an art fair (love at first sight!). We married in 2011. One of the kindest, most supportive and optimistic people I know, he knew of my struggles with college and how much I wanted to go back. He made it clear that he was there to help me with my goals. I decided to apply to Rockford University and, upon acceptance, decided on a double major in art history and history.

Though a creative person, I had never taken any formal art classes. I didn’t even draw for fun! I was scared but decided on Printmaking 101, as I knew the professor’s wife and she had encouraged me.

My life would be incredibly different if printmaking and I hadn’t found each other. One studio course at Rockford University change the entire trajectory of my adult life and career. I was able to continue taking printmaking electives to fulfill my studio courses and was simultaneously drawn to printmakers in my art history studies, specifically German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, Elizabeth Catlett, and Mexican printmakers of the Taller de Gráfica Popular.

After graduating in 2012, I took a full-time nonprofit job but continued to work at my printmaking. I had a dream that someday I could make it a full-time career — if I found the right avenues.

I was working on a new collection of linoleum block prints when I was invited to do my first solo show at a local cafe. This is when SRM Prints was born. The day before the show, I realized I would need business cards and social media handles — so I typed out my initials, followed by “Prints,” and there we were!

After that, I began to show my work more frequently, taking opportunities that came my way (never feeling I was too good for something), while learning to market myself. I also opened an Etsy shop.

In 2015, I became pregnant with my daughter (born 2016). I had a very tough pregnancy, was put on bed rest, and had to leave my nonprofit job. I even took a hiatus from printmaking, because I couldn’t do anything!

The first couple of months of raising a newborn (my daughter was a preemie) were exhausting, but I began to feel my creativity grow and develop. I continued to make linocut prints at home, and was teaching myself textile printmaking, utilizing our dining room table as my workspace. I began by hand-printing onesies, swaddles and clothing for my daughter, and eventually printed kitchen towels, linens and yardage. My brain could not rest.

When my daughter was 6 months old, I felt ready to be back in the classroom and audited a printmaking class at my alma mater. I was planning large-scale prints for an art show, and it was perfect timing to get studio time.

A month later, I found myself expecting again, with our son (born 2017). While I was surprised, it was very welcome and it didn’t hold me back. I had an easier pregnancy this time around and managed to power through the creation of large print blocks for the show.

Then, while still pregnant, I was invited to do a large-scale textile installation and prints for a summer exhibition at the Rockford Art Museum. I said “yes,” without hesitating — only to realize the install was planned for a few weeks after my son’s due date.

With the incredible support of fellow artists and the museum curator, I was able to accomplish the entire project, bringing my newborn son to install with me every day. You never know when an opportunity will be given again, so you make it work.

After the exhibition, my business began to rapidly grow, both online, through social media, and through participation in art fairs and markets. I was beginning to see real earnings. I moved into my first studio space in 2017, which had room for my two main printmaking practices — linoleum block printmaking and textile printing. It was time to separate the practice from the home and treat it like work.

Two of my hardest years of work building my brand were 2018 and 2019. My kids were young, but I knew that to grow a handmade business, hard work and long days were needed. I put myself out there and applied to more competitive art markets. Fortunately, I was accepted to everything I applied to.

During those years, I spent every weekend from October to Christmas at art fairs and markets. I also worked nights a lot — usually until 2 a.m. during the week — because I didn’t want to miss out on time with my kids during the day. I cannot underscore how much physical energy printmaking takes, from muscle memory to endurance.

All the hard work paid off: I was able to build a strong customer base, make friendships with other makers and business owners, and find a community of folks I could relate to.

Seeing a need for more artist opportunities in our city, another maker and I began to host handmade events and pop-up shops. We went on to form an artists’ collective — GEM: Gather, Engage, Make — establishing ourselves in a storefront in Rockford’s historic downtown. We moved our maker spaces inside and offered a curated retail section of artist-made goods.

I ran the retail storefront; and over the course of four years, GEM hosted numerous events and workshops and leased studio spaces to women artists. I grew a passion for running a brick-and-mortar and, in December 2022, I became the sole proprietor of the storefront.

But I began to feel overwhelmed running the large space alone and felt it was time to take the next step with my printmaking business, which would mean a new storefront and moving away from the collective. Though my kids were getting bigger, I still wanted to be with them every day and realized that I could make this work for us—if I did it my way.

One day I walked by a neighboring business that had moved. Seeing the storefront empty, I saw it in an entirely new way and fell in love with it, visualizing what it could be. I signed the lease and spent June and July of this year preparing the new storefront, while closing out the other one, all while running my handmade business.

SRM Prints Studio + Gift Shop opened August 1, and it is my absolute dream! Opening day was incredibly heartwarming, seeing my community show up to the space that is fondly called “the colorful shop on the corner.”

Through thrifting and vintage sales, I sourced every special fixture and display in the shop and spent day and night curating the storefront, printing textiles and planning the build-out for opening day.

I didn’t go into the move with a planned budget (I don’t know that I recommend this!), but I worked week to week to make it happen. I kept the faith that each week, I could get to the next.

The storefront is inviting. I want people to feel happy when they come in and for my customers to embrace handmade items. I sell my print work, made in-house, along with curated artisan-made gifts, letterpress prints, ceramics and stationery goods.

I run my shop family-style. That means my kids are often here. They belong here. I created the sweetest kids’ spot in a front window display for all kids to play in when they are here with their families.

Being an artist-operated brick- and-mortar means that I have learned to stop apologizing for what I cannot do (this has been a huge growth point for me), like being open 24/7. I try to open six to seven days a week, but I’m the only employee — and life can happen. The shop hours during the week are based on school days and my family’s life balance. I won’t miss my kids’ childhood.

I want other women to feel empowered to do things their way — you can be a success on your terms and your people will find you. I also want other makers to see the timeline of how it happened for me. It wasn’t an overnight success, which social media can mislead folks to believe. It was a gradual success that took shape over many years of dedication to developing my craft.

My business challenges are always related to time. I rely on block scheduling my calendar, creating daily task lists, and setting high production goals. If I don’t meet them, I still have my short goals attained. I have learned to set boundaries with myself and others. Saying no is not my strong suit, but I am working on it. I allow myself long lead times for custom projects, since I am balancing a household, studio and storefront. My next goal is to give myself more time off.

I’ve never had investors (besides my customers!), or small business loans, outside of what my husband and I put into SRM Prints for materials in the beginning. My business has been a “from the ground up” endeavor, coming to fruition by my hands, heart and brain. My textile practice feeds the business and allows me to create a sustainable business model.

I get scared often. Sometimes I dive in too deep, without having a plan. I can be impulsive, but I always listen to my intuition. Running a small business is hard and I am always learning.

I ask myself questions every week: Will this be a busy week? Will I make it? Should I be working every weekend, away from my kids and partner? What can I do better? How can I let those who offer to help, help? Am I supporting other local businesses enough? Why is my house always a disaster!?

One of my greatest challenges is asking for help, but I am getting better at it. I get lost in my head and feel isolated, but that is when I realize I need to talk to one of my maker friends and my husband. It’s my goal to hire an employee soon!

If I could give any advice to other makers or small shops, it’s to trust your intuition — no one knows you as well as you do! Create a circle of trusted individuals who will listen to you when you need it and return the favor when the time comes. Supporting other creatives and small businesses is imperative for this journey. We are stronger when we are all thriving and supported.

My anxiousness ebbs and flows, but I remind myself that I have created a career from printmaking, from my ideas. I am living a life now where I am the adult, the creator, the parent and I choose to feel gratitude for this life. I am filled with happiness every day that I get to walk into my shop and do the work — often with my family by my side.

I grew up in a small town called Fox River Grove, Illinois. I cannot talk about myself without talking about where I grew up because it shaped me. I loved growing up there. My earliest memories are of being outside with the freedom to play, violets in the backyard, my favorite forget-me-nots growing in the creek beds and watching the water spiders swim through the creek.

My childhood was not all charmed, there were some very difficult parts, but my philosophy has always been “forward and persist.” Resilience was born in me early on, which shaped me as a woman and informs all that I do as a mother, partner, artist and business owner.

I did not grow up in a feminist house per se and, for a large chunk of my early life, I didn’t have my voice. My high school years were fun, wild and full of transitions. In the middle of high school, I moved to Rockford, a new, larger city, which was a challenge, having grown up in a place where I knew everyone. I still remember the anxiety of eating lunch alone on the first day of school, but I kept my mantra: Forward and persist — you can do this. I was creative and loved the arts, and preferred quiet activity.

I found my worth working 20 to 30 hours a week at a retail store, while in school. I craved the independence that working gave me and loved to do retail displays and inventory and learn from my managers.

College is where everything came together for me — I loved it. I had an affirming realization of myself, and for the first time, I felt my worth. I could excel in my college courses, not just with grades but as a person. As a first-generation college student, my experience was a long one, but I would not change it. I always loved taking scenic routes, so that’s exactly what I did — it took me 10 years to complete college and graduate.

Early into my college experience, it became clear that I would be financially responsible for my education, and I began to balance working to pay for school and studying. I started at Rock Valley College, where I earned my associate degree, then spent time at DePaul University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying history. My time at UW Madison was met with peak burnout. I was overworked, depressed, confused and needed a break. I finally listened to my intuition and decided to drop out. I knew I would go back to college, but I needed to set the path.

A few years later, in 2008, I met my husband at an art fair (love at first sight!). We married in 2011. One of the kindest, most supportive and optimistic people I know, he knew of my struggles with college and how much I wanted to go back. He made it clear that he was there to help me with my goals. I decided to apply to Rockford University and, upon acceptance, decided on a double major in art history and history.

Though a creative person, I had never taken any formal art classes. I didn’t even draw for fun! I was scared but decided on Printmaking 101, as I knew the professor’s wife and she had encouraged me.

My life would be incredibly different if printmaking and I hadn’t found each other. One studio course at Rockford University change the entire trajectory of my adult life and career. I was able to continue taking printmaking electives to fulfill my studio courses and was simultaneously drawn to printmakers in my art history studies, specifically German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, Elizabeth Catlett, and Mexican printmakers of the Taller de Gráfica Popular.

After graduating in 2012, I took a full-time nonprofit job but continued to work at my printmaking. I had a dream that someday I could make it a full-time career — if I found the right avenues.

I was working on a new collection of linoleum block prints when I was invited to do my first solo show at a local cafe. This is when SRM Prints was born. The day before the show, I realized I would need business cards and social media handles — so I typed out my initials, followed by “Prints,” and there we were!

After that, I began to show my work more frequently, taking opportunities that came my way (never feeling I was too good for something), while learning to market myself. I also opened an Etsy shop.

In 2015, I became pregnant with my daughter (born 2016). I had a very tough pregnancy, was put on bed rest, and had to leave my nonprofit job. I even took a hiatus from printmaking, because I couldn’t do anything!

The first couple of months of raising a newborn (my daughter was a preemie) were exhausting, but I began to feel my creativity grow and develop. I continued to make linocut prints at home, and was teaching myself textile printmaking, utilizing our dining room table as my workspace. I began by hand-printing onesies, swaddles and clothing for my daughter, and eventually printed kitchen towels, linens and yardage. My brain could not rest.

When my daughter was 6 months old, I felt ready to be back in the classroom and audited a printmaking class at my alma mater. I was planning large-scale prints for an art show, and it was perfect timing to get studio time.

A month later, I found myself expecting again, with our son (born 2017). While I was surprised, it was very welcome and it didn’t hold me back. I had an easier pregnancy this time around and managed to power through the creation of large print blocks for the show.

Then, while still pregnant, I was invited to do a large-scale textile installation and prints for a summer exhibition at the Rockford Art Museum. I said “yes,” without hesitating — only to realize the install was planned for a few weeks after my son’s due date.

With the incredible support of fellow artists and the museum curator, I was able to accomplish the entire project, bringing my newborn son to install with me every day. You never know when an opportunity will be given again, so you make it work.

After the exhibition, my business began to rapidly grow, both online, through social media, and through participation in art fairs and markets. I was beginning to see real earnings. I moved into my first studio space in 2017, which had room for my two main printmaking practices — linoleum block printmaking and textile printing. It was time to separate the practice from the home and treat it like work.

Two of my hardest years of work building my brand were 2018 and 2019. My kids were young, but I knew that to grow a handmade business, hard work and long days were needed. I put myself out there and applied to more competitive art markets. Fortunately, I was accepted to everything I applied to.

During those years, I spent every weekend from October to Christmas at art fairs and markets. I also worked nights a lot — usually until 2 a.m. during the week — because I didn’t want to miss out on time with my kids during the day. I cannot underscore how much physical energy printmaking takes, from muscle memory to endurance.

All the hard work paid off: I was able to build a strong customer base, make friendships with other makers and business owners, and find a community of folks I could relate to.

Seeing a need for more artist opportunities in our city, another maker and I began to host handmade events and pop-up shops. We went on to form an artists’ collective — GEM: Gather, Engage, Make — establishing ourselves in a storefront in Rockford’s historic downtown. We moved our maker spaces inside and offered a curated retail section of artist-made goods.

I ran the retail storefront; and over the course of four years, GEM hosted numerous events and workshops and leased studio spaces to women artists. I grew a passion for running a brick-and-mortar and, in December 2022, I became the sole proprietor of the storefront.

But I began to feel overwhelmed running the large space alone and felt it was time to take the next step with my printmaking business, which would mean a new storefront and moving away from the collective. Though my kids were getting bigger, I still wanted to be with them every day and realized that I could make this work for us—if I did it my way.

One day I walked by a neighboring business that had moved. Seeing the storefront empty, I saw it in an entirely new way and fell in love with it, visualizing what it could be. I signed the lease and spent June and July of this year preparing the new storefront, while closing out the other one, all while running my handmade business.

SRM Prints Studio + Gift Shop opened August 1, and it is my absolute dream! Opening day was incredibly heartwarming, seeing my community show up to the space that is fondly called “the colorful shop on the corner.”

Through thrifting and vintage sales, I sourced every special fixture and display in the shop and spent day and night curating the storefront, printing textiles and planning the build-out for opening day.

I didn’t go into the move with a planned budget (I don’t know that I recommend this!), but I worked week to week to make it happen. I kept the faith that each week, I could get to the next.

The storefront is inviting. I want people to feel happy when they come in and for my customers to embrace handmade items. I sell my print work, made in-house, along with curated artisan-made gifts, letterpress prints, ceramics and stationery goods.

I run my shop family-style. That means my kids are often here. They belong here. I created the sweetest kids’ spot in a front window display for all kids to play in when they are here with their families.

Being an artist-operated brick- and-mortar means that I have learned to stop apologizing for what I cannot do (this has been a huge growth point for me), like being open 24/7. I try to open six to seven days a week, but I’m the only employee — and life can happen. The shop hours during the week are based on school days and my family’s life balance. I won’t miss my kids’ childhood.

I want other women to feel empowered to do things their way — you can be a success on your terms and your people will find you. I also want other makers to see the timeline of how it happened for me. It wasn’t an overnight success, which social media can mislead folks to believe. It was a gradual success that took shape over many years of dedication to developing my craft.

My business challenges are always related to time. I rely on block scheduling my calendar, creating daily task lists, and setting high production goals. If I don’t meet them, I still have my short goals attained. I have learned to set boundaries with myself and others. Saying no is not my strong suit, but I am working on it. I allow myself long lead times for custom projects, since I am balancing a household, studio and storefront. My next goal is to give myself more time off.

I’ve never had investors (besides my customers!), or small business loans, outside of what my husband and I put into SRM Prints for materials in the beginning. My business has been a “from the ground up” endeavor, coming to fruition by my hands, heart and brain. My textile practice feeds the business and allows me to create a sustainable business model.

I get scared often. Sometimes I dive in too deep, without having a plan. I can be impulsive, but I always listen to my intuition. Running a small business is hard and I am always learning.

I ask myself questions every week: Will this be a busy week? Will I make it? Should I be working every weekend, away from my kids and partner? What can I do better? How can I let those who offer to help, help? Am I supporting other local businesses enough? Why is my house always a disaster!?

One of my greatest challenges is asking for help, but I am getting better at it. I get lost in my head and feel isolated, but that is when I realize I need to talk to one of my maker friends and my husband. It’s my goal to hire an employee soon!

If I could give any advice to other makers or small shops, it’s to trust your intuition — no one knows you as well as you do! Create a circle of trusted individuals who will listen to you when you need it and return the favor when the time comes. Supporting other creatives and small businesses is imperative for this journey. We are stronger when we are all thriving and supported.

My anxiousness ebbs and flows, but I remind myself that I have created a career from printmaking, from my ideas. I am living a life now where I am the adult, the creator, the parent and I choose to feel gratitude for this life. I am filled with happiness every day that I get to walk into my shop and do the work — often with my family by my side.

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