Shelby Abrahamsen
Artist

Giving in to “irresponsible” art

When Shelby allowed herself to do the “irresponsible” thing and add some color to her bullet journal, a small rebellion of art turned into a career.

When she was very little, Shelby received crayons for almost every birthday and holiday; mostly because she kept eating them:

I like to say that's where I was really infused with the creative thing.

She can’t remember a time where she wasn’t figuratively (or literally) devouring and creating art.

I've been doodling on my homework since as far back as I can remember, and I've had people telling me since I was really young that I should be an artist when I grew up.

iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-painting-lettering-close-upBut while her family told her one thing, society told her another:

Society tells you that artists are starving, that they're waiting tables, that they’re irresponsible, that they're drug addicts.

And then of course there's people who make it. But for every successful artist there's 10,000 hopefuls who didn't find their big break.

I loved the idea of going into the arts, but I never felt like it was really an option.

Instead she thought it could be a fun hobby and took every art class she could find in middle and high school.

But when it came time to go to college, she chose a practical route and majored in Human Factors Psychology.

“Society tells you that artists are starving.”

She’d thought about pursuing a more creative major, but “I was terrified and I wasn't ready to commit that many hours and that much work for something that I really didn't think was going to get me anywhere.”

She focused on psychology and let her artistic side fade away:

For pretty much the entirety of my college career I almost didn't do any art.

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“Art didn't feel responsible.”

Shelby still bought sketchbooks in college, but they remained empty.

I struggled with feeling inspired – or I'd get that feeling of being inspired without any particular idea of what I wanted to do with it.

iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-with-dog-and-red-journalI’d have all the energy, but nowhere for it to go.

And so I would be overwhelmed with all these different decisions of should I draw this or should I paint that? Then by the time I finally came to a decision, the time was gone and I had to get back to doing whatever I had to do.

Also, art “didn't feel responsible.”

It wasn't “productive.”

I wasn't cleaning, I wasn't doing homework, I wasn't making money, I wasn't doing anything except something that I enjoyed.

But that didn't feel like enough of a reason to commit time and energy to making art.

iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-painting-close-upSo while she focused on her very practical college classes, one final she had to complete opened up a little room for creativity: creating a website for a graphic design elective.

She started a blog and named it “Little Coffee Fox,” one of those internet names chosen for innocuous reasons, the creator never dreaming it would last very long. Shelby chose this one because she’s “little” (five feet) and always loved foxes and since littlefox.com was taken she tried adding other words she liked and “coffee” was available.

It was such an arbitrary decision and then a whole business was born around it.

“It was the most scatterbrained blog ever.”

But the business would come later.

For now, the blog was simply a creative outlet to make up for all those empty sketchbooks.

Then it became her lifeline when, after graduating college, she got married and moved to Illinois where her husband Jon had been accepted to law school.

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She was lonely.

She had plans to go to a very specific graduate school to continue her psychology career plan, but since that school wasn’t in Illinois she was in a three-year holding pattern until her husband finished law school.

To bide time she got a part-time job as a research assistant at the local university and worked at a boutique gym as the receptionist. She blogged on her off time about whatever was interesting her that week – like cooking or leather crafting.

It was the most scatterbrained blog ever.

It was a fun creative outlet, though. For a while anyway. Until the lack of an audience made her second guess herself.

No one cared. No one was reading it. I don't blame anyone at all, I wouldn't read it. But it was really disheartening. So I kind of stopped after a while.

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No longer blogging, she didn’t do much else aside from her two jobs.

Even though I had two part-time jobs, I still had a lot of time – and there was a lot of time with me just sitting around while Jon was at school.

I honestly don't know where months of my life went.

I was just kind of floating.

After a while, I realized I was sick of not having a direction, of being reactionary every day.

I was not working toward anything.

To help, she turned to bullet journals.iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-looking-at-notebook-and-dog

“I don't know if I want to try again.”

Shelby had tried the bullet journal system for planning and goal setting off and on, but they never really stuck. This time, though, something clicked. This time, she found creating a bullet journal could also be fun, engaging another side of her she’d long tried to ignore.

Her earliest bullet journals had been nothing but bare dotted paper and black ink lists.

But one day, after she realized she was sick of that feeling of not working toward anything, she started using color in her bullet journals.

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I started playing around with a little bit of pretty lettering. I started adding a little bit of doodles here and there. I started caring about that and allowing myself to do that “irresponsible” thing.

Her bullet journals transformed into little rebellions of vibrant art, and since her medium was also a productivity tool, she was able to quiet the voice in her head that said art was a waste of time, at least long enough to add some more color.

By then her blog had died. In 2016 she got an email notifying her that the domain – LittleCoffeeFox.com – was about to expire.

Even though she still felt the sting of no one reading or caring, she still wasn’t ready to let the domain go.

I kind of had the grudging like, “Oh, you know, maybe, maybe I should do something with this; maybe I should try again before it completely goes away.”

I was skeptical because I was rejected. So I felt a little bit like, “Eh, I don't know if I want to try again.”

Her husband convinced her to give it another try; maybe write another post and see how it feels?

That's when I wrote my first post about the bullet journal.

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Shelby started an Instagram account for the first time too and shared that article on it. It got 12 likes – and she was ecstatic: “Is this what validation feels like?”

Twelve real people. For her, that was enough.

She kept going, and her traffic grew – her blog getting thousands of views each month.

People loved her bullet journal content and especially the artistic touches she brought to the medium. And all those blank sketchbooks she’d collected over the years slowly but surely filled with color. Her most popular blog post? “30 ways to use a blank notebook.

Her blog even started to make money too. A little, anyway.

She tracked revenue in one bullet journal, and was so excited the first month she was able to write that she’d made $17 in profit.

I was just over the moon because who would have expected that money to come to us? Like, we don't have to pay for this but we've got money for it? Blew my mind.

But not enough for her to change her plans. It was only $17 after all. It was time to apply to grad school and study for the GRE.iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-writing-working-creating

“If it’s making me miserable, maybe just maybe this isn’t for me?”

“I hated the GRE,” Shelby remembers. “I took it three times and I hated every freaking minute of it. I hated every moment of studying for it.”

“Once I let go of that restriction, I felt incredible.”

But she kept studying and retaking the test because she wasn’t getting the very high score she needed for the prestigious program she wanted to apply to.

After she got her scores from her third try and was about to face studying for the fourth time, she thought:

If I'm avoiding studying for this as much as I am, if I keep talking about how much I hate it, if it’s making me miserable, maybe just maybe this isn’t for me?

It was a really hard thing to realize because you have a path you've set for yourself and then you have to admit that it's not working and you don't like it.

It just goes to show that the idea that you have in your head might not necessarily line up with reality.

But once I let go of that restriction, I felt incredible.

It was terrifying, but it was amazing because I suddenly didn't have to try to fit myself into this mold anymore.

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And, as her blog continued to grow, she couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if she let go of the plan she’d always had and invested more in her blog.

I had no idea where it was going to go, but I knew it made me really, really happy.

“It just fueled the dang fire for making me really want to quit.”

Shelby continued working her two jobs and blogging for the next six months, unsure of what would happen next, but enjoying the process.

But when her receptionist job at the gym unexpectedly turned into a cleaning job, she really started to question her path.

I'm in my nice slacks cleaning toilets in the back and I have this big ancient Ghostbusters vacuum that I'm having to clean this enormous gym with. I hated it. It just fueled the dang fire for making me really want to quit.

It inspired her to work on the blog even more. What if $17 could turn into more?

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She started an email list and gave away printables and other bullet journal and lettering resources.

But when it came time to actually send an email to that list, she hesitated.

Even sending an email out to a list of 400 people was heart thumping, sweating. Just terrifying.

But she did it anyway, and realized that what seemed so scary was actually a direct line to a community of people who loved art as much as she did and also struggled with perfectionism and artistic allowance.

People have gotten exceptionally personal and it just goes to show the level of connection that people feel with email.

As her audience grew, so did the business. After almost two years of blogging, she was able to quit her jobs.

And though her husband graduated from law school and passed the Bar exam, inspired by all she was doing, he decided to not get a job as a lawyer and instead work with her, becoming a partner and co-owner of LittleCoffeeFox.com.

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“Yeah, you care about it. So what?”

But the biggest dream come true for Shelby is the ability to express herself confidently – something she never felt comfortable doing before.

Because for most of her life, she shares, her passion and enthusiasm made her feel like a burden to others:

I used to be timid, awkward, and afraid to share my passions with people around me. Experiences from my childhood and teenage years made me feel like my excitement and passion were an annoyance to people.

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While traveling once with a friend, Shelby was excitedly pointing out all the things she was loving and inspired by and her friend turned to her flatly and said: “You talk a lot.”

The world seemed to echo the same message:

It can be a little bit cold and uncaring when it's like, “Yeah, you care about it. So what?”

Everything around her made her feel like she needed to dim her joy – shut down, shut up, keep the notebooks blank, and focus on the GRE.

But owning a business and a blog unlocked something in her:

If people didn't want to read it, they could just leave. I wasn't holding them captive at a party.iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-notebook-art
I was able to be as excitable and obnoxious as I wanted to be without really worrying that it was going to actually bother anybody.

And sometimes people are bothered by me for some reason. They find something to be bothered by. But now it's easier to be like, “That's a problem with them. Not a problem with me.”

She’s also gone from eating colors to wearing them.

For a long time she didn’t dye her hair because it didn’t seem “practical,” and she still only wore the same clothes she’d had since high school because they still fit (and, according to her logic, it would be a waste to buy more – even though they didn’t really fit who she was anymore).

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But as her blog and business grew, so did her confidence.

She chopped off her hair and dyed it blue.

She bought big earrings: “Because I have short hair now so I can have wild, crazy earrings.”

And she started rocking a bright jacket.

It’s Barbie pink and I adore it and I would never have worn something like that a couple of years ago. But it makes me happy and it expresses who I am and I'm finally allowing myself to be unapologetically me, even though it's not necessarily the most practical thing in the world.

“That’s something you measure with your heart.”

Shelby has even started painting again, selling a few art prints and original work on her blog.

After our interview I observe her record a watercolor painting tutorial for a new mini course.

Before hitting “record” she begins by carefully taping the edges of the watercolor paper in place using thick blue painters tape, while explaining to me that this video will teach people how to paint their own watercolor galaxies.

She hits record and claps to sync the audio for both cameras, one in front of her and one above the paper. She takes a deep breath and pulls back her hair. For a few seconds it’s silent – cameras rolling.

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“Alright,” she says to the camera in front of her as her eyes brighten, “it’s time to begin learning the very basics of watercolor galaxies.” Then she stops.

She takes another breath and starts again, trying another intro.

iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-paintingShe restarts a few times like that until she gets into her groove, explaining to me how grateful she is to have a video editor now who will find the best take and put it all together for her.

But once her paintbrush dips into the yellow and crimson paint she’s using today she talks almost nonstop, with an enthusiasm that is impossible to imagine anyone finding annoying. She talks while adding layers of bright colors that intermingle with the surrounding black paint to create what looks to me not like a painting but like a real-life galaxy photograph.

At some point I stop taking notes, lost in a kind of meditative painting trance, the paint pooling and merging together, the water making a sound every time she dips the brush, like a fish tank bubbling.

Then I find myself thinking, “Maybe I’ll try watercolor someday.” As a bit of a perfectionist myself, watercolor has always eluded me – so much is out of your control, the paint running and bleeding and flowing with a mind of its own. No, thank you.

But today I think maybe watercolor would be perfect for a perfectionist because in watercolor, messy is perfect.

iaac-shelby-abrahamsen-galaxy-painting-side“You don’t need to be perfect with watercolor galaxies,” Shelby says to the camera as if reading my mind. “You don’t need to be perfect for that matter.”

She finishes the galaxy and it looks like pure light slicing through darkness, edged in pink.

She places her whole hand on the finished painting to see if it’s dry enough.

And that’s when I realize she’s not done yet.

She still has to add the stars.

She dips a toothbrush in chalky white paint and drags her thumb across the bristles to scatter tiny stars.

“When are you done adding the stars?” She asks the camera calmly, in her own Bob-Ross-esque tone. “That’s something you measure with your heart.”

She finishes by adding a few bigger stars with a brush, drying it all again very carefully with her dryer tool, and then peeling off the tape to reveal the finished painting.

It’s gorgeous, alive, and impossibly colorful. After a moment of silence, she assures the camera: “It’s really not that hard. It just takes a couple of layers and a willingness to get a little messy.”

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You can connect with Shelby on Instagram, subscribe to her email list, and learn more at LittleCoffeeFox.com.

Writer's note: Loving these creator stories? I'm looking to set up some Zoom calls with readers in the next month and would love to know more about you! If you've read (or listened to) at least two creator stories email me at isa[at]convertkit.com and tell me why you read these stories and what you've gotten out of them so far!

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Isa Adney

Isa is an author and writer and has profiled incredible creators and artists, including Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony winners. When she’s not writing or interviewing creators, she’s probably walking her dog Stanley, working on her next book, or listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the 300th time.

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