Macon York Costlow
Macon York Costlow is a graphic designer and letterpress printer. Her small business, Cotton Blossom Press, specializes in elegant custom work, including wedding suites, personal stationery, announcements, business cards, and more. She also creates printed goods that honor life in Appalachia and all that she holds to be beautiful and true. Macon loves working with her clients to bring their ideas to life through original designs and a hand-cranked printing process.
photos by: Nicole McConville Photography and Macon York Costlow
How did you get started? I was working at Martha Stewart Living as Assistant Art Director. I was the point person for my assigned stories and oversaw the entire production of a story. I worked with a large team from the initial concept to art directing the photoshoot to laying out the page to the final tiny edits to make the story perfect. This was an amazingly creative and challenging time of my life and much of my time was spent on a computer or in meetings. I missed working with my hands and working alone.
One Sunday afternoon in March 2010, I attended a letterpress workshop at The Arm in Brooklyn and immediately connected with the process. I loved mixing the ink and setting up the press. The Martha Stewart office hosted a holiday craft fair and invited all the employees to vend, so I made a few holiday cards to sell. This was my first insight into the business back-end of a creative project — I had to source packaging, figure out branding, complete the tedious packaging, track my expenses, market the event, etc. It was a fun event and successful.
After seeing images on social media, friends began asking me to create custom work for them – wedding invitations, baptism announcements, personal stationery, etc and the business was born.
Is it your full-time gig? Yes.
What is your morning practice? I wish my morning practice were more ritualistic but I usually check my phone after waking up, make some coffee and spend time with my husband going over the day ahead before he heads to work. I’m pretty ambitious and I need to have a plan of how it’s all going to happen in bite-size chunks. After we chat, I head downstairs to my home studio and just dive into my work day.
Why did you choose graphic design and letterpress printing? Some of my highest values are communication, clarity, information, and beauty. My personal and business mission is to make information beautiful and I strive to do this with my work and in my life. In addition, I knew I wanted to work for myself and I also realized that I much prefer to work individually or one-on-one with a client versus being part of a larger team. I also really love work where there is a clear end to a project and a tangible product is produced.
How long have you been doing your work? I have been creative my whole life and studied photography in college. I worked for five years in NYC as a layout designer at Martha Stewart Living and New York Magazine. It was during this time that I learned letterpress. I have been printing and making cards since 2010 and self-employed through my letterpress business since 2013.
“Artist Bill Viola said, ‘The limits are more in the user than in the tools.’ It can be so tempting to blame the lack of tools for our own shortcomings (if only I had X tool, I could…), but the art is already within us and I truly take that to heart.”
Favorite tools, materials, or gadgets? Before I answer this question, I want to share that while in college I studied the video artist Bill Viola and devoured his book, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House. To be honest, I can’t really remember much about his video work, but one line from the book has been permanently ingrained in my soul: “The limits are more in the user than in the tools.” It can be so tempting to blame the lack of tools for our own shortcomings (if only I had X tool, I could…), but the art is already within us and I truly take that to heart.
That being said, I love my Vandercook letterpress machines. They allow me to physically create beautiful, tactile work to share with the world. I also love my MacBookPro and my creative software (Adobe Creative Suite). The computer is such an amazing tool for modern artists. I also love my lightbox (which is a flat box that has an electric light on the bottom and a glass panel on top for drawing) and I also use the glass door to my studio for the same purpose. For much of my work, I trace a photograph. I’m still growing as a drawer, but I love tracing an image and adding my own creativity to the image. And of course, my sketchbooks and journals are great tools, which allow me to connect to a deeper part of myself.
What do you most love about your art? There’s so much freedom and flexibility. I can make it whatever I want it to be. I love letterpress for the meditative nature of the process and the beautiful tactile end result. It’s also very open in terms of what kind of art can be produced with the letterpress process – many different artists can use this medium and produce a wide variety of work.
Biggest lesson learned so far? That everything comes from within. All my good ideas are already within, it’s just up to me to tap into that. My greatest critic is also within, and it’s up to me to decide when to listen and when to ignore.
Where do you turn for inspiration and/or how do you stay inspired? I am most inspired when I have a few hours to myself whether out hiking or at a coffee shop, with my journal/sketchbook in hand. I try to do this at least once a month, but the challenge is carving out this free time between work deadlines and personal life commitments. Often ideas come to me while I’m printing or driving long distances alone — both of these are activities when I’m just alone with my thoughts, doing something but my mind can wander. Instagram and Pinterest are always fun to see what everyone else is doing, but inspiration always truly comes from within.
What is your daily routine? Honestly, I don’t have one. Every day in the studio looks a little different. My days are spent in any combination of corresponding with clients, printing, designing a layout, creating original drawings for projects, digitizing that artwork, updating my accounting, working in marketing, etc. Some days I may do a little bit of everything or some days I may be printing all day. It just depends on my workload.
What do you want to say to the world with your art? I want my work to be a beautiful and small but significant joy. Often, the work I make is for a recipient I will never meet — cards and wedding invitations are made for my client, who will then send these items to the people they hold most dear. I’m aware that some of my work eventually will be thrown away, but there is a fleeting beauty to that – like a beautiful blossom in the spring – we enjoy it for a season and then let it go.
How do you stay focused in a world of the internet, social media, and other distractions? The fact that my livelihood relies on my work, for better or worse, really keeps me focused. I earn enough to eat, pay rent, and live moderately comfortably, but I don’t have much wiggle-room to just hang out and scroll facebook. I work often and I work hard. This keeps me going, especially through the parts of business that aren’t as exciting (bookkeeping for instance). However, when I have a project that I’m really into (like my recent Lunar Calendar), there is nothing more interesting to me so getting distracted isn’t an issue.
How do you deal with the ebbs and flows of creativity? I struggle with it, though I know the only way to get through a weird rut is to just keep making work and to keep going. That being said, I took a long break from making new original work from about January 2017 until this past September. I was putting all my energy into my commissioned projects until I was ready to create my own work again. I had a few ideas brewing inside and upon experiencing the Total Solar Eclipse in August 2017, I felt a surge of inspiration to make my own work again.
I’ve spent this Autumn working on a big passion project that I’m very proud of: a Lunar Calendar that features the Algonquin names of the Full Moons most closely associated with the Gregorian Calendar months. The project is 13 prints, each of which is two colors meaning it ran through the press twice (once for each color). I created original drawings for each month and wrote a short but meaningful explanation of the moon name as well as a reflection as to how we can live more in tune with the seasons.
How do you share your work? My work is all on paper, so it’s either shared physically, or I post photos of my work online – either on Etsy where products are sold, my website where people can commission me for a custom projec or on social media where I try to promote my products and services to my community.
What’s hardest for you about sharing your work? The hardest aspect about sharing my work is that it takes away from creating new work, but sharing my work is what allows for the opportunity to make more work, so it’s all part of the cycle.
What makes it easier? Knowing that usually when I share my work, customers will buy my products or new clients will hire me, allowing me to create more work.
How do you get creatively unstuck? This is a tricky answer of two opposite methods: Sometimes I need to just walk away from a project or from the pressure of trying to come up with an idea and explore my other passions (hiking, gardening, herbalism, fermentation, cooking, travel). On the other hand, there is great value in making work even if you’re not all the way into it. The momentum of just making work seems to generate ideas of how to improve that work, and thoughts like “oh what if I did this instead? I wonder how it would look if I tried this” and so on until BOOM: you have a great idea that you’re excited about!
My personal and business mission is to make information beautiful and I strive to do this with my work and in my life.
My personal and business mission is to make information beautiful and I strive to do this with my work and in my life.
“I’m aware that some of my work eventually will be thrown away, but there is a fleeting beauty to that – like a beautiful blossom in the spring – we enjoy it for a season and then let it go.”
Best advice received? I’m really inspired by the advice given to artists by Elizabeth Gilbert – to have the discipline to sit at your desk and keep making work, even when there is no inspiration. When I’m feeling frustrated or empty, it’s tempting to distract myself but great ideas can come at any moment. I’ve also found that inspiration comes for better work when I’m already making work.
What do you hold as true? The poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. I discovered the poem sometime between the ages of 12-14 when I found a print of the poem in my family’s attic. It was my mother’s – she had it hanging in her room growing up. Since then, I have lived my life by these words. I have always wanted to create artwork to honor this beautiful poem, but the right idea has not come to me yet.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.
What do you do when life gets hard (to make it less hard)? I pray. I look within (and use tools/methods like journaling or recording my dreams. I’m new to tarot but I think it can be a useful tool for looking within). I go to the woods. And I also turn to my family and community. I’m pretty independent and tend to prefer to endure my hardships on my own, but I remind myself that hard times are just part of the human experience and we all share them, so we can also share in comforting one another.
What books do you turn to for inspiration? I really love the E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. This is one of the best business books I have ever read and focuses on the joy and creativity as well as the importance of systems and business planning. I also just love to read great work by amazing artists. Their work isn’t directly inspiring, in that reading doesn’t give me instant ideas, but reading great novels inspire me to push myself to also be the greatest artist I can be. Some of my recent favorite novels include 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert is also very inspiring as a working artist.
What makes you laugh out loud? I know this is cheesy to say, but my husband cracks me up! He is so witty and we laugh out loud together every day. He definitely has helped me embrace the silly side of myself.
Five interesting facts about you?
- 1. In 2012 I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. I started in Georgia in March and finished in Maine in September. I also met my husband on the trail! We were two solo hikers who met in North Carolina and started hiking together, fell in love, and got married a few years later.
- 2. My hand was the hand for the Subway $5 foot-long campaign! I was interning at the design firm that Subway hired for the animation campaign and my hand was stop-frame photographed and then traced over 100 times for the animation, but a still-frame was used for the print campaign.
- 3. When I was 10, I went on a three-week safari in Kenya with my grandmother. This experience really opened my eyes to the wonder of travel and exposed me to significantly different cultures and designs beyond coastal Georgia, where I grew up.
- 4. I’m a budding herbalist and fermentation enthusiast. Aside from making art, I’m very intrigued by the healing properties of the humble plants around us. This goes back to my theory that everything is already within. I believe instead of popping a pill, we can gently nourish our bodies back to health with simple “weeds” that grow near us: dandelion, burdock, mugwort, etc. I have much respect for the plants and am enjoying learning how to use their gifts wisely.
- 5. I made a D in my Junior Thesis Art Class in college. This was the first class I took that was beyond an instructional/specific art class (such as Photo 101 or Photo 202). I had to create my first body of work, write a cohesive artist statement, and defend it. And I bombed. I was confused and scared and trying to make work that wasn’t me. It was difficult to earn a low grade in an area I wanted to pursue (art), but that experience taught me a lot. I really stepped it up in my senior year. I worked hard and journaled all the time and produced a body of work that I am still proud of and earned an A+.
If you had a tattoo on your forehead what would it say? Be gentle with yourself.
How do you take risks in your art? My risks are mostly financial risks. When I complete a commissioned project, a price has been agreed upon at the start and I can buy materials and spend time knowing those expenses are covered and that I will also earn a profit. When I create my own products to sell, I am investing time and resources on the front end and don’t know for certain if they will sell. I’ve found that the projects that are truly from my heart and soul almost always sell, so I have to just go with my gut and create them without being certain of the outcome.
What’s the next step/level/leap for you in your work? I’m excited to really grow my product line this spring and launch a big cohesive body of work. Thus far, I would think of one small project at a time – one card or one print – and produce it and see how it sold. In the coming months, I will be developing a whole line of printed products to launch altogether.
Evening ritual? I like to take a walk up the hill through the woods behind my house at dusk. Even if I still have work to do in the evening, I really love the light outside at dusk and it’s a nice, quiet check-in with myself and an important element of my own self-care.
Your advice? Listen to your own divine self. Mostly I would say, “keep making work” but there is also a time to step away from your work and only you know when that time is. Stay connected with yourself through whatever means work best for you – hiking, meditating, journaling, dream-journaling, prayer.
“I’ve found that the projects that are truly from my heart and soul almost always sell, so I have to just go with my gut and create them without being certain of the outcome.”