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Spotlight on Laurie Rohrbach: How She Became an Artist and Entrepreneur at 40

by Chrissie Kremer

 

Last fall my sister-in-law called to tell me she had sent me a thank you card in the mail. She said I should make sure to look at the card itself because it was so beautiful and ‘very special’.  It was a Lobird personalized card.

Laurie Rohrbach, founder of Lobird Stationery, discovered her true talent and passion mid-life, and has never looked back. Her path to becoming an artist and business owner was not a direct one, taking her from her childhood in Pasadena, CA to the the Peace Corps in Northern Thailand, to a career in nutrition science and public health, to a year living in Spain…all before taking that one art class in her early 40s that changed her life direction.

Lobird offers personalized note cards, gift tags, invitations, birth announcements, and more. Each item is printed with an original watercolor image that Laurie has hand-painted. Her painting and stationary style are clean, crisp, and sophisticated…with a touch of whimsy. Her images are often singular items such as a beautiful hydrangea (a best seller), a weathervane, a bee, a vase of flowers, a potted topiary, a French door knocker, or a guinea fowl, for example.

Some of her non-personalized items, such as lettered notecards and desk-top calendars, are sold in select stores (such as Emily Joubert in Woodside, CA), but the bulk of her business comes from her site where she offers personalized items. Laurie prints, packs, and ships everything from her Santa Cruz, CA office.  

I met Laurie through mutual friends and felt an instant connection as she told me about her life path. I then realized she was the artist behind my sister-in-law’s ‘special card’ and asked if I could share her story with FabList.

I sat down with Laurie in her light-filled Santa Cruz home to discuss her company and her unique path to becoming an artist and business owner as a ‘second stage’ career. And by the end of the day, we realized we had something very special in common….and maybe it was the reason I was drawn to her in the first place! Read on to find out what our connection was!

Laurie is kindly offering FabList readers 10% off for a limited time. Please enter the promotion code FabList10 at checkout. Good through the end of March, 2024.

Your midlife career change is so interesting! Can you take me through your ‘pre-Lobird’ years? 

I was born in Australia when my dad was working there, but I grew up mainly in Pasadena and then studied nutrition science at Berkeley. I really wanted to work in international nutrition and that’s why I joined the Peace Corps after graduation. I was in Northern Thailand for just over two years and really loved international health, especially nutrition. I then went to Johns Hopkins, got a masters in public health, and worked in public health for about 20 years after that – from age 20-40 or so. During that time I married Matt and we had our son Johnny.

And so how did you start painting and start your career transition? Have you always been a painter?

Johnny was three, and I was in my late 30s or early 40s, and we decided to take a year off.  We moved to Sevilla, Spain for a year. I hadn’t painted before and I just started to paint a little bit. Not a lot, but a little bit. And I was really interested in the watercolor artists in Spain. My aunt who I’m very close to is a really good watercolorist. And my mom, who died when I was young, was a watercolor artist. So I had a lot of people who were super inspiring to me, but I’d been in science all my life, not art. I hadn’t had any formal classes, but I just started to paint.

I wasn’t that great at it. I was just doing it on my own. I would paint bulls and Matt would make fun of me because I wasn’t that great! So I did a little bit of that in Spain, but I got a lot more interested in painting and that creative side of life.

When we came back to the US I took a class called ‘Drawing from the Right Side of Your Brain’ in Santa Barbara. It’s basically a class that believes anybody can draw. We had people from all walks of life – nurses, teachers, doctors, artists –  in the class, who did or didn’t have experience drawing or painting. This class was super intense for me. It was three days of solid drawing and really thinking about shapes and shadows and depth perception –  almost like a science, which I got. So I do believe everybody can do this!

Afterwards, I took a watercolor class with some friends and I just started to paint things for people who were having babies, like a hot air balloon with an animal in it, and things like that. I was also traveling to Guatemala frequently on family business and started painting the Mayan people. I just think they’re beautiful and I painted them and their textiles, the colors. I just started painting more in general.

When did you launch your business?

I really did not intend to start a business at all, but it kind of happened. I thought, I’ll just try to sell some prints. And it turns out selling prints is pretty hard! It’s not an easy business because it’s a commitment for somebody to put your print on the wall. I don’t even really know how and why I started this. Sometimes things just happen. Right? The way you wake up one day and realize, I’m a business, I’m an artist. Like how’d that happen? It kind of happened that way. I quit my job and I started dabbling in this.

I started selling some paintings to friends on the sidelines of the soccer field at my son’s games. Basically selling prints on the soccer field! I was in my early 40s at this point. I worked a little bit more in public health and I started slowly just sort of transitioning to painting. This was 17 years ago. I would go to school fundraiser holiday boutiques and built a clientele doing that. And I started to make stationery.

I worked out of our house for a long time. And then Johnny and Matt kicked me out of the house when I took over the back room. I got an office and I got a lot more serious. I started selling stationery to friends and then I created a website and started selling on my website. And honest to God, I still am laughing because I really don’t always feel I know what I’m doing!

I’m not a graphic artist. I don’t have any kind of background like that. So truly, I was a little intimidated! But I figured it out. I do stuff in-house and I just kind of figured it out along the way.

It took a lot of courage for you to make a switch. But it sounds like it was a gradual kind of transition?

It was. It’s weird, because I look back and think, ‘how did this happen’?!

How did you grow Lobird?

The school boutiques were really how I started. I sold to a few boutiques and then people would send something to their family in New York and then that person in New York would order it and gift it to somebody. Total word of mouth. I didn’t advertise.

I have customers all over the country now, which is crazy to me because when I started it, it was a little tiny local thing. Most of it is repeat business which is kind of shocking to me. But I’ve had clients for 15 years. It’s amazing.

And what do you do for marketing? 

As far as marketing, I’ve been in magazines like Traditional Home and Coastal Living. But I don’t advertise. Things like that have expanded my marketplace thought. More recently I do market a little bit on Instagram. But it’s mainly word of mouth and repeat customers.

Who has influenced you?

So I lost my mom when I was three years old, and she was an artist. She painted a lot of life scenes, like in Guatemala, Australia and Japan where she lived with my dad.  After I got back from Spain, my dad gave me a lot of her letters and she had a lot of doodles in them. Those letters of hers, that she’d written to her mom when she and my dad were living overseas, really inspired me to appreciate the power of handwritten correspondence. And her little doodles on the letters showed me what a single small hand-drawn image could convey.

My aunt Laurie McBride, who I am named after, is also really important to me.  She got me a lot more interested in art as she loves to paint and studied art history at Stanford. When I was in the Peace Corps, she would send me paintings and it meant so much to me. So she’s been a huge inspiration in my life. A few years ago my aunt took me on a walking and painting trip in the south of France. She’s just an amazing artist. And an amazing person. She’s been super supportive and she’s been a huge inspiration.

Where does the name Lobird come from?

It was my childhood nickname that my dad gave me. And I now call my aunt BigBird.

What do you love most about your job?

With what I do now there’s this group of super creative people that I get to interact with. It’s opened my world up. I’m seeing all these talents and creativity around me. And my friends have so much talent as well! I just feel like I’ve got this community of people and friends who are so talented.

Is that by chance or do you think you’re attracted to people who are creative? 

I think I’m now attracted to it, but I also think I didn’t really pursue that side of people before. And now I’m super interested in it. It’s fun to have that comradery, supporting women. And my husband Matt has been super supportive of this business. He’s been my number one supporter. Amazing. He’s been incredible.

How much of your time is creating versus the business side of Lobird?

It used to be a lot more creative and now it’s a lot more selling and the business side of it. I have a pretty big catalog of images now. Last summer I painted quite a bit because I was doing some custom things. I have to paint new images – I can’t rotate the images I have forever! Every summer I paint. A lot of inspiration I’ll find in my garden or a friend’s garden.  I’ll paint just whatever I find interesting. That’s the other thing I love about it is that I look at things differently now. Like when I travel. A door-knocker in Paris is now super interesting to me!  It’s marketable and interesting.

Is there a difference for you between art and marketable art?

I know hydrangeas sell!  But my street scenes or a portrait  – not necessarily. But yes, I know what is commercially viable. So I know that an image of flip flops will sell. Or a starfish will sell.  I’ll pick an image that I know resonates with people. It’s just relatable images. I also really love colorful and exotic images, like an Indian elephant with textiles.

What are your best-selling items?

The desk calendar is surprisingly huge. Gift tags are huge. I started the gift tag because I wanted something for a bottle of wine, and then that turned into a whole thing!

And you do custom work?

I just finished a custom wedding with a crest for the bride and groom and a monogram and the whole thing with a number of different elements to it. I printed the invitations for them and I’m going to do a lot of the collateral pieces like napkins and things like that for the wedding.

Do you license images or sell your original artwork?

I’ve licensed images in the past to Pottery Barn for pillows and things like that. I generally don’t sell my original artwork.

So what’s next? Are you trying to always grow or are you comfortable where Lobird is currently?

I’d like to go into textiles and things like that but I need to figure out how to do it. But I’m pretty content right now with what I’m doing. I do like the custom aspect. It’s really fun and it challenges me to have to figure out a custom image.

Any words of wisdom for someone who’s considering a midlife career or life change or has an interest in exploring their creative side?

I have so many friends right now who are exploring new skills like calligraphy and writing. Friends who, after the kids have gone, are pursuing new passions. It’s never too late to pursue a different interest, whether it’s creative or otherwise. It’s just fun!

And here is Laurie’s Fab5 list of places that inspire her to paint.

  1. Guatemala – The people and the textiles.
  2. Paris/South of France – the overall aesthetic. The gardens. The topiaries. The door-knockers!
  3. Spain -The Talavera tiles and the architecture.
  4. Massachusetts and coastal towns in the NE- Wonderful coastal images that are perfect for my stationary. Lobster traps! Lighthouses! Weathervanes!
  5. The Bay Area – Filoli, Gamble Garden and my family and friends’ gardens. So much inspiration.

FabList Discount

Please visit Lobird and check out Laurie’s beautiful artwork and stationary items! Laurie is kindly offering FabList readers 10% off for a limited time. Please enter FabList10 at Lobird checkout. Good through the end of March, 2024.

…..And now for our small world story!

Towards the end of the interview I noticed the signature on the big painting behind Laurie. I asked her to confirm that the artist was Marion Pike, as my siblings and I have paintings by this artist that we inherited from our grandmother, who was friends with Marion Pike. It turns out Laurie’s grandmother was also friends with her….and we wondered if there was any connection between our families.

I gave her my grandmother’s name, and when she called her aunt to ask if she’d heard of my grandmother she exclaimed ‘Oh! Aunt Lydia!”. It turns out not only were our grandmothers best friends in Southern California where they lived (I’d heard her grandmother’s name for years!) but they also roomed together in NYC when her grandmother was at Juilliard and my grandmother was at Parsons. Laurie has a book her dad wrote in which her grandmother describes their escapades together! And her grandmother was my aunt’s godmother!

So that was the perfect ending to the story for us…that we would never have known if I hadn’t done this interview!

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