About Ashley Duke
Ashley grew up in a small farming town in southern Minnesota. After graduating high school, she moved to southern Michigan where she attended college, worked, and pursued the arts. After several years, she married and moved to Minneapolis where she currently resides with her husband, son, and cat. Ashley enjoys keeping herself busy with various hobbies such as knitting, sewing for fun, gardening, reading, cooking, and baking. Being outdoors, enjoying community, and music is where she feels most comfortable. Someday she would like to live on some acreage in the country, have a private studio space, a large vegetable garden, and some animals like chickens, goats, and alpaca.
I’ve followed and been inspired by Ashley’s work for close to a decade. I first met her through her husband, James, a friend from high school. Now that Ashley and James live on the other side of Lake Michigan, instead of bumping into them around town, I bump into them on social media. From the outside looking in, before catching up with Ashley, I had no clue how she was managing it all.
Could you tell us about your background?
I started sewing in the days of middle school when all I wanted to do was listen to music and do stupid stuff with my friends. I’d convert old ratty jeans into handbags and hand stitch in the names of my favorite bands. The straps were made from the leg zippers which I thought was pretty cool.
How did you start making? Has your focus always been textile based?
I started making things for myself as a teenager because I wanted to carry something unique that I made myself. I’ve always been fascinated by color and texture, so this was a great way to spread my curiosity of textiles. As I entered high school, I started drawing and painting a lot more and that became a focus for several years. I’ve always wanted to create things with my hands, and at one point almost went to school for furniture design, and then again for architecture.
I grew up making work at my parents’ dining room table, on the back patio, or in the basement. I remember in 2010, I was living in my first apartment on Locust Street. We were neighbors at the time and you invited me to come see your home studio. I was so inspired by the creative space you had made for yourself. Since then, I’ve never lived in an apartment without a dedicated studio space! Do you currently work out of a home studio?
Oh man, the Duffield house was a dream because I had never had a dedicated space before that. Since that house, we’ve always made do with the small bits of space we had. I usually end up taking over so much of a room that it gets converted into a permanent studio anyway. I find that I need to have my projects in a separate enough space now so that “work” won’t affect my other daily activities since I work from home and have a kiddo. These days we live in a 732 sq ft house in Minneapolis where I work out of a room in our mostly unfinished basement.
Are you self-taught or did you attend an art school?
Most of what I know now was learned from my grandmother or self-taught. I applied to MCAD, an art school here in Minneapolis, but decided to attend Western Michigan University with a focus in painting. This ended up not being the right place for me, so I left Western but continued living in Kalamazoo.
When did you start your company, Viska? Do you have a Viska origin story?
Before Viska launched, I had run an Etsy for many years making accessories, but mostly backpacks in a more eclectic style. Viska became a dewdrop of an idea back in 2013 when I realized it was time to make bags that were easier to market and sell and had much more of a cohesive quality. I have always loved military backpacks, and wanted to make something that had essential elements of what makes those bags so long lasting, but with a more “modern” feel. I had never worked with leather tools before so I had a little learning to do. I purchased the tools I needed and started patterning.
What was it like when you first started Viska? Any early challenges or triumphs you’d like to share?
Funding was a little tricky, but we were able to make things work without taking out any loans. My husband, James, designed the logo which is a stylized Minnesota state flower called the lady slipper. I think the best decision we made with Viska was hiring a professional photographer into our second year. There’s nothing like seeing something you’ve created displayed more beautifully than you imagined it could look. Sarah Ascanio was that for Viska.
What was it like growing your company? Have you always had other jobs while running Viska?
Exciting, with new challenges arising all of the time. I worked thirty hours a week in coffee while running this company on the side. Our growth was limited to what I could accomplish without outsourcing help. At one point, I had a friend helping a little with some strap cutting. At its busiest point around the holidays, I would be making four bags a week (each taking six hours apiece).
I know that sustainability, ethical sourcing, and environmental impact are at the core of your company’s vision. I remember a few years ago, you even offered delivery via bicycle messenger! What other ways have you brought those values into your business and into your practice?
In 2018, I refocused Viska as an environmentally focused company. I closed the webshop and took five months to rediscover a better vision. This radical change was really a rebrand with a new customer base. We still deliver locally via bicycle. Honestly, I struggle with shipping (of parts and materials, and finished goods) because of the environmental impact. I also save all of the plastic packaging that parts and materials are shipped in to recycle through Terracycle. I try to package thoughtfully and minimally. And I donate a percentage of each sale to support a local environmentally focused non-profit. It’s overwhelming sometimes to not be the “perfect option” for a customer that is seeking enviro-friendliness and sustainability, but I am continuously seeking the best option. And voting for change.
When I reached out to you for an interview, you shared with me that you’re currently stepping away from Viska to pursue other things. What's prompted you to take a break? What’s it been like making that decision?
I want Viska to be a transparent company with a strong focus on environmental issues and a heart for change. I struggle with consumerism and selling people something that they don’t need, so promoting work to sell is difficult for me. It’s hard to rapidly produce something that is meaningful, too. The reality of our global environmental crisis is crushing, and that’s really what prompted the step back.
What are you currently working on or making? I've seen adorable knitted onesies on your Instagram lately!
Thanks! I’m pregnant, and working on tons of stuff for the new babe. I’m fairly new to knitting, so small projects like onesies are perfect. I’m sewing bonnets, wool diaper covers, pants, shirts, a quilted blanket... so many things. Recently I took a beginning floor loom weaving class at the Weaver’s Guild of Minnesota. It was an intense full weekend, but felt so rewarding to learn a new craft. I feel like I could probably take the class a couple more times to fully absorb all of the information.
When and where do you create or feel most creative?
I feel best when I’m alone in nature. Sometimes that can feel distant when living in such a large city, but Minneapolis has pretty amazing parks, a rad greenway system through the cities, and there are five to seven nature centers within a 30-minute drive. The state parks here are awesome, too, and we’re just a few hours from the North Shore. It can be hard to get that alone time when you have small children, but even adventures with them outside is so rejuvenating and life-giving to me creatively.
Who or what is distracting you or taking up your time and energy?
I’m the mom of a three-and-a-half-year-old child, and soon to be introducing a sibling. It takes a lot of intention and good time management to get stuff done, but I have great support from my husband to help to create a good balance.
What are you finding most challenging right now?
I’ve intentionally taken the summer off work to spend more time with my son before the baby comes. It’s been harder for me—the more pregnant I’ve become—to find the energy to put into work after he’s in bed. My goal this summer is to plan out what life will look like for me creatively as a stay-at-home parent. Before I had Ryan, I had this idea in my head that it’d all be possible—to be a kick-ass, successful business owner and be a “perfect” mom. I think that my idea of perfect just needs some adjustments. Life with two kids will be exciting, and working hard towards something that I really love is important to me and I want my kids to see that.
What drives your artistic practice currently and who or what do you find interesting or inspiring right now?
Wanting to make something strong, functional, and timeless—like an heirloom. I adore history held in families; it’s such a beautiful thing. I’m so fascinated by textiles of all kinds. I’ve been slowly reading through the textbook, 5,000 Years of Textiles, and it’s been mind-blowing to see how garments, rugs, and tapestries have been created all around the world and what the process has been like, and the kind of fibers and dyes used.
Advice for fellow makers at a similar stage in their career?
Make time to process through journaling. My husband has been asking me to do this for years. Take thirty minutes a morning and just write about anything that’s on your mind. Reading through The Artist’s Way has helped me, too. Also, it’s okay to take a step back to gain clarity. Sometimes it’s hard to see clearly when you’re fully submerged and overwhelmed. Find a friend that gets it.
What are you hoping to learn or achieve in 2019?
Read all of the books on marketing and public relations that I’ve only thumbed through. Get a solid business plan in line. Think about what really matters to me in life. Take a deep breath.
Where have you received the most support for your career or as an artist?
Certainly James, my husband, has been my biggest fan and source of support. I can’t name a time that he looked away or gave up hope on me. My mom carries around things I make even if they aren’t her style because she’s a sweetheart and is cheering me on. I have a handful of really amazing friends that have supported me on this wild journey, some of whom are artists and small business owners themselves. It’s really good to be able to hash out the real good and the real hard with someone who’s on their own adventure.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of being an artist?
The artistic community in Minneapolis–St. Paul is such a cool thing. The people here raise each other up, promote, congregate, and host events together; I do not take it for granted. I’m always working side by side with profoundly beautiful creators. I’m not big on self-promotion, so that’s probably my downfall.
Any long-term future goals?
I want to continue making things and exploring different mediums. In the next couple of years, we plan to move our family an hour or so outside of the cities and start up a Christmas tree farm. We want to have an event space to host retreats and have a space for artists to come and create and maybe host classes. We’re hoping to create a peaceful place to bring people together for merriment and creation.
I appreciate Ashley sharing her strategies for creating a sustainable business, while also prioritizing a meaningful creative practice. I also struggle with self-promotion and selling people something I don’t think they really need. I found it validating to learn that Ashley feels the same, even while running a successful business. I’d like to extend a huge “thank you” to Ashley for taking the time out of her busy life as a maker, parent, and business owner to share her experiences with Form and Space!