This week in Women in the Mountains, we sat down with artist Rachel Pohl. Pohl shares what led her to become a professional artist and how she balances running a small business with her adventurous lifestyle. Nate Simmions photo.
Equipped with a fresh stack of business cards, artist Rachel Pohl arrived at the 2013 Outdoor Retailer trade show with high hopes of connecting and collaborating with all kinds of outdoor brands. At the time, Rachel was 20 years old and eager to make a name for herself in the outdoor industry. She sat in at least 50 different meetings with high hopes of it leading to future painting work. But every single conservation ended with the same outcome: rejection. As she left this networking extravaganza, Pohl found herself presented with two options. She could either let the experience discourage her, or she could use it as motivation to do even better next time around.
If you’re familiar with Pohl’s artwork, then you know how this story goes. She, of course, picked the latter option and has since made a name for herself by blending her passions for adventure and creativity. She’s also grown into more than just a painter, but an entrepreneur with an expanding brand that encompasses all kinds of merchandise, apparel, and products. Still, out of everything she does, Pohl is always eager for the opportunity to create immersive pieces for like-minded outdoor brands.
Most recently, she partnered with Rumpl blankets to create a one-of-kind blanket design as part of their Rumpl Artist Division (RAD). For Pohl, this project was more than an exciting collaboration, but a defining moment in her career. Rumpl was one of the first brands she connected with at O.R. eight years ago, and while it didn’t work out initially, she was determined to make it happen no matter what. After not giving up all these years, the timing finally lined up between the two. Lucky for us, we get to reap the benefits of her hard work with one of these must-have adventure blankets which features a captivating scene of Grand Teton National Park. We sat down with Pohl to hear more about this process of working with brands like Rumpl, as well as her thoughts on blending entrepreneurship with art.
Was there a defining moment when you decided “I want to be a full-time artist”, or did you always know deep down?
Rachel Pohl: I’ve always created throughout my life—and it hasn’t just been painting. I started sewing and painting when I was three years old. I used to make little stuffed animals, and I was always drawing penguins. Fun fact: I thought I wanted to be a penguin scientist.
But I distinctly remember this moment during my freshman year of high school when everyone was asking me, “what are you going to do in college?” I knew I wanted to study art and I told one of my teachers that I was thinking about studying graphic design. She thought that was strange and pointed out that my strengths weren’t with computers and digital work, and told me it would be a waste of my talent. She reminded me that I was a fine artist. It was a bit of a wake-up call, and I think having mentorship like that is really important. For me, it was monumental to have a teacher bluntly tell me to pursue what I’m good at, rather than pick the practical option.
That was 14 years ago, so I've spent half of my life knowing I wanted to do this.
Pohl's paintings are immersive and intricate interpretations of the outdoor world. Charles Post photo.
I bet it’s been quite a journey. Can you talk more about what that growth has been like?
RP: I think aspiring artists forget that folks like myself have been working at our craft and business for years and years. For me in particular it’s been 14 years in the making. Good things take time. That’s what makes art special and fun, is that there are no shortcuts. To develop your own style and create your own brand is a lifetime pursuit. I find that aspect of being an artist fun and exciting, and it feels like an endless challenge.
How did the collaboration with Rumpl come about?
RP: I heard about Rumpl when they first launched about eight years ago. Charles, my husband, suggested the idea of doing a collaboration with them, so a few years ago at Outdoor Retailer, I walked up to their booth and essentially introduced myself. It didn’t lead to much initially, but then we started talking about doing an Alaskan-themed collaboration focused on conservation. The timing ended up not being right, but I didn’t let go of the idea. Eventually, the timing was right for both of us, and I’m so happy with how it came together.
It was honestly me being really persistent for many years and not letting go of this idea.
Pohl’s journey to where she’s now hasn’t always been straightforward or easy, but it's led to some pretty incredible projects along the. Samson Hatae photo.
Out of any mountain range to paint, why did you pick the Tetons?
RP: I wanted to create something that was really iconic and would appeal to a lot of people in the outdoor space. It was also a natural choice for me because I grew up in Bozeman, Montana and we went to the Tetons a lot. I have some really special memories of spending time here as a kid and as an adult. The imagery also really aligned with the bigger story I was hoping to tell, which explores my transition from ski mountaineer/climber to an artist.
What are the key takeaways from the art's story?
RP: I really wanted to tell this story about my journey—not just as an artist—but as a human. I used to be this very focused mountain athlete but started to think differently about my life when a friend passed away from an avalanche and when a different friend broke her back while we were mountain biking.
Painting is what saved me through all this.
I think my decision to focus on my art has completely turned my life in a different direction. For me, it’s been a much more nuanced direction and it feels expansive. I felt like I was plateauing as an athlete, and painting felt limitless. The Tetons felt like the right landscape to tell that story a bit deeper, and personally, it’s one of my favorite places in the world. Plus, who doesn’t love the Tetons?
It seems like you’re doing more artwork for brands these days. Did that happen naturally or was that always your end goal?
RP: Originally I was painting originals and selling prints, which was all I did until I added stickers to my inventory. That snowballed into collaborations with outdoor brands, which led to other companies producing my products. Now, what gets me the most excited are these brand collaborations. My passions lie in creating art—not in handling all the time-consuming administrative work and details that go into making these products.
Using the Rumpl project as an example, it’s been such a dream because it’s allowed me to do what I’m best at: painting and storytelling. I’d say this evolution has happened pretty organically and incrementally. If any artists are reading this I just encourage you to keep building on everything you do. Projects like this don’t happen at once. You need to be able to grow your craft at a rate that you’ll be able to appreciate the progress and not get in way over your head.
If you can’t afford one of Pohl’s paintings, then the Rumpl blanket is the next best thing! Use it camping or hang it on your wall. Samson Hatae photo.
When it comes to the design and creative direction, how do you approach a brand collaboration? And is it different from the thinking that goes into your fine art pieces?
RP: The blanket theme over everything I do is that I always want to have a connection to the work and the place that I’m depicting. I rarely do commissions. I usually draw inspiration from a feeling. For my product pieces, I think of the artwork as vignettes because it needs to be more understated and have less details so it can work on a t-shirt or headband.
My paintings on the other hand are these immersive experiences that I plan out. I don’t really look at a single photo and paint it. I’ll typically have dozens of reference photos that I’ll draw inspiration from. Often I’ll combine them together on my iPad, and I’ll plan out a painting in a month in advance and be constantly thinking about it all the time. It will be on my brain when I'm on a ski tour and I'll notice something in the wild and think, “that’s the color palette I want to use.” Overall my process is intuitive, and it’s just as immersive as the paintings themselves.
What’s a project you haven’t worked on yet that would be a dream project?
RP: I would love to have my artwork on more home goods. As much as I love the outdoor industry, I would love to have my art be translated into different mediums for a broader audience. Plus, taking on more of these big licensing jobs would give me more freedom to pursue the things that make me really happy.
What is some advice you would give to aspiring small business owners?
RP: Ask for help. It’s so easy to be a perfectionist and I see it in myself and my fellow artist friends. We know exactly what we want and we LOVE putting lots of effort into every little thing. Personally, I love writing little notes when my friends order things from me and making all kinds of custom packaging. But all those little details add up and it wears down on you. You have to ask for help. Learning to delegate things is huge and it’s okay to not do everything yourself. That’s been a huge lesson for me, and it’s shown me that partnering up with a brand like Rumpl is a dream project because they handle all the administrative details. It gives me the space to focus on creating and that goes a long way.
That makes sense because you’re not spending hours sourcing blanket fabric or figuring out how to fulfill orders. Rumpl is taking care of that for you.
RP: Exactly! People who are not business owners don’t realize how much time we artists spend on other things than art. There are lots of other things that require your time and effort like shipping, answering customer service, or researching materials. I’ve learned over the years that I have to delegate work and ask for help if I want to maintain a healthy work-life balance and have enough time to paint. A huge learning lesson was hiring people who were experts in their field—like accountants—to handle the things I’m not good at—like taxes.
Running a business can feel immersive and you constantly need to wrap your head around things like budgeting, taking out a small business loan, and how much goes into the backend of your business. It’s really easy to work 12 hours a day and not notice because there’s always something that needs to be done. If you don’t set boundaries this work can be a negative thing, but on the other hand, if you know how to delegate and set boundaries it can be a very fulfilling career.
The reality is I spend a lot of time on my computer crunching numbers and figuring out random things like what kinds of fabric I should use for my hats. It’s not just painting outside. Running this business is way more than that.
Pohl’s tip for fellow small business owners? Always take a moment to appreciate the little things along the way. Charles Post photos.
What is something that you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out with your business?
RP: I wish someone had told me to really enjoy every step of growing my career and my business. It’s really easy to be hyper-focused on obtaining a variety of goals or creating all these different products, but at the end of the day what matters most is being happy with what you’re creating. That’s what is going to be most fulfilling.
I actually had a lot more fun when my brand and business were a lot smaller. Sometimes I miss the days when things were simpler. That’s not to say I'm not grateful and happy for what I've accomplished. It’s just that these days, things are much more fast-paced and complicated—which is exciting in a different way. But, if I could go back in time I would tell the younger version of me to soak everything in and be thankful for every little step of this wild journey.