• Chad

Interview with Shara Dorris of Octopus Ink

The October Bear Box interviews continue with Shara from Octopus Ink. I know some of you might already be familiar with her products but read on to find out more about how she got started, what drives her, and more!

Start us off by introducing yourself and telling us how you got started.

SHARA DORRIS: I'm Shara with Octopus Ink. Before I started Octopus Ink, I was attending UAA, with my focus on pottery and printmaking. So, at the time, I was doing a lot more pottery than anything else. I was asked to have a booth at a festival with some screen printed clothing that I’d been experimenting with and I was like, "No, I don't have time to do this. I'm focused on printing my pottery, and school is keeping me very busy.“ In the end, I committed to doing the summer festival. I was a student and I didn't have any extra money. I was thinking, I'm going to buy all these clothes In the winter so I have time to print them and then I realized, Oh, this is all my money right here in these boxes of clothes. So, all winter I fretted about it. I needed this money for tuition next semester. Sitting here with fingers crossed. When the festival finally came around, I was so nervous. I ended up selling out within a couple of hours. So after that, I thought maybe I'll reinvest this and do Saturday market and use this as some supplemental income for school. It ended up growing and growing in a natural, non-stressful way. After that first time I went, "Ok, I'm just reinvesting the same money into it and if it doesn't work, that's ok. If it does, then great." And it did. So that's kind of how it got started. To be a working artist as a potter is really difficult. So, I think this ended up being a really good option for me to express my creativity.

It must have been great watching it grow so organically right from the beginning. I also didn't realize that the pottery side was so much harder.

SHARA: Well, I think it was for the way that I was doing pottery. I was spending hours carving or decorating each bowl or cup. If you do production work maybe it's a little bit easier to make money but to make a living off of it, you have to be able to produce a lot. I was very slow.

And so then when you were starting out with your first prints, did you just have a certain type of product in mind? I go to your website now and there are so many different, cool things that you're doing.

SHARA: I have a lot of ideas, but I usually don't have the money to turn them all into clothing. So, every season I budget out what I need for the season and then if I have money leftover, I look at what kind of new products I can make. I have sketchbooks full of designs and ideas, I just don't necessarily have funding to do as much as I want.

Reining it in?

SHARA: Yeah. Also, I get a lot of customer suggestions about what I should make. Many are good suggestions, but in order for me to produce something new, I have to produce a lot of one item. I can only do that if I have the market and funding for it. I may only get to produce one new thing a season, so I have to plan well if I'm going to put something new into production. A lot of the clothing that I bought initially, I thought, "Well, if nobody else buys it, I'll wear it." It's items that I would stock my closet with like organic fabric, soft bamboo, and sustainable kinds of material. If nobody buys them, I will have clothes for myself and my friends. *laughs* So I started with shirts, hoodies, and things that I thought would be needed up here. Later, I expanded into items like the yoga leggings, which I wear often when I dive or swim.

I see. So sort of meeting the market but also having a worst case since it's something that you're into.

SHARA: Right. The leggings are fun for me and for the people that dive with me. They are really easy to spot in the water. We never lose each other on a dive. They are also great for running, yoga, or just wearable art. It’s nice to make something with a dual purpose.

Which is cool. Reading parts of your website, it sounds like being eco-friendly is something that you're passionate about. Was that always something that was a part of you and so by extension would play an important part in anything that you made?

SHARA: Yeah, having sustainable materials or materials that I feel ethically good about, is important for me. I’ve spent a good amount of time and energy finding manufacturers that I agree with and material that I feel proud to sell to my customers. I want it to be affordable and good quality. I care about the oceans, sea life, and the whole marine ecosystem, so for me to sell a product that is lower quality or manufactured in a way that doesn’t feel good to me, doesn’t mesh with my personal feelings, I just can’t do that. I try to do the best that I can.

So it's sort of a natural extension of, "These are my beliefs. This is what I'm passionate about." Cool.

SHARA: Then I realized that people were kind of hungry for it. I get a lot of visitors who come in and tell me, "Oh, there's nothing like this downtown." It turned out to be a benefit that I wasn’t expecting.

It's great when things work out that way sometimes. Everything that I've read, you get your inspiration from your surroundings. And from your Instagram it's clear that you travel a lot. Taking that into account, what's your process like? Do you see something and instantly know what you want to do or is it more gradual?

SHARA: It depends. First of all, it definitely helps if I'm in the environment. There are a lot of elements when it comes to my inspiration. There are so many people who have never been in the ocean, have never seen the ocean, been in the water, or seen the things that are living under the surface. When I have that opportunity, I will be underwater thinking, “I want everybody to see this right now, what I'm seeing at this exact moment. I'm 60 feet down and there's a three-inch-tall seahorse, and I want everyone to have this same experience". So, that’s usually when I'll get out of the water and start my drawing process. I'll roughly sketch out what I’ve seen. I usually use watercolor paper because I'm always wet when I'm drawing. I'll sit down on the beach and draw. My paper will get soaked, everything will be messy, and then I think, "I'll come back and I'll revisit this idea. Maybe I’ll make it a little bit better“. Sometimes, it ends there and I don't ever revisit it. Sometimes, it lives in my sketchbook until later when I'm dreaming about it or something pulls it back out of my memory. I definitely feel a lot more inspired when I'm in the moment and I'm putting my feelings into what I'm drawing. I often have people asking me to draw something specific because they like my style. It doesn’t work quite like that for me. It's not that I don't want to create their idea, but it's not my experience yet. If I don't have the feelings behind it, it's probably not going to be very good. If I'm drawing something that I interacted with or saw in the water, it's going to translate better. I think it makes better energy that people are going to feel when they buy it. So everything I have has some sort of story behind it.

That's really cool. So I was looking at some of your pictures and saw that you'd recently been to Salmonfest. Have you gone before or was this the first year that you'd been there?

SHARA: No, I've gone previous years, back when it was still Salmonstock. It's great because many of my customers are there. It's my base of people who care about the environment and sea life. It's really fun to be there, listening to music and talking to everyone. My employees manage my booth when we're there, they are much better at that than I am. I'm always really surprised because I don't realize how many people have my things and then I go to Salmonfest and every time I turn around, I see something that I made years ago. It’s a humbling and sweet feeling.

Does that sort of give you some perspective on where you started to where you are now?

SHARA: Oh yeah, absolutely. Especially when I see some of the first ones. I was out kayak adventuring with Marne (who owns Alaska Love) in Kasitsna Bay and we were invited to a house for dinner one night. We were sitting at the dinner table and our host said, "Oh you're Octopus Ink. Hold on, let me show you something I have in my bag," and she pulls out one of the first things I ever made. She said, "We come out here for our vacation, and I bring only my special clothes and this is in my bag every time." I was almost in tears. I was like, "I don't want to be weird but can I take a picture." *laughs* It was a really cool experience. Salmonfest is really fun for me because I get to have that same feeling when I see some of my old work come out to play.

Yeah, it sounds like everyone you interact with at Salmonfest is simpatico with you. It seems to really mesh well with your passion and belief about preserving sea life and everything that goes with that.

SHARA: Yeah, it's my kind of people. Also, it‘s nice to bring my work a little closer to the folks that don’t make it to Anchorage often. I usually have a few people tell me that they are glad that I saved them a trip to town.

Yeah, the connection side of things. That's really cool. I know that I mentioned it earlier, but I was looking through Instagram and I saw so many cool pictures of places that you've been. Obviously you like to travel a lot. Do you have a favorite trip that you've gone on? I realize that that's probably a tough question.

SHARA: That's a tough one. I do travel often and enjoy sharing my experiences. If I can share a moment that touches someone in a way that makes them want to learn more about the ocean, then I’m happy. I think Honduras is at the top of my favorite place list. I volunteer at some schools, teach art, and do beach cleanup when I can. I think that might be one of my favorites because the reef system is really beautiful and there's a lot of little things to see. Sometimes a shark will go by if you're lucky, or rays or turtles. When I'm there, I am inspired all the time. I feel like I can draw all day long. It can be a bit dangerous at times and so maybe it's not for everybody. Honestly, this is a really tough question. I can find something good any place that I travel.

I had a feeling when I asked that it was going to be a tough one. It sounds like all the places that you've been have something special about them.

SHARA: Honduras has some really cool kids that I’ve connected with. So, when I get to go see them, it's just pure happiness. The other cool thing about Honduras is you can just get in the water and you're already at the reef. You don't have to go out on a boat, you don't have to pay for it. It’s great if you are traveling on a budget, you can go snorkel and see everything right in the shallow water. It's beautiful and easily accessible.

Oh, my wife would really love that! I've been snorkeling with her a few times and I always had fun but she's definitely super into it. The last time that we went was in Kauai last year for our honeymoon. The water was really rough on certain beaches since it was winter, but we still found a few beaches to check out and snorkel at. That ended up being pretty fun.

SHARA: Sometimes that's all that matters. If you don't feel safe about it, it's not worth it. It's better to go someplace else where you feel safe. In Roatan, the water can look like glass. Sure, if there’s a storm coming in, the water gets rougher. But most days it’s really calm. It really is important to be aware of your personal safety. You want to watch out for the rip currents and things like that. Hawaii is amazing too. The first time I went to Hawaii, I was looking at parrotfish and I was like, "I didn't even know you would be this big!" It was so amazing. Hawaii has a big space in my heart.

For sure. So, have you ever had any sort of scary experiences with creatures or otherwise?

SHARA: I have a healthy respect for everything in the water, and I have a pretty good knowledge of how to handle myself. I try to not do things that will put me in a dangerous situation. I don’t always succeed. One time I got over 75 sea urchin spines stuck in my leg. I was in a situation that I wouldn't have normally been in. I found someone to dive with me and I didn’t know him. We went out and I quickly realized that he was not a good dive buddy. I should have ended the dive, but I didn't. I ended up alone, injured, and had to make my way back to shore on my own. Life lessons. I knew that something didn't feel right from the very beginning and I put myself in a situation that I normally wouldn't have. As far as sea life goes, most things are just as scared of you as you are of them. It's the same thing on land. If I see a bear, I'm not going to approach it. A lot of people are nervous about sharks, but I've had more sharks swim away from me than towards me. I keep a healthy distance and I respect that they're a wild animal. I think the scariest thing in the water sometimes is jellyfish. You don't always see them and when they sting, they can really pack a punch.

I've heard that they're really painful.

SHARA: It depends on the jellyfish. Some aren't so bad. I've had a lot of stings, but I've had a couple that I will never forget. So, for me, that's probably scarier than anything else in the water. Also, leaves. I’ll be swimming and won't see anything and then a leaf will brush against my leg and I‘ll think, "What was that?!" I’ll turn around. "It's just a leaf. Calm down." *laughs*

Because your imagination is always the worst thing.

SHARA: Yeah. So, that's a tough one to answer. I'm sure when I was younger more things scared me, but now I know what to avoid. If I'm unsure, then I just stay away. Unless it's a complete accident, I don't touch anything.

Makes a lot of sense. So I know you've been to a lot of places but do you have any fun upcoming trips that you want to take, places that you haven't been yet?

SHARA: Well, soon I am going to Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. Bonaire has a reputation for really amazing diving. I'm excited to get out there and see what that's all about. I have a group of dive friends that travel with me sometimes, so I’m pretty excited about that trip. We have a running list of places to visit, so our conversations are usually like, "Sandy, add it to the list," Then every few months one of us says, “Ok, it’s time. We need to go someplace." So, we have a list but I couldn't even tell you everything that's on it. It's pretty long. Every time I see someplace interesting I say, "Have you been here yet?" If they say no, "Put it on the list." If they say yes, ”Put it on the list anyway." *laughs*

Totally. It's not like you can see everything in one go anyway.

SHARA: Right, yeah. And it's good to have experienced divers with me. I don’t have to worry so much because I know that we are pretty safe and conservative.

That's cool. Having a good group, especially when you're doing something where there's potential risk involved, makes a huge difference I bet.

SHARA: For sure. I'm a rescue diver so, when I go out with people who have similar training as me, I know that they will also have the knowledge to handle situations if something comes up.

I'm sure that it makes it a more enjoyable trip. You don't have to sit there and worry about what other people are doing necessarily. In training to become a rescue diver, did you have an experience that sparked that or did you always want to?

SHARA: No, it was the natural progression of my diving. I've been diving since 1997 or 1998, and it got to the point where I thought, “What am I going to do next?" I wanted to have more knowledge if a problem came up. Many times, I would go out on dive with a guide and, aside from the guide, I would be the most experienced diver in the group. Even with the guides, sometimes I've been diving longer. If something happened to the guide or another diver, I wanted to know how to handle the situation. So that's kind of why I did it.

Absolutely. So we talked about art. Talked about travel. What are some other hobbies that you're into? Assuming you have time for other stuff! *laughs*

SHARA: *laughs* Running a business definitely takes up a lot of time and, in my free time, I'm drawing. I make other art that's not for sale, it’s just for me. Sometimes I find myself thinking, "Is anybody going to want this?" when I'm making something that I intend to sell and then all of the sudden I’ve added pressure to myself. So, in my free time I'll play at my sewing machine, paint, or do something that nobody else is really ever going to see except maybe my friends. For other hobbies, I run, swim, bike. Anything in the water, so free diving and scuba diving obviously. *laughs*

Especially on nice days like today, I'm sure.

SHARA: Right! Some years I really like to dig into my garden and then other years I feel like I want to go dig into the beach somewhere. It just kind of depends. I really like teaching and I get to do that when I have the time. Which is why Honduras is really nice. I get to work with kids who are right on the front of some environmental issues. It’s really nice to share my experiences with them and talk about ideas to keep their little island clean. What they can do to protect the future of their home. I don't know if I would call anything hobbies. I'm usually thinking, "Do I have free time today, what should I do with my time”.

Yeah, it sounds like with everything, it's pretty demanding. You also said something interesting that got me thinking about balancing things that you're passionate about with work. People will sometimes say "Oh, you're passionate about it. So you should do that because it will help drive you." At the same time, when you start doing something that you were passionate about for work then I feel like it can take away from the fact that you were doing it for fun or you were doing it for yourself. It sounds like you kind of do both.

SHARA: Yeah. If I'm working at my home studio, I'll start at 7 o'clock in the morning and then by 10 o'clock at night, I'll realize that I’m still working. After a couple of days like that, I'm like whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm getting caught up with work and making progress clearing my to-do list, but I need to make time for myself. So then I'll think, "Ok, tomorrow I'm done at 2:00." *laughs* I may get up at 4:00 to start, but I'm done at 2:00.


SHARA: Boundaries. And that's why the travel part is really nice for me too. I need to spend time in front of my computer, but travel gives me the time to be quiet and connect with my creative side. Paperwork and creativity are probably the toughest things for me to find the balance between.

The entrepreneur wears many hats.

SHARA: Yes, exactly. And they change all the time, so I have to be flexible about it.

So what was it about The Bear Box that made you go, "Yes, I want to be a part of this."

SHARA: It was the community feel about it. I liked the idea that you have a downtown box that is shared with my downtown community and introduces Alaska-made products and services to people that might not know about them. There's certainly been a shift in downtown over the years. I've noticed that a lot of my local customers are turned off to downtown right now. I'm not sure if it's the issues with parking or if it's that so many businesses similar to mine have closed. So, participating in something that celebrates our downtown community is interesting to me.

Cool. We're very excited about that too. As much as we talk about the products and that obviously the products are a cool and exciting part about the box, the idea was all about making connections, it was all about relationships. We want that to be the forefront and not just the products. The products are great, but we want people to be connected. We want people, after they get a box and they get your product, to go on Facebook and connect with you, get your story in a more direct sort of way.

SHARA: It works for me too! I have a subscription box that I started maybe a year ago for art supplies. I found that I always use the same art supplies. It's like being in the kitchen, I have the utensils that I use all the time, but I wanted to try out some other products that I wouldn't normally buy. So, I subscribed to an art box and it exposed me to some pretty rad things that I wouldn’t have otherwise bought or even known about.

You never would have known.

SHARA: I never would have known. There are many things in the box that I haven’t seen at the art store. My favorite so far was a pen from Japan.

So any final thoughts, anything you want to mention, any wisdom to share?

SHARA: That's a lot of pressure. *laughs*

*laughs* Sorry! Just shout outs about anything upcoming or anything you'd like to mention.

SHARA: I‘m really grateful that I get to do what I love. Conservation and the environment are important to me, so to have the opportunity to share that with my customers is special for me. I think that that drives me and keeps me going. It’s a great feeling to have a child come in the store and say, "That's a nautilus. I learned about that in school," *claps excitedly* Or to have somebody send me an email and say, “I have never been in the ocean, but because I see all the photos and art you make, I took a trip to the sea.” It’s great and I love to hear about it! For me, creating Octopus Ink has been an amazing adventure and I love that it has fostered the kind of ocean connection that I never could have dreamed of.

Totally. Knowing that you had an impact on someone. They maybe would have never thought about doing something but because of their connection to you or your products, they are. That's really cool.

SHARA: Yes. It's something special.

This interview definitely gave me the travel bug! If you liked your Silipint, make sure to check out more of what Shara has to offer on her website. Also, make sure to drop by her Facebook and Instagram for updates and sweet travel pics.