As soon as Erin Powers could pick up a pen, she was doodling. The 30-year-old Kailua-Kona resident said she’s always been into the arts. Creating was very much like breathing, something necessary and always part of her, she added.
Whenever Powers displayed her latest drawings on Instagram and Facebook, her friends and loved ones swooned with encouragement and requests to make her work available for purchase. For years, Powers said she lacked the courage, mostly because she was afraid to put it out there publicly and announce herself as a bona fide artist.
Then, a friend persisted, wanting greeting cards of Powers’ drawing of a hibiscus-wearing owl with a pineapple cocktail, titled “Miss Lu-Owl,” to sell at Pueo Boutique in Kailua-Kona. Her enthusiasm was contagious and Powers couldn’t refuse. The boutique had a difficult time keeping the popular card in stock. The card’s instant success gave Powers the confidence she needed to transform her hobby into a laid-back, small side business, Handmade Life, offering prints, greeting cards, accessories and apparel.
Powers is now expanding her business with the launch of an official website in October and an even greater range of products. Previously, her items were only sold at Pueo Boutique, The Kona Coffee & Tea Co., Etsy or community events such as Kokua Kailua and the Kona Surf Film Festival. It’s not unusual for Powers to transform her living room into an impromptu showroom for interested buyers, who often learn about her work via word-of-mouth.
Powers has joined forces with business partners Carl and Mikako Nordin, who are helping with branding and marketing efforts. The couple are valuable mentors for Powers, who plans to eventually open a shop on every island, attend trade shows, as well as offer home goods, seasonal lines and thoughtful, artistic look books. She dreams of being as big and recognizable as one of her favorite brands, Roxy. She is hoping this latest move will bring enough consistent, sustainable growth that she can eventually give up being a waitress, her full-time gig for more than a decade.
Powers moved with her family from Los Angeles to the Big Island in 1993. She is a Konawaena High School alumna who only went to a year of community college and never imagined herself making a living as an artist. Her parents, on the other hand, knew better.
Her mother and best friend, Linda Lee Massey, typically tells of how a friend prophesied before Powers was born that she would have a girl who would use her hands. Her father, Charles Powers, was a construction chief estimator by day and an artist by night. He was Powers’ biggest fan, fueling her passion for art, paying for art classes and taking her on regular outings to their favorite gallery, the Wyland Kona Oceanfront Gallery, for inspiration. Her father died in 1999, but Powers feels like he’s still rooting for her and really embraces the motto, “Life is what you make it.”
Powers spoke about her friends, whom she described as inspiring, highly creative and very supportive. Several of her prints are inspired by them, including the bikini-clad girl enjoying a day at Makalawena or the palm tree reflection in a girl’s red Ray Ban sunglasses. Powers feels most creative at night, when the world around her is silent. She first draws in pencil and ink, then digitally colors everything. The prints cost $20 each, greeting cards are $5 and custom design work is about $500.
Without hesitation, friend Malia Spencer-Chaul gave Powers a loan to launch her apparel line last year while her family members in Los Angeles have picked up, packed and sent clothing to her, helping lessen the expense. She screenprints her artwork of a wave, fish, mermaid, octopus, seahorse and turtle onto tank tops, skirts, bandeau and trucker hats, ranging from $18 to $58.
Malia Bolton, Kona Coffee & Tea Co. owner, and her mother gave Powers the first scraps of burlap coffee sacks, which she transformed into clutches. Highly popular, these snap clutches, costing $75, also have castoffs and upcycled textiles rescued from garage sales and thrift stores, as well as fabrics and garments found at area shops that Powers, a self-described “fabric hoarder,” found too irresistibly charming to pass up. Her friends often bring back fabrics from their travels, including from Japan and Abu Dhabi.
Powers’ only employee is Kristy Nazara, one of her oldest friends and someone whom she considers to be her hanai sister. When Powers was 19-years-old, she asked Nazara to teach her how to make an aloha shirt for her boyfriend. Nazara has sewn since age 10 and was the go-to-person in their friend group for their handmade fashion needs, including prom dresses. It took Powers approximately two weeks to make the shirt and not without some hilarious mishaps, including putting a hole in the breast pocket during the last step.
Nazara beams with pride when talking about how far Powers has come in accomplishing her dream. When not working out of her home, Powers creates in Nazara’s Alii Catchment Tanks Systems warehouse in Kealakekua. Powers and Nazara said it’s more fun than work, as the monotony is often interrupted by humor and little recharging moments of bliss. They’ll bang out 80 clutches in five days.
Powers said it’s surreal to see people wearing her creations. With everything she makes, Powers tries to exude her fondness for growing up in Hawaii, where “life is colorful, friendly, laid back, and filled with nature’s beauty.” She wants each piece to be the Kona she loves today and remembers. She also wants her customers to feel connected to the islands, as well as enjoy that her creations are full of nostalgia, whimsy and a playful island attitude. “Hawaii has given me so much happiness in my life and I just want to share it,” she added.
For more information, visit handmadelife.com, call 747-1120 or email email@example.com.