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Rheal can trace their interest in materials to childhood. There's a specific memory they have of using a tool meant for attaching cables to the wall. Using the tool as a holder, Rheal grabbed string and shoestrings to make bracelets. (Editor's note: Rheal prefers to use their first name only.)
In their Oakland neighborhood, the maker and independent business owner kept looking at what else was around them — and what people needed for their homes. Near their home, Rheal found plenty to work with. They could get concrete and other industrial materials from the hardware store nearby and take the bus to Blick for art supplies. Then, they decided to convert their two-car garage into a full-on studio.
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From coasters to blankets to jewelry holders, Rheal has been creating items for the last eight years through the lens of "an artist who is working as an artisan," as they told Hunker.
In their previous work as a visual merchandiser, it became clear that they had a passion for helping people find that perfect house ware or furniture item they needed to complete their space. They started making pillows with recycled denim and canvas. When they had extra concrete mix one day, they created an item based on a family object — a pair of hands. Then came coasters, place card settings, and other homewares that they noticed people needed.
Lately, they've been creating pieces that explore their identity in more overt ways.
"I'm interjecting things that really are personal now and people are receiving those because they are being displayed in a way that they can be used in their home, such as a blanket or a functional ware," Rheal said.
Rheal recently designed two blankets with the names of important African American men and women in history. The design process also helped them discover people they didn't know about; highlighting the women was especially important, as Rheal emphasized that many times, women in history are more overlooked than male figures.
The mural featured behind the throw is close to Rheal's home, making the presentation of the item even more personal.
"I know that that's really important for myself and my community — just to have objects where you can question. 'I don't know this name, but I know this name, like, who is this person?'" Rheal said, referring to the blankets. "Or you can sit your child on it and you can talk about each and every name."
And while they still visit stores like CB2 and West Elm to keep up with decor trends, their artistic work is more about looking inwards.
"I really try to not let external forces affect that directly," Rheal said. "I don't want to make a piece of art because somebody wants me to make it per se. I want to make a piece because I have something to say about something going on — or something going on inside of me."
Balancing the two — the commerce, business-oriented tasks and the more artistic side — means learning how to practice self-care. Rheal emphasizes that starting a business isn't easy; it takes time, and often involves help from others.
When they're not in their studio, Rheal spends times baking, cooking, and gardening — all different modes of creation.
"I have glass bins from my glass work that I remade into moveable pots, and a lot of potted plants," Rheal said. "[Gardening] is this great love work that is teaching me things about life as well as my business in this metaphorical way ... there's always a bug or always something for me to work at. And the more that I move the needle, so to say, the more that I try, the better the outcome, most of the time."
At the end of a busy day, they often walk upstairs from their studio to journal, light some incense, or light a candle. They arrange flowers from the nearby farmer's market. This past year has been especially significant, as Rheal transitioned to their brand full-time. Over the past year or so, Black makers received more support as protests and racial uprisings took place, but many saw that enthusiasm dwindle as time passed. Add to that the general challenges of the pandemic.
"I'm proud that I made it through. Especially when a lot of my community got so much light shone on us in a very short amount of time," Rheal said. "I had two other jobs in 2019 and I went from, [in] May 2020, [having] this job and two other jobs [to] just doing this like literally overnight. And then being like, is it going to last?"
But Rheal has continued receiving orders; they're now focusing on upgrading elements like packaging and exploring mediums like stained glass and carpets.
"I'm blessed to feel like I don't work," Rheal said. "I wake up in the morning wanting to know what am I going to do?"
This curiosity and interest in creating continues to drive their day-to-day. It doesn't matter if the item is large enough to cover a bed or just small enough for a vanity. Or if it's an artwork created with more fluidity.
"My life is here to make positive and beautiful things," Rheal said. "That leaves me open to being happy, to doing that in many different ways — be it for myself directly or for other people."