My Story—How I Became a Printmaker and the Origins of Heartell Press

My Story—How I Became a Printmaker and the Origins of Heartell Press

October 17, 2022

I love hearing the stories of other artists and how they developed their careers, so today I thought I would share how I became a printmaker and how Heartell came to be.

The First Print I Ever Made

I made my first prints when I was less than a day old. HA! I recently read in a journal that my mom kept for me when I was little that the first project she ever saw me take on was making 19 Valentines for all the kids in my kindergarten class, so I guess making cards was always, well, in the cards for me! Looks like I was always a mama’s girl too.

I wasn’t the kind of kid who had advanced drawing skills. I loved art as a kid but I also loved dance, gymnastics, music, writing, performing. Some might say I had a natural flair for design, judging from these early works. Kidding aside though, I don’t actually believe in the concept of “innate” artistic talent, or at least that some people have more of it than others. I think making great art is a matter of desire, motivation and opportunity, and being successful is about finding an audience for the work you want to make, one person at a time.

Rachel's childhood drawings and photos

This Is The Place

When I was 11, my family moved from Chicago to Salt Lake City, UT. It was tough to land in a place where there was such a stark dividing line in the culture, between the strong LDS religious majority and everyone else (I grew up Unitarian so being part of the social and spiritual world that meant so much to so many of the people around me didn’t feel like an option). I’m including this in my story because I think the experience was formative for all the work I’ve done since. It was the first time I really grappled with the thing I am still making art about now - the tension between the “I” and the "We," “Them” and “Us”. The thread that connects all the art I’ve made is that I’m always trying to understand what brings people together, and how to help people feel less alone. There’s no easy answer because in order for people to cultivate a feeling of belonging, there has to be an “us” which means there’s always a “them.” It’s hard to create a definition of “us” that doesn’t leave anyone on the outside. 

So there was a lot of conflict and angst in my middle and high school years, rebelliousness that grew out of feeling helpless about whether I'd ever find a way to belong and feel useful. My parents tried but I was willful and unhappy. I didn't do well in school and actually left home for a while at 16 but I made some good friends through the various jobs I had in restaurants and bakeries. I knew early on that food was one excellent way to bring people together!
rachel and her family holding up a sign that says "Utah or Bust"

My Introduction to Printmaking & Letterpress

College was a gift and a turning point for me, and I’ll always be grateful I got to go despite my terrible grades and poor citizenship in high school. During that time I discovered printmaking, and that’s when visual art started to win out as my chosen medium. I focused on etching, and my final project was a graphic short story laid out like a comic book where each panel was made using a separate etching plate. I worked hard on it and I was proud of the results.


a flyer for a college art show, a page out of a comic book made of etchings, a photo of Rachel Kroh at one of her first art openings in college

I went to a small college and there was only one printmaking professor. When I asked her to write me letters of recommendation for grad school, she said no! It was at least partly a style thing, she didn’t really care for comic books. But it shook my confidence and sent me down a different path.

Another important thing that happened at the end of college was that I came very close to being chosen for a Watson fellowship. It would have given me funding to spend a year studying printmaking in Japan, Australia and Canada, and I put a ton of time and effort into the application and planning all the details. In the end, I was the runner-up and it was hugely disappointing. I include these parts of the story because I was not an early success and experienced a lot of confusion during my 20’s. I am just grateful that Instagram didn’t exist in those days, I feel for young people now who have to go through those challenging years with an internet audience.

photographs of rachel as an apprentice and the printers she worked for, a page out of an early book of linocuts with an image of a hand holding someone's knee in a car

I decided to do the part of my fellowship trip I could do without the funding, so I did an apprenticeship at a letterpress in the mountains of British Columbia. That was my first taste of letterpress and while I found it exciting, the press where I studied was VERY traditional and I felt stifled by the strict adherence to old rules. In my time off I took a workshop on Granville Island in Vancouver and I made a book of linocuts. It was the first time I really focused on relief printmaking.

A Turning Point…

The next year I was offered a full scholarship to earn a Master of Arts in Religion in Religion and the Arts (how’s that for a mouthful?) at Yale Divinity School. I had been interested in religion in college and applied on a whim, and since I didn’t really have another plan, I decided to go. It was my attempt to get a “real” job (HA-shows you how much I knew about the job market at that point) and it was kind of a wilderness time in my life. I didn’t thrive in the high-intensity, competitive academic setting at Yale and what I really wanted was to be making art. I did learn a lot from the people I met there about social justice and about caring for people and communities who are suffering.


an old postcard with a photo of Yale Divinity School, a photograph of a sculpture made of four church pews joined together at the corners

My first spring break from YDS I went to visit a friend who was working at a painting school called Marchutz in Aix-en-Provence. I had never been there, and it was a life-changing trip in many ways. The school taught landscape painting as though the 20th century never happened, and I was so impressed by the bold-faced impracticality of this that I thought, “if these people can be here doing this, I can go get an MFA in printmaking.” I also met my future (current) husband Eric on that trip, but that’s another story! 

a photo of two plein air painters in a field, a sketchbook drawing of a Rodin scultpure and a postcard of Sainte Victoire

Off to Chicago

a photo of rachel kroh in her studio in art school, drawings and paintings she made in school

So, while I finished my degree, I used the linocuts I’d been making to apply to art schools, and after I graduated, I went straight from YDS to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to get my MFA in the Printmedia department. I was in HEAVEN. I spent two glorious years making terrible art. I screenprinted onto fabric and made quilts, I learned how to use Adobe design software and experimented with repeat patterns and laser cutting and neon, I started making paintings on paper with gouache. My thesis work was a huge sculpture made of church pews. I will be paying off my loans for a long time but it was an incredible experience and I was very sad to leave.

New York, New York

I moved to New York to try and build a career showing in galleries. I had a teeny tiny very expensive studio in Gowanus that I shared with a wonderful artist named Kat Chamberlin who I met at SAIC.


I was very lucky to have a creative, challenging day job helping Emily Scott found a new progressive dinner church called St. Lydia’s. I made woodcuts for the church’s website, as well as postcards and posters and people responded well to them. My job title was Community Coordinator which basically meant “mother hen” and I spent a lot of time talking to the diverse stream of people who attended our services from all over the city (and the world). People bring the hardest things in their lives with them to church, and it was another big opportunity to learn about how to be present with people who are struggling.

I got to do a lot of fun design work for St. Lydia’s (including many woodcuts). It was also the first entrepreneurial project I was ever a part of, and watching Emily create her community from scratch gave me a lot of confidence about my ability to start a business, though at the time the idea hadn’t occurred to me yet and it was definitely not something I grew up thinking I could do. Being a fine artist requires a lot of the same skills as running a business, but while the education I received in art school was valuable to me in a million ways, it didn’t include any of the practical skills necessary for starting and running a business. There are tons of resources for this now, so if you are looking for information, please reach out to me!

woodcuts Rachel made for st. lydia's of chairs, cups, food

I was mostly making paintings with gouache on paper during this time. I made this sculpture which we later repurposed as a trellis for growing gourds in the community garden we helped create out of an abandoned lot called the Enough for Everyone Garden. Eric and I had our wedding celebration there!

The connection between love and food was what drew me to St. Lydia's, and this was another intense period of grappling with what it actually means to try and gather people together and cultivate a sense of belonging, and how difficult and also rewarding that can be. Our Generous Kitchen collection is my latest iteration on this theme.

a sculpture made of wooden ladders joined together, in a gallery and later in a garden covered with vines, rachel and eric in their wedding clothes in front of the sculpture.

My Mom’s Illness & How It Changed Everything

In 2012, my mom was diagnosed with stage IIIC ovarian cancer and the doctors predicted she had less than a year to live. It turned my world upside down in many ways. The tender young shoot of faith I had been nurturing through my work at the church was suddenly pelted by an unseasonable hailstorm of fear and loss and sadness. I spent a lot of time in Utah but I still lived and worked in NY, and I struggled to find ways to connect with her and support her from a distance. I made cards for her, and people saw them in my studio, and I was surprised by their positive responses to them. Around the same time, I learned (through Instagram I think) about the existence of the National Stationery Show and the wholesale market for letterpress greeting cards.


rachel and her mom, early heartell press greeting cards on racks and in editorial photos

I spent time developing my first collection of cards and figuring out how to print them at scale (a process that is still ongoing really!). My mom went into remission, and I began to understand that life is short and if I wanted to do what I love full-time (I had two other day jobs in addition to my role at St. Lydia's to make ends meet in NYC), there was no time like the present to take the necessary risks in order to make it happen. The fact that I knew if I failed that my family could help me get back on my feet was important, I know not everyone has that security and I feel lucky that I did. Our ongoing Art for Change project is my current attempt to help others have the opportunity I did to start a business with support.

I did lots of in-person craft markets and launched, and started learning everything I could about the wholesale stationery business.

Rachel in her Heartell booth at craft markets, sidewalk sandwich signs and promotional posters for markets in Brooklyn

photos of Rachel printing on her first presses, a C&P Pilot press and a tabletop etching press

Life Is Too Short 

My relationship to risk changed a lot because of my mom’s illness. Seeing her bravely insist on doing everything she could to continue pursuing her dreams despite her illness gave me the courage to exhibit at my first NSS trade show in 2016. She and my dad and my husband and a bunch of other generous people helped me do it. I wrote 40 orders at that show, and we still work with many of those stores today. I exhibited again in 2017, and in 2018 I had my first son and that was the end of my trade show game for a while (I still hope to do it again at some point, I loved it!).

Photos of Rachel setting up her first trade show booths
photos of Rachel moving to indiana and buying a bigger C&P floor model press

I have slowly and steadily built Heartell over the last 8 years. I have two kids now, and there was a pandemic that happened (is happening). My mom died in 2019, a full 8 years after the doctors first gave her less than a year. Her spirit lives on in my work, and I’m grateful every day for everything she taught me and all the ways she helped me make my dreams a reality.

Rachel with her two boys at her Fort Wayne studio

The current Heartell team printing cards and fulfilling orders in our Fort Wayne studio

99% Good Luck (And A Lot Of Help!) 

So, there’s a lot more to say obviously, but that’s our story in a nutshell. I’m endlessly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded, and I know that my systemic privilege as a white woman has been one of the biggest factors in my success. I love the podcast How I Built This, and the host always asks at the end of each interview whether the founder thinks it was mostly luck or hard work that got him/her where she is. My answer to that is 99.9999999% luck! Countless creative, hardworking, generous people have helped me make Heartell a reality, not the least of whom are the amazing team I get to work with every day now. And most of all, you! All the card writers, care givers, art lovers and supporters of small independent businesses who have helped me make my dream a reality, one card at a time. I’m deeply grateful to you for your interest in our work and in my story, thank you for reading!

Rachel sitting at a big table in our Fort Wayne studio with five other people writing cards and laughing and talking

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