Tell us a bit about yourself.
Ahoy! My name is Telle. Together with my husband Rex, we are the creative madness behind ISWAS+WILLBE. We are based out of Portland, OR, where we moved in January of 2011.
After spending a number of years in unsatisfying jobs while poorly nursing our creative minds on the side, it suddenly became clear to us: the time to hesitate was through. We impulsively made the decision to leave behind our familiar lives on the East coast, pack all of our earthly possessions and our pup into our tiny car, Jareth, and head west.
Rex is from a small village near Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lived most of his life. In fact, his bloodline has lived in the same 30 mile radius for some 220 years. His roots are deeply Southern, like sweet tea and biscuits.
I tend to stumble when people ask me where I’m from, as I’ve lived in six states, two countries, and counting! Traveling and relocating were common themes in my upbringing, which may explain my affinity for change. I’ve infected Rex with the traveling bug, and we are always on the lookout for an adventure. We have the attitudes of pioneers; we’re always seeking out the great unknown, excited to make a discovery few others have made.
As a husband/wife team, we seek to represent balance within our designs. My love for antiques, the humanities, and life’s idiosyncrasies are evident in my designs; I represent the rustic, nostalgic, worldly, and subtly bold side of things as “ISWAS.” Rex infuses his love for biological processes, space travel, and natural history into his jewelry designs; he represents the calm, minimal, strategic side of things as “WILLBE.” Together, we amalgamate into the delicate balance of time and space that becomes ISWAS+WILLBE.
Apart from creating things, what do you do?
Borrowing a quote from the film Eagle vs Shark: “I guess I’ve got to keep creating or I’ll just die.” With minds running as much as ours, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there is a whole other world out there beyond our studio.
When we aren’t working on our latest designs, you can find us enjoying the arts of others: catching an indie flick, seeking out enticingly obscure music, and delving into a variety of novels — our taste ranges from vintage sci-fi to modern sociology. We even have a few of our own manuscripts in the works.
What would be the title of your memoir? Why?
I would title my memoir Martha Sawtelle terHorst Lefler, which is my full legal name. There is a whole book’s worth of stories in that lengthy moniker.
Rex’s memoir would be titled Mondays Are OK, because he believes the beginning of something is the most exciting part, and he also likes to stick up for the underdog.
Where does your inspiration come from?
We are inspired by a broad scope of things, including but not limited to: prehistory, celestial bodies, and Brian Eno; antiquity, modernity, and infinity; gritty old industrial ghost towns and beautiful beaches in the off-season; life, death, and the nature of things.
We are also very inspired by our fans. There’s something terribly exciting about learning who is attracted to your art. I like to imagine all of these brave women roaming the globe on thrilling adventures, wearing little ISWAS+WILLBE creations around their necks or swinging from their ears. When we are creating, we infuse our designs with a sense of wonder and edginess; when a piece is purchased, it begins a new life with its owner, who then infuses it with her own inspired energies.
I also want to mention how awesomely motivating the community is here on Etsy. It’s electrifying to be part of a global movement, this beautiful and vast entity that is changing the shape of the global handmade market. We came to you with ideas and dreams, Etsy, and you gave us resources, support groups, inspiration, and dear friends! Um, we love you.
What does handmade mean to you?
Integrity. Intimacy. Honesty. Respect.
Who has been most influential in your craft?
Growing up, we both spent a great deal of time in the woods building forts and romping through shrubberies, so we feel that we can accredit a certain amount of our creative gusto to the all-powerful, awe-inspiring Mother Nature. We were also both encouraged by our mothers to develop our artistic natures; enrolling us in extra-curricular art programs helped us find our creative identities at a young age.
When did you know you were an artist/maker?
I always remember there being an innate feeling within, an irrepressible desire to express myself through creating. Rex likes to think of himself as an “earth manipulator.” He remembers crafting as a child, he explored the art of glass blowing as a young adult, and also feels that creating is something he has always done. Making the move out here to Oregon was his first conscious decision to pursue the arts as a living.
How would you describe your creative process?
My creative process has much to do with happenstance. I gather a collection of materials that excite me, throw them in a pile, and play around until something sticks. I don’t get too married to one idea because I find that the more fluid I allow the process to be, the more enriched the end result. Sometimes my eye will catch two materials haphazardly co-mingling and I will just fall in love with their odd relationship.
Rex likes to reflect on things that captivated him as a child and use those as inspirations for his designs. His muses range from centipedes to archaic land masses to scientific equations and beyond.
If you could peek inside the studio of any artist, designer or craftsman (dead or alive), who would it be?
Alphonse Mucha, an amazing Czech artist of the late 1800s to early 1900s. He inadvertently became the father of Art Nouveau, but he was very pragmatic about remaining loyal to his roots and preserving his image as an authentic artist. I have seen photos from his studio and I can imagine spending an entire afternoon rifling through his collections of props and fabrics and the sort.
For Rex, it would be the studio of Ernst Haeckel, a biologist/artist from the late 1800s. He studied life forms all over the world, translating their natural beauty onto paper with extreme accuracy and grace. He recorded nature as it was, letting the art of the biological world speak for itself.
What handmade possession do you most cherish?
Over the years, I have inherited a small collection of handmade antique and vintage apparel from family members, including a wedding dress from the early 1900s and a scarlet red velvet gown from the 1960s. Juxtaposing the quality of these garments with those of today’s industry standards, it’s astonishing and inspiring to see the level of handiwork put into these old, American-made pieces.
Rex’s favorite handmade possession is a Native American flute made by his life-long neighbor and mentor, Bill, who builds the flutes from his home as a hobby. It’s a beautifully crafted instrument with an ethereal sound, and it was obviously made with love and integrity.
How do you get out of your creative ruts?
Stepping away from our work and into a forest or onto a beach brings us back to the inspiration we find in nature. We’re inspired by the smell of freshly rotting earth, the sound of tidal waves crashing and the secret joy in finding a spot where human presence is nearly invisible. These are things that revitalize our creative entities.
Where would you like to be in ten years?
All modesty aside, in ten years I would like to have lots of power and money and be doing amazing philanthropic things all over the world. We got a taste of the power our art can have when we created a pendant for the Japan Relief Fund; leveraging our skills to create a product that we then donated the proceeds from was an incredibly empowering feeling!
When I asked Rex where he wanted to be in ten years, he promptly stated, “Barrow, Alaska.” We have a shared life goal of trying (nearly) everything once, including living in one of the northernmost cities in the world. But only for a year, just for the experience of 65 days of sun 24/7 and 85 days of darkness 24/7. The motto we created when we started out on our great western migration is also very important to us: “Be up for anything!”