Ariel Brands: Art That Celebrates, Empowers and Fills a Void
Published August 2016
Creative art reproductions, wearable art, accessories and custom designs that celebrate the rich heritage of people of color.
2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Winner
At a very early age, it became quite clear that Keturah Ariel Bobo was not only a talented artist, but a budding entrepreneur. When she was just a little girl, she sold her drawings for a nickel a piece, and always had buyers. Bobo also had a bit of an obsession with paper dolls. “I looked around and didn’t see anything that looked like me. So I started making my own versions of the dolls that did,” said Bobo, artist and owner of Ariel Brands. Little did she know that her natural instincts would one day become the catalysts for a booming small business.
“Although people recognized my artistic talent early, I never really thought that I could have a full-time career as an independent artist,” Bobo said. “I knew art would always be a part of my life, but not necessarily my profession.”
After college, she took a nine-to-five job with a commercial art company, painting murals; she worked on her own paintings and drawings after her “day job” was done. The more that people saw her work, the more people wanted to hire her as a freelance artist for everything from logos to family portraits. There was something about her work that stood out.
“I had so much freelance work that I struggled to keep up with my full-time job,” Bobo said. “What I was doing fulfilled me. As an artist, you always want to do your own thing, to decide what it is you want to create.”
Bobo’s own creations featured multiracial individuals: characters with big, natural hair, engaging faces and positive messages. “People were drawn to my art, drawn to my characters. I realized that my work filled a void with positive representations of people of color,” Bobo said. “I sensed that we needed this; that, in a way, the world needed this.”
Bobo started making posters of her art, and creating wearables, mugs and accessories showcasing her work, emblazoned with messages like, “Be your own superhero,” and “Make art, not war.” “I started selling on Etsy in 2012, and went viral without doing a thing,” Bobo said. “The work really resonated. It spoke to people in a way they hadn’t experienced before.” And, just like that, the young artist transformed into an entrepreneur and founder of Ariel Brands.
Portrait of an Artist as a Small-Business Owner
In 2013, Bobo opened her own e-commerce site. “Again, the timing was perfect. My brother, who is a passionate entrepreneur, knew all about e-commerce by the time I was ready to expand. So, he set up my store for me,” Bobo said. “Everything happens for a reason at the right time.”
While she shies away from aggressive marketing, Bobo does believe in staying connected with her customers and community through social media. “I post my paintings on Instagram for feedback, which I love. It tells me which pieces resonate with people. It also gives them the opportunity to be involved in the process,” she said. “I also have a decent following on Facebook and do post fliers for our Black Friday sale there.”
It’s important to note that not all of Ariel’s work is focused on joy and empowerment. With the whimsical comes the serious social commentary, and a commitment to keeping things real. “As an artist, it’s my obligation to show all facets of the human experience. I’ve been given a talent for a reason,” Bobo said. “I have to show a full range of emotion; I can’t leave anything out. I can’t make life look too easy or too difficult. I have to show love and friendship, as well as the struggles. So often, in the media, we see just one dimension.”
Although the thousands of shipments she sends out each year underscore her company’s success, Bobo judges her success on a much different level — not the sales, but the impact she’s having on people. She gets emails every day from mothers saying, “Thank you for what you do. Your products are perfect for my kids.” She mentors young artists from Boys and Girls Club, Columbus College of Art & Design, local high schools, and other community programs. But, Bobo’s influence extends beyond her neighborhood or her studio, touching people who are a world away. “There was a woman from Brazil who messaged me on Tumblr. She told me that she looked up to me, and that she practiced her art by looking at my characters,” Bobo said. “She told me she made her art for the same reason I made mine — because she didn’t see herself in other pieces. It was overwhelming to know that someone in a different country was inspired by what I am doing.”
Winning a FedEx Small Business Grant
Bobo’s mother, Patricia, who is also the company’s business manager, saw an email about the 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, and thought they should enter. Bobo was shocked to learn that she’d won. “When we got the call, I was speechless. I kept saying oh…wow…really? It took a while to sink in,” she said.
She’ll use the grant to purchase a high-quality printer that will let them print posters, mugs and wearables in house, instead of farming it out to a vendor. “Handling our printing in house will lower our cost per unit, and we can use the money saved to hire an intern or another artist to come in and create more work,” Bobo said. “So, the grant helps us, but also allows us to create opportunities for young aspiring artist-entrepreneurs, as well.”
Drawing on Her Past to Create Her Future
Just like her art, Bobo’s business is constantly evolving. The demands are high, the opportunities keep coming, but she’s expanding at her own pace — one well-planned step at a time. “My workload, right now, is massive. Although I’m planning for our next stage of growth with a bigger audience, I don’t want to overwhelm myself and my business right now,” she said. “So I’m taking it slow, so, when that growth comes, I’ll be ready.”
No doubt, Bobo is wise beyond her years, with both a gift for art and an ability to see the world through an innate lens that extends her view far below the surface. She credits her mother with giving her that unique perspective. “My mother home schooled my brothers and me, and that made us unique. When you’re educated differently, you see the world differently,” Bobo said. “She’s also the one who encouraged me to recognize the value in what I do. She told me, ‘Never sell yourself short.’ That’s good advice for life and for business.”
So, what advice would Bobo give to aspiring young artists who want to transform their passion into their livelihoods, too? “Be as consistent as you can and never give up. Never stop creating. I’ve been creating consistently since college. Even when I had a full-time job, I came home and worked on my art. I made time for it, I believed in it, I committed to it,” she said. And she’s created something special, indeed.