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Interview with Michael Strong:

"I was a born doodler..."

Michael Strong photoMichael jokes that he was wielding a crayon before he was a year old. Through his school years, he excelled in art, making banners and decorations for school events. And he was usually in trouble for filling the margins of his class assignments with drawings of all description. At San Diego State University he studied art under muralist and painter Jean Swiggett, and developed his technique for realistic large scale oil paintings.

After graduation in 1973, Michael's life took two turns. First, knowing his art wouldn't be paying the bills for a while, he began a career in banking and real estate appraisal. Second, he married his long-time sweetheart, Carla. With the birth of their first child, Michael changed his art studio into a nursery. He scaled down his art work from large canvases to paper and colored pencil. After their second child, they moved to a larger house, restoring a studio for Michael. He began producing drawing for galleries and shows. He also published two craft books reflecting his interests, a recycled-materials book titled Don't Throw That Away!, and a book on card making, Paper Greenhouse.

In 1995, his art moved to the forefront again. Carla had become enthused about rubber stamping, and Michael became intrigued by the medium. He produced a small line of stamp designs in 1996 and began to develop a following. With Carla's partnership, he was able to devote full time to stamp design, marketing, and teaching and demonstration engagements.

A breakthrough came while Michael was doing a demonstration session during the 1999 HIA (Hobby Industry Association, now called the Craft & Hobby Association) trade show. A TV producer, Kelly Ehrlich, approached him with an invitation to appear on the Carol Duvall Show. That invitation led to 17 appearances, sparking a worldwide demand for his rubber stamp designs. This exposure was increased with episodes of the Internet craft show, Scrapbook Lounge.

Today, Michael is one of the preeminent names in rubber stamp design. He has been around the world, teaching stamping techniques and card-making. We have been fortunate to attend some of Michael's classes, and he made time for us in May 2010 to answer some burning questions about his remarkable career:

VIC: Your rubber stamp designs under the Cloisonné line are very distinctive and versatile. How did the idea for this basic design come about, and what are the distinguishing elements?

© Michael Strong
Michael Strong cloisonne octagons
"When I launched Michael Strong Rubber Stamps in 1996 I soon discovered my stamps were not selling very well. My wife Carla suggested  I offer a collection of images with more universal appeal than my original designs, which were heavily influenced by mid twentieth century advertisement art. With the plan to add 'Carla’s Collection' to my original line, I began researching all kinds of decorative art. Happily, around this time, my Uncle Phil came home from a visit to Syria with a small Cloisonné box as a gift. Cloisonné designs are composed of intricate wire designs filled in with enamel. That little box was the spark that lead to my first 'Cloisonné' stamp idea, the Cloisonné Circle. I had the idea it would make a good embossed image and it did. The raised image, embossed in gold, mimicked the wires of the box. Adding colors to the designs with markers completed the look.  Carla’s Collection soon became my signature look and a new stamp line was launched."

VIC: We understand you developed your most successful stamp designs after some serious, on-the-road market research. What are some of the things you learned as you explored the rubber stamp market in the mid-1990s?

"With a supply of new stamps designs (10!), Carla and I embarked on our 'BC to BC tour' in early 1997. That means we drove from Baja California to British Columbia, stopping at every West Coast stamp store listed in the stamper’s bible, Rubberstampmadness. After seeing dozens of rubber stamp stores and talking with the experts, I had a much better idea of what kinds of designs were popular, what people were asking for, and how I could potentially create something new."

VIC: Conferences and Trade Shows have brought you some great opportunities. What are some memorable moments from your many demonstrations and classes?

© Michael Strong
Michael Strong at CHA trade show
"I have to say that I didn't always love the convention and trade show experience. At first, I was pretty nervous about meeting all the people and demonstrating stamping techniques. In fact, early on at one stamp convention I was doing an embossing demo and I poured embossing powder all over a freshly inked stamp. I looked up at the astonished faces surrounding the table waiting for me to share my fabulous new way to emboss. All I could do was laugh and say 'oops I guess I missed a step' and to my relief they laughed with me! Over the years, I have come to love doing this part of my job as I became more relaxed and found out how generous and fun Stampers are!"

VIC: We too are rabid recyclers when it comes to crafting. What was the inspiration behind your book, Don't Throw That Away!, and what was one of your favorite projects?

© Michael Strong
Don't Throw That Away cover by Michael Strong
"I've always been a passionate recycler. I was hooked when I participated in the first Earth Day celebration. Over the years our family has always tried to reuse stuff most people would throw into the trash. Our kid’s school projects always had some recycled element. I can still hear 'are we saving this?' The answer was usually yes! Of course, when I got the idea to put together a book of craft projects, the first thing I thought of was making useful or beautiful things from trash. The result was Don’t Throw That Away!  One of my favorite projects uses onion skins. I glue them to a piece of chip board, big pieces and little pieces all jumbled together. I paint the surface with Mod Podge (decoupage medium) let it dry and cut the chipboard into sizes that will fit onto a card for background, so easy and really beautiful. I sold approximately five thousand copies of Don’t Throw That Away! (printed on recycled paper) before the book went out of print."

VIC: The magazine RubberStampMadness, founded in 1979, played a part in your success. When we talked with the editor, Roberta Sperling, recently, she warmly recalled the famous Halloween cover you designed more than a decade ago. What are some of the contributions you made to this magazine and other rubber stamp publications and websites during your career? 

© Michael Strong - RubberStampMadness 1994
RubberStampMadness cover by Michael Strong
"As I mentioned, Roberta and the magazine’s managing editor Michael Malan were instrumental in helping me get started.  I had been sending in stamped art to them for a few years and they generously published several of my contributions. The magazine’s editor, Roberta Sperling, asked me to design a cover. The September/October 1994 issue 'Stamping the Fright Away' is my work.  With my RSM cover art as a calling card, I showed the stamps, got reaction, left samples and catalogs and hoped for the best.  Slowly but surely we started to receive orders.

Early on, there was not the huge variety of resources for rubber stamp enthusiasts that are available today.  This was also before crafting on the Internet exploded.  So, I was very lucky to be able to share my work in RMS, the premiere stamping vehicle of the day. One of the articles I did for them was based on my love for altering images.  In RSM issue #89, I altered some 'Peanuts' stamps from Rubber Stampede for an article called 'A Peanuts Halloween Party.' Since those early days, I've become so busy teaching and traveling that I don’t get the chance to contribute as much as I would like. You can see some of my more recent work in Scrap & Stamp Arts magazine, Paper Creations magazine and the sadly missed Expressions magazine."

VIC: We have seen first-hand how enthusiastically people respond to you as a teacher. You are organized, articulate and very patient. Most of all, you obviously love it. Tell us how you grew into your role as a teacher and demonstrator, and how you prepare for classes now.

© Michael Strong - teaching Martin
 the art of card making
Michael Strong at card class
"If anyone told me years ago that public speaking would be a huge part of my life I would have called them crazy! It’s hard to believe now but I was always the shy guy in the group.  When I first started teaching workshops, I made myself notes to follow in case I got addled. Over the years, I got over the fear and began to enjoy the experience. It helped that the people who came to the early classes clearly wanted me to succeed and helped me relax. Now, I love everything about doing the classes! It’s the best part of my job. My early fears have helped me understand some of my students who have no confidence in their artistic abilities. It’s my job to see that they can successfully complete the projects in a class. I live for that 'ah ha' moment when someone makes something beautiful and realizes it wasn't so hard to do after all. It’s also important to make the workshops as stress free as possible. Part of what contributes to a relaxed vibe in a class is a well prepared and organized instructor. I always make sure each project is ready to be worked on with all the needed supplies available. I am lucky to have the help of my daughter Amanda. She helps prepare the class materials for me and I couldn't do my job without her.  Another essential part of my class experience is laughter! I always encourage fun free flowing banter, and sometimes among friends, even a little good natured trash talk! That shy guy is long gone."

VIC: Rubber stamping has swept you around the world, from crafting cruises with Carol Duvall to conventions in Canada, Holland and Germany. How do you prepare for big trips like these, what do you take with you, and what kind of reception have you received? 

"I have been very fortunate to get to do what I love for a living. Part of that good fortune is the opportunity to travel.  I get invited to all kinds of events. Sometimes my schedule doesn't allow for an extended trip but now and again I get to go AND, Carla gets to go with me. We had a wonderful time on Carol Duvall’s last cruise to Mexico in 2006. We did have to outrun Hurricane Paul but that was no problem, we just crafted while we rocked and rolled! We have attended the Art Specially stamp convention in The Netherlands the last three years. We love to go to Holland! The flowers are incredible and the people are universally friendly.  Next year we plan to go to Stempel Mecca in Hagen Germany.  It’s a big convention with visitors from all over Europe. Generally, we take stamps with us on the plane. This past April we took 500 stamps with us to Holland and sold almost all of them! We are also mulling over plans for an intensified stamping and paper arts retreat in Italy for a small group to be held in a private villa next year. I hope it comes together!"

VIC: Your many appearances on the Carol Duvall Show gave your business a big boost. Tell us about your first appearance and how you felt, and how did it and your later guest spots affect your sales and teaching requests? 

© Michael Strong - bottle cap advent calendar
Michael Strong bottle cap advent calendar
"Oh, what can I say about Carol? I love her so! She really put me on the rocket to the success moon! When you appear on TV, many things change, all for the better. As soon as my first guest appearance aired sales of my stamps and other products just exploded. I was completely flabbergasted.  Looking back now, it seems like one moment I was doing demos at the HIA convention (now known as CHA) and chatting with a charming lady who claimed to be a TV producer (the delightful Kelly Chafee-Ehrlich) and the next moment I was on a set in Burbank with a director, producer Kelly, camera operators, lighting technicians, sound technicians and makeup artists getting me ready for my first Carol Duvall Show.

I have to say I was not nervous on that first show because I was too dumb to know better! I just went along doing what everybody told me to do and it turned out fine. I met Carol for the first time on that set for a timing rehearsal. She immediately put me at ease and told me I’d do fine, just follow her lead.  A few minutes later, the lights came up, intro music played and Carol introduced me. We chatted and I did my little project, she asked the right questions, we had some laughs and before I knew it we were done.  I think Carol enjoyed having me as a guest for a couple of reasons. First, I was a man doing crafts, a rare bird! Most of Carol’s guests were women so the few of us men who came on the show provided a little change of pace. And second, we got on well. Even on a tightly scheduled show where taping eight segments a day was common, we always had fun on the set. 

Over the years, doing Carol’s show became really important to me as I realized what a tremendous impact it had on my business. I also made some dear friends along the way including Cherryl Greene, Carol’s creative assistant, who later became the producer of The Scrapbook Lounge, the best-ever Internet crafting show I appeared on for three years."

VIC: Most of us have no idea how a rubber stamp is designed and manufactured. Can you give us the step-by-step, from inspiration to finished stamp? 

© Michael Strong
Michael Strong stamps
"Wow, where to begin? For me designing rubber stamps is my dream job. As you know my blog is called 'The Born Doodler' because that is what I love to do. I always seem to have a pencil in hand. When inspiration comes along, I just start drawing. Sometime it leads to a new stamp design. Other times, someone might ask me for something specific and if I feel it will add something to the collection I go ahead and do it. The actual process of designing is an exercise in revision and refinement. I might do ten different versions of a stamp until I get it 'right.' As soon as it's right I begin cleaning it up. This, by the way, is done the old school way with a pencil, eraser and paper.  I then photocopy the image to a large format and begin refining the lines with a black marker. Working with a large image makes it easier for me to see any imperfections. When it's ready, I scan the image, and clean up any stray pixels with a computer program. From there, I send an electronic picture of it to my manufacturer and they do all the rest! Usually it takes a couple of weeks before a big box of new stamps arrives at my house packaged and ready for sale.

VIC: Rubber stamping has moved through many phases since the 1970s. The rise in scrapbooking seems to have sparked a resurgence of stamping for text and embellishment. How do you view the art form now? What is in the future for you - more stamps, more books, or something very different?

"Thank you for referring to rubber stamping as an art form! There are incredibly beautiful works of art being produced by stampers. Take a look sometime at the vibrant blog community devoted to stamping and paper arts. It is truly inspiring.

"I also think the rise of the scrapbooking movement has helped propel rubber stamping to new heights. I see more and more crossover between the two art forms and I’m happy about that.

"One of the most exciting developments for me is teaming up with Club Scrap to produce my own line of quality scrapbooking and card making papers. As you know, Club Scrap is a singularly innovative paper arts company founded in 1999 by my friend Tricia Morris and her business partner Dinah Mueller.  Last year I had the opportunity to work with the CS design team to produce four collections of paper based on my stamp designs.  I’m happy to say we are continuing our collaboration this year. I absolutely love the Club Scrap team and I love what they have done for me!

"Of course, I’m always dreaming of something new! New stamp designs, new videos, a new book, my own line of embossing folders, digital images and most of all introducing new people to the world of stamping and paper arts!  What could be more fun?"

Michael Strong the Born doodlerYou can catch up with Michael Strong's latest stamp designs and appearances by visiting his website at Michael Strong Rubber Stamps or his blog, The Born Doodler. Michael's stamps can also be found at Scrap & Stamp Arts magazine and Scrapbooking.com magazine. He'd love to have you join his Yahoo! group, enjoyMichaelStrongstamps.

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