by Steve Ahern
Julia Cumings’ front door is ornamented with a vibrantly colored paper pinwheel she made from leftover scraps of paper. The 33-year-old Cumings, wife, mother of two young children and owner of Red Otter Creative, which specializes in handcrafted wedding guest books, photo albums and journals, not only possesses a flair for paper filigree; she has been exploring the artistic possibilities of paper since she was a child. “I’m drawn to the versatility and beauty of paper,” she said. “I hardly know when my love of paper began. Hasn’t it always been there, in my splotchy construction paper projects as a child or glueing up mini-magazines with my sisters in high school?”
The scrap paper for the pinwheel came from her studio, which doubles as the kitchen table in the two-bedroom Chestnut Hill apartment she shares with her husband, Andrew, and their two children, William, 2, and 8-month-old Madeleine. It is in that confined space, where for three hours a day, between straddling motherhood, with its play dates, feeding times, bathing and carriage rolls up and down Germantown Avenue, she seeks to imbue form, beauty and function into each piece she creates. After all, Cumings considers herself an Artist with a capital A.
Creating books has been a hobby of Cumings for years. When she wanted to journal, an activity she finds particularly cathartic, or a place to hold photos, she made her own journals and photo albums. Beyond its utility, the act also offered a creative outlet for her. But through those years, she began to amass a large number of creations she was unsure what to do with until a friend introduced her to Etsy, a commerce website specializing in the sale of handcrafted items, among other things, where Cumings’ books are now sold.
Cumings established Red Otter Creative in 2007, near the time she and Andrew married. She began to post her items, selling just enough to pay for the materials used to create her books. It wasn’t until last year, after she gave birth to William, moved to Chestnut Hill and gave birth to Madeleine that Red Otter Creative burgeoned into a legitimate home business. “It was really a hobby for many, many years until last tax season that it pretty much solidified into a small business,” Cumings said.
Julia and her husband discovered Chestnut Hill in a guidebook they read while sitting together in a café in Madison, Wisconsin, where her husband had recently graduated from law school. He had found a job in the Philadelphia area, and he and Julia, then nine months pregnant, needed to find a place to live. “We flipped open to this urban village, Chestnut Hill, and it had a great shot of the avenue (Germantown), Starbucks and the clock and everything. and I thought this looks like a great idea.”
Cumings likens Chestnut Hill to the Victorian era, with its cobblestoned avenue and uneven slate stone sidewalks, a time long before mass-produced mediocrity and the paperless movement had taken hold. Chestnut Hill, Cumings said, complements her affinity for a bygone era where much of her art lives. “Chestnut Hill helps inspire my love of the past, paper and books,” Cumings insisted. “I love vintage ephemera: letters, journals, prints and lithographs.”
Cumings was raised in the Midwest and south central west and spent her formative years in Oklahoma, where her father worked as a computer programmer. He recognized her artistic acumen early on and nurtured it by giving her drawing assignments with the books she was reading at the time, including “Chronicles of Narnia” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”
By the age of 13, when her father’s job took them to Michigan, she began training with an art teacher. Rather than go into teaching, Cumings’ father encouraged her to market and earn money with her art, solidifying her decision to study graphic design and art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, a degree she completed in 2003.
After graduation, having very little money did not permit her to eat much more than oatmeal or purchase the kind of journal she wanted, so she made her own by cutting up cereal boxes and sewing them together with fishing wire. She adorned it with ribbon and decorative sheet paper sold at the boutique where she worked and rather swiftly created an aesthetically pleasing and useful object that was both free and enjoyable to write in. It prefigured the making of books and the business, Red Otter Creative, that was to come.
For the next several years, while working as a graphic artist for a few small firms, Julia continued to make the books she would ultimately begin to sell. Some can be found on www.etsy.com/listing/91101222/wedding-guest-book-turquoise-golden-mums. Cumings also maintains a blog, which features some of her musings on motherhood as well as her art work, including her photography and painting. Check it out at redotter580.blogspot.com/2013/04/still-life-no-4.html. Or she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org