While winter winds blow outside Cara Finnerty Coleman’s cozy Fieldston studio, the artist immerses herself in the creation of enchanted landscapes with starry cobalt skies and detailed depictions of woodland creatures. Surrounded by canisters of paintbrushes and miniature animal figurines, the founder of Little Bear Illustration + Craft creates decorative prints, notecards and miniature paintings on sliced wood canvases.
Coleman’s whimsical watercolors of foxes, rabbits and bears speak to her strong connection with nature. Each of her illustrations, linoleum block prints, pins and pendants is a labor of love. “Even after years of doing this, I feel honored when people stop and admire one of my pieces at a craft fair,” says Coleman, who followed a winding career path to get where she is today.
A graduate of Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Coleman started out living in New York City, where she pursued a career in fashion design. While there, she indulged her love of animals by working as a receptionist at a veterinary office. Yearning to use the artistic techniques she learned in school, Coleman began sketching and painting small works on a coffee table in her apartment.
On a whim, she submitted a few pieces to Six by Six Gallery in New York City (now closed), which specialized in small artwork. “I was so surprised when someone bought one. I had to call my mom and make sure that it wasn’t her,” says Coleman. “That was the first time it clicked with me that I could really be a thriving individual artist and make a living selling my drawings.”
The sale of the painting gave Coleman the confidence to continue building her portfolio. She begins by sketching a variety of designs, using a light box to isolate, trace and expand the ones she likes best. Once she finalizes the outline with ink, Coleman uses watercolors and her imagination to bring her characters to life. A number of her illustrations are symmetrically framed with winding branches or leaves similar to filigrees that surround Victorian-era portraits. The same sketches can also be used as etchings for linocut block prints, which Coleman carves herself and then paints to imprint the design.
Coleman has learned to balance creativity with business. Although she often wants to, she can’t spend hours perfecting a design. “I don’t want to be unprofitable so I have to calculate how much time it will take me to design and illustrate the character. I can’t take too much time agonizing over perfection,” says Coleman.
“I’ve learned that it’s not about perfect art. It’s about art that makes someone perfectly happy.”
When Coleman moved to Marshfield to be closer to family her business took off. She opened a shop on Etsy for her illustrations and designs and started to apply to craft fairs across Massachusetts and Rhode Island. “There is such a show of support and sense of community from the other crafters that you sometimes can’t get from running a business on your own,” she says.
Coleman likens preparing for a craft fair or pop-up art show to a traveling carnival. “I pack up almost my entire studio, and then I unload almost my entire studio,” she says. Most of the day is then spent rearranging the items on her table in eye-catching displays and reminiscing with customers. “People come up to me all the time and say how perfectly one of my pieces would go in a baby’s nursery, or how it reminds them of something from their own childhood. And at the end of the day, even if my art made just one person happy, it was a good day.”
You can follow Coleman’s artistic journey on Instagram at @heytherelittlebears. Her illustrations and designs are available on her Etsy shop, Little Bear Illustration+Craft, and a schedule of her upcoming craft fair appearances is posted on her website.