Having grown up in an artsy family, Zell tried her hand at many different forms of art. Ever attracted to the thought of working with her hands, she tried piano, and even some carpentry. But the delicacy of working with butterflies appealed to her, and soon her work turned into jewelry making.
For Zell, having her work recognized is one of the most satisfying sensations. Luckily, she's well on her way. With a keen business sense, and a work ethic to envy, she's quickly taking over the Wasatch front. You can find her jewelry in all sorts of shops. Don't make the mistake of assuming her to be too focused on the business. All of her butterflies live out their natural days on butterfly farms, something she stumbled across during a vacation.
Keep reading for more information, and find out where you can get your very own jewelry by Zell Lee, owner of Asana Natural Arts.
Attacus Atlas Moth wing earrings
Model: Kimberly Bucki
Zell: So the butterfly farm I ran into was while I was on a cruise, in Florida. It's in Key West. I graduated from BYU, and decided I was going to take myself on a trip, and my mom actually came with me. So we stumbled across the butterfly farm, and that was a really unique experience. It's really cool to see all these butterflies flying around you, and you can see them hatching. But afterwards, I walked into this gift shop, and it was gorgeous. They had all these butterflies in these cool displays. I was really inspired, and just moved. So I started with the butterfly art, and I branched out into these other things. But I just remember that feeling when I first saw it, and I wanted to get involved and be a part of that.
Mandy: Where do you get your supplies?
Zell: All over the world. So, I make info cards about every butterfly, and about the preservation farms. The farms are located in their natural environment, wherever they're from. Usually they span regions between several countries. The farms do a lot of good things for the butterflies. They protect the areas around the farms, and they'll collect eggs around the farm and lay them on leaves at the farm. Their survival rate goes from less than five percent in the wild, to over eighty percent at the farms. And then they release them back out, but butterflies live very short lives. A few weeks, or some live as short as a few days, so some will die on the farm before they are released, and those are the ones I get. It's all regulated by US Fish & Wildlife, and there's an international organization, C.I.T.E.S.. They regulate everything, and nothing I get is endangered.
Kita: How do they ship them?
Zell: The butterflies close up around their bodies. If I'm going to do a framed item, it's a really delicate process to spread the wings back open. You have to soften the wings, and then I'll use pliers. If I'm using it for jewelry, I can just break them off.
Mandy: How do you keep the shape?
Zell: They're all laminated. Now, I have my own machine, but I used to go to Fedex Office and use their machine for hours. I would keep to myself, and I wouldn't ask, because then they couldn't tell me no. That was before, when I wasn't making nearly as many. It's pretty thick, and I make sure it's a fully sealed border. For the hairclips, I make sure you can bend the whole thing and that it just pops back. You could never do that with a regular butterfly wing. The whole butterflies are the hardest, because lamination is static. I will place all the wings, and then you go to put the top down, but if you don't put it down fast enough, they'll just to the top of the page and move position. So that's the hardest part, getting them to stay symmetrical, and getting them to not touch each other during lamination, because I'll do a whole bunch at the same time. If you're going to cut them, you just have to a really fine hand, and make sure there's no jagged borders. I didn't think it took a whole lot of talent, until my mom helped me, and my sister, and they just butchered it. I'm the only one who can make my product the best.
Kita: If you're making the full body ones, and they do get messed up, is it hard to replace them?
Zell: Well, once you laminate it, it's permanent. So, before I ever laminate anything, I'll have to make sure it's perfect.
Kita: How do you get them to lay flat?
Zell: Well, I have a board that has a crack in it, so the body can sit in the crack. The whole wing is really fragile, but the colors can rub off if you brush it with your fingers or the pliers, so you just have to be really careful.
Kita: So how did you get into the jewelry making then?
Zell: Well, that's funny. I started the business making only framed items. That's what I thought was really unique. I didn't learn about butterfly farms until I stumbled across one on vacation once. I was so fascinated about it, that I started doing research on what people were doing with the butterflies. They had a gift shop, and would frame these butterflies, which was really pretty, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized butterfly artists only worked with other butterflies. I had been pressing flowers, and making my own frames, but I really wanted to combine all nature into one. So I would do my own flower arrangements, with a butterfly in it. That made it really unique, I've never seen it anywhere else. I started doing that with my mom, since she has a garden, and so much experience with the flower arrangements. She makes all of those now, since she makes them far better than I ever could. For a few years, I did some shows, and people would like the framed items, but they always asked for jewelry. I didn't want to jewelry, since I felt that everybody did jewelry, and that it wouldn't be as unique. I really resisted, but now I sell far more jewelry than anything else. I finally gave in, and the more jewelry I made, the more my business grew. I do like the jewelry now that I'm in it.
Kita: What were your goals when you finally gave in to doing jewelry?
Zell: When I started, I didn't really know what would happen. I've always worked with my hands. I love making stuff. I've been a seamstress since I was fourteen, I've made furniture, I've played piano. I love making stuff with my hands and working with my hands. I've always been an entrepreneur, too, and I felt this was a good niche, one that was unique and something that my mother and I could do. And then, interest grew, and I was selling lots and doing well. I still have a full time job, which makes my life crazy, but once I get my masters degree, I'm quitting my job and doing this full time. I basically do it full time already, but then I'll just have one full time job. My goal has definitely evolved, where it's not just something I do because I enjoy it, but I'm also making it my income.
Kita: Was there a turning point when you decided to make it a full time job, then?
Zell: Probably when I started making the jewelry. As time has progressed, I figure out what people want. I did realize something. Either you make something that you want, and it's more like a hobby, or if you want to turn it into a business, you have to make what other people want. So some of my favorite products don't sell nearly as much as the jewelry itself. Some of my favorite products are like, the decals, where I laminate the whole butterfly, but there's a sticky backing, so you pull it off and you can stick it to anything. I think they're really cool. I make drawer knobs, and the framed items. The things I thought were more artistic just don't sell, so the turning point really was when I decided, "Okay, if I want to make this a business, I need to make what people want more." And they're quality items, that people want more. They don't look for flower, butterfly frames, because they don't know it exists. So online sales is a totally different ballgame than local shows. If someone sees it at a local show, they might buy it on impulse even though they had no idea that butterfly art existed. Online, they have to search for it. So it's definitely a learning game, and once I learned to make what people want, and go in that direction, I was really able to make it more of a business.
Kita: How does having a normal job work with this as well? Is it hard to balance the two?
Model: Sienna Leilani
Sienna Leilani Photography
Kita: How about running the business side versus the creation? How do you find that to be?
Zell: It's a struggle. It's hard being a one man business because you wear all the hats, you have to do everything, you can't be lazy in anything. Especially legally. Not only paying taxes, but getting the butterflies. You need to be licensed to import them, so if I'm bringing them from out of the country, it's a lot of paperwork. So when I started ordering internationally, and contacting suppliers in China, it was crazy. I've learned a lot, even though it's kind of intimidating. I just had to learn by doing. But it's hard. There's parts I don't like. I bet every artist would agree, it's fun to do the art side of it, but not the business side. I hate figuring out the taxes, and doing all the paperwork. All that stuff, I put off. So it's definitely a struggle. I would like help sometimes, but the very few times I've reached out, it takes more time to teach someone to make it, and I could just make it myself, and make it better. So, at this time, I just do everything.
Kita: Do you have a favorite part of owning a business?
Zell: I would say that it's when I get positive feedback and when people recognize my stuff around. That's the most gratifying thing. Especially with butterflies. They have a lot of significance. They mean change, or growth, they're very common at weddings and funerals, where it's a big moment of change for people. So they're so important to a lot of people, and I feel like it has a lot of value to it. So I'm able to pass on this natural and beautiful things, it's a gratifying thing, for sure. People will email me butterfly stories, and it's really inspiring.
Kita: Do you talk and interact with a lot of local artists, or are you pretty isolated?
Zell: It depends. I have talked with a few other local artists. I follow Peach Treats the most, and have met with her, and she gave me advice since her business is farther along than mine is. I also talked with Kimiko, who does origami stuff. I tried organizing this art show, last year, around Christmas time. I was going to have this show in someone's house, with twelve artists, who were all going to invite their contacts and each have their table space, and we'd have a little party. There would be a DJ, and we'd serve wine. I thought this would be a really cool event. That was the strongest I ever pushed to work with other artists, and I pulled back pretty soon because, artists vary a lot, but they aren't always very professional. If they're doing it as a hobby, it's one thing, but if they're doing it as a business, like Peach Treats is, they're a very different person and they handle it very differently. So, very few were very serious and willing to do anything to help. Very few would contact me and help me advertise before, so after that, I backed up a little bit, because I'm still growing and developing my business. Every artist is kind of on their own level, so if you find someone on your level, that's great. So those are the ones I try to collaborate with the most.
Kita: What about the bigger arts community? Have you enjoyed your time playing around in that?
Zell: Yes, I went to a couple of events at the Utah Arts Alliance. Once a month, they do an artists connection night, and I brought some stuff, and you vote on your favorite thing of the night. An artist would be featured to do a speech, and that was pretty cool. Honestly, right now, I just don't have a lot of time to reach out. Once I don't have my day job, I will, and I want to reach out more locally. I definitely have a lot more interest after this summer, doing the farmers markets, and Craft Lake City. It's built up more of a customer base, and gotten me more into the arts scene and that's good.
Kita: So what's been your biggest struggle?
Zell: It goes back to what I was saying about not always being able to make what I want to make, and having to get things ready for shipping instead. I also miss having free time, to work on other art, like playing the piano. I just don't have time for anything anymore. It can be frustrating because right now in my current situation, I have less time for other things. It's pretty much regular job and art job.
Kita: So, I'm guessing since you worked on this with your family some, that they're pretty supportive?
Zell: Oh for sure. It's a good business, and all my family is happy about it. When my friends see how I've grown, they always comment when they come over. It's fun to share, too. I do enjoy it, and they're happy for me, and I'm happy in my life. For my mom, it's a really good way for us to talk and have something to share. I think she does it to support me.
Kita: When you transitioned from other butterfly art to the jewelry side, did you see yourself becoming so successful?
Zell: Oh yes. Just because there was so much more interest. The more I come out with new patterns and get more unique, I get more support. People are really enthusiastic about it. And definitely when I started making plugs, I didn't think that it would have such a demand. Because they're actually a really high demand, I get tons of custom orders, and I was really surprised by that because I hardly know anyone with stretched ears. I definitely want to expand on what I offer with my plugs. I think I can do better. I'm definitely going to get some custom plugs made for me where I can create a bigger variety, with other nature things. I just got some tunnels, and I've been experimenting with resin. I hate resin with a passion. I really got into lamination because it's a quick and easy way to preserve something forever. But with the tunnels and the plugs, I need to figure out better ways to make it more permanent and long lasting, and for that, resin is just better. I'm going to start adding in seahorses and beetles, and other things along with the butterfly wings. I'm just always looking for ways to make my product better. I'm getting more skillful and coming up with new designs, but also getting better in quality and make it better for the customers.
Kita: What got you into art in general?
Zell: Probably my mom. My parents were both very hard working, and would do anything themselves before ever paying someone else to do it, if they could. And my mom is a big seamstress, so I got that from her. We had a lot of fun days just sewing in the sewing room. She actually made all of our kids clothes when we were growing up. They were all hand made. And when I got to high school, I mean, I'm so little, that nothing ever fits me, so I would just buy something and go home and alter it to fit me. I would hire myself out for services, here in Salt Lake, I make peoples costumes. In high school, I used to make people's prom dresses more modest, you know, by adding sleeves. So that was really fun. I also really liked wood shop. It's just fun, making something with your hands, for yourself. It's going to be better quality, and cheaper, and much more meaningful.
Kita: So I hear a lot of people have butterfly phobias. Do you ever run into those people?
Zell: People generally love the butterfly art. There's only been one or two who said they didn't like butterflies, at least to my face. But, the beetle wings are a whole different story. Even though it's beautiful, it's so half and half. People will say, "Oh that's so rad, I want to wear those!" And the other half will say, "I just can't get over the fact that that's a beetle, that's gross!" So it varies. Most people like the butterflies, but everything else gets a mixed reaction. Everything I sell comes with an info card, and I think that's really helpful. It talks about the butterfly and the farms. People usually assume the worst, if they don't know, so if I don't have a lot of signage talking about them, they'll say things like, "Oh, that's fake!" or, "Oh, you kill butterflies!" I think it's important they know, especially if they're going to be wearing the jewelry, and other people are going to be talking to them about it, they can know what they're talking about. They can say that the butterfly came from a farm, and what kind of butterfly it is, and what country it's from. I think they get excited about what they're wearing, too.
To see more of her great work, check out her etsy: http://www.etsy.com/shop/AsanaNaturalArts
Or even: http://www.rebelsmarket.com/rebel-store/asana-natural-arts
And don't forget to like her facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AsanaNaturalArts