DISCOURSE: January - Eli Ouellette
Welcome to the first of my monthly blog series DISCOURSE, in which I’ll be shooting and interviewing a different individual each month and picking their brain on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart.
I first met ELI OUELLETTE two summers ago at a spiritual retreat in Tahoe. He immediately struck me as a pleasant and likeable, yet ultra cool dude. And there’s more to him than meets the eye. Eli grew up in the Portland, OR area, and has an educational background in advertising. He currently works at the Dogpatch location of Philz Coffee. I was able to sit down with him and ask him some questions about himself, and then we walked through the process of crafting a key ring holder from scratch.
Thanks for agreeing to meet up Eli! How are you doing today?
I’m well, thanks. Thanks for the invite! I’m excited to share a bit of my story with you.
Tell us a little about yourself and what has brought you to this point.
I’ve always been that kid who couldn’t sit still. When I was little and my mom had work on a day we had school off, my brothers and I would wake up at the crack of dawn and start playing video games, but after a few hours, I’d lose interest. My dad is a structural engineer, and he designed and built our house when I was growing up. This had a big impact on my childhood. So when I got bored of playing MarioKart, I could either play with legos or walk into the workshop and build things with actual tools.
In high school I was a true drama nerd, performing in close to a dozen plays (I even directed one) which gave me a confidence boost and love for public speaking. In college I studied advertising and digital arts (mainly because I got to make cool things). As a student director of advertising clubs (I was a nerd in college too) I got to get up in front of classes and speak, which, obviously, I liked.
After finishing college I got my first “big boy job” at an advertising agency in San Francisco, so I moved here and started work at the beginning of 2014. It didn’t take long working as an assistant account manager for me to realize that although I’m a decent communicator, I wasn’t cut out for accounts. It was a great learning experience and all, but ultimately I was doing work I wasn’t excited about: organizing things as opposed to making things, so I knew I needed to get out and get back to the creative stuff.
I left after almost a year, with very few plans other than, “I need to make things again.” I started working on loads of creative hobbies, and leatherwork is something I was already familiar with, so I ended up spending a lot of time on it.
What got you interested in leatherwork to begin with?
When I was in middle school, my brothers and I went through a big Lord of The Rings phase, and made all these swords and bows and arrows out of wood and duct tape. To complete the effect, we needed sheaths, so we got this DIY stitching awl, and just went to town. As we grew up, my brothers grew out of the phase and eventually I was the only one left still making trinkets out of leather. I guess I stuck with it because I never ran out of ideas for projects.
What are your favorite products to create?
Ahh that’s hard to answer! The next project is always my favorite! It’s very satisfying to figure out a new pattern for say, a pair of sunglasses or a custom wallet, because it takes more planning and precision then something I’ve made before. The most common pieces I make for friends are belts and keychains, but wallets are probably my favorite. It’s really personal to be able to make or improve upon a piece someone will use and handle every day, and it’s fun to see the leather age over time.
What else are you passionate about?
One of my favorite things to do is ask people is what they do with their free time. I like talking to the surfers and mechanics and self-taught chefs who spend their free time learning new tricks and hobbies. I’m very kinesthetic, so I’m partial to anything hands-on, but I can appreciate the book readers and runners as well. Anything outdoorsy or creative, I’m game. I’m a big believer in the idea that life isn’t lived on a couch, so I love traveling and adventuring whenever I can. I’m also very involved with my church; it’s become an outlet for helping people and trying to understand myself and others. There’s a lot of hurt in this world, and my faith has become a conversation-starter for initiating the kinds of meaningful conversations that we generally don’t have enough of.
That’s awesome! What or who inspires you? What drives you to keep going?
I get inspired by good design across all fields - architecture, product design, user interface design- but the stuff I get most excited about is functional art, the ‘daily essentials’ you use every day. One of my dad’s hobbies is pottery, he makes these beautiful coffee mugs that get me excited to make coffee in the morning; they just elevate the experience.
I get inspired by seeing other makers doing what they love and having fun with it. Reading about what other creatives are doing in The Great Discontent magazine, or seeing young talent like @1924us being successful in my field, helps me realize, “I can totally do this,” and keep going. Supportive friends and family are also crucial.
Some folks I’m following right now are:
What is something that you’d like to learn?
I haven’t had much practice with metalworking yet, I’d love to spend some time with a MIG or TIG welder and some cold-rolled steel.
What is your favorite place you’d lived in or traveled to?
Is it cheating to say San Francisco? The most exotic place I’ve been to so far was the Highlands of Scotland, which I toured during a study abroad trip in university, but so far, my favorite is SF. I can’t imagine a better city to be young and creative in right now: we have mild weather, are surrounded by creative energy and delicious food, and there’s great surf just down the road. Even the insane housing prices are worth it, at least for now.
If you could leave us with one message, what would it be?
If you want to do something creative, you can’t be afraid of taking risks. Everything creative is inherently risky, and you have to learn how to embrace that uncertainty. I feel like the best work I do is when I’m tinkering with a project that satisfies my curiosity, and having fun. There will always be pressure from the outside, and of course we’re generally our own harshest critics, but don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t forget how important it is to have fun!
Thanks Eli, it's been a pleasure speaking with you!
See some of Eli’s projects at eliouellette.tumblr.com
Gear used in this post:
-Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 lens