Kela Designs celebrates Asian American identity through stickers, pins and more.
Sometimes, the small things are the big things—stickers included. We sat down with Kela Wong, ’16, an Asian American artist in Seattle, to talk about how she pivoted from teaching abroad to running her own business, Kela Designs. We also talked about how creating art is her small act of good, what she’s celebrating as a small business owner and the ways her Chinese, Japanese and American cultures show up in her work.
Prior to running your business, you were teaching abroad and living alone. What prompted the transition?
I felt very isolated while living and teaching in a rural part of South Korea, so I would go to a local café for hours and create art in my bullet journal as an outlet for creativity. Journaling, drawing and creating collages helped me to reflect on my emotions and process my experience. It was like having a friend to check in with every day.
I originally started my Instagram account for bullet journaling so I could connect with others. Then, I had the idea of turning some of my designs into greeting cards, and my hope was that my artwork could bring someone joy.
How does your culture show up in your work?
I feel lucky to share the best parts of myself through my art. Growing up as someone who’s Chinese, Japanese and American, I didn’t feel enough of any of them. In high school, I became good friends with other Asian American kids I met through an art program at the Wing Luke Museum. That helped me realize that my unique identity is something worth celebrating. Now I draw on all of my cultural influences to create art that allows me to honor my identity in a powerful way.
You have a variety of collections for Kela Designs. What’s been one of your favorites?
I recently released a collection of Asian-inspired keychains and pins. One design that I was on the fence about was the lotus root design. As someone who grew up in a food-loving family, I loved the concept of it, but I wasn’t sure if people would be interested in it. I ended up creating it, and it became a top seller. It’s great to see so many people across Asian cultures connect with it, especially because food can be so personal.
Tell me more about your Stand Together collection of products, and why you donate part of the proceeds to support racial justice organizations.
When George Floyd was killed, I felt really powerless. I wanted to use my art and platform to stand up for what I believe in, so I created a “Black Lives Matter” sticker. Some customers have told me that they bought a sticker to put on their car, or put a window cling on their home so people know that it’s a safe place. Even though stickers can seem like a small thing, they can make a big impact.
I created the “Proudly Asian” sticker after I got a text message from a former coworker with a warning to be careful because someone they knew had been attacked in Chinatown. I decided to respond to my own feelings of fear with fierce pride in my heritage. It’s a reminder to respond to hatred with love and joy.
What advice would you give to other artists and small business owners?
Celebrate all the small wins, whether it’s reaching 100 sales or getting through the holiday season. You’re juggling so many roles, and it’s easy to get caught up in what you haven’t accomplished.
What wins are you celebrating right now?
I recently launched my holiday collection, which has been months in the making. I also created my annual block-printed calendar, and I’m really proud of how it turned out. Most of all, I’m celebrating getting to do what I love with my corgi Louie.
About the author: Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is equal parts storyteller, creative problem solver, and journalist at heart who’s rooted in the stories of people behind products, companies, and initiatives. She writes about travel, entrepreneurship, mental health and wellness, and representation in media for Insider, The Seattle Times, Byrdie, and more. You can usually find her searching for murals, reading a book by a BIPOC author, or planning her next trip to New York. You can learn more at www.aleenahansari.com.