Battle Creek

The spirit of birds inspires line of cards and new business for Battle Creek artist and entrepreneur

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

A childhood interest in birds and a common theme between her business life and creative life — the innate desire humans have to love and care for one another — are turning a side gig into a full-fledged business for Laura Otte.

The Battle Creek resident has been dabbling in card-making for about five years. Otte says what began as a hobby has become a much-needed source of income since she lost her job at the end of 2019. The nonprofit she had been working for was having financial challenges prior to the pandemic and ultimately ceased operation.

Three months later, she was among millions of Americans left scrambling to remain financially afloat after COVID-19 began wreaking havoc in their lives and on their livelihoods.

Regardless of her employment status, Otte says, “I think I would always do things on the side. The pandemic has definitely forced me to think about what I really want to do a little bit more. Any income is welcomed at this time for sure.”

Laura Otte puts together orders for her customers.She continues to do contract work with nonprofits, which includes grant writing and work like creating an intake form, supplemented with dogsitting to “make ends meet.” The notecards she creates graced with her signature paintings of birds on the front had been a “side hustle” that is poised to become a full-fledged business venture for her.

“I have reached the point where I am going to seek out some business advice,” Otte says. “I was always working full-time, so this was something I did on the side.”

Living through the pandemic is giving her more time to paint and consider her options. She says she had some reluctance because she wasn’t sure people even sent notecards anymore.

The positive feedback she has received about her notecards has buoyed her confidence to a point where she has come up with an official name for her business – The Original Tweet – and is talking with local retailers about selling her cards in their stores. Within the next week, her cards will be part of the inventory at New Story Community Books in Marshall.

Yesterday, she started a Facebook business page titled The Original Tweet Store.  She says people can either contact her via Facebook or email her here. She is working on a website which she hopes to have soon. 

A sampling of the many cards created through paintings done by Laura Otte, owner of The Original Tweet. “I have been strongly encouraged to get an online presence,” Otte says. “A lot of this is seemingly simple things but it needs to be well-thought-out. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I had 10 orders to package and fill without the time to do it. I’m passionate about not overpromising and under-delivering. 

“So far, I’ve been able to manage just fine, being a small business operation and having a really great boss,” she says of being her own employer.

Up to now, her sales have been generated through word-of-mouth referrals, Facebook posts featuring photographs of the cards, and her participation in the city’s annual Spring and Fall Into the Arts events. She says she likes the personal, albeit socially distanced, interaction with customers including an employee with the city of Battle Creek who purchased cards to send to Battle Creek’s sister city in Japan, a woman who is a fan of robins, and a local realtor who requests cards with a ruby-throated hummingbird to give to clients.

Birds captured Otte’s imagination at a young age.

“My paternal grandmother lived in East Lansing and I visited her a lot. She had a birdfeeder outside of her kitchen window and just loved watching the birds and she knew what the birds were and would tell us. That just stuck with me. Like her, I also find birds fascinating in that we often don’t notice them making beautiful songs up in the trees.”

The enjoyment she gets through the process of creating is the prime motivation. Otte calls her enjoyment of her customers an “added bonus.”

“I would love to see more folks let go of this idea that they can’t do creative things or art because they don’t make a lot of money at it,” she says. 

A sampling of the many cards created through paintings done by Laura Otte, owner of The Original Tweet. Although she does sell actual paintings of her birds, the notecards are her way of creating opportunities for people who can’t afford to buy her paintings.

“Art should be accessible to everyone and not just the few who can afford to pay for it,” she says.

A stress-relieving pursuit

An assortment of paints that had been sitting on a shelf in her home were finally opened five years ago and used at a time in her life when she was “incredibly stressed” over a communitywide initiative she was working on that lacked capacity despite its importance.

“I knew I had to do something,” Otte says. “I had bought these paints and they were just sitting on a shelf, and I asked myself what I was going to do about it and I said, ‘I’m going to paint a damn bird.’ Out of an exercise of vulnerability, I shared some pictures on Facebook and people liked them and it really challenged me to keep at it. It was good for my sense of well-being and something I had always wanted to do.”

As a child, she says she was discouraged from pursuing her artistic side because she was “too smart” and art was considered a frivolous pursuit. Her formal training consisted of art classes in elementary and middle school and a class or two at Kellogg Community College.

She admits to having concerns about how prospective employers may view her abilities and seriousness in light of her renewed focus on her painting and wonders if they will be asking themselves, “Does she really know how to do strategic planning when she paints birds?”

“I’m torn between the consulting and the creative,” Otte says.

An opera singer turned radio host helped her reconcile her conflicted state. 

“I listened to a podcast about a woman who had studied opera in college and she was doing opera part-time and was also a radio talk show host,” Otte says. “She said the commonality is that she is using her voice to influence the world. I really gravitate towards work that focuses on human capacity and connection. I realized I could work with childhood trauma in addicts and create cards to help make somebody’s day. They have some common themes for me. My life has really been about this idea that we all have this innate desire to love and care for one another.”

Her paintings are a visual representation of that commitment to caring for others. Each of her birds is portrayed to convey a sense of calm in a world currently faced with a lot of unrest.

“If this picture brings up joy or a sweet memory, I wanted to do that for people,” Otte says.

Her work, she says is timely because the pandemic has created a renewed interest in bird-watching.

“Five years ago, we didn’t have the pandemic and bird watching felt like something that older, nerdy people would do. A lot of people weren’t paying attention to them,” Otte says. “Bird watching has been something a lot of folks have taken to doing. I think it’s because they bring a sense of warmth and joy and offer music for free. They take flight to wherever they want to go.”

The birds she captures using acrylic paint reflect what she envisions in that moment as their spirit. For the most part realistic representations, although she does admit to conjuring up a portly robin and adding a little bit of whimsy to a card she had not yet created on which she plans to feature a male bird coming back to express his love for a female. 

So far, she has painted birds that are native to Michigan, but lately she has developed an appreciation for the beauty of the Carolina Wren, which may be added to her growing portfolio.

There is very little planning and a lot of spontaneity in what she produces.

“It’s a matter of having the time and making the time and being in the zone to create. Sometimes I have something in mind. It tends to start with a background and it’s built upon that,” Otte says. “Some are done over a series of days with an hour here or 15 minutes there. Some I just paint and am done with and with others it’s like I never quite feel that it’s complete.”

The pandemic, she says, has given her the time to focus on something she thought she might never do again. As she waits for a return to some sense of normalcy when in-person arts events like Spring and Fall Into the Arts are possible, she says she will proceed with cautious optimism.

“The pandemic has encouraged me to see what direction to take things in,” Otte says.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.