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Made in Queens makers share their stories 

Made in Queens
Photos courtesy of Anna Krekoukis (l.), Natasha Bhagwanani (top r.) and Antanas Bublis (bottom r.)

Small businesses make our city go round, and here in Queens, they’re more essential than ever. 

Thankfully, the spirit of entrepreneurship is still alive and well despite the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing economic challenges. Undaunted, hardworking Made in Queens (MiQ) creators are trying to make their mark while growing their homespun companies.

“The borough has great creative talent and entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a real pleasure to promote some of these vendors. It’s also a pleasure to buy their products,” said Rob MacKay, the director of marketing and tourism at Queens Economic Development Corporation (QEDC).

Get to know these talented folks who’ve been creating some of the one-of-a-kind products you buy, and learn about their businesses and products. Several local artists and artisans — many of whom are immigrants and women — were eager to share their stories with QNS readers, and many more will be featured this summer and fall, so stay tuned.

Natasha Bhagwanani, Bright & Blue Studio (Long Island City)

I love to create work that inspires, encourages, and brings you joy. I hope my work resonates with you and motivates you to dream big, spread kindness and experience wonder. Bright & Blue Studio offers a line of greeting cards, art prints and stickers, for both wholesale and retail customers. I also work with customers to create custom works of art, from personalized art as gifts to custom projects for events, like birthdays, baby showers and weddings. These projects include but are not limited to invitations, signage, gift tags, programs, menus and more. They are priced based on individual commissions and specifications.” 

Made in Queens
Natasha Bhagwanani with her debut picture book “Quiet Kush.” (Courtesy of Natasha Bhagwanani)

NB: My experience as an entrepreneur has been full of ups and downs. Especially as a creative, there is so much of yourself you are pouring into your work. Combining the practicality of business with the emotions of an artist is especially hard — and finding that balance is something I am still learning about every day.

The pandemic changed many of our mindsets, shifted many priorities, and affected us all in so many ways. From the logistical aspect, the supply chain and the timelines for product development have been affected. From the creative aspect, it’s been tricky to foster inspiration in times of stress and anxiety. I’m re-learning how to squeeze out the creative juices and remind myself that it is important to continue to use my skills and talents to create, for myself and for others.

At the moment, my retail shop is undergoing some updates, but I hope to be back in action by this summer. You can currently buy some of my products locally, at Ora La Casa de las Flores in Sunnyside and The Brass Owl in Astoria. 

QNS: Where does the “magic” happen?

NB: The magic happens mostly at home! I have a home studio set up with my traditional supplies, such as watercolors, gouaches, colored pencils and more, as well as my digital supplies. I try to carry one sketchbook and one notebook I call my “idea book,” everywhere I go, so that I can jot down quick brainstorms and inspirations, so I can refer to them when I’m back at my desk. 

I believe that having a designated space, regardless of how small or big it is, makes a huge difference in keeping oneself motivated to do the work. It serves as a visual reminder that I should sit down and do the work — whether it’s the creative aspects or the research and development aspects. Creating that habit of sitting at my desk for even just 30 minutes to an hour a day is essential to staying on track and staying motivated. 

QNS: Who are your customers?

NB: They are those who love encouragement, positivity, bright colors and whimsy! 

QNS: Where do you see yourself in five years?

NB: I am currently working on my debut picture book as both author and illustrator, and also working toward editorial opportunities in illustration and writing. I hope to continue to create stationery, gain more licensing opportunities and continue to write and illustrate more books! 

QNS: Share your backstory with readers.

NB: Born and raised in Queens, growing up as a South Asian American, my life has always been about the fusion of two cultures — something I try to infuse into my art. I grew up with the love of reading, thanks to my dad, and a love for creating, thanks to my mom. Both passions have been encouraged since I was young. However, I succumbed to the pressures from others on being a first-generation college student and became fearful of taking risks and following my passions. This led to a long journey of figuring out what I wanted a little later in life and then finding ways to learn about building a career as a creative.

For more information about custom projects, visit brightandbluestudio.com

Asta Bubliene, Asta Joana Design (Kew Gardens)

“I make handmade porcelain pottery and have a line of greeting cards and art prints with my illustrations. I sell through my website, astajoana.com, at a few local galleries and in person, at craft shows.”

Made in Queens
Asta Bubliene in front of her work at an exhibit (Photo courtesy of Antanas Bublis)

QNS: Tell readers about your experience as a MiQ maker.

AB: I love that my work goes to live in customers’ homes and gets used in their daily lives or decorates their homes. There is a lot of work that goes unseen; it’s not enough to just make a product to sell. A small creative business owner has to do many other tasks, from packing and shipping to marketing, applying to shows, pitching to companies, etc. 

There are many challenges. Some are monetary; others, business knowledge-based. The last two years of [the] pandemic were very challenging for all small businesses. For me, it meant no in-person shows and at first, no pottery studio access, then very limited access. At the present time, the challenges I see are rising costs of supplies, and production and supply chain issues.

QNS: Where does the “magic” happen?  

AB: I use a shared studio space at Brickhouse Pottery in LIC, where I make all my ceramics. I do my illustration work at home, both painting by hand and digitally.

QNS: Who are your customers?

AB: Art, nature, animal and bird lovers; [the] majority are women, but also some men of all ages.

QNS: Where do you see yourself in five years?

AB: My plan is to have a wider reach for my ceramics through steady sales on my website and galleries. I would like to see my artwork on a variety of products in the stores through art licensing. I see my art business as financially sound, and I am able to support myself solely from it.

QNS: Share your backstory with readers. 

AB: I immigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania in 1996, and have a fine arts degree in ceramics from Lithuania, but my art journey was interrupted by other practical concerns. After a few years in the U.S., I decided to go back to college, so I went to FIT and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. Then I spent 15-plus years working as an art and creative director in advertising and marketing, in New York City. Somewhere along the way, I found myself back to pottery and art.

Anna Krekoukis, Honey & Cocoa (Astoria)

“I handcraft artisan bath and body products with natural skin-loving ingredients — 100% cruelty- and toxin-free — and create small-batch bath soaps, exfoliants, skin butters, moisturizers and balm using organic oils and fair-trade butters whenever possible. I also make unique party favors and gift sets.” 

Made in Queens
Anna Krekoukis (Courtesy of Anna Krekoukis)

QNS: Tell readers about your experience as a MiQ maker. 

AK: It is truly liberating knowing that something you create from scratch can be financially rewarding, as well.

Challenges? Rent prices in New York make it extremely hard to get a brick-and-mortar establishment — necessary to connect and meet with my dear customers. But QEDC has supported me through the use of marketing on the madeinqueens.org group.* 

QNS: Where does the “magic” happen?  

AK: In my studio in Astoria. The space is my sanctuary! I feel creatively rejuvenated each and every time I enter it. 

QNS: Who are your customers?

AK: They are loyal, supportive and value the holistic process of natural skincare. I’m proud to say I have customers of every age group and that feels wonderful! I make something for everyone.

QNS: Where do you see yourself in five years?

AK: I see myself in a rustic shop close to the beach, where I create beautiful soaps and decadent, all-natural skin goodies. I can only envision a future filled with soap-making!

QNS: Share your backstory with readers.

AK: As the daughter of a shop owner, I was raised knowing that hard work, skills and passion can truly set you free in life. Honey & Cocoa has existed for almost 10 years. It started as a hobby and transformed into a way of life. The first time I made cold process soap, I was hooked. Now, soap-making is a necessary part of my day. It’s a celebration of a good day and therapy on a bad day. 

Products can be purchased at honeyandcocoa.com. 

Aimee Wu, XING Studios (Flushing)

“We are a sustainable fashion label centering on heritage, healing, vulnerability and intimacy. We ethically upcycle used and waste materials into new, exciting creations. Our one-of-a-kind garments are made in NYC and can be found on xingstudios.com.” 

QEDC recently announced the four winners of the 16th annual Queens StartUP! Business Plan Competition, a five-month challenge-and-instruction course sponsored by Resorts World New York City. Each winner received $10,000 to jumpstart their new business. The champions in the “sustainability” category were Aimee Wu and Nancy B Uddin from XING Studios. This small business pays above-market wages to local seamstresses to produce made-to-order clothing from upcycled fabrics. 

QNS: Tell readers about your experience as a MiQ maker.

AW: With the help of the QEDC grant, we will be partnering with local seamstresses in Flushing for production and involve community members in the creation process. QEDC has been very supportive in giving us valuable feedback and insight into our business plan and strategy. They have also been a valuable platform to connect with other inspiring entrepreneurs and mentors. 

QNS: Where does the “magic” happen?

AW: Currently, we are working from a home studio to design, conceptualize, experiment, sew and refine sample garments.

QNS: Who are your customers?

AW: They are socially conscious and adventurous dressers, not afraid to express themselves through fashion. Our customers also want to wear clothes that are ethically and sustainably made, against fast fashion’s exploitation of people and the planet. By operating in a circular fashion system, we are recycling and upcycling waste materials to make new, long-lasting garments. 

QNS: Where do you see yourself in five years?

AW: We hope that XING Studios will be making an impact as a fashion brand intentionally operating outside of the fast fashion system. Our goal has never been to be just a clothing label, rather the clothing is a vehicle to create community, and be agents of change and disruption in the greater fashion industry. 

QNS: Share your backstory with readers.

AW: As a visual storyteller, I have worked in fashion styling, textile design, digital illustration, photography and filmmaking.

Widad Franco, About A Cloud Stationery & Gifts (Astoria)

“About A Cloud is a paper goods and gifts studio that’s all about capturing small moments in the big city. I like to focus on the details of everyday city life, like bodega cats lounging on cardboard boxes, street performers playing sweet tunes, and hectic trains packed with colorful characters. My watercolors are embellished with ink cross-hatching to conjure a playful style that catches the eye and teases a smile.”

Made in Queens
Widad Franco’s growing business, About A Cloud, is a paper goods and gifts studio that’s all about capturing small moments in the big city. (Courtesy of Widad Franco)

QNS: Tell readers about your experience as a MiQ maker.

WF: When I’m not working as a human rights advocate, I’m creating art that channels my unique life experiences through a whimsical lens. And with some inspiration from my tiny rescue kitten, I create greeting cards, prints and decor items in paper, wood and fabric, which are sold in boutique stores and craft markets around NYC.

QEDC has been immensely helpful! And Made in Queens helped me get my products into shops. They’ve also created opportunities for me by providing exposure to wholesalers and helping me build community.

QNS: Where does the “magic” happen?

WF: I work from my home studio and often draw all around the city. In my illustrations, the vivid colors and vibrant textures that surrounded me in my native Ecuador, meet the giant skylines and grand old buildings of big cities. 

QNS: Who are your customers?

WF: A broad range of people, but certainly those who love cats, understand the magic of NYC and Spanish speakers as well; I also make cards in English and Spanish, highlighting Latinx nostalgia with a modern twist.

QNS: Where do you see yourself in five years?

WF: I see myself continuing to grow About A Cloud, through making thoughtful art that inspires people to dream and see the magic in small things in daily life. As a full-time international human rights advocate, I see myself continue to have this parallel career and continue to stand up for human rights worldwide, while I illustrate and make the world a more colorful place.

QNS: Share your backstory with readers.

WF: Widad’s story starts when she was growing up on the sunny coast of Ecuador, before having a revelation as a 12-year-old kid when she saw the Rockefeller Christmas tree light up on her very first visit to NY. She was bewitched.

You can purchase products at aboutacloud.co and at stores nationwide, including in Queens at The Brass Owl, La Guardia and JFK airports; in Manhattan at The Corner Bookstore, Serendipity and more.

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