Enjoying light after the darkness
By J. Chambless
April Heather Davulcu is producing illustrations and products aimed at sending a positive message about women. (Photo by Brae Howard)
By John Chambless
April Heather's boundless, bubbly
optimism spills over into her distinctive illustrations of confident
women, her girly studio space in Kennett Square, and her
Her tidy workspace and office inside the Mala Galleria in Kennett Square is so perfectly accessorized that it looks like a movie set. Perched on a pink settee during an interview last week, she discussed how her childhood of relentless drawing led her through some very dark years, and now to a point where her self-guided art career is growing by leaps and bounds.
“My mom said that as soon I could hold a pencil, I was drawing,” said the artist, whose married name is April Heather Davulcu. “She would say, 'You need to go outside. You need to get some sunshine!' I would just sit and draw for hours and hours. I loved the Ramona books, and I would draw out the house plans for where I thought her bedroom was, or her kitchen.
“I grew up in a really small town in Texas, so there weren't a lot of resources,” Heather said. “I took art lessons from a lady on Thursday afternoons. I learned oils, sketching, mixing colors, all that stuff. I didn't consider going into art school, because I was a little bit intimidated by the whole art scene. I wasn't sure I was good enough. I studied fashion design and textile design in college, and then I focused on historical costume. I thought I wanted to do costume design. I do still love historical costumes,” she added, grinning.
While most girls have a phase of drawing their own fashion dreams, Heather's phase never stopped. She was boosted by parents who made sure she pursued her dream. “My mom and dad always supported me. I have to say we didn't have a lot when I was growing up, but I always had the art supplies that I needed,” she said. “I think they went without so I could have brushes and paint. My mom told me that I have a gift, and if I don't use it, then I'm wasting something that's God-given. I took that to heart.”
After graduating from college, getting married and forging a successful business painting murals in the homes of wealthy families in the Austin, Texas, area, Heather was hit with her first migraine in 1997. Both her mother and her brother had battled the debilitating headaches before her. In a blog on her website, she describes her long journey through a nightmare. “Blinding pain,” she writes. “Jolting-knee-buckling-stop-everything-and-catch-your-breath pain. Pull the car over. Sit down, on the floor if you have to. Mid-sentence-stop-talking pain. Pain that comes on so fast and furious that it takes time for your conscious brain to catch up. 'It's here. It's back.'”
At 27, when she became pregnant with her first daughter, Isabella, “I enjoyed a blissful 8.5 months with no migraine,” she writes. Years later, she determined that her migraines were triggered by any change in her hormone levels – up or down. After the birth of her second daughter, Eliza, a hysterectomy ended the migraines in 2006.
During her maze of doctors, medicines, therapies, dead ends and even wishing for death to stop the pain, a job transfer for her husband led the young family from Texas to Delaware, then Yardley, Pa. With their funds stretched thin, and her husband often taking over as full-time parent while she was immobilized, Heather could barely function day to day, let alone concentrate on her artwork.
Emerging from her years of pain and confusion, Heather felt she had to start her career all over again. She exorcised her migraine demons with autobiographical illustrations of her years spent trapped in darkness. They appeared in publications for the medical community and for those who continue to suffer from migraines. Dark and nightmarish, the works marked the end of that bleak period.
“As I got better, I felt rudderless for a while,” she said. “I had to learn how to live again. I started to exercise, to think about eating healthy foods, and what I could do to improve my quality of life and be present for my girls. I feel like I lost my 30s.”
Her husband, Akin, encouraged her to restart her artwork. “He's a chemist, and he told me, 'Do you know how many experiments we do in the lab? We can work for months and come up with nothing. But we learn from it, and we move on.' That made sense, so I just started to draw all the time.”
The family, based just outside of Unionville for the past two-and-a-half years, is doing well, with Eliza at Unionville High School. “I've always had a studio at home,” Heather said. “I'm an introvert. But about a year ago, I felt I needed to branch out.” Drawing all day can be solitary work, “so I was feeling a pull to become more of a part of the community. I started to look for places to grow.”
Heather found out about the newly expanded space at Mala Galleria because gallery owner Stella Scott has a daughter who also attends Unionville High School, and she and Eliza are friends. “Stella met with me about taking over this space, and she loved what I do. She was very supportive, so that gave me that extra push. It couldn't have been any better timing,” Heather said.
She is in the studio on weekdays, working on new artworks or managing the expanding range of products she has designed which are based on her illustrations. With large windows facing the street, she puts her artwork out for display, and gets immediate feedback from people as they walk by.
“It's important for me in my work to show diversity – ethnic and size divsersity, and all body positive imaging,” she said. “Within the first week or two that I was here, I was showing several drawings of women who are black. This little girl came running up to the window and she said, 'Grandma! Its me! Look, I’m right here in the window!' I thought, 'Yes! This is awesome!'”
Her website has the same happy, girly tone as her work. There – as well as on Etsy – browsers can find a stylish, upbeat collection of irresistible products. They include downloadable embroidery patterns for the characters of “Downton Abbey,” some of the earliest items Heather produced after the end of her migraines. Their success online led her to branch out.
Her work has since been seen on fabric at Joann's fabric stores, on greeting cards sold at Trader Joe's markets, in two coloring books sold at Michael's craft stores, and on a gift bag and pillows at Pier One.
“I've found two manufacturers selected by Etsy, and they take my artwork and put it on whatever – mugs, pillows, that kind of thing, and then they ship it to the buyers,” she said.
Her charming line of products for brides began when her drawing of two bridesmaids caught some interest. “I put it online and had just one version of it. Then someone got ahold of me and asked if I could change the hair for a custom order,” she said. “So I started offering different kinds of hair on the figures. I printed them in my studio and shipped them out. I was inundated with orders and could not keep up, so I had to come up with another way to do it. I made them as pdf files so people can download them. It kind of grew from there. In the past couple of years, since we moved to Kennett, I added physical products that are made on demand.”
The products include “Ring Security” badges for children entrusted with carrying the wedding rings, as well as mugs, wine glasses, and invitation cards for bridesmaids and maids of honor. “I've gotten a lot of press on the bridal products,” Heather said. “The mugs have been shown on a website called Style Me Pretty, which is huge. And Tara Lipinsky bought some my mugs last year for her wedding. She shared that with her followers, so that was great.”
The wedding line is a joy for Heather, who will be married 25 years on Jan. 2. “I love the whole wedding market,” she said.
To work on her drawing skills, and to challenge herself, Heather started “100 Days of Fashion,” producing a new drawing every day of cheerful women wearing fabulous clothing. “It shows the diversity in fashion that I wanted to see,” she said. “I wasn't sure how I was going to use them. I was just doing it to get better and practice.”
The women are of all nationalities and body types, and they exude self-confidence and sassy energy. Heather has self-published a coloring book, with another one in the works, so that girls (and adults) can color some of the outfits the way they want. The coloring books are sold at the studio and at the Penny Lane Emporium in Kennett Square.
Heather -- whose business tagline is “Illustrating Everyday Women Everyday-ish” – is careful to include everyone in the fun. “I can't tell you all the positive response I've gotten from women, particularly women who are curvy, or people who are having trouble accepting their bodies,” she said. “I had a woman write to me from Rome, and she said, 'I want to tell you that your art makes me realize how beautiful I can be.' So I did an illustration of her and sent it to her. It's been so extraordinary to be able to connect with women from all over the world.”
Along those lines, Heather was inspired by the Women's March on Washington. Although she was not able to attend in person, her illustrations of women of all nationalities and types holding protest signs have proven to be extremely popular with buyers, ending up on a poster, postcards, mugs and pillows. “I've been inundated with orders for Christmas,” she said. “I really didn't advertise them. People are telling me, 'This is what 2017 was about.'”
Heather has also begun experimenting with illustrating using cut paper to make the women's hair pop up in three dimensions. “It's good to accept your curls,” she said, shaking her curly hair. “I hope to get these into a book at some point. Honestly, at this point, I have more ideas than hours. If I find I don't have time to sit down and paint, I get kind of cranky. I need to make art. It's a need for my soul.”
And she's falling in love with Chester County and its commnity of artists. “People in Kennett have been so warm and frinedly, and they've been a tremendous support. It's just so great to meet and work with people you admire.”
For more information, visit www.aprilheatherart.com, or find April Heather on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.