Meet James Barela, the Ceramicist & Designer Behind Dreamy Plant Blog Bae•Tanical

James Barela. Image courtesy of Baetanical.

One need only dive into Instagram hashtags like #plantmama #plantdad or #plantlover to find huge, thriving communities of young people who are seriously obsessed with house plants. For twenty-somethings living in cramped apartments with limited outdoor space, house plants are a relatively inexpensive way to remain connected to nature and turn their homes into green sanctuaries.

James Barela, the founder of botanical blog and online shop Bae•tanical, was seeking just this type of connection when he first developed his gardening habit. While working as a graphic designer in Austin, he began to study and grow plants in his free time as a form of self-care. Soon, he found himself dabbling in painting his pottery, and later, making his own modern ceramics, porcelain planters, and vases under the name Exposition Goods. Eventually, he decided to launch Bae•tanical, a one stop shop for DIY gardening tips, botanical care information, and ceramic items that enrich your surroundings and daily life.

We caught up with James to learn more about his journey to turning his hobby into a business. Read below to hear his advice for other Latino entrepreneurs.

When did you develop a green thumb? Did you grow up in a plant-filled home?

I started delving into collecting and understanding plants in the midst of a depression and personal health issues around 2013. It was a hobby that became a really positive force in my life. I could study every aspect of a particular genus including the growth habits, care, and science of the plants I was interested in. As silly as it sounds, plants really brought me out of some of the darkest times of my life, because I would get a lot of joy waking up and checking on my plants each day, caring for them, and studying their various changes.

Your day job is as a graphic designer – how did you get started in the design world? And how did it connect to your work making pottery?

A lot of being a designer is training your eye to understand proportions, color, textures, form, and content. All these skills can be applied to both pottery, graphic design, or any creative field. It’s about having a toolbox of skills — what you do with those skills is up to you. Along with Bae•tanical, I work professionally for a museum and help design exhibitions and marketing for those exhibitions. But as I’ve grown in my career, my design work has become more and more personal as I’ve expanded my offerings for Bae•tanical. I use my skills (design sensibilities, plant knowledge, and curiosity) to try to enrich people’s lives. I try to capture the beauty around me and share it in ways others can appreciate in their own home.

How did the idea for Bae•tanical come about?

My business really a child of social media and the internet, emerging with the online plant movement in recent years. Through social media, I’ve been able to share my work with others, learn from other ceramicists, and connect with plant lovers across the world. I get my inspiration and motivation from these people.

“Bae” is a word that the internet created and it made sense for me to merge it with “botanical.” Bae•tanical is about creativity, nature, design, horticulture, art, love, identity, and more. I try to bring joy and beauty into the homes of others, whether it be through pottery I’ve created, posters and cards I’ve designed, or plants I’ve grown from seed.

When did you realize your love for planters and gardening could become a business?

I realized Bae•tanical could become a business when I started noticing the resistance to mass-produced products. Young people want to purchase products that have a story and benefit people in their community. Our money is our voice, so young people are very aware of how they spend their money and with whom.

The last few years have seen a plethora of trend pieces about the millennial generation’s love for house plants, and Instagram is filled with hashtags that gather young, plant-loving communities. What do you think is behind this generation’s interest in growing & nurturing plants?

In the same way there is resistance to mass-produced products, I’ve seen a real reaction to how digitized our lives have become. Millennials are often seeking ways to reintroduce the natural world into our fast-paced, stressful, and increasingly urban lives. I think young people have discovered how therapeutic plants can be and have really embraced houseplants as part of their identity.

Trends are cyclical, so I often see plants that were historically popular in the 50s and 60s re-emerging as hip and Instagrammable plants. Social media has been great for connecting plant lovers, but we have to be careful to not be consumed by the race for likes and followers. It’s tricky because I don’t think plants would be as popular without social media. I also don’t think my business model would work without it, but it’s just a platform at the same time.

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In my ~element~ with cold brew in hand

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When it comes to starting your own business, what were your biggest learnings? What were your biggest challenges?

The most important thing I’ve learned is to price your work and time accordingly. Many makers undervalue the work they make in order to get quick sales. I’ve found underpricing products hurts the maker community and, in the end, is unsustainable. It’s also about having self-respect and asserting your value. You may occasionally receive odd reactions to your prices, but most people understand that handmade and small batch products are sold at a premium.

Any tips or advice you would share with budding entrepreneurs?

I always try to be humble and show that I’m open to learning from others. It’s also important to accept that you will make a ton of mistakes, but in the end it’s worth it because you’re building something so much bigger than you.

What do you hope is next for Bae•tanical? 

I really want Bae•tanical to become more socially and politically engaged. My identity is very important to me and the things I make and it makes sense to introduce those ideas into my work.

Recently, I’ve started creating more prints. My newest print “No Wall Can Divide Us” is about my partner being a DACA recipient and the threat of being separated. This is a way for me to grapple with the feelings and frustrations I have. He doesn’t have a voice in the political discourse and is tossed around like a pawn. I can lend support by providing a voice. The messaging is both general enough for anyone to support, but also very personal. And a portion of the sales goes to United We Dream, an immigrant-youth organization. Times are very heavy these days and I find it influencing my work more and more. It’s my way of resisting each and every day.