Small Business Profile: Jean Cate, Owner of Martha Mae: Art Supplies and Beautiful Things


How did you begin Martha Mae: Art Supplies & Beautiful Things?
Initially, I had a business partner. We acquired the space and it was going to be a community art studio with seven pottery wheels and it would have just services and classes. It didn’t make it, so I bought her out and had this awesome space to fill with things and my artwork.

What is your background?
I went to the School of the Art Institute and got my BFA with focuses in printmaking, scientific illustration, ceramics, book binding. In the back of my mind, it’s always been my plan to make everything the way I want it. I like things to be done a certain way, so it’s easier to make things myself.

What inspired your shop/work?
I would say in my artwork, nature has a big influence on my work. I’m very detail-oriented, so in my etchings, it’s all about tiny little marks. I’ve always been focusing on small, ordinary, every day things like branches I found in Grant Park when I went to the Art Institute. I’m not one of those artists that does big projects based on things like “wanderlust,” you know? I find wonder and inspiration every day.

What brought you to Chicago?
School. I grew up in Southern California, and when I was 18, I wanted to get as far away from my family as possible. I liked that the Art Institute doesn’t tell you what to do. I thought RISD seemed cool, but it seemed pretty tight-laced, at least for the first couple of years, and I wanted to be able to explore and experiment.

If you weren’t here, where would you be?
I think my goal is to live like an Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Beatrix Potter type lifestyle where you live out in the country just making work with little animals to keep you company.

If you weren’t running the shop, what would you be doing?
Just making work.

What are you trying to learn right now?
I feel like I’m constantly learning whether I’m trying to or not. Especially with the shop, since I’ve never done it before, it’s a big sort of experiment. I’m working on learning how to grow the business and make it sustainable and all those things. Then there are always things in the back of my mind like I want to make jewelry and I want to start making larger pieces.

What are you most proud of?
That’s a tough question. I think, as women, we think we’re not supposed to brag or take credit for things. I guess I’m proud of how the shop has come together in it’s entirety and the feeling of it and the effect that it has on people – it seems like people are really responding to it. In order to not be overwhelmed, I think small, and so all the decisions are very focused on me and my sensibilities, and I hope that working from that place of authenticity and being true to my style will touch people.

How do you take time for yourself?
I’m really working on that right now. Right now, I’m not really doing that, but I’m trying to build in things like taking walks and going to yoga. I imagine [owning the shop] is a bit like having a child. It’s really difficult to be like, “okay, now it’s time to focus on me.” You want to do everything for the shop.

Why do you think it’s important for creative women to come together and collaborate?
Even just the process of getting this space, my former business partner, she was a woman as well, and real estate agents and business owners wouldn’t take us seriously. It gets so fucking annoying. I feel like other women get it, and we don’t have the same prejudices against women because we are women. We’re not, like, hung up on those stupid things like because you have a period, you’re too emotional and out of commission. I feel like, in fact, all the pain and struggle that comes with being a woman gives women more depth and appreciation of things and a little bit more perspective.

What is your advice for someone who wants a job like yours? 
Usually, I don’t like to give advice because I don’t like to be told what to do, so I don’t like telling others what to do. I’m not going to say the obvious things like “work hard,” but I think be true to yourself. Trust your intuition. That’s another thing, as women, we’re told that intuition and gut feelings should be mistrusted and decisions should all be formulaic. It’s nice to trust that sort of magic in yourself. A life without magic and inspiration is really difficult and hard. I think that’s why people get so burnt out.

What is one thing that has surprised you in your path?
I think just making it this far. Growing up, I could never identify with characters in books or movies. I felt so sad and sub-human and never thought I could aspire to be like the people you see in books or movies. Just making it to this point and making it to adulthood is pretty cool.

Favorite female creatives?
Ones I already mentioned like Beatrice Potter and Emily Dickinson. Then in the Chicago scene, I’m really inspired by Elizabeth Cronin. I’ve never even been in her shop, but I’ve just seen her on Instagram and even from her website, she has such a strong vibe and style, and I really identify with that. I feel like the nice thing about small shops is that it can be a complete reflection of the shop owner, and when the shop owner has things that they like and are their aesthetic and brings joy to them, you can really feel that, and it’s contagious. A lot of them are people who I’ve never met. Bari Zaki has a studio on Lincoln. She’s a bookbinder and does calligraphy and has a lot of workshops. She’s been at it for years and years – more than a decade. She has a similar thing where she sells art supplies but curates it and arranges it in a way that’s pleasing to her.

Favorite Chicago places?
The Art Institute is really great, especially the Japanese wing. One of my favorite things about going to SAIC was having access to the museum and having that be a part of your every day life. Calling on times when I had a bigger radius, I love the lake. I’ve always had a fascination with the lake, even though I grew up in California with the ocean half an hour away, there’s something really mystical and magical about Lake Michigan. It seems so vast and I really like being close to it.

Top three items of clothing in your closet?
My grandmother designed her own jewelry and had a jeweler custom make them. She was awesome. She was one of the big inspirations for the shop. She would always buy me grow up-looking clothes when my mom would buy me ditzy, floral dresses. She would buy me a red crepe suit with a matching bolero jacket. 

I love this direct-to- consumer luxury women’s line based in New York called Uniforme. It’s nice because it’s milled in Switzerland and has Mother of Pearl buttons. I have this black tie in red and grey as well that I alternate with [Uniforme tops].

Morning routine?
It’s pretty non-existent. I wake up, realize what I have to do at the shop, roll out of bed, brush my hair and teeth, grab a kombucha, grab [my dog] Martha, and come [to the shop].

Favorite travel destination?
I just got back from a trip to California. My dad and sister live in L.A., and my mom lives in this little beach town called Del Mar that is right against the cliffs. It’s kind of European in a way because it’s so small, so I think that’s one of my favorite destinations because things slow down.

Favorite extravagance/indulgence?
I would say sushi. As mush sushi I can afford in my budget, that’s how much I eat. If I could eat it at every meal, I could. They’re little works of art that I get to eat and it’s delicious.

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