Family, Forest at Heart Center of Katie Babic Designs
October 12, 2022
By Christine McGowan, Vermont Forest Industry Network
Gathered under an old pine tree at her husband’s family camp in Chelsea Vermont, Katie Babic had a moment of inspiration that would change her life.
The family had come together for a celebration of life, which concluded with sending paper lanterns into the night sky above an old pine tree on the property. One of the lanterns caught in the tree’s branches, igniting a moment of concern that the tree might catch fire.
It didn’t. But the family realized it was time to take down the beloved pine tree, which had died and become dangerous. “It was an emotional event for the family,” said Babic. “There are generations of stories surrounding the symbolism of this tree.”
Katie and her husband began to think about ways to memorialize the tree, prompting her husband to bring home a cross section of the trunk. At first they thought they would make cutting boards, but Babic found herself intrigued by the stump. “It was such an interesting shape,” she said, “and the rings told a story about its life that felt important.”
Growing up in a family of artists, Babic had always expressed her creative side in hobbies—building rock walls, landscape design projects, jewelry-making—but the cookie inspired her to try something new. She googled “tree ring prints” and found a video showing how to burn the surface to raise the tree rings and make a print. From there, her vision came together quickly.
She created a stencil in the shape of Vermont, painted the prepared stump with black ink, and made a print with the heartwood of the tree at the location of the family camp in Chelsea. She made original prints for each family member, and was overjoyed by their response.
What Babic thought would end with those gifts turned into the birth of a new adventure. Family members began asking for prints to share with cousins and friends, and then those friends convinced her to put her work on Instagram. “It was a cathartic process for me and I loved sharing it,” said Babic, “so I decided I would put myself out there. I figured the worst that could happen would be that no one would want them.”
To the contrary, Instagram loved her prints as much as her family and friends and Katie Babic Designs was born.
A reawakening of life and purpose.
That was November 2020, not quite a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Babic, who had worked as a school guidance counselor for nearly twenty years, had given her notice a few months before. Like many working mothers, the toll of online learning, parenting, and working was too much.
“I had this one very clarifying moment,” she said. “I was on Zoom talking with a kid in crisis and watching my then two-year old, who could not swim, climb the fence around the pond to feed the ducks. Meanwhile, my two older children were sitting in front of a screen all day trying to learn remotely. It was a mess.”
In creating space for herself and her family, Babic was able to lean into her creative side and the opportunity that opened up before her at the family camp. Today, less than two years later, those opportunities continue to expand. In addition to creating custom pieces for people who want to memorialize their own trees with prints, Babic signed a deal with Hotel Vermont last January to have her art displayed in each of the hotel’s 125 rooms.
“I emailed the manager after a stay at the hotel and suggested that my work would complement the aesthetic and values of the hotel,” said Babic. A few days later, she dropped off a few prints. “He wrote back and said, ‘Do you have any idea how often I get these emails? We’ve been waiting for you for three years.”
The enthusiasm for her work has fueled new lines of creativity and purpose for Babic, whose shop now has stencils of 14 different states, as well as abstract prints, and a special yellow and blue heart in support of Ukraine. Her work is sold in galleries throughout central Vermont, including Andrew Pearce Bowls in Quechee, Woody’s Mercantile in Woodstock, Axels Gallery in Waterbury, Northwood Gallery in Stowe, Bailey Road in Montpelier, Addison West in her hometown of Waitsfield, and online at www.katiebabicdesigns.com.
The roots of the story.
But her expanding line of work only tells part of the story. More important to Babic is the idea that she can model for young women—especially her daughter—that pursuing your creative, entrepreneurial side can lead to meaningful and successful work.
“Art was never a form I saw as a career,” she said. “It was a hobby. This has been a reawakening of life and my purpose. If I can inspire other young female artists to go after their dreams, sign me up.”
She has also begun to envision how her work might help to memorialize Vermont’s Ash trees, which are seriously threatened by the Emerald Ash Borer. Only about five percent of Vermont trees are Ash and the mortality rate for infested trees is almost 100 percent. “Perhaps I can use my art to be a voice for the trees,” said Babic, who since childhood has felt most grounded and centered in the forest.
But at the end of the day, her work all comes back to family. “The business was born from family,” she said, adding that each print “feels magical” in how it reveals connections to family. She points to little hidden gems within the tree-rings on commissioned cookies, one depicting a family’s initials and another from the limb that had held a family swing for generations. She has a particularly heartfelt connection to the cookie she uses to produce many of her prints and stickers. “One day, I moved the location of my stencil and recognized a lightning bolt crack in the wood that was directed at the heart center, which surprisingly took the shape of an angel.” It was a deeply personal revelation for Babic, whose sister was struck by lightning and died at a young age. “It felt like a sign affirming that family is at the heart of everything I do,” she said.
For more information, visit www.katiebabicdesigns.com.
About the Vermont Forest Products Program at VSJF
Vermont’s forest economy contributes more than $2 billion in direct economic output and provides more than 13,000 jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction, wood heating, maple production, and forest-based recreation. The Forest Products Program at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) creates space for strong relationships and collaboration throughout the industry and promotes the development of new and existing markets for Vermont wood products. Committed to nurturing the sustainable development of Vermont’s economy, VSJF provides business assistance, network development, strategic planning, and value chain facilitation in agriculture and food system, forest products, waste management, renewable energy, and environmental technology sectors. Learn more at www.vsjf.org.