Whether it’s your favorite watering hole, lunch spot, or even the 2013 Super Bowl, chances are you’ve come across Ashlee Arceneaux’s chalkboard art company, SmallChalk. With a client roster as diverse as ESPN to Dat Dog, Ashlee’s work has a vintage letterpress look that’s distinct yet always caters to her client’s tastes.
Starting entirely by word of mouth, her first official job was four years ago at the now defunct Huevos Restaurant. Having covered an entire wall with chalkboard paint, the owner asked her to sketch out the menu. From there, “People would come in and ask who did the menu.”
While studying advertising at LSU, Arceneaux worked at a slew of restaurants, which helped inform her of what works best for her clients. “I’ve just always kind of done art. I worked at a ton of restaurants throughout college and always did chalkboards.” When asked if she gravitates towards restaurants, Arceneaux is quick to respond. “It feels natural; I love food. I love to learn about a new restaurant in town and meet the chefs and the staff. I love food culture. It’s a great thing to do art in a restaurant.”
Arceneaux currently splits her 60-hour work week between freelance clients and Whole Foods, where she works as their store artist. “Whole Foods is a great company to work for.” Wanting to create a more established business for her side jobs, she obtained an LLC and started operating under the name SmallChalk just over a year ago. Business shows no sign of slowing down. “In the design community in general, chalk is really big. It’s bringing back the old hand (drawing) look. In New Orleans especially, people want chalk because their menu changes. Especially with seasonal menus, people don’t want to spend all this money on signs if the menu is going to change. Also, people generally enjoy the look of handwriting as long as it’s legible.”
While her primary focus is restaurants and coffeeshops, Arceneaux enjoys taking on a variety of projects. “I did a kids’ birthday party with sidewalk chalk, which is really cool, because you don’t really know what you’re going to work on. And I do like the aspect of showing up, doing a job for a couple of hours and it’s this cool thing.” Arceneaux was also tapped to create a set of score cards for Super Bowl XLVII, as well as being hired by M&Ms brand for a major Super Bowl event at the Foundry. She’s also started to branch out and do weddings, which gives her a chance to practice new letter forms and explore more feminine styles.
Even though her preferred medium is the stuff used for hopscotch, “At this point in my business, I can use quite a few mediums but it still looks like chalk.” Liquid chalk in the form of a chalk marker also frequents her work, depending on the sign placement and client’s preferences. “I like chalk because I like to control things. Holding on to a piece of chalk, I can really do what I want to do versus a brush. It’s super editable. I can do a thing and erase it, do a thing and erase it.”
Maintenance on her work is “completely up to the client.” The pastels that she uses are highly pigmented, and some of her work has lasted up to two years without touch-ups. However, clients inevitably change their menus or contract her for new projects. “Dat Dog has used me since day one and now they tell me, ‘We can’t imagine our stores without you.’”
And there’s good reason for that. Arceneaux takes pride in accommodating her clients. “When I go to a place, I try really hard to feel the vibe, look around at the colors, the food, meet the owner, take that all in and decide how I want to portray it. I try really hard to capture the spirit of the place (with the signage) while keeping my style in it.”
While many people with home offices aspire to having a storefront, Arceneaux values the flexibility of working on-site or from her home studio space, as it is more accommodating to her lifestyle. “I used to think I’d like to have an actual shop, but the more I think about it, I’d just like to work out of my house, have my little studio space. And I do a lot of things on-site.”
Since her passion has developed into a full blown business, Arceneaux looks for other outlets as a way to unwind. “Now that my hobby is my full-time (job), I need to get another hobby. I like to travel; I kind of dabble in playing music. I like to ride my bike. I always go to the same places. I really like New York. San Francisco. They’re total artist cities; every building has a mural painted on it. I feel really inspired every time I go.” Still, her clients are her first priority. “There are a lot of talented artists in this city, and I don’t take my relationships (with my clients) for granted.”