Feature Friday #010 — Chiara Mensa

Feature Friday #010! Welcome to our series highlighting some of the incredible people on Cotton Bureau. This week we're getting to know Chiara Mensa and her fleet of furry and feathered friends. Check out her Etsy Shop, Instagram and also shop her collection on Cotton Bureau.

Heyo! So excited to get a chance to chat with you. How's everything going? I just took a peek at your instagram and noticed the stamps you've been making? So cool. How'd you get into that?

Hey Beth,

It's so lovely to have a chance to chat with you, thanks for having me :)

Things are going well at the moment, but also a bit hectic as the run-up to Christmas tends to be the busiest period of the year for me these days. A staple diet of three coffees a day is what currently helps to keep me on track.

Thanks for checking out my linocut stamps, I'm so pleased you like them. Printmaking is a fairly new chapter for me as I have had what some people would define as a "squiggly career". After studying Architecture at Uni, I taught myself graphic design and worked for 6+ years as a visual designer (i.e. branding, graphics, and web) in agencies across the UK and Australia.

Eventually, my design career became no longer sustainable and I started a journey to reconnect with my long-dormant creative side. Fast forward six months of boundless creative exploration and loads of failed experiments, I casually stumbled across linocut printmaking by taking a class at a local art center. It is fair to say I instantly connected with the medium, falling in love with the slow making that comes with carving and hand-printing linocut blocks.

So, yeah, these days I refer to myself as a full-time artist focusing on linocut printmaking, who very occasionally takes on design projects when they have a focus on sustainability, conservation, and animal welfare.

Hey, coffee is a major food group I'm pretty sure so no shame there. I'm not surprised Christmas is busy for you, your Lino prints sound like great gifts.

Squiggly careers are the most interesting in my opinion. Who actually knows what they want to do forever? Even if you do it probably takes some squiggles to get there. Plus it sounds like you had a lot of cool experiences along the way so more power to ya.

Let's talk about the animals for a minute (or 20). Your Penguin Calendar has taught me there are different species of penguins? Am I the only one who didn't know this? I'm almost embarrassed to commit to publishing this interview with this confession but I really thought there was just one kind of penguin out there just doing it's adorable waddle thang.

Yes, you're totally right! I don't really regret any of the stops I made along the way to becoming a printmaker. Each one has provided me with a chance to develop skills that feed into what I am doing now. Plus, I got to live in a bunch of cool places and meet many amazing humans along the way.

Glad you want to talk about animals: by far my most favourite topic out there 😁

No need to be embarrassed at all as I was the same: before doing the research for the calendar I thought there were 3-4 different penguin species tops! However, there is actually 18 different species (or 17 according to some experts who consider one to be a subspecies) and they all live in the southern hemisphere, except for the Galapagos penguin (the islands actually straddle the Equator, hence the slight distinction). I've also learnt that all penguin species are flightless and that a group of penguins is called a "colony".

It was super fun to get familiar with penguins and to illustrate the twelve different species to feature in the calendar. Fun fact: the illustrations started off as rough pencil sketches on paper which I drew during a road trip my husband and I took through Morocco back in July.

Wow 18!? That's bananas. I also just looked up fuzzy penguins after looking at your King Penguin Chick design and I'm obsessed. I didn't realize they were even cuter somehow as chicks.

How was Morocco!? It looks incredible. I imagine the penguin you drew was the only spotting lol any other cool critters worth mentioning?

Baby animals are absolutely adorable and penguin chicks are no exception :)
Do you have a favorite baby animal? I would struggle to choose, to be honest.

Morocco was a very interesting trip: we did enjoy the sights in the bigger cities from Marrakesh to Fez and Rabat, but the road of a thousand kasbahs and the general area south of the Atlas mountains served as a very stark reminder of the impact of desertification driven by climate change. Also, it was quite heartbreaking to witness the extremely low levels of animal welfare for cats, dogs, and working animals (donkeys and horses). It truly shocked me and I have been planning to go back next year and volunteer through a local animal charity working towards improving things (if anyone is interested in learning more and/or helping, Morocco Animal Aid and SPANA are two great organizations doing meaningful work). Anyways, there were also many happy animal sightings ranging from storks (and their incredibly huge nests on top of most minarets and telecom towers) and very friendly berber apes in the cedar forests of the Atlas mountains. All in all, the trip was memorable and I've been toying around with the idea of making a series of linocut prints inspired by all that we saw and experienced... watch this space!

Oh my gosh, yeah choosing is very tough. Currently I think bear cubs are my favorite but I just love them all. This video of a cub playing with a balloon melted my soul a bit.

Planning a volunteer trip sounds like an amazing idea, helping all those sweet animals would be so rewarding. Thanks for the tip on where we can learn more! And we'll definitely keep an eye out for a new series of linocut prints.

The holidays coming up have me thinking about your festive animal collection. Have any plans to add a festive penguin to the mix? The African Penguins are practically begging for a mistletoe. I realize you're probably too busy but hoping we can't blame a girl for trying lol. What do the holidays typically look like for you?

Awww, that bear cub is pure cuteness overload! My husband and I were lucky enough to see bears (including a mama and cub!) in Sequoia NP back in 2021 and it was the most exciting thing ever.

I love your idea about adding the mistletoe to the African penguins, it would look fab! I'll definitely try and make time for that once I'm done with all the stock delivery and prep for the Christmas market season. In the meantime, I've uploaded yet another illustration from my penguin calendar: a Little Blue penguin wearing a Christmas jumper and looking super cuddly :)

This year the holidays will be a bit different as I'll actually be traveling back to Italy to see family (I was born and grew up in Rome), which I don't often do. The plan is to also sneak in a cheeky 5-day-mini-road trip in Sicily before heading back home to Bristol at the beginning of January. I admit that being a self-employed artist is not super easy as a career choice, but having this kind of flexibility about taking time off makes it all worth it. Traveling is for me a wonderful source of inspiration and my favorite way to recharge as I am not a fan of routines and the familiar. What about you? What will your festive season look like this year?Aaaah that sounds incredible! I haven't made it to Sequoia yet but I've heard good things about Moro Rock. Hoping to make it there one day! Especially if I can get my eye on some little cubbies (from a safe and respectable distance of course).

TBH Little Blue Penguin might just earn a spot in my wardrobe soon. SO stinking cute. Something about animals wearing clothes just gets me. I've been plugging a marketing campaign for 'goat-tees' for about a year now but I'm struggling to get the CB leaders on board. Maybe when this interview takes off they'll approve ;)

Born and raised in Rome is such a fun fact! Is the food much different there than other Italian cities? I imagine it's all amazing but I've never been. Quite a big difference from Bristol I bet. I'm excited for your trip! It sounds incredible, definitely a perk that you're able to create your own schedule. As for me I'll be here in Pittsburgh *hopefully* enjoying some snow. If I'm lucky I plan to squeeze a snowboarding trip in January but we'll see if that pans out.

One final question for ya, mostly inspired by your trip. If you had to pick one favorite food dish from anywhere you've been, what would it be?

Glad you like the Little Blue :)

It was actually inspired by the Knits for Nature penguin jumper program by the Penguin Foundation. Basically, in the unfortunate event of an oil spill, when oiled penguins are rescued and admitted to the Phillip Island Wildlife Clinic, knitted jumpers are temporarily placed on the penguins, acting as a barrier to prevent them from reaching their oily feathers with their beaks, before rescue staff are able to wash their body clean.

The food scene in Italy is objectively wonderful and so, so varied. Each region has its own signature dishes and local products, despite all sharing the common traits of the Mediterranean diet. Growing up in Rome, my favourite thing was pasta carbonara which I still love today, but eat in a slightly modified version since becoming vegetarian around 9 years ago (I swap out the pancetta for tasty mushrooms and it works a treat). While I do not like cooking, I do enjoy good food and miss many Italian dishes, however, Bristol has been a pleasant surprise as it actually has an amazing food scene, unlike much of the rest of the UK.

Staying on the topic of food, I confess I find it very hard to answer your final question, there is simply too much to choose from! But, if I really had to pick one thing, it would possibly be kottu roti (well, its veggie version at least), a tasty Sri Lankan street food consisting of chopped roti, a curry dish of choice, along with scrambled egg, onions, and chillies. The ingredients are chopped together using special cleavers as they sautee on a hot griddle. YUM!

Honestly, it's been such a pleasure chatting with you Bethany, thank you so much for having me! I am so happy to be part of the Cotton Bureau fam :)

I hope you have the most wonderful festive break this winter with plenty of snowboarding time.