Two women strike a pose with their Papaya! reusable shopping totes as the creator of the bags, Anahata Katkin, notices them at a café in downtown Ashland. Katkin quickly snaps a photo of them for her Instagram page.
“They are customers and friends,” she explains as she sips her second latte of the day. “I was a handful as a young person, so my mom immersed me in artwork,” says the 35-year-old artist and entrepreneur. “By the time I was 15, I was already moving into the arts.”
Born and raised in Alaska, Katkin studied visual art at Cornish College in Seattle. Meanwhile, Katkin’s mother, Gina, was attending wholesale trade shows in Los Angeles and not seeing anything inspiring or original.
Something percolated. She picked up the phone and asked her daughter to come to L.A. to discuss a business idea. In 2003, the mother-daughter duo launched Papaya!.
The genesis of the brand began with a line of thirty greeting cards printed with Katkin’s artwork. Soon she began digitizing a lifetime of her art journals and originals. Then she took it a step further, blending multimedia, a collage-style aesthetic, iconography, inspiring quotes and organic textures. Today her work appears on 700 licensed items, from computer tablet sleeves to insulated lunch bags, journals and shopping totes.
“She has made it happen,” Katkin says of her mother. “It has been a success because she has great business instincts. Between her savvy and my creativity, it has been a great balance.”
In 2005, Gina left her full-time job in software to focus on Papaya!. The team packed up their Los Angeles-based enterprise and Katkin’s five-year-old son, Rowan, and moved to Ashland. The affordable living, community connectivity, green environment and schools attracted the family to the cultural hub of Southern Oregon.
The duo began to absorb other talented family members, including Katkin’s brother, Eli, who oversees manufacturing. Katkin taps her uncles’ skills for their knowledge in the building trades as they prepare trade show booths, and maintain two warehouses and their storefront. Her aunt manages bookkeeping for the thirty employees that support the energetic and creative juggernauts, while her cousin is the web developer.
Those employees who are not blood relatives are still treated like family. The Medford warehouse includes a café where a chef prepares lunch for the staff five days a week, and an in-house gym offers a personal trainer. The driving philosophy of the company is creative abandon.
For her part, the artist-turned-entrepreneur juggles creative and business demands by dividing her month. She spends two weeks creating her next pieces, a week touching base with all of her department managers and a week at the storefront, which opened in April of 2011.
As Papaya! celebrates its tenth year in business, it is launching its newest endeavor—Leelah Clothing—featuring Katkin’s art on garments. “I want to create more fine arts. I want to travel more, create a fresh perspective—a new translation—and keep moving forward,” Katkin says. “If you don’t find a new expression for yourself and your company, you’ll get lost in the next decade.”