Sequoyah Johnson chose art on a whim.
During her college orientation actually. With no prior experience, she told me that she felt set up to fail. She also told me that she thrives in that environment.
The Coy Collection began in a similar fashion, first as jewelry for friends before developing into the signature smiley-faced mugs that sell out within minutes. It’s a brand unique to Sequoyah–radiating joy and never compromising authenticity.
We visited Sequoyah’s studio and interviewed her for the Artist Spotlight in Issue 23.
Are you from Austin?
No, I’m from Southern CA. Oceanside actually. But I moved to San Antonio in 2002 and Austin in 2014. We moved around because we’re a military family. I went to school at UNT, and after that, landed a job as an art teacher.
When did you start making art?
I actually didn’t start until college. I was initially a psychology major. During orientation they said everyone for psychology, exit to the left and I thought hell no, they look so boring. I saw where the art people were going and it looked so fun so changed my major at orientation. I’d never done art before in my life.
I almost flunked out many times. I had no background, no design thinking. I basically set myself up for failure but I thrive in the kind of environment.
It was cool because I had no art rules and that different voice has been able to propel me because I never knew the “starving artist.” I didn’t have that mentality.
Were ceramics your first choice of medium?
I was going to be a photography major, but I was the first one to get cut as a junior. I realized I had enough credits for ceramics and loved it. But my Mom didn’t want me to only major in ceramics so I majored in art education too.
Then you started teaching?
Yeah after college I was teaching K-5, but I got fired my fourth year in because the racist principal hated me.
I didn’t know what to do. The week I got fired I got into a near death car accident and bought our house. So I was like, man I guess this is my awakening. I got to do something that is more me. I liked teaching but I was pushed into it. So I started the Coy Collection first as a jewelry brand. I was making earrings and selling to friends and at markets.
So when did it take off?
During the summer of 2020 I had made three little mugs with smileys. I just needed some joy. I was trying to push them. At the time I had about 800-900 followers. I did a giveaway and no one entered so I told my friends to and my friend who won didn’t even pick up the mug.
As I was going to bed, I had seen a list of black makers in Austin Monthly. I thought, hey I’d love to be on that list. So I messaged, DMed, and commented. They didn’t put me on the list, but because I tagged myself so many times on different blog posts, I went to bed and woke up the next day and had like 300 orders. I went on the news the following week which boosted it even more. Nina Beranato suggested a GoFundMe to fulfill the orders, and it got funded in a month. Then I had the capital to start my business for real. The follower count was growing, I had a waitlist, it was truly a storm.
You’re still a small business. How do you manage all the sales?
My model is a drop model. So I make 150-200 pieces, hype it up, drop it on a certain day, and typically sell out within 30 minutes. It’s fun but I’m at a place where I like to hype things up naturally. Right now I’m trying to diversify the model that we’re selling. So we have a line of cups available all the time.
But it takes a long time to complete a mug, right?
Yeah if Beyonce called me and needed a mug tomorrow, I couldn’t do it. It would be a like a week and a half. Actually, 2.5-4 weeks is realistic. There are so many steps.
What makes your work powerful is the message and connection to self care and joy. Was this always your intention?
I’m taking it back to childhood. A lot branding and business is very muted. I think part of my brand is authenticity. We are literally figuring it out. Actually, me. I did this in my house, I fulfilled 1,500 orders in my garage.
It is a personification of my survival. The way people talk about business is so negative and complicated and I like to be the reminder that you don’t have to be in this framework of being unhappy. I feel great. I love my work. And I’m still incredibly invested in what I’m doing. The brand is an extension of me. It’s just me. I would be completely burnt out if I was faking it. The strongest thing you can do as an artist is tell your message. Which leads me to the conceptual work. I love ranch, so I made a ranch fountain. I want to make large scale conceptual works that are just that. How often do we do things that we just love?
What does the signature smile represent to you?
There is a deeper meaning. It’s the smiley sticker we don’t get as adults. It’s that little spark of remembering when you’re being rewarded for doing a good job. That’s where my mugs bring the most joy.
It’s just that one little reminder. They’re all my little friends smiling back at you. And they all look so different.
“You have to sit with everything to feel the joy.”
How do you see your work progressing from here?
I’m branching out beyond mugs to include cakes, trinket dishes, planters, candle holders. I’m interested in getting into more conceptual work. I want to challenge the idea of joy in relation to how we’re feeling. What does it really mean?
Do you have advice for other artists and entrepreneurs starting their business?
There are no awards for suffering. One of my friends told me that. There are no rewards for doing shit you don’t want to do. It alleviates that pressure and anxiety. I relate it to working with brands I don’t want to. This is a special, unicorn placed to live in business, and certain bigger brands want to bring me to the dark side. It can take the joy out of making things. I’m happy I’m here.
Also, outsource when you can. Or stop doing the things you don’t want to do. Don’t be afraid of change. You have to sit with everything to feel the joy.
Always invest in yourself. If you don’t, things won’t happen. Take those leaps, it’s rewarding.
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