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Natural Entrepreneur: Isa Wang, BFA '11

Portrait of Isa Wang in black and white standing in front of shelves of pronoun pins

“From the time I got my first computer I was selling things online,” said Isa Wang, BFA ‘11. He and his partner, Vincent Frano (who holds a certificate in Illustration from SMFA), co-own Small Victories, a studio selling plantable greeting cards, original prints, pronoun badges, and accessories that promote sustainability, equity, and inclusion. 

Whether it’s the luna moth, lavender, the morel mushroom, or the Northern saw-whet owl, Small Victories’ illustrations could just as easily be found in the sketches dappling 19th century naturalists’ journals. 

Of all their design projects, Wang is proudest of the studio’s latest design, Mix + Match, a polished enamel badge that allows users to select two tiles for self-expression, each with a different pronoun and color scheme. The tiles are backed with magnets to give users the freedom to move them around in the order that best represents unique personal pronoun choices. 

The badges show support for gender-diverse individuals and prevent painful incidents of individuals’ pronouns being misused or ignored. 

Originally The Bower Studio, Wang launched the company with Frano in his last semester at SMFA in 2011. Their store was initially based on Etsy, the online maker marketplace. Elements of the BFA program helped set Wang up for success: 

“The Sidewalk Sale my senior year was the first time I ever set up a table and sold things,” he said. “That’s all I’ve done since then too—just on a larger scale. It started on that sidewalk and then moved on to craft fairs, expos, and trade shows.” 

For his Senior Review Board, Wang built a storefront inside SMFA. Pushing boundaries and prompting debate was the point. 

“From the beginning I understood that not everyone was going to get that there was a space between fine art and commerce, but that’s always been the space I’ve tried to inhabit,” he said. 

After graduating, Wang took a studio assistant job at Patch NYC, an accessories studio in Boston. “That job really gave me a model for what I wanted to do,” he said. The owners, a couple, design together and sell their products to wholesale retailers as well as individual customers. 

Wang left the role when he and Frano won their first big order from mega-chain Urban Outfitters. At that time, they were selling custom-molded glycerin soaps in unusual shapes like crystals, bird skulls, and nautical knots. Wang said, “I had first learned how to make soap molds at SMFA where I cast in different metals during a work study position in the small metals studio. My technique with soap was exactly the same.” 

Their tiny apartment kitchen was comically overtaken by soapmaking to the point that there was no space left for cooking. 

Around the same time, at a networking event hosted by Etsy, designer Michele Varian offered some  advice that still influences the way Wang runs Small Victories today.  Picking up a crystal soap nestled in layers of non-recyclable plastic she observed, “This is so beautiful and it’s nature-inspired. I just wish the packaging reflected that.” 

From that moment on, Wang made a commitment. Nature couldn’t just be the theme of his products—it had to be incorporated holistically into every facet of the business. 

Conversations about what happens after a customer purchases a greeting card made him reflect even further on each product’s life cycle. Instead of ending up in a recycling bin, Small Victories cards are planted when they’re done being read. With a little soil and water, they soon give rise to snapdragons, Black-eyed Susans, and other wildflowers with environmental benefits. 

Wang views the greeting cards as prints that make fine art accessible to those who might not be able to afford an original signed work from a gallery. 

As Small Victories has scaled, he  has organically moved into an operations and creative direction role, while Frano leans into illustration. Though they haven’t yet re-opened the retail space they ran before Covid, Small Victories is growing. 

Their company is now based in Eastworks, a former mill in Western Massachusetts converted into studio spaces for creatives. Everyone on the team is also an artist or a maker. Working hours are flexible to allow for the simultaneous pursuit of an independent practice—and that includes Wang too. After SMFA, he went on to get an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. 

Wang is the son of Taiwanese textile designers who migrated to Redding, Connecticut. His high school was 98% white. “My aesthetic is based in New England but I’m trying to claim some ownership. I’ve been made to feel like a foreigner my whole life,” he said a little sadly. Projects like Disparate Fields, a 2022 series of graphite on paper, grapples with identity and belonging. 

His definition of being an entrepreneur involves being able to make a living doing something that he loves with enough time to also commit to his studio practice. 

“Starting a brand is even easier these days thanks to e-commerce,” he said. “I’m hoping that more SMFA students and alumni will read my story and realize that this is a path they can create for themselves too.”

Header image courtesy of Isa Wang. Credit: TDM Photography.

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