Pursuing Passion Over Profit: An Interview with Stacie Tamaki, Founder of Tinygami

by | Mar 11, 2021 | Detroit Designers, Women's History Month

Tinygami is a Michigan-based company founded by Stacie Tamaki, a professional origami artist who found her true calling after relocating from California to Michigan in 2014. When Stacie and I first met in 2018, I was blown away by her talent to create the most spectacular miniature origami art I had ever seen. In this interview, she explains what led her to launch Tinygami and why artists should focus on pursuing their passion before profit.

Q. How Did You Get Into Origami Art?

“When I was younger my mom purchased a beginner-level origami book and taught me how to make some things out of it. When I was around the age of seven, my maternal grandmother taught me how to fold the classic paper crane from her memory. Out of everything I learned to make as a kid, that one just stuck. I made origami cranes here and there until I had the idea in my twenties to make them as small as possible. It started with a six-inch square cut into quarters, and I continued to cut it down until I found that I could take a 3/4 inch square and still fold it.”

(Photo: Tinygami / Stacie Tamaki)

Q. Why Did You Continue Practicing This Art Form As You Got Older?

“I think there’s the cultural aspect of being Japanese-American and feeling that it is part of my heritage. My grandma never learned to read, write, or speak fluent English when she immigrated to the US in the early 1900s, but she taught me how to make the cranes. She passed away when I was very young, so it was really a connection I had to her.

What I also discovered when I started doing the miniature figures was that I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed seeing all these beautiful papers, colors, and patterns together in one space. It was visually stimulating. When I teach people this art form, I often remind them that this isn’t about speed or perfection, it’s about accuracy. If you go slowly, stay focused, and enjoy the process, you’ll be happier with your end result rather than just trying to be the first person in the room that’s done.”

(Photo: Tinygami / Stacie Tamaki)
Row of paper origami cranes. (Photo: Tinygami / Stacie Tamaki)

Q. How Did You Go From Doing This as a Hobby to Launching Tinygami?

“Well, I was kind of forced into it. I was living in California and doing custom web design and development, as well as social media marketing consulting for small business owners. Years later, I moved to the rural and countryside-like area of Greenville, MI where my internet bandwidth was way too low to continue doing web design and consulting work. This forced me to pivot and figure out what else I could do.

I decided to enter the Art Prize competition and showcase a few pieces of my work. The people who stopped by were very excited by my art and wanted to purchase something, but I didn’t have anything to sell that first year. Seeing people come back to the competition year after year looking to buy my art made me realize that they weren’t looking to purchase the big paper mobile that was expensive because it took 3 months to finish, they just wanted a smaller piece of the experience. So I started making some small jewelry pieces and pendants that are like little vignettes that incorporate all the miniature models inside of them and those became really popular.

After that, people wanted to hire me to teach do public speaking, or to attend corporate events where I give the Tinygamies away to people as gifts. So here were all these other ways that I could create different revenue streams that, when combined, put me closer to having a living wage than if I said I’m only going to speak or teach, or just make products. Because I’m willing to do everything, it’s working out much better.”

Dragonfly Pendant. (Photo: The Creative Armory)

Q. Why is it important for artists to do what they love instead of taking on projects just for money?

“Taking on work that you hate doing means you won’t actually enjoy it. Over time, I think that would start to diminish everything you know about your craft. For example, on Etsy I’ll have people message me with special requests. Although I may be capable of doing what they ask, if I know I’m not going to enjoy doing it I politely apologize because it’s just not something I’m interested in doing. It’s important to have boundaries so the passion for your craft doesn’t diminish.

I also want to note that following your passion doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be your career. I’m lucky that this has turned out to work for me in the way that it has. If I had tried this and found it was too stressful, I wouldn’t want to keep pushing so hard until I burned out and never wanted to do it again.”

“Somebunny Loves You” tiny origami box. (Photo: The Creative Armory)

“Little Lily Box”. (Photo: Tinygami / Stacie Tamaki)

Little Lily special gift box. (Photo: Tinygami / Stacie Tamaki)

Q. What piece of advice do you want to give to the creative entrepreneurs reading this article?

“Don’t underestimate yourself. Work on developing the type of confidence that can come through in your work. If you want to evolve as an artist, that evolution has to come from knowing yourself more and not being afraid to admit you don’t know something. You need to be willing to go learn something you don’t know or try something new. I hear so many people say ‘No, I can’t do that’, but they don’t really know if they can because they haven’t actually tried. They just assume they are not capable of it. 

For a while, I let criticism of my work really undermine my confidence. I once had a gallery owner tell me that he was willing to put one of my mobiles in his gallery for sale, but he wasn’t willing to charge more than $75 for it because it was more like “craft” art and not fine art. That really made me feel like my work didn’t have value even though I knew that it did. The whole experience taught me that people aren’t always going to appreciate how much work and effort you put in, but you can’t let that or imposter syndrome stop you from creating.

Developing the confidence you need is so liberating and will make the business better for you. It’s hard though, you know, because it doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no one book you read, or one therapy session you go through and boom, you’re done. It’s a process that takes a lot of effort. You have to be willing to see what you could work on and what skills and capabilities are lacking that would be advantageous to have in your business. From there, be willing to do it all.”

‘Thank You’ card from Tinygami. (Photo: The Creative Armory)

Japanese symbolism of models. (Photo: The Creative Armory)

Want to make a piece of tiny origami art? Follow Stacie Tamaki as she teaches you how to make a traditional origami frog in the video below!

What is your favorite product by Tinygami? Mine is the Dragonfly Pendant. Share your favorite item in the comments below!

By Jess McKenzie

By Jess McKenzie

Jess McKenzie is a graphic designer from Detroit, MI with a passion for branding. She is a self-proclaimed nerd that loves 80s movies and longs for Saturday morning cartoons to return. When she is not tied to her computer, she can be found taking random road trips and practicing landscape photography.

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