Carving Community

Photo: Rae Lang/Woosah

How Michigan artist Rae Lang connects the outdoor community with a gathering space, inspired woodcut prints, and coffee.

For artist and entrepreneur Rae Lang, both life and work revolve around spreading the woosah. What’s that, you ask? “I don’t even know where I picked up the word,” she laughs, “but I say it all the time to friends. It’s supposed to help you relax. It’s like an inhale and an exhale when you say it.” For Lang, woosah means inner peace and stillness, and it’s a vibe she strives to cultivate in her businesses, retail shop Woosah Outfitters and its adjacent coffee shop, Outside Coffee, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

Lang, 31, creates the majority of the goods lining the shelves at Woosah Outfitters. As a woodcut printmaker, she carves images into a wood block, then inks it to make prints with an etching press. Her designs—often swirling depictions of mushrooms, fish, bears, mountains, and other parts of the natural world—adorn everything from T-shirts to mugs to headlamps. Lang also collaborates with other brands and organizations, like Merrell (for which she’s created five T-shirt graphics) and the North Country Trail Association, designing woodcut trail-map prints for a fundraising auction. And last year, she reinterpreted the Public Lands logo for an exclusive apparel line, too. 

When she’s not working on her next woodcut or running her businesses, you’ll find Lang fat biking, hiking, or backpacking with her two dogs. She lives in Grand Rapids with her wife (and the CFO of Woosah Outfitters), Kelly McPhee, and their newborn son, Howie. 

We caught up with Lang to hear more about her creative process, building a successful business with zero experience, and how the outdoors inspires her. 

PUBLIC LANDS: How did you get started as an artist?

RAE LANG: I went to an art college in town, Kendall College of Art and Design, for industrial design. But industrial design is very tight, not a loose flow of creativity for me. I started making art after school to relax, and nature has always been my inspiration. I signed [my work] Woosah: Nature—and making art gives me the same feeling of being at peace and being connected to something bigger. It started taking over my life. I started doing pop-up shops. One day, I was like, ‘If this is what I love to do, why don’t I pursue this full-time?’ Then I started carving woodcuts and fell in love with it.

How did you turn that passion into Woosah Outfitters?

Finding your woosah is about chasing your passions. After I graduated college, I wanted to make [art] my job. So I took out a loan and bought my own press. Six months later, I signed a lease for a storefront. I didn’t have enough money to start my own store, which I didn’t realize until after I signed the lease. I had a successful Kickstarter campaign [for $27,000] and opened in 2015. Then I realized my true passion is community, so we decided to find a space where we could open a coffee shop. 

I have no business background. It’s all been ‘learn as you go.’ In the beginning, I would just shove all my receipts into a shoebox. Eventually, when we were making the move to the new location, I got legit and hired an accountant.

A portrait of Erica Lang carving Photo: Rae Lang

You run Outside Coffee out of a converted food truck in the community garden next to your store. Why start a coffee shop, too?

Community. We really wanted to have a space that was accessible to everyone to come and connect. Connecting in a retail space is great, but there’s that feeling of, ‘Do I have to buy something to spend time here?’ It feels like a pretty sacred space to share. And at the old shop, we’d throw these big parties. Now that we have this outdoor garden space, we have music, and sometimes we’ll partner with a local restaurant to do food.

We did another Kickstarter to launch the coffee shop and raised $30,000. It got way bigger than we anticipated—every day, there was a line all the way to the gate.

How does your love of nature inspire your work?

I’m not somebody who will draw a scene just as it looks. It’s more how it felt. I remember a place for how tiny the mountains made me feel, for example. Nature always brings me back to what really matters. I like that it just simply exists as it is, and you can always find beauty if you’re aware enough to see it. It’s a great outlet that we can all share and connect in. 

Lately I have been really into carving birds. I really, really love birds. I wonder, do other people love birds as much as I do? [Laugh]

You created a graphic for Public Lands. What was that process like?

Todd [Spaletto, president of Public Lands] reached out to me to talk about creating graphics. It was a really exciting opportunity, and it aligned with our brand as well. Their team came out a couple of times to tour the store and take in the Woosah vibe; they watched me carve and the process of woodblock printmaking. Then I created a graphic that really connected with what Public Lands stands for: celebrating lands that are accessible to everybody. 

I decided to create a graphic that looked at the beauty of public lands through different perspectives. There’s a boot in the middle: That’s our footprint and what we get out of spending time in nature. The fish jumping out of the water represents the beauty of that ecosystem. And there’s a bear hidden in the trees, flowers around it, and rolling waves.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m carving out our spring line. I do a new line four times a year, and I try to do at least four new graphics. [The next one] is going to be inspired by water: the ways that we use it, the ways we celebrate it, the animals that depend on it. We all depend on it.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.