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Former tree planter turns love of screen-printing into business

It was in a laundromat in northern British Columbia when Sophie Joubarne says she first got the idea to open a screen printing business.

She’d been working as a tree planter and while waiting for her clothes, she started talking with a fellow Quebecer who asked her what she did the rest of the year. She told him that she planned to do screen printing – it was a hobby of hers.

He told her that there was a screen-printing shop for sale in Smithers, B.C. and suggested that she buy it. While she wasn’t ready yet, the seed was planted.

Now, she’s the owner of the Unik Printshop.

Ms. Joubarne says she first learned screen printing while studying graphic design at the Université du Québec à Montréal, on an exchange in Southern France.

“As a graphic designer, you’re on the computer and you create this beautiful image but then you have to print it,” she says.

Screen printing opened up new colours, that aren’t normally used on paper, and new materials, like wood and fabric.

She also likes the messiness of the process and working with her hands. “I was in the bush, I like getting dirty,” she says. “It’s kind of an art but it’s not a little fancy art.”

The fall after that conversation in a Smithers B.C. laundromat, Ms. Joubarne, who was then studying photography at Montreal’s Concordia University, started volunteering in the school’s screen printing studio so she’d have more access to the equipment and could work on her projects. They were mostly for herself. The wedding invitation she designed for a cousin was the closest she came to commercial work.

In 2009, at the end of another tree-planting season, Ms. Joubarne found herself once more in that same northern B.C. town when she came across another opportunity – a government program that helped local entrepreneurs start new business.

Even with the support, the first year had its share of challenges. “Instead of an industrial sink,” she says, “I had a shower.”

Her biggest order – for 300 shirts – came from the tree planting company she’d worked for.

In late 2010, she returned to Quebec, setting up shop in Montreal.

Around 40 per cent of her business currently comes from contract work – she’s done prints for a show of comics at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, T-shirts for Loto Quebec and printed cloth bags and wooden playing pieces for a Montreal-themed memory game.

Another 40 per cent of her revenue comes from printing and selling her own designs. Many of the images are inspired by the forest where she planted trees for 14 summers.

She particularly enjoys printing on wood. “When you print, if you’re consistent, it’s always going to be the same but with the wood every piece is different,” Ms. Joubarne says.

Printing her own work is “way less stressful,” she says. “There’s no deadline.”

“But with beautiful images,” she gestures to a pile of posters she is printing for Montreal-based illustrator Raymond Biesinger, “it’s kind of a pleasure.”

The other 20 per cent of her business comes from offering screen printing classes at the studio.

An intern, sponsored by the French Government, starts working with her soon, her first employee.

Last summer, for the first time, she didn’t go tree planting. “It’s becoming the end of that era,” she says. “I need to move to the next step.”

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