This is where Courtney lives with her professional surfer husband Dane, her son Sammy, and her twin girls Bobbie and Maggie. It’s also HQ for Trashboy, Courtney’s online shop where she sells everything from hand-sewn clothing items constructed from thrift shop castaways to baseball hats and tees featuring artwork from her kids. Recent listings for retro Morton Salt Box train cars, each sporting a custom paint job, sold out fast (all proceeds go to fund Sammy’s quest for an RC car). More than 86,000 Instagram followers know Courtney as Napkin Apocalypse, having found and followed her in the early days of the social platform hungry for more of her playful outlook and effortlessly cool creations. As a former dolphin trainer, it’s not the career path Courtney ever imagined for herself, but allowing her dream to evolve has led to a life informed by imagination.
As told to SeaVees. Photography by Johnie Gall.
“I was in a grocery store parking lot maybe 15 years ago and there was a man going from car to car with a little laminated sign asking for money, saying he was raising the funds he needed to attend a dolphin-training school. I think it’s everyone’s dream to be a dolphin trainer when they are little and he knew the scam would really tug at people’s heart strings. I was like, ‘Ohhh buddy, you chose the wrong girl today!’ [laughs].
My dad was allergic to pretty much all pets, but I was super into animals when I was a kid so he allowed me to have a few little critters in our house. I was obsessed with animals and when I was five years old I decided I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. My parents assumed I’d grow out of that phase like most kids, but as I got older and older and didn’t give up on it, they realized they would have to help me figure out how you actually get into that line of work.
I went into a two-year exotic animal training and management program at Moorpark College. Every semester you’re assigned to new species of animals in order to learn about care, husbandry, running a wildlife show, conservation, and training. I was also bolstering my resume with volunteer gigs, working with a privately-owned lion and black bear, cleaning wolf cages, even working at a veterinary hospital. Then finally, I got a job at SeaWorld.
Becoming a dolphin trainer at SeaWorld means performing a full audition. You need the skill set for working with animals, but it’s also a lot of public speaking so you need to be charismatic and bubbly in front of an audience. Then there’s the swim test — the water in the pools at SeaWorld in San Diego is pumped in from Mission Bay and it’s 50 or 60 degrees depending on the time of year. You have to swim from one side of the pool to the other completely underwater without coming up for air, and that cold water really knocks the wind out of you. People were dropping out of the audition like flies during that part!
It wasn’t just playing with dolphins — it was real work, but I loved it. I still remember the feeling of getting there early before any guests arrived, greeting the dolphins and smelling the grills from the barbeque restaurant next door firing up for the day. But I was only about 21 and the job felt more corporate than I had pictured in my head for so long. Then there was Dane, my then-boyfriend and now-husband. He was traveling ten months out of the year as a professional surfer and I never got to see him, so when the opportunity came up for me to travel the world with him, I left.
Working with animals had been my dream for so long that it had become the way I pictured myself. My career path had become my identity. Without it, I knew I had to stay busy until I figured out what was next. I knew I didn’t just want to be Dane’s girlfriend or freeload off his career, so I worked at a restaurant and started taking college art classes feeling out what else I might be interested in. I got my falconry license so I could keep working with animals on my own terms. Then I took a sewing class and it was an instant love affair. I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this untapped resource for joy?’ The possibilities were endless and suddenly I was creating all these projects, and it’s just snowballed. I’ve never lost interest.
I credit my success as a business owner one-hundred percent to social media. I joined Instagram when it first started, back in 2011 when everyone was using it as a random photo diary, posting pictures of dogs and flowers and food. But I really started interacting with people and I loved that feeling — I still do. Sharing your journey on social media and having people come along with you is so special, especially when you don’t have a traditional job because it can be isolating working from home. I try to include all parts of myself on social media so when I do post something off-kilter it’s not unexpected. I’m really wary of being pigeonholed into being a ‘cute mom crafter.’ That’s not who I am. That’s part of me, but that’s not who I am.
Having Dane as my husband helped me find success early on, too, because the surf community knew him and they knew who I was as his wife. I had relevancy. That’s never been a burden to me — if anything, it’s always been a source of pride to be associated with Dane in that way. But I also didn’t just want to be his wife.
What drives me now is the thrill of discovery. When I’m thrifting or sourcing materials, it’s the character in found goods and fabrics that I get excited about first, and the fact it’s better for the planet is an added bonus. It does make things harder because it would be economical to buy huge bolts of fabric and replicate a design 100 times, but I have a short attention span anyway. I’ll find a blanket and make two jackets out of it before I’m like, ‘Wait! I could be making candlesticks out of Little People figurines!’ I’m working on shorts for the girls right now from this Kermit the Frog fabric a friend of mine found and sent me. A lot of times you can find old nursery curtains that have since been taken down and those always have the best prints on them.
Trashboy was not my dream. It wasn’t intentional and it’s not something I ever thought I wanted. If someone had told me, ‘Oh, you’re going to sell T-shirts and have a brand,’ I’d be like ‘How? Why? I’m supposed to be working with animals! This isn’t where I wanted to be in life!’ But my dream evolved over the years. It’s a dream to feel authentic in what you’re doing and have it represent you. I feel represented well. I have creative freedom and freedom with how I spend my time, and that’s the most important thing to me. And I’m having fun, so this is exactly where I want to be.
My dream is always changing. My family changes month to month as our kids grow, and their needs skew our goals and dreams. I used to believe that once I had certain things or the kids reached a certain age or I accomplished certain things, that life would feel perfect. I have a good friend whose dad has terminal cancer and by going through that with her, I realized we all think there’s more time than there is. It’s never going to be perfect and this is as good as it gets, so you have to learn to really feel that and convince yourself of that, and find joy in the simplest things. I sound like an asshole [laughs] but this is the dream: life, exactly as it’s happening right now.
My advice is to stop taking yourself so seriously. Bring chaos and humor into your work. Maybe not if you work at a legal firm or something, but you know what I’m saying. Being able to laugh and see the light in situations really carries you through. You realize not everything has to feel so daunting.