Your Cart is Empty

Meet Tona Bell

July 03, 2024

by Randy Rosenthal 

To understand The Paper Seahorse, you must know Tona Bell.  And if you knew Tona Bell you would understand that an adequate description of the force that is Tona must be told by someone else. She's just not focused on herself in that way.  I'll do my best.

"I'm not suggesting that Faeries and Pixies actually exist.  And if they did, I'm not saying Tona Bell is one of them."

It just that if you characterized these magical creatures as glimmering, and gliding through the world with and grace and purpose, ever in motion, pausing now and then to admire a blossom before fluttering off, leaving a a trail of beauty and enchantment in their wake, I might have to change my mind. This is what it is like to know Tona. 

Tona Bio Hero 670x550 (1).jpg__PID:e4b3adbd-4570-4653-a0e5-a24c4a3614fe

I know this first hand - Tona is my wife, and my partner, and my best friend, and I'm so very grateful to on a great journey with her for the majority of my time on this planet.  Her abounding creativity and her ability to navigate the margins of the rational and the magical worlds, often delivers delightfully surprising results. 

As a lifelong learner, she has much to offer as a teacher. People easily connect with Tona because her teaching style is immediate, present and from the heart. There are families from the neighborhood who walk together to one of her classes, and there are people who incredibly fly in from far away places to be part of a workshop or retreat.  That still amazes us both!  They are all seeking new experience, knowledge and connection.  I believe that the spaces that Tona creates for people, whether its a designing physical environment, or a space for personal growth and creative expression, is a huge part of what brings the community together.  

I believe Tona has the soul of an artist, the heart of a humanitarian, and the determination of a revolutionary. Through The Paper Seahorse, she discovered her calling as a teacher, allowing her to integrate all three. 

Its inspiring to look at all the thousands of people she has helped find calm and balance in our digitally chaotic world by putting aside our phones for a minute and reconnecting with themselves and others IRL!  

Tona Bell teaching at Disney World 's
Epcot Festival of the Arts

Tona says she has always been driven.  When she was young she excelled in dance and if you are lucky over a cup of tea she may tell you about the time she shared a stage with Sammy Davis Jr.  Through elementary school she lived in a rural central Florida town where her mother was the Librarian.  This is probably the spark of Tona's love of books and reading, and of what keeps pulling her back to the benefits of a simpler, slower life. Her small and lovely world dramatically expanded  when her father's job took the family overseas.  Tona spent her middle school years in Puerto Rico and high school in the Philippines.  I wonder if her immersion into strikingly different cultures had an influence on her curiosity and adaptability - especially when encountering people from diverse backgrounds.  After college she applied those skills to rapidly rise to become a top account executive at, what was at the time, the "coolest ad agency" in town - the one with the legendary hot-ticket parties. 

I met Tona when she was only 25, and I was an independent director / writer who just turned 30, and I quickly became enchanted.   At the time she loved the fast pace and striving for excellence that her job provided, but the aggressively transactional nature of advertising left her feeling cold inside, and she often came home crying because she really wanted a job where she could help people.  We joined forces and built our own production company - Tricycle Studios - that embodied our values.  Together, we built a very successful new media company and became honored to work with some of the best known companies in the world. Making media that we thought mattered.

The special effects team at Tricycle
showing some love for Tona

We were very grateful and proud of what we had accomplished - especially proud of the culture and community we cultivated and the amazing and talented people we worked with. Tona eventually became the President of Tricycle, and as a leader she demonstrated her understanding of the value of always relating to people on a human level first.  So, when an employee would leave us to pursue another position closer to their dream - like one of our animators going to Pixar - Tona and I responded like a family rather than bosses and threw them a party to celebrate their new adventure.  The ROI came in the form of enduring relationships we still enjoy today.

I admire Tona's ability to continually change, adapt and evolve through her life - like having the courage to leave her "corporate" job, starting The Paper Seahorse, and all along adding valuable practices like daily letter and journal writing. 

Tona will leave handwritten messages
that are typically discovered exactly when needed.

We worked at this business tirelessly - often working seven days a week - for many years.  Yes, we got to know many inspiring people and share experiences that we'\d only ever dreamed about.  Tona and I marveled at our lives, raising a glass to toast a good day at work, while sitting outside at a beautiful sidewalk cafe in Vienna, appreciating how lucky we are.

Over time however, the company grew to the point that we had employees we may only spoken to once or twice. That didn't feel good. And we kept on growing because that's what we thought we were supposed to do. Larger accounts meant larger budgets, and larger budgets meant larger needs for revenue to fuel business growth. Both Tona and my roles had become managerial.  In many ways we at reached a high level of achievement - but it did not feel that way.  However successful our business had become, our work had become less creative and rewarding.  We had so much and yet we were unhappy.  The celebrations continued, but at each going away party, we secretly wanted to be the ones moving on - pursuing our dreams.  

We also found ourselves scattered and depleted by always being "on," our noses in front of a computer screen working in roles that misaligned with our talents and our purpose.  Simply put, we both burnt out. 

Tona left Tricycle in 2014 and immediately found the healing power of slowing down.  The simple joys of writing letters by hand, mindful practices, and reconnecting yourself and others through handwritten expression.  The Paper Seahorse as a way to share what she had discovered. I believe it is because Tona is driven by her mission to bring the powerful yet easily accessible benefits of returning to analog to the world, rather than selling things, is why  our community of people needing to slow down and find balance continues to erxpand.

You can her her story in this video:

It is very gratifying to receive letters -yes actual letters with stamps and all - from people all around the world for whom the Paper Seahorse has become a haven, a safe space, to slow down and remember who you are. 

These letters tell stories of people emerging from the digital fog to create lives that better reflect how people feel inside.  

Yet, technology is here to stay, and Ai is becoming a bigger part of our lives.  It is not the villain. There is still great promise of easing burden, increasing knowledge and connecting people in important ways.  This is why its vital for all of our well-being to find a healthier balance between artificial intelligence and our innate human intelligence that has been undervalued.  Thousands of studies show writing by hand is an effective antidote for anxiety and depression, with lasting effects not seen in online journaling.  Our community is spread out across the globe and some members are in remote places or may have accessibility needs.  With this in mind, Tona began the Paper Seahorse Academy and a wide range of online workshops and meet-ups.  Most are live remote and some are recorded.  All have that special  magical Tona Bell / Paper Seahorse touch and most include an exquisite package arriving in the mail.

 Tona Bell teaching an online workshop to participants
logging in from the USA, The Netherlands and Belgium

In the beginning, The Paper Seahorse was created to fill the void left when the last true stationery store closed in Tampa.  Tona and I both travelled extensively and went out of our way to visit some of the finest independant stationery and paper stores in the world.  Tona had a clear vision for creating a space to welcome the digitally weary - those who found comfort in slowing down and writing, making or creating by hand.  What she designed was her version of a world-class stationery shop and gathering place. Visitors are so happy when they step into the brightly sunlit 1917 craftsman bungalow that houses both workshop spaces and the Campus Store, and say things like, " I've found my people!" and "I already feel so much more relaxed." After that, more often than not, they would open up and share a story about a special person and how letters or writing connected them to each other.


It was never only about the products.  People want community.  They desire more opportunities for irl (in real life) connections.

Classes, workshops and meetups have been an essential part of Paper Seahorse from the start.  Looking back, its impressive how many events Tona has hosted.  Origami meetups, makers markets, zine fests, public typing events, the creation of a letter writers club, children's' letter writing, free community workshops, collaborations with not-for-profits; all of them delivered with her unique style of  analog experience .

Tona has also helped bring unique analog experiences out into the community and beyond.  I had already launched Tampa Type, a project of bringing typewriters out into public at coffee houses, bars etc. When she started The Paper Seahorse, we folded in the typewriters and before long we had gone from four or five machines in a small space, to bringing over 35 beautiful restored typewriters to Las Vegas for a public typing experience with over 2,500 people!

Paper Seahorse public typing in Las Vegas

Tona's growth as a teacher, speaker and facilitator has led to her being asked to teach at many places around the United States including at entertainment venues like Walt Disney World, art museums like The Dali Museum, and deliver the joys and power of mindful analog pursuits to the business sector like Pfizer.

Analog Ideation creativity workshop at the Dali Museum

Working with big companies and respected cultural institutions is rewarding, however Tona tells me she gets the most satisfaction from seeing young people, who have grown up with cell phones and social media, light up when they put their phones down and take up writing by hand.  We both recently brought the Paper Seahorse typing Bar out to a literary event with one of our partners Water Street.  They expected about 150 people and 1,500 showed up.  The line to type was over an hour long and yet the crowd did not seem to mind. They all had big smiles and glowed from within as they typed their heart away...for that moment they felt free.

Public Typing on Water Street Tampa

Today, The Paper Seahorse community is growing.  Tona's vision is to meet their underlying needs. They need more than a store. "People tell me they don't need more things; they crave experiences," she explains. The Paper Seahorse is evolving to become a social enterprise providing transformative experiences. The focus is on expanding classes, workshops, retreats and community events.  At many of these, Tona will be asked to tell her story about how she created change in her life and learned to slow down and developed a better, healthier relationship with her phone.


Tona Bell thinks of what she brings to the world as a gift. Even though she is naturally shy, she shares her story freely because people relate, and when others share their stories she feels she learns and grows as well.  Her journey reflects moments that so many people are feeling these days:  a sense that despite doing most everything we are "supposed" to do, it just doesn't feel right.  For most of us our lives are out of balance.  So much of our waking life is spent in front of one type of screen or another - checking emails, working, scrolling posts, curating and presenting content of our lives that do not reflect how we truly live or want to live. 

The question she might ask is:  What are you waiting for?   


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.