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Interview with Chrissy Poitras of Spark Box Studio

October 20th, 2011 · 7 Comments

Chrissy Poitras and Kyle Topping bought a 100-year old house in rural Ontario, renovated it themselves and have lovingly turned it into a one-of-a-kind artist residency where the two also reside full-time. Young artists from Canada and the world over stay come to stay with Chrissy and Kyle, benefit from their knowledge and know-how, make connections and share ideas.

What is Spark Box Studio?

During Kyle’s last year of university and my first year in the work force we started having dreams of owning our own studio space. The original idea was to create a private studio space for us to work in, this grew into a space where local artists could work as well and the idea continued to grow into what it is now. Spark Box Studio is a print studio and residency located in Picton, Ontario, Canada. The studio space is open to local artists as well as visiting artists. Basically Spark Box is a space for artists to live, work, experiment, research and network.

Paintings by Chrissy.

What inspired you to pursue this unusual venture? 

After I had graduated I was finding it hard to find time to work and paint and really missed the university experience of having dozens of creative people around me all the time. This was one of the jumping off inspirations for us, just the idea of creating a space where we would be working with a number of other artists. Making a place where we could share ideas, give feedback, grow our networks and learn from one another. The other inspiration, or motivation, was the desire to have our own printing studio. It is pretty hard to find a space to print in Ontario. Once we knew we were both happy with living in rural Ontario we knew we could find a space large enough to develop our own printing studio.

Seriously, what was it like to live through the renovations? Give us a picture.

I am not going to lie, despite all the advance warnings from fellow DIY house renovators, we weren’t prepared for how much work it was going to be. At first it was so much fun– tearing everything apart, finding cool artifacts under floor boards and making plans for our dream. It took us nine months to get the house to a place where we could move in and re-open. I think the hardest part was trying to keep everything running. With the studio, the residency and the magazine it was tough to find the energy to work on the house.

There are so many times where you want to break down and cry from the challenges but then something goes really right and it makes up for all the hard bits. With the house there was a long chunk of time where everything was a mess and then all of sudden it was painted and furniture was moved it and it became our home. It is pretty great.

We divided our workforce, I managed the business and Kyle focused on the renovations. When it was needed we would shift gears and both focus on major projects and deadlines within both the studio and the house. It was an amazing experience restoring a 100-year-old home on a limited budget.

 I’m sure funding was a big question. How did you go about obtaining it? 

The original idea for Spark Box was presented to our local municipality who, for the first two years, helped us access funding. This funding gave us the start up funds for many of our projects and also allowed us to develop some projects, like our residency award, which we may have otherwise been unable to support. The two of us funded the new location and all its renovations. Luckily I have a financial planner for a mother who has helped me save up for my own home. Funding is probably the most challenging part of running an arts organization. Currently we aren’t funded by any outside source.

Artists have come to Spark Box Studio from all over. How do they typically find you?

Most artists find us online. There are a number of fantastic websites for artist residencies– re-title, res artis and trans artist to name a few. We try to get our name out there as much as we can. Besides those sites we do a lot of postering, social media, newsletter, etc. to help spread the word about the space. Now that we are into our second year we are finding that word of mouth plays a big part.

Running the residency, studio space, workshops, etc. must be a ton of work. What’s a typical day for you?

Ha ha. I would have to say that I don’t really have a typical day yet. Every day is totally different from the next, which is probably why I like this job so much. I would say that I do a lot more admin/computer work than I was expecting. I guess the everyday tasks would be emails, social media, and blogging (which is probably one of the hardest things to commit to).  When we have artists staying with us we usually check in on them and make sure everything is going well, answer any technical questions, etc.  Generally these visits lead to longer talks about art, life, and the future. We also do our own printing and painting, run workshops, produce a small run arts and culture publication, teach at a local college, host lectures, speak at conferences and so much more. The job is seriously ever changing which keeps me interested and excited.

You have the chance to closely interact with all these different artists. What are some of the common threads that run through the Spark Box Studio community at large?

Everyone is so different and at different stages in their career. Of course the common questions or topics of conversation are money, exhibitions and further education. We have had some amazing people stay with us and I would say that we learn as much from as our residents as they do from us. The great thing about the artist community, we have found, is that everyone is willing to share their “findings”. It is like everyone is ready to give the next person a helpful hand.  I have heard that artists can get competitive and strange about sharing information but we have found it to be the direct opposite.

What are you most proud of? 

I am so proud that we own our own space; this is a huge step for any artist-run-centre. I am proud that we can share our space with other artists and that they are excited to come and work here with us. I am proud of Kyle and I taking a big risk and building something we believe in. I am most proud of the fact that we are making it work.

Justin Richel In Large-scale

July 28th, 2011 · 5 Comments

I recently interviewed Justin Richel of Rangeley, Maine about his new large-scale work (including group show Wall Works) for New American Paintings. Some things I learned about the artist: the biggest misconception about his work is that it’s all light-hearted and whimsical, and despite the nature of his work he prefers vegetables to sweets. (As a self-professed sugar addict I find this last fact mighty impressive.)

First of all, it’s really exciting to see your work translated from paper to a large-scale installation in both the exhibit at the DeCordova and the CMCA Biennial. Do you see yourself doing more installations?

The shift in scale has opened up my practice to a whole new way of working. I’m really excited about the installation work right now. Doing the installation is a totally different experience than working in the studio. Working on site puts me in a position to make decisions quickly, rather than deliberating for hours over composition and formal choices, it’s really freeing. I just completed another install at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art here in Maine for an exhibition titled The Question of Drawing. It’s another incarnation of the “Whirling Dervish” with a few more parts and pieces. I’m really happy with the end result.
Your wall is in the museum’s cafe. Was it a different process of conceiving art for a place where visitors are thinking primarily about food not art?
Well, because of my subject matter, it really wasn’t a stretch for me to create art for the café space. It’s also hard to imagine anyone not thinking about art at the Decordova Museum, even in the café. The museum is quite special, it’s located on 35 acres of sprawling sculpture park nestled in a beautiful old growth forest. The museum itself has an interesting, and at times challenging, architecture. Fortunately the curatorial staff fearlessly makes use of every available space, inside and out, making for an entirely inspiring experience everywhere you look.

You sell prints on Etsy and through The Working Proof. How do you see this kind of business in the grand scheme of your art? If you were making $50K a painting, would you still sell prints?
This is an interesting question. At this stage in my career as an emerging artist, I think that it is important for me to reach as many people as I can. Selling prints is a way for me to make the work available to anyone who enjoys it. Art is for everyone, and I don’t think it should be exclusive. I think often folks get turned off by art because they think it’s only for the wealthy; not everyone can afford to collect art, however collecting prints can be just as rewarding. Any artist who is making $50K per painting is in a different stage in their career, which comes with a whole different set of guidelines. They are creating work that someone is paying a very high premium for. An artist who has reached this type of status also has a gallery who handles every aspect of sales, etc. You don’t typically find big name artists selling prints for $15-$30.

What’s the biggest misconception about you or your work?
My work tends to be at first glance very light and whimsical, I think that a lot of people don’t see the underlying commentary or darker undertones. However I like this about the work. I want the viewer to be pulled in and delighted by the detail and color, and if they should want to look further into the work, my hope is that they see the message that is within. However I don’t think the success of the image depends entirely on my thoughts being conveyed to the viewer. Ultimately I’m satisfied if the viewer enjoys the work.
Read the rest of the interview on New American Paintings.


Janet and Trisha of Pawling Print Studio

November 22nd, 2010 · No Comments

Janet and Trisha Snyder started their gorgeous line of handmade printed products, Pawling Print Studio, around the same time as I started Art Hound. It’s been an amazing experience watching their business grow and gain the recognition it deserves (they just got a shout-out from design*sponge!). For a while now I’ve been hoping to get to know a bit more about the super-talented Snyder sisters, and I recently had the opportunity to ask them some questions.

Source: Washington Life annual creative issue. What a great shot! (The text has a few errors – Janet is on the left and Trisha is on the right. And Janet is not a dancer although she looks like she could be one!)

You’re sisters and business partners. How does the design process work? Are there certain issues you disagree on?

So far, so good!  We have similar taste when it comes to design aesthetics, and we learned how to build a business model together through a lot of research and even more trial and error.  It definitely
helps more than it hurts to have someone else there when you’re second guessing everything.  Being family also allows us to be a lot more honest about everything.  “I don’t think we should do that,” or “That looks really terrible,” is the same as “You have a booger hanging from your nose.”  You don’t have to edit your opinions for a sister the way you might have to towards a co-worker or another professional.

Living in different cities has also worked to our advantage.  We brainstorm design ideas together, execute them separately, then come back together to review them, mix, and repeat.  Being able to work on things separately has been really important for us to prevent burnout.  Every time we meet back up, we’re full of new ideas, which is both exciting and energizing.


What’s been the hardest obstacle so far in starting your own business?

Both of us absolutely hate spending money and are extremely risk averse, so for us, a lot of it has been knowing where to put our money next, not paying ourselves, and taking risks.  It’s harder than it looks to grow
your business in baby steps and try to visualize the big picture at the same time.  Whenever we get frustrated, we have to remind ourselves to step back and see our progress.  Thankfully we’ve met a lot of fantastically supportive, like-minded people through the wonder that is social media.  Oh, and our families are awesome.

People often wonder about the differences between Etsy and Big Cartel. What prompted your decision to open shops with both?

Etsy really inspired us to open up shop in the first place and it was the easiest place to start.  When we realized we wanted to pursue this seriously, it was important for us to have our own website.  Big Cartel
made sense since you can test it out for free and it doesn’t require any programming skills to start selling.  Plus, when you’re up to it, you have the ability to customize it as much or as little as you want.

Why both?  Well, we believe our own website is important for growth.  It tells wholesalers, bloggers, and hopefully eventually magazine editors, etc. that we mean business without even opening our mouths.  It also means we’re not reliant on Etsy if they ever decide to shut their doors or change their policies.  But Etsy is a great community and we love being a part of it.  We’ve gotten to know other buyers and sellers in a way that we never would have with just our own shop.  The site really encourages interaction among users – from hearts to treasuries to convos- and almost everyone we’ve interacted with has been enthusiastic not only about the products, but also about supporting the artists who make them.  You can’t get that from just your own website!

You feature some amazing work on your blog! What are some of your favorite lesser-known sites you scope out for inspiration?

Thanks!  We love your site for inspiration, but some of our other favorites are:
Of Paper and Things
Unurth | Street Art
Field & Sea
Evan Sharp’s Beautiful Simplicity pinboard
Sha Hwang’s Installations and Spaces pinboard

Strangely (or maybe not so strangely) we are both much more inspired by anything outside of our academic disciplines (architecture and graphic design). We certainly follow our share of design blogs, but it tends to feel more like reading the news than inspiration.  Right now we’re loving a lot of quieter art installations.

“The Snow” by Tokujin Yoshioka Design, an example of the minimalist, nature-inspired art and design the sisters feature on their blog.

What’s Pawling Print Studio’s most popular product?

Definitely the Lines Tote, which is kind of cool since it’s also one of the first products we designed.  Our calendars and the Long Necked Onesies are also popular.


Do you have any thoughts on launching a non-textile product line? For example, I know you both love ceramics…

Haha, yes we do love ceramics!  Of course, part of their lure is that we can’t make them ourselves, so that’s not happening in the near future! First we’d like to see our textile and paper lines continue to expand. We would love to do yardage in eco fabrics, wrapping paper, more notebooks, etc.  And we originally had grand designs for a whole line of table linens, from placemats to napkins to table runners, that we’d like to develop as well.

Have you been able to maintain outside creative outlets while launching and running PPS?

Not as much as we would like.  Does dancing around the studio count?  We have personal knitting and sewing projects, but lately they’ve been languishing unfinished while we’ve been frantically preparing for the holiday season.  We try to make it to museums when we can, but sadly most of our recent art intake has been online only.

Esti’s Shop Launch

November 15th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Esti is an artist, crafter and an all-around inspiring person. From her home in Bilbao, Spain she recently launched her e-shop, pintameldia, and is already off to an amazing start!

How long had you been thinking about opening a shop online and what made you finally do it?

I don’t remember exactly when I first thought of opening an online shop, but it must have been when I started to get positive feedback on my artwork and people started asking me about it. This must have happened about two years ago.

Had you already been selling your art and crafts…if so, how (i.e. through your blog)?

Yes, for the last couple of years I’ve been selling stuff I’ve posted about on my blog. People have contacted me through email and that was it.  However, when I launched the “We are a Happy family” card game and project I realized I was missing quite a few sales because not everybody feels comfortable emailing the artista directly. Having a “Buy” button seems to be a better option.

Were there any big obstacles that you encountered while setting up the shop (either logistical or psychological)?

The big obstacle is time. It takes time to photograph the pieces, to write their descriptions (especially if I want to do this in English as well as in Spanish), to think up of how to mail them, how to set the right price, etc.

Time is the key. The shop takes quite a lot of it. Apart from this, I thought it was very easy. Once it’s running you have to keep working on making it better. In my case I don’t feel mine fully reflects my art, because, for instance, it is still missing more of my originals and a bunch of prints that are now in the works. I trust that people who have been following me for some time will see it with positive eyes.

Having now successfully opened a beautiful shop, what are you most proud of?

I’m proud of having the most supportive and helpful team I could: my husband, my friend Jorge and my uncle Antonio. I bomb them with questions, tasks and challenges.
Secondly I am also proud of all the things I’ve learned from scratch in the past few years and of having reached this point, when I can spare time doing what I love doing.
Lastly, I am proud of having connected with people who like what I create.

Jacqueline Bos’ W/ Heart

November 11th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Jacqueline Bos, who is best known for her work in illustration, just launched her first line of napkins and pillows and sat down to tell us a bit about it. W/ Heart is available here for now (runs are tiny!) and if you must know my favorite piece is the rabbit pillow.


Tell us a bit about your new collection, W/ Heart.
W/Heart {with heart} is a really small collection textile collection. Each item is hand printed with water based inks (permanent) on locally bought 100% organic cotton. I personally printed and sewed each item in the collection so there are a very limited amount of each. The collection is 3 pillowcovers, 4 napkin sets and 2 plush bunnies.

What was it like, designing, manufacturing (and now selling) your first line?

It was a lot harder than I had initially thought. I went through a ton of sketches designing the patterns, and initially had more I was planning to use but it just became such a huge undertaking that I pared it down to the ones that you see. I have access to a print studio where I burned the screens, but it’s usually pretty dirty in there so I ended up printing everything in my apartment and drying everything on strings I’d hung from one side to the other. I made everything in really small batches. Setting up the shop was pretty simple, but the photography was a struggle! I’ve always struggled a bit with lighting, but I hope in the end the photos give you a good feel for the items themselves.

Any funny stories or mishaps along the way?

Oh dear, tons. It was all little things that are just so frustrating, like setting everything up, ready to print and then realizing the squeegee I was planning on using was an inch too small for the printable area. Plus since i was using my apartment as a mock drying rack, i could only print about 10 fabric pieces at a time, then wait a few hours for them to dry, and set up and print again. It was definitely a process.

Do you, perhaps secretly, have a favorite piece of the collection?

I do! I love the “Black Magic” screen and especially that pillow because it’s white with black ink on the front and slate with white ink on the back. It just looks really awesome all put together.

Any advice for other artist/designers thinking about working in a new direction/medium?

Make sure to work out all the details before you start. There will be a lot fewer surprises that way. Also stick to what you know, and what you do well. I wouldn’t have taken on a hand printing project if I didn’t have years of experience with printmaking, because there are just so many little things that you learn through the years that are integral to keeping waste low, and quality high.

Want to give a shout-out to any textile designers you’re inspired by?

Maija Louekari, Hanna Werning, and Sanna Annukka (below) all have bold, but intricate prints on everything from ceramics to textiles. I also really love traditional scandinavian textiles, they’re so simple and elegant.

Catching Up With Illustrator & Blogger Sara Barnes

November 3rd, 2010 · 3 Comments

Sara Barnes is a talented illustrator and recent MICA graduate living, creating and blogging in Baltimore. If you enjoy discovering under-the-radar artists her blog, Brown Paper Bag, is a must-read! Sara attended the Vermont Studio Center this summer and has recently incorporated embroidery in her work. (On a side note, Sara did these illustrations for Art Hound.)

How would you describe your work and approach to art-making?

My work is based on associations that I have with life, the study of human behavior, and the themes prevalent in our day-to-day existence. I love reading about sociological and psychological issues, which has lead me to conclusions about how we as a society and race react to situations and deal with challenges, both personally and within our society. Using these considerations as a springboard, I create patterns, characters, etc., that I feel reference what my associations are.

My approach to art attempts to be very organized and systematic, but is often indecisive. I try my best to make a plan before embarking on a piece (tons of thumbnail sketches!), but I take advantage of the fact that I can easily cut out new shapes of paper, resew something, or even move things around once glued down. I try to be very open to scraping part of a piece if it just isn’t working out, and basically trusting my instincts.

What are you working on these days?

I tend to divide my work between personal art making and what’s going on with Brown Paper Bag. Personally, I am applying to graduate school for the fall 2011 semester, so I’ve been working on my portfolio to submit with applications. I’m also working on pieces with the artist collective I’m apart of – We Are Fucking Awesome (WAFA for short). With WAFA, we’re working out the kinks for a new zine, and in the meantime I’m working on mail art that the group sends to each other.

With Brown Paper Bag, I’ve got a few things coming up. The collaborative interview I do, Art Together, has a couple of pieces cooking, while I’ve planned out a studio visit and gallery visit in early November. I try to take advantage of the blossoming art scene in the Baltimore/DC area.

What was the inspiration behind your awesome art blog, Brown Paper Bag?

Before Brown Paper Bag, I was keeping up with Marshmellow Kisses, a personal blog. I had a couple of days a week where I featured artists that I liked, and, after a few months, it was my favorite part about the blog. I also was reading a variety of blogs, (mostly art blogs, like Booooooom!, Pikaland, My Love For You, etc.) and really admired how they added to the conversation in the art world.

I’ve always liked writing and grew up a child of the internet, so it was definitely in my capacity to design a blog and keep it up. I started Brown Paper Bag with the intent to become a resource for people (one reason I try and tweet often) who enjoy looking at art, as well as have features that help to facilitate the global art community.

What’s your greatest hope for the blog? Where do you want to see it go?

My greatest hope for Brown Paper Bag is that it continues to inspire others and continues to grow in its readership. Right now I’m still figuring out BPB’s role in the blogosphere, and once I get some steadier footing, I’d like to expand it to other contributors and larger-scale projects.

Some of your new work includes embroidery with unusually thick yarn which creates a really cool texture. Is this a new medium for you?

For the most part, yes. I was randomly given cotton thread by an old friend about 5 years ago, and it literally sat in a drawer for all that time. It wasn’t until I was making stuff for an Etsy store that I found it and thought to experiment with it by sewing on paper. From there, it really clicked for me. I am not a strong drawer, and for most of my schooling sought ways to compensate for that. Using thread is a way that I can express things through lines without having to adhere to the same rules and standards that a line made by pencil or pen do.

What do you want to be doing in 5 years time?

Five years!  That seems like an eternity at this point. I hopefully will have received my MFA and would love to be teaching at a college level.  I would also like to still be running Brown Paper Bag in some capacity. Above all, just making art and continuing to have others view it. And, unrelated to anything I already talked about, qualify for the Boston Marathon (running is my zen).