January 18, 2016

Vigorous health found in wellness & art: Artery Ink’s Mara Natkin & Gloria Ramirez

While going through the Etsy Pavilion at the One of a Kind Show in Chicago, I encountered the handmade work of studio Artery Ink. Their human subject matter and the style through they interpreted it got my attention. Here, the founders Mara Natkin & Gloria Ramirez share their story of making their craft a fulfilling livelihood.

At the One of a Kind Show, I was quickly drawn 
(pun surely intended) to the subject matter of your work: 
“art + wellness.” How did you arrive at this idea?
Ha-ha! We do love a good pun over here! Both of us, Gloria and myself, Mara, have been artists our whole lives. The ART part is easy. Gloria, who grew up in Mexico City, went to school for Graphic Design, and I had grown up with many artists in my family. I continued practicing all sorts of art through grade school, high school and then ended up going to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design for illustration.

We met in Milwaukee and knew that we wanted to do something with our art but “what” was the big question—we had no idea. We both worked in the service industry as waitresses, letting time pass by, without worrying much about it, eating a lot and drinking a lot too! It was in May of 2013 that my aunt passed away from a long battle with breast cancer. My grandfather died within the same week as well as Gloria’s aunt. As with any death, it can be very life-changing. After that, we really started learning a lot about the human body and how to take care of it. We realized we were, in fact, not taking very good care of ours at all! So we started to change what we ate, and we started to work out a little bit and making those small changes impacted our lives in enormous ways.

One night, Gloria woke up in the middle of the night in tears because of a stomach pain she was having. This kept happening for a few nights and we thought maybe she should see a doctor. We found a naturopathic doctor in Milwaukee and made an appointment. We went to see Dr. Sarah later that week, and she explained to us that Gloria was suffering from some major inflammation, which is caused by all the food we had been eating and all that we had been drinking! I couldn’t believe she was telling us about inflammation because we had just been reading a book called “Crazy Sexy Diet” by Kris Carr, who talks a TON about inflammation too! We thought this must be true, how have we not heard about this before? After explaining digestion to us, she sent Gloria home with a list of food items to stay away from and some other suggestions.

We followed this “anti-inflammatory” way of living for a month and we have never gone back. Our taste pallets changed drastically, and we were experimenting with cooking all sorts of new recipes every day. At one point, I thought to myself, “I am having SO much fun learning about how food can heal your body, and I’m having so much fun cooking and looking up new recipes, and reading about it—darn, I wish I was this excited about doing some sort of art project.” Then BAM, why not combine both ideas (art and WELLNESS) and somehow encourage other people to take better care of their own bodies by eating healthier!

How many show/venues do you go to in order to promote 
and sell your handmade products? How would you characterize 
the experience of working the craft-show circuit?
When we started our business, we were both also working at a restaurant, so our time was split in half. It was sort of like a side thing. We thought “this seems like a cool idea—we’ve got to give it a try!” We applied for a bunch of events in the Milwaukee area expecting to get into a few, but we got into all of them! We scheduled out our summer so we had an event (or sometimes 2) each weekend, so about 3–5 events per month. We had to take off weekends at the restaurant and cut down our schedule a little bit. Doing these shows was so eye-opening to us, because we started to meet SO many people who were also following their dreams and creating something that they loved and making a living doing it! Once the summer had ended in the first year, we had maybe 1 or 2 holiday shows, and then it was over—so basically back to working 5–6 nights at the restaurant and picking up shifts.

When it came time to plan our second summer, we really beefed it up, and we knew we wanted to expand into the Chicago area as well. I was born and raised in Chicago and still have family there, and Gloria was also born in Chicago and had frequently visited the city all throughout her life. It seemed like a no-brainer that we should be selling there. We went all out and we applied for triple the amount of shows we did the year before. We ended up having 12–14 shows per month this year, which meant we were in constant motion. This year we completed 31 events (which is actually 60 individual days of show—some are 2, 3 or even 4 days long). Midway through summer, we took the plunge and quit our restaurant jobs. We knew that what we had created was special, and if we had all the time we needed to work on it, it could really take off. It was a tough decision to make, and we didn’t make it easily, but in the end, it had to happen.

We think it is SO important for a newer business to do as many shows as possible, because it’s such a great way to interact with the people buying your art. Yes, shows are a TON of work and can be exhausting, but it is completely worth it. You can see what people buy the most of, you can see the way people react to your product, you can hear what they want and what they say about it, you can take special orders or listen to amazing stories that they have to tell you. In our opinion, there is no better way artists should start their business than to apply for some shows and TALK to people! People are so much happier buying a product knowing that you made it, and you take pride in making it and listening to you tell them about it. People ask us at every single show, “Are you the artists?”, and when we tell them yes, the reaction is always a good one. Being there in person and selling your artwork really gets the product out there and then, because of that, people will go to your website. Nowadays, with technology booming, everything is online. There is something so nice about doing events and talking with people face-to-face; nothing can compare to that.

I was also attracted to your line work and the resulting texture.
How do you achieve your visual compositions? 
Because they’re compact with visual patterns.
Both Gloria and I LOVE patterns and have our whole lives. We have two very different styles of artwork and very different techniques, but we use both in our business and they complement each other. Gloria sticks to her pen and paper, with traditional drawing. Ever since she was young, she has been attracted to black-and-white lines, and with lots of repetition, she has mastered the art of it. My artwork is more graphic and all digital. I do use a pen tablet, which then connects directly to my computer, so it feels very much like I’m just drawing normally. A lot of our inspiration with pattern comes from nature, which is where our love of patterns really began. We love to be outside, walking, camping, being in nature in any way. When you look inside the human body it is very reminiscent of the natural world outside, and it contains so many amazing patterns and connections—it is art in itself.

How did you arrive at wanting to become artists 
who make their art their livelihood?
Art has always been a big part in both of our families. Whether it be wood-working, cooking, metal work, ceramics, mosaics or acting, we both grew up surrounded by creativity. The thing that made us want to turn our art into a business, other than just pleasure, is the message that our art gives out. We have become so passionate about living a healthier lifestyle that we couldn’t just sit here and enjoy it ourselves. We want everyone to feel this awesome! We sometimes sit on the couch and talk to each other, and say, “If we had one wish, we would wish that everyone in their life time could feel this good in their bodies.” We decided it was our mission to encourage and inspire people to feel like that! Maybe they just need a little nudge, or a little more info. That is why we include a little health, wellness or human body fact on the back of all of our cards and prints. We get all of our facts checked by our naturopathic doctor, too. The information we give out is JUST as important as the artwork, and maybe some info about the human body would make you appreciate your body more. Or maybe a little info about strawberries or peas (above card) would encourage you to include some in your diet!

How do you practice drawing in order to feel competent 
and confident at realizing this skill?
With every drawing, we get better and better. I wonder what our drawings will look like in five years, because even in two, they’ve changed so much. Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. With every drawing, we try out new techniques and different styles. We always try to get Bristol Smooth Surface paper for the original drawings, and we prefer Espon when it comes to printing and the quality of our prints!

Sometimes people come up to us at a show and ask “How many artists are there?”, and when we say “Just us two”, they always look surprised. It makes sense, because we have had some of the same cards or prints from the very beginning, and some that we just created last month—and with time, they all get better and a little different. Drawing is very important to us, and our business is on staying fresh. Especially with greeting cards, you always have to be coming out with new designs, and new images. That forces us to draw almost every day which is a great thing!

When and how did you arrive at the idea of Artery Ink
And how did you keep this idea? Did you write it down? 
Did you doodle it?
I love writing, so the first thing that comes to mind when I have any idea is to write it down. We had a lot of lists, but we mostly went on walks and talked about ideas. Ideas become reality when you share them with other people and you start talking about them. Like I said before, because of our lifestyle change, we felt that we needed to share this information in a fun and different way that related to our artwork. When you have a strong mission behind art, it makes it more powerful and guides it. Once you have found a concept you are passionate about, the rest flows!

What were some of the first things you did in taking Artery Ink 
from an idea to a reality?
One of the first things we did was research our name, buy our domain name, register for an email, design the logo, and ask our naturopathic doctor if she could check our facts for us. We then researched like crazy for the best printer around, the best paper, and little cellophane sleeves. We also had been seeing someone about doing our taxes, and he happened to mention he could help us with our business finances and bookkeeping. What do you know—perfect timing or what?! He helped us right away get a sellers permit and the correct documentation for selling taxable items. We were very careful and wanted to do this the right way; we didn’t want to have to go back and fix things later on. I think we both got that skill from working in restaurants for so long. You always have to take a little extra time at the beginning to make sure you got the correct order; otherwise, you’ll waste time later bringing the order back to the kitchen for them to remake it.

What still feels raw, and this doesn't mean bad nor good, 
from when you started Artery Ink until now?
The thing that comes to mind right away is our website and online sales. Neither of us, by any means, is a website builder. We created the website we have now through Wix, which is very user-friendly and relatively easy (it’s gone through about 10 phases, each time a little better than the last), but it is in no way near where we want it to be. It is very important to have a web presence nowadays, having a website is better than having none, but we both know it needs to be better. Through starting a business, we have come to realize that everything takes time, and we cannot do it all at once. We just have to make the best of what we have and continue to grow and adapt and work towards what we want. Sometimes we look at each other and say, “Can you believe we have a business?”, because being a business owner is still a very raw feeling to us as well!

Speaking of started, how did you make yourself committed 
to start? Because “Just do it” is easier said than done.
Easier said than done, is ohhh SO true. It was a culmination of being sick of working at a restaurant, and feeling lazy, and knowing we both have talent in art and not using it. We went to a farmers’ market one day, during the summer, prior to our starting the business, and we walked into this little craft section, and there was a booth with just one guy selling the cards he designed and printed. And we looked at it and thought to ourselves, “We could do this!” And the worst part is that we had wanted to start a greeting card line for a long time and just had been too distracted or unmotivated to do it. For some reason, seeing someone else do it with ease, got the fire going, and after that day, we decided to do it 100%. Every day we took one step to create a product we would be proud to sell. Some steps are small and not scary, like doing a drawing, or researching and applying for events, while others are bigger and scary, like buying a $1,000 printer, or applying for a business credit card, but we reminded ourselves every day: “One step at a time.” And the very next year, we were at the same farmers’ market selling our own cards too!

What is your work schedule like in making all of your artwork? 
And how do you manage your time?
Time management is very tricky, especially going from having a “work” schedule imposed on you to making your own. Our schedule varies, depending on the season. In the summer time, while we are doing events every weekend, we are working every day: printing, folding, stuffing, making signs, keeping items fresh, counting and doing inventory. We don’t have a very strict schedule during these times, it’s basically work until the work is done. On our slower months, we try to keep stricter hours.

We also feel like we are more productive when we stick to a healthy routine, which includes cooking, a little exercise, yoga, reading and writing—so we schedule time to do those activities as well. We work between 8–10 hours, probably 5–6 days a week, during the slower times, but regardless, we do something related to the business pretty much every day, whether it be an hour of drawing or updating the website, or taking new photos, or sketching out a new idea. The best two pieces of advice we can give anyone who is struggling with sticking to a schedule is (1) make a list of what you are going to do the next day right before you go to bed. You wake up and you already know what the plan is, (2) when you have your own business, you will be working basically ALL the time—there is no time off, so it is even more important to force yourself to take time for yourself to rest, take care of yourself, and remind yourself of why you love this. Then start again, making sure you enjoy every bit of the process.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
We are both big believers in creating a space that you enjoy being in. Otherwise, you just won’t get anything done! Our workspace has changed a lot. When we first designed our “studio”, we didn’t know what we would be doing in it; all we knew was it was going to be some sort of art, but that was all. Now that we have established ourselves a bit more, we know a LOT more of what we need around us and what we don’t need, and that has changed the space a lot. This year, we ordered a lot of our supplies in bulk—and when you go from 2 packs of paper to 25, well, you need a more efficient way to store it! It was very disorganized, but after the holidays, when we had a moment to breathe, we reorganized and made it a lot more efficient. The thing about the workspace is that we know it will constantly change. If we add a new product or start doing larger orders, we need to change something up. Keeping a clean, clutter-free space to produce our artwork has always been the best for us. The moment we feel uncomfortable, cluttered or unmotivated, we know it’s time to change up the space, and we will do so. A few things that a great workspace needs are good lights, and for us, at least, good music! We alternate between calming meditation radio for when we are feeling zen, and Katy Perry when we want to feel pumped, excited and encouraged!

What kind of art/illustration appeals to you? 
Who and/or what are your creative influences?
This is always a hard question because our main influences are not specifically a person or a specific artist; it comes more from nature. Like I said before, we are constantly entranced and amazed by the natural world. Flowers, plants, trees, the sky, the earth, animals, gardening, growing food, and how everything relates. We love so many different kinds of art and different kinds of music. Traveling has always been one of our favorite things to do, and we have been lucky enough to visit many places so far in our lives, and seeing the way other cultures and people live is also very inspiring and life-changing.

In running Artery Ink, what are some bona fide “best practices” 
in working well, in working as best as possible?
EAT BREAKFAST! Oh my gosh—just like we encourage through our artwork, accomplishing ANYTHING is easier when your body has been fed well. What you eat affects your mood, and everything works much better and goes smoother and you get more accomplished when you’re in a good mood.

Make lists, lots of lists. Carry a notebook with you wherever you go, because you get the greatest ideas at the most random times and you MUST write them down.

On a more serious note, one thing that we always talk about is ENJOY THE PROCESS. We remind each other of that every day. It’s not the result that’s the fun part, it’s DOING it. Once it’s over, it’s done. Even if it’s something that you don’t specifically enjoy doing, we remind ourselves to go into it positively. A lot of tasks seem overwhelming when you think about doing them, but we also remind ourselves to “just start it.” Once you make the first move, you’ll realize it isn’t so hard and you will actually be done faster than you thought!

Do you use any software/Web-based tools to run your business? 
If so, what digital tools do you use and highly recommend?
We use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for all of our artwork. I do all my artwork in Illustrator, and when Gloria is done with her drawing, we scan them and tweak them a little in Photoshop, and we do the entire layout for our cards in Illustrator. I have been using Illustrator for many years, and I love this program. It’s so versatile.

Who and/or what keeps you going in keeping Artery Ink going?
Other than jamming out to Katy Perry, we have a lot of things that keep us going. Most importantly, it’s each other. We are so lucky to have started this business together; it has made the whole thing so much easier to have two people, two minds, two sets of hands vs. one. We can bounce ideas off of each other and when one of us feels stuck, we call the other one over and say, “What should I do with this?”, and when someone with fresh eyes sees a piece of work, they often have all sorts of new ideas you’ve never thought about before.

Our families have been so big in our success as well. Always supporting us and coming to our events, offering help prepare for large events, coming with us to help set up our stands. We also have met some of the most amazing customers who tell their friends and families about our artwork so they come support us, too. We also have some customers who buy a few things every time they see us, because they want to keep the collection growing! We hear the best, most amazing and sometimes crazy stories about people’s triple bypass heart surgeries, or their dad’s lung transplants, or how watermelon saved someone’s life! We would never want to stop hearing these stories and meeting these people, they all keep us inspired to make more art and always give us new ideas.

For people who want to start a business focused 
on something handmade, what is your advice?
Our advice would be to stay true to yourself and do what you love to do, not necessarily what you THINK people want. Secondly, think about the cost of your artwork. We decided right away that we wanted our artwork to be relatively cheap. We could go out there and sell originals for $600, or $1000, but that leaves only a slim amount of people out there who will buy the artwork. Instead, we make cards $5 and prints for $15–20 so everyone can buy one. Put it into a frame and it looks professional. Not everyone is rich, but everyone should be able to buy a piece of artwork for themselves or as a gift, and you’d never know it was only $20 when it’s framed and hanged.

How do you handle disagreements while you're working?
We don’t really disagree too much. When and if we do, we will definitely always discuss both viewpoints and usually figure out some compromise, or we will try out both ideas and see which works, OR we will go back to the core of why we started the business and see which idea coincides with it better.

What does independence mean to you?
As it relates to creativity, making, working.
Independence to us means doing our own thing and not being worried what people will think of it. Feeling like we have a freedom of expression without being judged. Some artists get caught up in wanting their artwork to look specific or like someone else’s and it’s great to have influences but you have to let your own voice be heard (or in our case, shown) when you create.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?
We grow every day—our minds are constantly expanding because we have so much to learn. Growth to us is trying something new every day and evolving. The way we think now is not the same as it was a year ago, or even last week. We remind ourselves to always be open to new ideas even if we don’t think we like them at first.

How do you get the word out about you and Artery Ink’s work? 
How do you attract customers?
We do a ton of shows, and whenever we go out, we always talk about our business and connect with people everywhere we go. Word-of-mouth is the biggest help, and keeping your product consistent yet fresh keeps people intrigued and coming back!

If a person approached you and said, “I want to draw 
and sell my drawings,” what’s your response?
We would say, “Awesome! Go for it—believe in yourself, don’t wait, and the time to do it is now.” We are lucky that working in the service industry has given us a lot of practice in talking to people and engaging with them, so when we do events it comes very naturally to us. If you are an artist maybe on the shy side, practice makes perfect so get out there, SMILE, say “Hello”, and talk to everyone that stops by!

How did you discover and arrive at the name for your business?
We originally wanted to go with PUMP because the heart is a pump and we thought “get pumped” was a cool thing to say in regards to getting excited about taking care of your body. When we thought about it more, we realized we also wanted it to relate to art as well—so we started thinking about words with “art” in them, ARTery was perfect! We also added the INK at the end because all of our work is ink-based, whether that be pen and ink or printer-ink, or screen-printing ink, it’s all ink!

How does the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contribute 
to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/
Both of us grew up in big cities in Mexico and Chicago, so coming to Milwaukee for both of us was a downsize. We realized that it was a great advantage to us, because there is less competition, and it’s easier and cheaper to start up something. Milwaukee has changed so much since the time we have moved here, and now the art scene is growing rapidly. We have SO SO SO many AMAZING local craft fairs, farmers markets and festivals every single weekend. There are new all-local shops opening up every month, and Milwaukee has the best city pride around. We wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else to start up our business. We do want to travel the world and bring our artwork to as many places as possible, but Milwaukee will always be our home and we love it here, and we love all of the people who have supported us and helped us grow. We couldn’t have done it in any other city. The opportunities for artists and small businesses in Milwaukee are outstanding and continue to grow every single day.

Do you attend the Milwaukee chapter gatherings 
of CreativeMornings?
We currently do not attend, but have heard a lot about them and have a friend who partakes in some meetings. It’s on our list, but we have been caught in a whirlwind these past two years and are just catching up right now!

• • •

All images courtesy of Artery Ink.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

Please consider supporting Design Feast
If you liked this lovingly-made interview, show your appreciation by helping to support my labor of love—Design Feast, which proudly includes this blog. Learn more.