From the outside, the North Coast Seed Building just looks like an antiquated four-story brick …
Ryan and Lucy Berkley are Portland’s dynamic entrepreneur team, gaining notoriety on Etsy where they sell anthropomorphic animal portraits. Inspired by their love for animals, they have created adorable portraits that are sure to remind you of to at least one person you may know. There is little in the small business world they haven’t overcome, whether it’s starting and sustaining a family or maintaining a business where they draw, scan, clean up, print, cut, package and ship every one of their products all from one room in their house. (Find their work here.)
Eleven: How did you meet your wife and business partner, Lucy?
I met her back in the late 1990s when I lived in Eugene and I worked at the University of Oregon bookstore in the art supply department. We both worked in the art and school supply section, since we are both very interested in art. She was a photography major and I was working two jobs at the time, at the bookstore and at Dominos. Lucy is a little taller than me and I remember saying, “This girl is really cool and tall and intimidating,” because she only wore black. I actually asked her friend out first but she was really not in my league. Hanging out with Lucy, it turned out we had a lot more in common. We discovered that we liked the same music, and we started dating and eventually moved in together. After she graduated, we realized there is really nothing going on in Eugene once you graduate so we decided to move to the big city where her parents live. We moved to Portland in about 2000.
Eleven: How did your idea of making the prints and eventually business involving these prints come about?
It was a weird idea and accident that kind of became our lives. The animal portrait series started when we got invited to the very first Crafty Wonderland show, when it was still really small and in the basement of the Doug Fir. I remember sketching in bed and just doodled like a koala bear with lamb chop sideburns and like an old western outfit. I thought that was kind of funny and then I decided that maybe I could just use that kind of theme for the show. I thought of the style as a type of ancestor theme, but with animal ancestors. We went to another Crafty Wonderland show further down the road and a show in Seattle and we sold some. Eventually Lucy’s dad ended up giving us a loan for an archival printer, and we were able to get started making prints.
In November 2007 we started our Etsy shop with our new printer and we posted some of those new prints. One day, I think closer to Christmas, we woke up to a bunch of sales, like over a hundred. We were wondering what was going on and discovered that Etsy featured us and had a little blurb to look out for the “up and coming” work of the Berkleys. From there we had that little snowball that led to us getting a lot more sales and recognition, we got invited to big shows, renegade craft shows, and we traveled to different cities in the US as far out as Brooklyn. We also started to realize that since the pieces looked good together, people would often buy more than one. In 2011, I quit my full time job at Reed College because the business was doing so well. After we had a couple kids and it was too difficult to take them to the studio space everyday so we finally were able to buy a bigger house out in Southwest where we could raise a family and run our business.
Eleven: Why did you guys choose these animal type portrait themes?
I have always been a huge animal person, my mom was very into pets and animals and that really rubbed off on me. My wife and I are both vegan; she has [been] for a long time and I [have] since 2004, and I think that has some say in why I draw animals. Sometimes people will comment about how different portraits remind them of different people and they know just who to buy each picture for. The art work appeals to all age groups and generations, which was unintentional.
Eleven: How hard was the business aspect to adopt?
This business really caught fire without us ever really realizing it would. My wife runs the business side of it, but neither of us knew anything about that side of doing this project. Lucy had to learn all of that business side, from taxes to customer services. She was actually fortuitously laid off just around the time that our work really took off so she was then able to focus her energy on making our business work. I make a lot of the artwork and Lucy is behind a lot of the creative ideas and she writes the animal bios for each one. She definitely has to sacrifice creative time to make the business side happen, whether responding to emails, dealing with wholesales, or any of the other business stuff that runs along with running our shop.
Eleven: How does the fact that you are largely self-taught influence your art or the type of work that you do?
I really wish that I did have some formal training and sometimes feel there is a lot I missed out on when it comes to concepts such as color theory. My work looks a lot like paintings, but they are actually done with markers and colored pencils. Still, I feel like if I learned to paint it would give my art a different feeling, maybe make it more lively, so I would love to learn to do that one day. If I had the opportunity to take some classes I definitely would.
Eleven: What is the most challenging aspect of having your home, family and work space all in one spot?
It’s definitely finding the time to work. I remember, before we had kids and it was just Lucy and I, business was at its peak and we would be able to just work all day. We would make our own schedules, we could pick the days, we could work late at night or randomly throughout the day but now with the kids, we are a little more at their mercy. We take advantage of nap time as much as possible, when they go to sleep from 8 p.m. to midnight is our biggest window. I am definitely not complaining though, because we get to have our kids with us all day and we have the leisure to work and take a break and play with your kids, which is great.
Eleven: You’ve mentioned before how one aspect you have to deal with is rip-off artists. What’s the craziest experience you’ve had dealing with that?
A friend of mine who was living in Singapore was walking down the street and saw someone wearing a shirt with my drawing. Then a month ago one of our best friends, Kathy, was in London and at a market and there was a girl who had a booth entirely made up of my stuff! She was like, “That’s my friends stuff! Where did you get it?” and the lady didn’t know, she just said she was selling it for someone else. We are lucky we have a large international fan base out there that alerts us of this stuff. What they do is they wholesale it out to people and then we see it pop up on Etsy, like earrings with my cats on them. These are usually U.S. sellers and they don’t even know what they are doing and think they are just getting the products from a single person, so we have to write them and let them know that it is our stuff.
Eleven: Are there any exciting highlights from your work at Etsy?
Last year, Etsy invited 14 sellers to New York because Etsy was going public, to stock holders through the NASDAQ. I was one of the shops that they invited out to ring a bell and make it official, and we were televised on CNN. Etsy bought all the people invited vintage bells from their shops on Etsy and we all got our own one to ring, which we got to keep. Our bell was a really cool one with Pegasus on it. It was a big deal for the company and I was very proud to be one of the people that they asked out of everybody else and I remember drinking champagne in the morning on an empty stomach. Afterwards, they arranged a small marketplace in Times Square where they set it up for each of us to have our own booths with our stuff displayed, and we could sell prints to passersby. It was a really fun trip. I don’t know where we would be without Etsy, I just wasn’t ever ambitious enough to hone in on my art when I was younger. When I met Lucy though, she kind of paved the way for me. She was ambitious, and really encouraged me to make something with my art.»
– Lucia Ondruskova