More than a decade ago, Carl Christensen, then an advertising director and graphic designer, felt an instinctive pull to leave behind his corporate lifestyle and pursue his own craft. He shot some landscape photos and headed to a flea market with his wife, Ina. After selling a few hundred photos, Ina said, “That’s where your heart is.” Carl took a leap of faith, opening his own gallery, Integrity Studio, in New Hope, PA. Integrity Studio was recently featured in Entrepreneur magazine as a small business that’s winning on Pinterest, and a 2013 calendar featuring Carl’s images compiled by Orange Circle Design, one of the world’s largest calendar producers, will be available in Target stores nationwide.
Interview With Artist Carl Christensen
Question: You started your business by opening your gallery in New Hope, but you’ve also taken advantage of online opportunities. Talk about the role that both the physical presence and online presence have in your business.
The online presence is a way for me to tier my products. One thing I learned from my corporate days working for Fortune 500 companies is that no matter what you’re selling, whether it’s an automobile or financial service, you tier your products. I knew that was important, but it was really difficult to do within the gallery.
My bread and butter within the gallery are very expensive murals and large handcrafted frames, so within the same gallery, how do I sell a $25 piece next to one of these items? We couldn’t figure out a way to do that, so we moved everything online, including all the lower end products. That’s how we discovered Etsy, which was the perfect venue for that, and that’s how we ended up promoting our Etsy store on Pinterest.
Having said all that, for right now, my online business will be a sidebar. I sold $4,000-worth of work today out of my gallery. The day I do that online, I’m going to sing the Hallelujah Chorus.
Question: How are you using Pinterest?
Pinterest is a vehicle that Etsy quickly adopted, and we saw this as a great visual way for us to try out our work, being able to monitor the number of hits that we were receiving, and determine whether or not a piece was worthy to put in the window at the gallery. We often base that on how well-received an item was on Pinterest.
One of my tactics is to find the most interesting and odd thing out there in the art world. I’ll pin it, and immediately after that, I’ll pin a piece of my work because the two sit right up there fresh on the pin board next to each other. Anecdotally, I can tell it works based on the referral traffic and analytics.
Pinterest is a way for me to let people know that there’s more to me than just my personal photography. This is a visual thinker, this is a person who appreciates good design and fine furniture, and this is a person who has a sense of humor. I have a whole humor section. I have a Pinterest board called “Wish You Were Beer.” You can understand where my head is at when you see the things I pin there – much to my wife’s chagrin. It’s a way for people to understand who I am without a bunch of words. When you go on my Pinterest page, you’ll get a feeling. You’ll get an overall sense of what I like based on the things that I’ve pinned.
Subversively, I’m selling you my products. I’m trying to play within Pinterest’s rules of not letting it be an overtly marketing site, but it is. I’m marketing myself and my work, but I’m not punching you in the face with it.
Question: How has Pinterest impacted your business?
Pre-Pinterest, two-and-a-half years ago, Google was the number one way people would find me, and number two would be Etsy. Now, Etsy is number one, Pinterest is number two, and Google is number three. And Pinterest is responsible for a big part of our Etsy traffic. It’s huge as far as actual eyeballs.
I like the fact that if I pin something up there, those pins link directly back to a buying opportunity. It’s a call-to-action that goes directly to an opportunity to buy. We felt the impact more before everybody discovered Pinterest. We feel it a little bit less now but the numbers are still there. We’re obviously another fish in a much bigger ocean now.
Question: Three creative passions drive your business – photography, original paintings and handcrafted artisan frames – three passions that require major time commitments. How do you balance everything with actually running your business?
It really comes down to which project will bring the most income to my family. I know that seems boring and business-like for an artist, but it’s the truth. I don’t cut my own mat board. I don’t cut my own glass. The reason why is each of those is a $1 or $2 item.
I outsource the least expensive things and put my energy and effort into the things that make the most money – building a body of work, producing that work, scouting new areas, making the frames. The framing industry is ridiculously expensive. It might take me six hours to make a 30 x 40 furniture-grade frame, but I can sell that frame for $1000.
As far as creating, whether it’s a new painting or a new photograph, the truth is I don’t find time to shoot or create. The time finds me. I have four children in the house under the age of 9. My wife runs an online business. I run my online business and a brick-and-mortar gallery. If I have a two-hour window in the middle of the day, I can’t just decide it’s time to shoot and pick up my camera. The atmosphere may not be right, my mood may not be right and the lighting certainly isn’t going to be right. You’re really sort of stuck.
If I’m having dinner with my family and I look out the window and see the most beautiful golden light I’ve ever seen, and I know how a certain tree on the top of the hill 15 miles away is going to look, I have to go. It’s time to shoot. As far as painting, if I’m in a bad mood, I don’t pick up a brush. People come into the gallery and say that every piece makes them happy. I never shoot or paint when I’m not happy because I don’t want that to come through in the work.
All of these things filter out a lot of the opportunities to shoot and paint. Thankfully, I have a large body of work. If I create one or two things over the next 60 days that I’m truly proud of, that would be amazing.
Question: On your website, you say, “Twenty years from now, we want a viable legacy we can hand over to our children.” What kind of legacy?
Both of my parents were orphans. I have no grandparents. My wife comes from the former East Germany and has very little family. Anything we can give to our four children – because we had nothing given to us – is our legacy, and we want it to be something they can be proud of. We’re all about the future and the next generation.
We would like very much to be able to give our children the opportunity, if they should desire, to take over where we left off. We own our gallery and try to build Integrity Studio on a brand of integrity. If they want to develop their own line of anything, they could put it up on a wall and sell their work.
The other day, my four-year-old said, “Daddy, can I make a painting to sell at your gallery?” Of course she can. It’s sitting in the window with a $10 price tag on it. I want them to go to college and get a degree, but I don’t want them to think that’s their only choice if they want to learn to do something with their own hands. I’m very passionate about that.