Chrissy Poitras and Kyle Topping are the founders of Spark Box Studio, where we were lucky enough to spend a week writing, conducting interviews, and printing a book! They spoke to us about their art school experiences, how they transitioned into the business they run now, and the importance of creating a balanced art practice.
Can you tell us about your art school experience at Queen's University? What is the program like?
KT: I have a really big fondness for Queen's and whenever we go back it’s very nostalgic. I would like to teach there. The Queen's art program is set up differently than most schools, in modules. In many other institutions, from what we’ve been told, you pick a stream. For example, you can take painting 101, 102, 202, etc. I think Guelph is similar? Queen's is also a much smaller program than most I've heard about. There are only around 30 people admitted each year, and in your first year you go through four different disciplines. So, the whole group of 30 students do the same modules through first and second year. Then, come third year, you get to pick two focuses, maybe painting and printmaking. Half of the year you spend doing one, the other half you spend doing the other. Then in your fourth year you write a proposal, you're given a studio space, and you no longer have that daily studio practice with an instructor. You go make work and they meet with you every week, or every other week, to check in. Generally you just pick one focus in your fourth year, but some people choose an interdisciplinary practice. I took printmaking, Chrissy, you took painting.
CP: Yeah, but I also did some printmaking as well because I liked being in the print shop.
KT: The program size was a really nice thing about Queen’s. Those 30 students, you know that 28 girls and 2 guys, that you started the program with, was down to an even smaller number by the time you graduated. Also, you ended up building really personal relationships with your professors because of those small class sizes.
CP: And with each other as well.
KT: I know that at larger universities, like in Toronto, you might teach 200 students. I'd like to think that the really personal experience we had at Queen's set us up for a lot of the successes we've had in our business.
CP: You're so tight with your group and you spend an enormous amount of time in the space. You're given dedicated studio space in each one of those modules, so from the very first day you step into your classroom, it's your studio space, all of your stuff can be set up there, you can leave it there permanently. You end up creating this little environment that’s yours and you just work all the time. There was just this devotedness to the studio that I loved so much. Most people lived either right on campus or close by, so everyone was always in the studio and always working. Since doing some work at OCAD, which is a school that doesn't have a residence and some students are living outside the city with family because it’s cost effective, we noticed they don't have any studio space until their fourth year. They end up taking everything they're making and working on it at home. Whereas at Queen's we were all together in the studio space constantly, discussing our work and being like "really, that colour?" From the first day you start you're together in this room with these people for four years. There's something really special about that and it was taken very seriously. I remember people in fourth year getting into serious fights about who works harder. It was competitive, but in a way that was constantly pushing you to do better, be stronger, work harder. It was intense.
KT: Also, a part of the way Queen's is set up is they required you to take at least one credit of art history every single year. I think I graduated with 14 credits worth of art history, enough to quantify another major. You're really pushed into this strong art history world, and Queen's has a very strong art history department. By the time you got into 3rd and 4th year you started getting into some really wicked seminar classes so all of your work started becoming more informed by everything you were reading.
CP: I think, all and all, we really love it. And we go back a lot! We just curated a show last summer with the work of two of our professors that is being reinstalled in Peterborough at Artspace. We hang out with them a lot, Kyle just wrote an application to be in a show of another former professor of ours.
KT: That’s also because they live in this area. Otis Tamasauskas, our masterprinter at Queen's, stops in and visits us. He’ll just get out of his car and ask "makin any work?” That small class and those tight relationships mean that we'll be friends with Otis forever.
What was the transition out of school like for the two of you?
CP: Well, I think it was a little different for each of us because I graduated a year before Kyle. I had been approached to work at Oeno Gallery while I was still in school, but I had to wait until after I graduated because I didn't have the time. When I left Queens, I didn’t go to my convocation or end of year show. I was ready to leave and be finished with school. I feel like that’s my personality, this project is done let's dive into the next.
KT: You actually left and went on a three month road trip across the United States.
CP: Yes! When I got back I immediately started working at Oeno Gallery. Working in a commercial gallery was shift from what I was used to in university. The client base was different than the artist-run spaces or student spaces I was used. I was very lucky to have a job in the arts right out of undergrad and I was fortunate to get a chance to dive into a job I wasn't necessarily familiar with. I was so focused on navigating this very different environment I didn't think too much about not being in school.
KT: You were also trying to paint in our small, dark, and dingy basement, which had no windows and was full of spiders, while keeping up this gallery job. In my last year, around the end of November, I sat down with Otis and I changed my fourth year proposal to include this business plan. That’s when we started thinking about Spark Box and realized if we wanted to continue making work, we needed a printing press. I also realized that I hated painting.
CP: (laughs) Yeah you weren't really much of a painter!
KT: I hated it. So I knew I needed a press in order to be able to work after school. That meant I would have to go somewhere where those things exist, such as Open Studio in Toronto…. and that’s basically it in Ontario. I didn't want to live in Toronto, I don't think Chrissy did either.
CP: I also really didn't want to work in a restaurant again. I saw that as my fate. I thought, if I leave this gallery job I am going to be a waitress for an undetermined length of time.
KT: So even when I was in my last year we were starting to plan for when I left. We had put together a massive grant and applied for it that December, it was 2008. We didn't hear anything back until April, but we still continued to move forward with the project under the assumption that if we didn't get a grant we would do plan A and if we got the grant we would do plan B. That transition from school to the next thing was very different for Chrissy and I than it is for most people because we knew when I graduated we were doing this project together.
CP: I was kind of in this limbo space while he was still in school. I still felt like I was participating in that Queen’s community since we still lived in Kingston, it kind of felt like an extension of school.
KT: When I changed my proposal to include starting Spark Box, my thesis was half practical work and half giant excel budgets and grant projects. Most of my meetings with Otis and the faculty student advisory were just talking about running a print shop. I would ask them about processes, what our options were, and just picking their brains. Then I graduated, we left Kingston, and moved into Chrissy's sister's house who had just had a baby two days before.
CP: Yeah never do that. (laughs)
KT: And we had just learnt we had been given this grant. I had graduated in early April, and it was like here's some money, you need to be up and running with people in your space by June. We had nothing, no home, no studio, no equipment, we didn't even have a name.
CP: And I was still working full time at the gallery and Kyle got a farm job.
KT: I worked on an organic farm for a month and a half. I am not a farmer (laughs). We needed money coming in. It was extremely intense. To get up and running I think we looked at every single property in this entire county.
CP: The realtors we worked with were so beautiful and so kind to us and they really wanted the project to go, but we had to rent because of the grant (you can't use grant funds for capital gain). So convincing a homeowner to rent to two 20 somethings who then wanted to rent to a bunch of other young artists was really difficult.
KT: We got to the point where we had worked with every realtor. Also, when we left university we had a steering committee that included someone from the Community Futures Development Corporation, someone from the Economic Development Office, a graphic designer, and a couple of figureheads. We would meet with them every single week and there was this massive shift from talk about a print shop and talk about art to talk about business, like "where is your cash flow projection?" What is a cash flow projection?! I kid you not, when we went into the first meeting with those guys we literally brought sketchbooks and said this is what we want to do! They couldn't believe we brought a sketchbook to a business meeting. It was a really interesting transition from arts speak to business speak and for them to go from business speak to arts speak. It was a marriage of those languages. We would teach them about what we meant by residency, and they'd think “oh it's like a bed and breakfast?”
CP: Even to this day a major part of our business is not about it being a business at all, it's about it being a hub and a resource.
KT: We're in the business of resources. We're not in the business of making money.
CP: We need enough to keep the lights on, the heat on, the roof over our head, and try to and make sure ceilings don't fall down on people, we do what we can.
KT: But it's really about providing resources, chances, and opportunities, especially for career growth.
CP: Every time we would make these cash flow projections and budgets we were always trying to just make ends meet so that everything could be as affordable as possible and we could give as much as possible for free, because that’s what we wanted to do. This advisory board would tell us it wasn't sustainable, but we'd say yes it is! We're eating, we live in the house with everyone so as long as the rent or the mortgage is getting paid we're good. They needed our chart to do this (motions upwards) not this (motions a flat line).
KT: It still kind of just does this (motions a flat line) (laughs).
CP: I think that’s just kind of been our MO from the start.
KT: It was absolutely terrifying starting it.
CP: It was, but going back to your actual question, leaving school sort of didn't matter because we just dove right in.
KT: Yeah, we dove right into something that was immediately addressing a lot of the concerns people have when leaving school. Concern number one, I don't have space. Well, we're making a studio! Concern number two, I don’t have equipment. Well, we're purchasing the equipment! Concern number three, I don't have a community of like-minded people to talk about art with because I'm painting in my basement. Well, we have a residency so we're bringing people to us! These concerns and problems people have when leaving school weren't an issue for us because we just attacked them head on.
CP: We did, and I think that’s been my personality ever since I've been a kid. Once, I wanted a dance hall for 13 year olds, I grew up in Prince Edward County and I felt bored. So I convinced a local bar to let me organize a kids' night on Thursday evenings. I found a truck driver to be my bouncer and had a friend to help me create marketing material that I then flyered the entire town with. For 3 weeks I ran a hoppin' kid only dance night with a DJ and fake drinks. This was until one kid ruined it by throwing rocks at boats and I got in trouble, so they shut it down, but the point is I ran it. I've always kind of been like that. I think you have to be a little bit of a fearless person to decide to run anything, let alone an art business.
KT: Well, it's always been terrifying for us. Chrissy still worked Oeno Gallery for the first two years that we ran Spark Box, which meant I was the only one who was full time. Then, after she left Oeno because Spark Box needed two full-time employees, there was a brief six month period where we both were 100% employed by Spark Box. That was short-lived as we quickly started teaching at Loyalist College, where we stayed for four years. It's been almost two years since we left those positions. So now, and for the past year and a half, we aren't supplied by any grants, we don't have external funding somewhere else, we aren't employed elsewhere, we are both 100% Spark Box. It's been a hard thing for us to be all in, we were a little bit cautious. It’s really terrifying to start a business venture in the arts, especially arts administration, you're constantly hoping “I'm going to make a living at this.”
Now that you have this full time job in the arts, how is your art practice affected and how do you balance those things?
KT: It's a pretty common question we have, and it’s a really important one because a lot of people try to figure this out! I’m sure you two are going to try to figure this out, how to balance an art practice and how to balance a business. I think it was four years in, it was my second year of teaching at Loyalist College, and I was just depressed.
CP: We had a friend tell us that Spark Box was our art practice! We hadn't thought of it like that before.
KT: There was a good chunk of time trying to reconcile the problem of not making as much work as I wanted. I made very little in those years, it needed a mental shift. When I started thinking of Spark Box as my practice, it made everything so much better. What we do with this business is such a big part of our practice. I really wish I could be a full time artist, but this is what we've chosen to do. And I don't feel bad about that now. I know this eats up a ton of time and that’s fine by me.
CP: I think it kind of feeds into what we do. In your fourth year at Queen’s you have a show in the student gallery, where you propose a show with another student. I did a show with my friend Klaudio, and it was really a collaborative piece. We created these giant collections of our work on the wall, like a painting collage. It was so important to Klaudio and I that this show about us as a unit and how our work spoke to one another. And then leaving school and starting Spark Box, I think for a little bit I didn't really see how we were being very collaborative. We have artists come into our home and we eat together, and share, and talk about their work primarily. It’s wonderful but there were times where it felt like a lot of time offering yourself to others making it difficult to focus on your own projects. To find the energy you need to focus on your own work. But I think that in the last little while, especially since leaving Loyalist and having more time to devote to what we want to do, a lot of my projects have become very collaborative. I've been working with people that have stayed here and done community projects with other galleries in the area. Now, I can see the parallels between Spark Box and my own practice through these different cooperative art projects. I think that if I had just left school, stayed in the gallery system, and worked on paintings I probably would have had a much more traditional and insular painting practice. I'd work privately and have an exhibit, work privately and have an exhibit, over and over. So I think this business has definitely affected my personal practice, which I love so much.
KT: For the first three years of the business we said yes to a lot of things, a lot of things that were free, which we sometimes hated ourselves for later. But at the same time, we're also thankful because we got to do all these wonderful things. Over the years we've taken on crazy projects, like the magazine we ran for a year and a half that we published quarterly. That was year two and three of Spark Box.
CP: But we kept bringing on projects that would eat up crazy amounts of time. It's hard to see the value of your own practice when you aren't seeing paychecks coming in from all that work. And it costs a lot to make work.
KT: The first two years was a lot of leg work. It was a lot of time going into other things to make a little bit of money so we could keep sustaining Spark Box and keep sustaining ourselves. When we left Loyalist I think we both agreed that we were ready to leave and put our practices forward. I think that in the past two or three years that transition into having more faith in our ability to make artwork has been huge for us. While doing accounting and inventory, it's really nice to see numbers line up with the amount of effort you're putting in. As we continue along, I'm personally putting more time into making art because I can see it as an actual revenue stream. Prior to this I don't think I ever really saw it as a legitimate revenue stream. Now, there's no reason why I can't make a living at it, I just have to be smart about it.
CP: It may seem so obvious when you talk about it, but with time comes confidence and a stronger ability to achieve your goals! I mean, there is such a clear and direct correlation, and I think every project that worked and every project that failed was just something that helped us develop and grow, it was all necessary. As shit as some of it was, we needed all those stepping stones to get to where we are now. Even just building the confidence to say no. Leaving a teaching position was a really hard thing. We weren't enjoying our time there anymore by the end. But, there was this gratification in being able to tell people "I'm a teacher" and them just getting it, not needing me to explain more. There was a safety in it, and even though the paychecks were small, they were consistent. That kind of security was hard to say goodbye to. And people think you're a lunatic when you do! When you're like "I'm going to quit this real job to go out on my own and be a painter" people think what in the world are you doing! When we left teaching, Spark Box had been running for five and a half years, and people were still asking if we were going to be okay. I mean our business was running! I was sitting with my mom and sort of at the end of my ropes with trying to maintain essentially two full-time jobs and she just told me "you know, you're in your 30's now, and I'm really worried that one day you're going to wake up and be 50 and say you never tried." And I think just having somebody in your corner, telling you “you can do it! I believe in you,” makes a big difference. It allows you to think “I can make this leap.” We've had cheerleaders in our corner constantly which is huge. Full time Spark Box! It's still crazy.
What is it like having people in your house all the time?
KT: It’s kind of weird, kind of good.
CP: I'm very social so I love it.
KT: I'm a little bit more introverted and I'm fine with that. I think for the first little while it was quite weird but it is normal now.
CP: It's definitely not for everybody.
KT: There are definitely certain things that are strange about it, like the realization that you're a professional house mate. My job is a professional roommate.
CP: I would be lying if I said it is always fun. Everyone is always curious about the realities of this job. I’ll be honest most of it are amazing. We meet incredible people, talented artists, and have made lifelong friends. But there are parts of the job that are stressful, tough, and downright unpleasant (plumbing). It may seem glamorous to live with artists but a lot of my time is spent pulling hair out of the drain, being down in the dirt basement figuring out what someone put down the sink, having to manage parts of the house that are falling down. We have to wear all the hats because it’s not a job that brings in a load of cash. So today we're the taxi driver, tomorrow we're the chef, the next day we're the housekeeper. And so trying to manage that and then never having the house to yourself can be difficult. I have to think okay, I'm awake, and I want to leave my room so then I’m at work and I have to be prepared for the fact that someone might say "the internet is kind of slow," "are you going to town today?" or "I need help in the print shop with something" And it’s never the person saying I need you to do that right now, they're just thinking I'm seeing you, and I don't know when I'm seeing you again today, so I need to bring it up this second. So I understand, but that’s something that you have to grow used to.
KT: You're always on. Always. You don't have regular business hours. The relationship between the client and us as business owners can get really blurred. We've gotten better at this over the years, but in the end you do sometimes put yourself out in order to help the resident/workshop participant/etc. accomplish their goals. It’s part of the job.
EP: To them it’s a week, but to you it's your life all the time.
CP: I think we are becoming better at introducing boundaries and seeing areas that could turn into more work than we have time to give. I love all the time we get to spend with the residents, having movie nights and hanging out. I think that is so special to what we do.
KT: Some people have also commented that it is because of this space-sharing relationship we have with the residents that makes Spark Box what it is! We've often talked about what it would be like to get a second house, build a house in the back yard that would be our space, this space the residents', or vice versa. But for a lot of people, they say the experience is us being there.
CP: It’s interesting. Its definitely something we talk about and think about a lot.
KT: We have people here from January up until November. For the most part, it's people staying with us for a week or two, maybe a month or two if they are international, and so you become great friends with the people that stay for a long time.
CP: And I go through epic sadness when people leave, I'm a disaster. It's like camp!
KT: Come September, you're thinking oh my god, we've been at it for seven months. It's 3 new people, 3 new people, 3 new people, and they expect you to totally energized. They're excited, which is good, they should be excited! But it can be tiring. Over the course of a year, Chrissy and I will have the house to ourselves half a dozen times. And that will be a Sunday, when everyone just left, to a Monday morning when we clean the whole house, what is that, 10 hours?
How did you come up with the name Spark Box?
KT: We were originally going to be called Paper Box.
CP: We thought that would be really cute!
KT: However, there is a company in Hamilton that is called Paper Box Studio.
CP: We had planned everything, we had logo design, colours, everything set up for the name Paper Box. And then the morning before the meeting where we were pitching the whole concept to the board helping us get the big grant, we realized that we couldn't be Paper Box anymore.
KT: We power drank coffee and had a half hour, maybe an hour at most, to come up with something new. We thought well everything is designed around Paper Box Studio so let’s switch paper for whatever box. Black box, red box, purple box. Okay, what if we switched box, what if it's paper ….. Nope doesn't work. We couldn't come up with anything. I don't know what the game is where you switch around words, but we just switched out the words until we came across Spark Box and we just said okay let's do that.
CP: It actually worked really well, we loved it.
How did you decide on your different roles within the business? Did it come naturally?
KT: What works for us is how we have very different skill sets, temperaments, and personalities. I don't think either of us could do Spark Box alone, unless it made tons of money and then we could hire someone to do the other parts. But it's hard to find someone to work for free and do all the things that need to be done for this project.
CP: Especially to find someone with as much love, passion, and willingness to sacrifice their own time.
KT: We are fortunate to have complimentary skill sets, we're different people with different interests. Like if you look at Chrissy's paintings, she's all abstract, and if you look at mine, rulers! Very, very different personalities. It just happens that between the two of us we cover a lot of bases. Like being able to renovate things, I have a skill set there.
CP: But we both have a willingness to be a supporting role. If he's a clear strong leader of a particular project, I'll be the sidekick, holding things and passing stuff or just being there and cheering him on! Which I think you need. It's good that we're not constantly competing to be the star.
KT: Chrissy takes on a lot more of those administrative roles. I like to take on one task at a time, and it's okay if it's tedious. For example, Chrissy has no patience when it comes to the back end of website coding, whereas I will sit there for hours and hours and change four lines of code and be like great, that was my Friday.
CP: I think also, I'm just naturally better at multitasking.
CP: So knowing what is going on with everyone in the house, having a sense of what they're feeling, if everyone is jiving, organizing their time, and making sure they're on track with their projects, as well as answering e-mails, scheduling things, and making notes for what's next. And then on top of that making sure we're still social! I can be co-organizing all of that in my brain while doing one task. Whereas the things that need a lot of patience or that are just going to suck a shit ton of time, those are Kyle projects because he can stay focused on one task for like a month, whereas I would start to get heavy anxiety if I was stuck to one job.
KT: And that often happens, like taking care of inventory. That was a whole week of counting every piece of artwork we have in the entire house and matching it up to all of those things that have sold between 2015, 2016, and 2017, and then making a crazy excel document to fit it all in that calculates prices. I love that, I can deal with that, Chrissy could never afford the time. She would kill people.
CP: I mean I'm not a murderer, can we just get that on the record (laughs).
KT: It would drive you insane, you would be so unhappy if you were forced to focus on one task for like a week.
CP: Yeah and I think a huge priority for me is making connections with who is here. I have to make that a part of what is going on. I actively try to be working where the residents are working. If everyone is working in their studio and I spend most of my time upstairs and the whole week plays out like that I get really upset. So I set a timer, okay you're going to do this for an hour, then you're going to go downstairs and be social for an hour, then you're going to go back upstairs for an hour, then you're going to go back downstairs for an hour. So I chop my day up dramatically.
KT: Not me! For example, we started with accounting, very early in this morning, I've been just sitting on Google Spreadsheets all day trying to manage our accounts. But we don't cover all the skills we need between the two of us, I'm not a very good plumber.
CP: I'm getting pretty good. I almost got hired by our actual plumber because he was so proud of me.
KT: Yeah usually when there is a plumbing problem I go to a very dark place.
CP: And I just go do it.
KT: There's lots of things to do but there's only so much money, which is always the biggest hurdle with us.
If you could go back to the beginning, would there be any advice you'd give yourselves?
KT: I mean there's a lot of things you encounter in life that are learning mistakes. You are going to do a lot of things, and a lot of things might fail. But you need to give yourself the chance to fail, because if you don't give yourself the opportunity to have success or failure you never try and you never grow. There have been a lot of failures along the way.
CP: I don't think I would change any of them. They were all really necessary and ultimately positive.
KT: Some of them quite minor and some of them quite major. It’s all stuff you have to learn along the way. Would I change anything? Not really. Advice for myself? Be okay with Spark Box sooner in life, be happier a few years earlier.
CP: No, I don't think I'd go back and do anything different and I don't think giving younger me a hot tip would have really ultimately done much to change things. I think everything we jumped into, everything we said yes to, we were fully conscious of what we were doing and I think they were all good things to do.
KT: There is no shame, I have no shame about any of the things that we did.
CP: I'm even proud of the things that didn't work out.
KT: Yeah. The whole journey has been kind of a mystery. If you had asked me in university what I was going to do, I don't know, I was going to be a painter! The journey is half the fun.
EP: That makes us feel better, that it's okay to be foggy about the future.
KT: Oh yeah, I'm still foggy!
CP: I plan for 6 months, hope for the best.
KT: There's a short term plan, there's a five year plan.
CP: I have things I try to put out in the world, in the hopes that it will happen, like tiny hobby houses, a swimming pond, those are my immediate. But I'm not bound to any of them.
KT: It does work!
We're so thankful for their wonderful advice and the incredible business they created together! Not only is their residency an invaluable opportunity and resource for artists, their website is full of helpful tips about everything from starting a business to applying to art school! To book a residency at Spark Box Studio or apply to one of their residency awards visit www.sparkboxstudio.com