Leanne Shea Rhem and Zac Kenny are Gold and Ginger, a collaborative art and design studio based in Picton. We’re thinking Leanne must be the Gold, because Zac opened our conversation with “Hi, I’m the Ginger!”
Leanne studied textile design, travelled the world learning traditional textile techniques such as in Paris and India. Zac is a painter, graphic designer and illustrator who has worked for McGill University Health Centre, remotely, for three years. When they were looking to escape the high cost of living in Toronto to enable them to expand Leanne’s fledgling business, Prince Edward County was top of the list of where to look. In fact they were in a bit of a race with Leanne’s parents to be the first to find a house in The County.
“I grew up coming to The County while visiting family that live north of Napanee but lived in Toronto until I moved to the County. Zac lived in Kingston and Amherstview so The County was always on our radar,” said Leanne. After paying $2,000 a month in Toronto for accommodation and separate studio space, they now pay a quarter of that for the mortgage on their house on a quiet street in Picton – with plenty of studio space. “The move has really freed Leanne up to do what she really wants to do,” says Zac.
You may have seen Leanne and Zac in their pop-up shop in House of Falconer, currently under dramatic renovation, or on the PEC Studio Tour, or the Busy Hands holiday craft show – or other craft shows around Ontario. If a delightful bee patterned pillow on ads for the One of a Kind spring show caught your eye – that was theirs.
“Our work is inspired by bright colours and patterns, our travels, but mostly local flora and fauna,” said Leanne. “Textile design is a big component right now. We make original watercolour and pen and ink illustrations and I load them into the computer to create patterns and then we have the fabric digitally printed. We do block printing by hand, too, using blocks that we carve ourselves and also some that we had carved in India.”
With his flexible, remote working arrangement with the MUHC, Zac accompanied Leanne on her travels, proving he could work from anywhere, “as long as there is WiFi and somewhere to plug in my computer.” Of course India was a bit of a challenge with a 12 hour time difference. “I ended up doing conference calls at midnight,” he laughed.
Leanne’s artist residency at Small Pond Arts sealed the move to The County deal for them. “It was my way of test-driving the community,” Leanne said. “I was blown away by the people, the collaborations and the enthusiasm. Zac felt it too, that sense of creative community and people were saying “You should buy a house here!”
Every job Leanne has done since university helped prepare for launching a business. “In my first retail job I learned sales skills and later moved onto jobs that taught me about inventory, shipping and receiving, online sales and production. Doing wholesale shows in New York and just talking to and working with experienced retailers gave me a real world education.”
She and Zac have been working together for four years. They came to The County in 2014. They are a genuine, close and successful collaboration. “If I get an idea but I know Zac’s style will suit it better, I slip into the role of art director and ask him to draw it.” When there’s a big order for, say, block print t-shirts, they work long and hard on production, hand printing and even ironing for hours. “The block prints are very popular,” said Leanne. “We love the combination of new and old technology.” She learned the ancient process in India, working with artists and artisans.
“It’s not always easy, working for yourself,” she said, citing nine weeks of working 12 and 13 hour days leading up to the Spring One of a Kind Show. “It’s easier to just get a paycheck, but I’m doing this for a deeper motivation. I get to choose how I do things, what I make, how we live. I can’t imagine it being any other way now. We are so lucky to be able to work together. We can make our days exactly as we want them to be. And we can take off for a rest and go hiking in Scotland for three weeks when we get the chance.”
So what does Gold and Ginger make? “Right now we have purses and throw pillows, makeup bags and tea towels, t-shirts and greeting cards and notebooks,” Zac said. “Basically we make the stuff that we would want, or things we know we would give people as gifts, say, a pillow for your mum. Leanne can make a pillow and post it online and everybody who likes it will ask “Are you making those? Where do we get one?” That’s how a lot of things happen for Gold and Ginger in the age of social media, where followers can number in the thousands. They have an Etsy shop and are launching their own online retail too, although that took a back seat while they handled “real world” orders during a busy 2016.
“Part of our success is the quality,” Leanne said. “That’s very important to me. We use the best materials like natural fibres, organic cotton and cotton-linen blends and we use good quality hardware, brass zippers and buckles. We just got an email from someone saying the pencil case she bought two years ago is the best she’s ever had and how it survived the wash, and I said, Well I should hope so! That’s why we make them that way. It’s awesome to get that feedback, when you’re the designer and the manufacturer.”
They had a great shout out from Readers Digest this year as one of 10 Canadian Artists Worth Watching. “That was from the One of a Kind exposure,” said Zac. Their zingy bee pattern throw pillow was featured on the show’s gift guide and ads. “It was on billboards and even on TTC streetcars,” said Zac. “As an art school kid, it was a dream come true to see something like that in the city where you grew up. Friends messaged us on their way to work to tell us!” The little bee popped up in Chatelaine magazine, so the mothers of their friends were excited for them, too. “I got more phone calls in that period than I had all year,” said Leanne. “I saw your pillow, can I order three?”
It’s early days for Gold and Ginger in The County, but they feel supported by their community and optimistic for the future. “My advice to anyone wanting to make this kind of move is be sure you want it badly enough. Sometimes you will only know by trying. You have to know when to cut your losses, too. We know people who set five year goals. They say they’ll work at their plan for this amount of time, and if at the end of five years they want to change or close their studio, that’s their choice. And that’s great. Don’t be afraid.”
Zac said, “the art scene in the County is super inclusive and there is always something happening. As soon as we got here, people said you must come to this event or check out these people. When you’re new here, people want you to make the connections they know you are going to appreciate. They want to help you. It is an awesome feeling to be included, and for it to not be a one time thing, for it to continue to happen. We’ve been here two years and there really is something happening every month. People just keep things rolling. Creative Rural Minds is an Fantastic event. So many people are doing awesome stuff, it’s busy and inspiring.”
“People here make the most of what they do and what they have. For instance, there was an empty shop on Main Street, Picton before last Christmas, and Hri Neil, rented it short term and opened it up to local vendors. So we had a booth on Main Street, in the lead up to Christmas without having to buy the place! In that same space now there is a tattoo parlour, and the woman who runs it wants to make good use of the huge walls in her space, so she invites artists to show there. I’ve had my paintings in there,” says Zac. Everybody is just trying to make something happen and they want to include you in it.”
Leanne tells how she got together with Chrissy Poitras of Sparkbox “just to have a project to work on together, to share ideas with another human,” she laughed. “It makes a nice change when you work for yourself. There are lots of collaborations, here. You just put the word out and there’s somebody there to help you.” Leanne is grateful for the support CFDC, too. “I signed up and attended a 10 week business course which was really helpful. Just having that time to really think about the business side of it, and having access to the instructors during and after the course. They were all small business owners themselves, accounting or business management or life coaching. So if you thought of things afterwards you could contact them for advice, and I’m still in contact with some of the participants, too. We also received some start-up funding that helped us set up our shop in House of Falconer, buy a tent for the outdoor shows and generally get started,” she said. “Just having access to professionals, they are very supportive. And of course everybody you meet is a potential customer!”
Their move to The County has influenced how customers see them, too. “It’s funny,” said Leanne. “Moving here seems to have added a sort of romance to our story, when we tell people about it. People are so interested in hearing about this place.” Now when they go to shows around Ontario they take County information with them, like the wine maps. “We kind of feel like advocates for Prince Edward County. Everybody wants to talk about it.”
They ponder on the idea of being big fish in a little pond. “That’s why Krista and Milé named their place Small Pond Arts,” said Zac. “And it is true to an extent.” He laughs. “And it’s awesome!” Particularly, it seems, in such a thriving, friendly, happening “pond.”
“Our wedding invitation was a map with some of our favourite places marked on it,” said Zac. “Maybe we’ll make that a real project next year – The Gold and Ginger guide to our favourite things.”
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.