Nicole Skeehan: “It takes more than love.”

While teaching a dog training class in 2016, Nicole Skeehan, owner of Philly Unleashed, noticed a young, black Labrador. She’s trained thousands of dogs over the past 20 years as a dog trainer, while developing training and behavioral programs for training facilities, shelters, prisons, rescues, and her own business. But there was something special about Cooper’s demeanor, work ethic, and intelligence. “I first watched him in classes,” said Skeehan. “I thought, my lord, this is one of the nicest dogs I’d ever seen in my life.”

Skeehan asked Cooper’s owner, Katelin Jackman, to let her know if the breeder had another litter like him, knowing that she wanted to train and donate a mobility service dog. Buddha, Cooper’s brother, joined the Philly Unleashed team in August 2017, and applications are being accepted until February 1 to find his partner.

Skeehan and her team of 11 trainers have already trained several service dogs, including Queenie, an adult yellow labrador purchased by a Jersey Mike’s fundraiser for a local family in 2016. Skeehan wanted to do it again, starting from the very beginning, with the goal of donating the trained mobility service dog to someone who needed one.

buddha1

Skeehan found that taking on a service dog project was a natural fit after years of working for and with welfare organizations and shelters. “This was the perfect opportunity to give back to our community,” said Skeehan. “We have the means and the staff to train a great dog, and we wanted to invite others to join us–whether financially or even just in helping us get the word out.”

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Skeehan started training animals early–she took family dogs to obedience school, bought her own horse when she was 16, and earned extra money in college teaching riding lessons. She started training Libby, a Great Dane and her first dog as an adult, at a high-end boarding and training facility. The owner noticed her work with Libby. “He asked me, ‘Are you a dog trainer? Are you sure? Because you’re really good at this,’” shared Skeehan.

Skeehan became the daycare manager of the facility in 2002, while finishing her degree. She also earned her certification through Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, becoming a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She then starting working for Animal Friends, a Pittsburgh shelter, in 2006. A few years later, the PSPCA recruited her in 2008 to build a behavior program in Philadelphia, where she remained until 2011. She moved on to build the training program for New Leash on Life-USA, where she stayed for five years, while starting her business.

buddha2

It was her position at the PSPCA as Director of Animal Behavior and Training that showed her it was possible to make a living as a dog trainer, and she’s been moving forward full speed ever since. “I still thought I needed to do business things because I had a business degree,” Skeehan said of her career before being recruited by the PSPCA. “I was fighting that I wanted to train dogs and do animal things. I was really excited when PSPCA was like, ‘No, come back and work animals again.’”

She’s found that in dog training, as an unregulated field, studying the science behind successful training methods is important–and worth it. “You can do it,” said Skeehan. “The harder you work, the better you can do at it. Your success is directly related to what you put in. There are a lot of dog trainers who are struggling. You have to work nights, weekends, pick up poop.”

And there isn’t always a solution. “You can’t always fix aggressive and anxious dogs,” said Skeehan. “You can suppress behaviors if you want. If you keep dogs under the threshold of stress, there’s a lot more success.”

Skeehan has always loved dogs, growing up with animals. But she found love wasn’t enough. “No one really studies the science behind why it works,” explained Skeehan. “Passion–yes fine, you have to have that. It takes more than love. There are actually reasons why behavior happens. It’s not just ‘by chance.’”

Buddha3

Skeehan’s hard work led to results. In 2015, Philly Unleashed won Best of Philly and added exclusive training opportunities for clients at Rammytime Farm in Medford, where Skeehan lives with her husband, Tim, their son, dogs, Uluru and Porter, and a menagerie of donkeys, goats, and chickens.

Now, Philly Unleashed has 11 trainers offering private lessons, behavior walks, group classes, and training at the farm. Most of the trainers, like Skeehan, are CPDT- KA, which requires at least 300 of dog training experience, a signed attestation statement from a CCPDT certificant or veterinarian, and a signed and filed Code of Ethics–all completed even before the examination of 250 multiple-choice questions.

In March of 2017, Jackman told Skeehan there was another litter from Cooper’s parents on the way at Hunters Run Labradors. Skeehan paid the deposit, and then a surprise hit–she found out she was pregnant. “I thought, oh man, I’ve got a puppy. I don’t want a puppy if I’m pregnant,” said Skeehan. “It was my staff and Katelin that convinced me to keep him and that we could do this. So we kept the plan in place and put the deposit down.”

Buddha4

Skeehan had originally wanted a black puppy, like Cooper, but the breeder told her she needed to take a look at a little yellow one instead. Skeehan tested three puppies on responses to startling stimuli, tolerance for body handling and restraint, and prominence of toy and food drive. The little yellow puppy was the smallest one, but Skeehan found him to be curious without being cautious and not sensitive to loud noises or new sensations. After a poll, Skeehan named the puppy Buddha and started an Instagram account, @BringingUpBuddha, to show his journey and training. “It’s not as easy as slapping a vest on a dog and walking onto an airplane or into Walmart,” said Skeehan. “Having a dog just be there is not good enough. It actually has to do things.”

And Buddha works hard. He recently showed off his training at a Flyers game in December 2017, settling in for three hours and refusing to be distracted.  “I was so impressed with this little guy,” said Dana Vachon, a certified trainer with Philly Unleashed who attended the game with Skeehan and Buddha. “Even when people were reaching out for him and trying to pet him, he stayed on task and focused. After the game, when his service vest came off, his puppy side came out while he spent time with the team.”

buddha6

Now, Skeehan’s baby is four months old, and Buddha is seven months old–and ready for his partner. Applicants are encouraged to apply online through Philly Unleashed’s website until February 1, when interviews will start. There is no cost for Buddha, as Philly Unleashed is providing all of the training, veterinarian needs, and food. To help offset costs, since Buddha’s care and training will cost $30,000, Philly Unleashed has created a GoFundMe page. All funds raised go towards Buddha and his care, and anything additional will go towards his person to get Buddha started on his new journey.

The public is invited to a Yappy Hour fundraiser for Buddha on Saturday, February 17, 2018, from 6 to 8 pm, to raise funds for Buddha’s care and training. The event will be held at PANT Dog Center in Philadelphia, located at 1134 Dickinson Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147.

Raffle baskets, including wine, yoga, and training, will be available. Pups will also have the opportunity to get professional photographs taken for a fee.

 

Buddha’s partner will train with Buddha free of charge at the farm for six months to a year before full-time placement, and Philly Unleashed will sponsor lifetime training for the pair. “It’s all about the relationship,” said Skeehan. “That’s the basis for Philly Unleashed–dogs can only come train at Farm Camp if they’ve been taking group or private classes, because we want to get to know them and their owners. We want to do the same with Buddha. We’ve built this relationship with him over the past five months, and we want to continue to build on that and include his partner.”

Buddha is intended as a mobility service dog, and there are several stipulations for the right partner, but the recipient will not be charged for Buddha.“My hope is he finds the right person, becomes a contributing member of society, and gets to be with someone who needs him,” said Skeehan. “We’re looking for somebody who is as invested in the success of the pair as we are. This should be someone who is willing to work at it. There will be valleys and peaks. Just because the dog is coming trained doesn’t mean it will be easy. This person will need to be realistic what a dog can do and can’t do, and will benefit in more ways than just being happier or less anxious generally. Buddha, with continued training, will help this person propel to success and be independent.”

Eligibility requirements and the application for Buddha are available online. Buddha has not been trained as a guide dog for the blind, hearing assistance dog, seizure/diabetic alert dog, or autism/anxiety support dog. Requirements include a commitment to commuting to Rammytime Farm in Southampton/Medford, NJ one to two times a week for six months. Help Philly Unleashed with Buddha’s training and expenses. Follow Buddha’s journey on Instagram.

Ben Cohen: “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.”

Ben Cohen, age 94 (“That’s right, much to my dismay,” he said with a smile), finds that he’s consistently asked the same two questions about his work: What’s your favorite? and How long did it take you to do it?

He declines to pick a favorite while standing in a room at the Medford Memorial Community Center surrounded by his pieces and those of three others. The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, has about 40 pieces of art created by Cohen, Marlene Craig, Joyce McAfee, and David Watson on display through Christmas 2017.

photo

Ben Cohen, 94, framed by his work and those of his friends at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Photo: Elizabeth Silverstein

But Cohen does give his best guess to how long each piece takes. “When I’m teaching a class, I say about 60 years,” he said. “It took a very long time. Right through WWII and everything.”

Cohen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a childhood considered disadvantaged, Cohen explained, since four families living in the tenement shared one toilet in the hallway. He attended kindergarten speaking only Yiddish and writing left handed — both of which were strikes against him in the New York City public school system, which would not enroll left-handed children. Despite a rocky start, he learned English and compromised with his writing. “To this day, I do everything left handed except write,” said Cohen.

He also attended the Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit organization developed by Lillian Wald in 1893, which provides social service, arts, and health care programs. “Social workers tried to help dead-end kids, to try to get us on the right path,” Cohen explained. “They decided I had possibilities as an artist.”

tool

“K Clamp”, watercolor, by Ben Cohen

When he was eight years old, the staff decided to send him to a life class at a larger school, which consisted of male and female nude models. “In the art world, it is an important function to learn how to draw the human body,” Cohen said, sharing the reasoning behind their decision.

But perhaps eight was a bit young. “I was far too embarrassed to look at the models,” Cohen added. “I was looking at the other wall. The instructor said, ‘You have to look at the model.’ I was just too embarrassed to look.”

His embarrassment didn’t deter him from the art world. Art followed him even when he was drafted into the service at age 19, leaving the tenement and New York City behind for the front lines. He was in every battle of World War II, drawing on pieces of paper before each engagement. “I just had scraps of paper,” Cohen said. “I drew everything from where we landed to where the invasion happened.”

Original col. pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

Those pieces now have a home at Brown University, but the memories linger. “I remember during the Battle of the Bulge,” Cohen shared, “I was told by the superior if we were captured, I better take my dog tags and bury them in the snow, because with a name like Cohen, they would shoot me on the spot. I didn’t get captured.”

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

After the war, he married Shirley, his wife of 71 years, who passed away a year ago. He was attending a program through his military service, attending the University of Pennsylvania for mechanical engineering, and heard that the local Jewish Community Center had the best pastrami sandwiches. When he had some time off, he decided to check it out. “Army food is nourishing but not gourmet,” Cohen explained. “I went for a pastrami sandwich and I ended up with Shirley.”

It was through Shirley that he learned that some families lived in entire houses, something he hadn’t experienced growing up in the tenement. Her father was a market butcher in Philadelphia, and when she took him to meet her family,  he was astonished. “I thought he was a big industrialist because I couldn’t imagine someone could have a whole house,” Cohen explained.

Cohen also went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn through the GI Bill for three years, their standard, unaccredited offering at the time. Afterwards, he snagged a job designing toys and toy packaging. When the toy company went out of business (“Not because of my lousy designs,” Cohen noted), one of the packaging companies he had designed for called looking for a design. “I did a package,” Cohen said. “Next thing I know, another call. From there on, it was nonstop. I worked night and day, around the clock. When I was getting ready to retire, I was very concerned I wouldn’t have anything to do.”

Oil painting of water lilies.

“Summer Garden”, oil, by Marlene Craig

At age 55, ready to retire, Cohen called several of his longtime accounts, announcing that he was leaving the designing business. He made sure to add that he wasn’t leaving town, and if there were any issues, he was a phone call away. “Next thing I know, they called back,” Cohen said. “They used to give me about half of work, now they wanted to give me all of the work since I didn’t have anything else to do. So it sort of backfired. I finally convinced them, I’m out.”

Cohen started teaching classes and workshops, finding the freedom from commissioned work enjoyable. “I was thrilled I could now do what I want and no client would tell me, ‘No you can’t do that, we want so-and-so,’” Cohen shared.

These days, Cohen continues to teach beginner and advanced workshops at the Willingboro Art Alliance on Wednesday mornings and at the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. He also attends the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Wednesdays to work on his own art. “I found now that I have sort of laid back a little bit on what you might call serious work,” Cohen explained. “To me, art is spiritual. For that hour or two or three, I can forget the world. It is terrific therapy. You forget everything.”

"Path to Kate's Track", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); "Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

“Path to Kate’s Track”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); “Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

His advice for other artists is simple. “I think one of the things I could say is don’t take yourself too seriously,” Cohen said. “Don’t get too uptight about it.”

He keeps his own work, mainly pastel, infused with humor. “I have nothing against classical art but I like to see a little bit of humor,” he explained. “Take a look around this world. I think we need it. There’s so much horror going on, we take it for granted. Happening all the time. We need something a little lighter. I’m not concerned about politics. I’m more concerned about doing the nose right.”

But when he does get the nose right, it’s because it’s just a nose. “When I do a nose, it’s really a nose; it’s not a metaphor for something major happening,” Cohen said.

"The Patriots", oil on panel, by David Watson

“The Patriots”, oil on panel, by David Watson

Working in almost every medium, even if pastel is his main choice, Cohen said he takes liberties to extract a certain vibe, one he calls impressionistic realism. He’ll change the colors, or change the settings, putting a model from a session at the Sketch Club on a $20 instead of a couch, adding in New York City below her, and calling it “Let the Money Float”. Another time, he dressed a model in a Santa Claus suit, added a window with a raging storm outside and called it, “I Ain’t Going Out In That.”

His pieces at the Medford Memorial Community Center are also semi-impressionistic, as he made artistic choices to change colors in real-life scenes, like “South Philly Graffiti” in pastel, or add a stadium behind a model, such as his “Phillies Fan” piece in pastel.

The influence of living in West Philadelphia for many years can still be seen in his work, but New Jersey has been his home since 1968. His house in Cinnaminson has three studios, a Wall of Fame filled with the work of his two children and five grandchildren, and plenty of nude figure pieces that he and Shirley picked out. He’s come a long way since his days as a shy child in New York City. “Relations would come and tell us we were going to corrupt the kids,” Cohen said of the nudes. “Now the kids are in their 50s and 60s, and every time they come around, they tell me they weren’t corrupted.”

The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, will be up through Christmas at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Stop by on Saturday, Dec. 2, during the Dickens Festival, to view the art while meeting Mrs. Claus with other fun for the children at the center. The show will also be available for viewing on Friday, Dec. 8 from 6 to 9 pm, with four other shows opening on Main Street.

Phil Roberts: “There is no shortcut.”

Phil Roberts likes a challenge. As he’s developing his second wood-based company in five years and his third company in eight years, he’s realized he has selected a big one.

Roberts grew up in Southampton as one of five kids, with a creatively-minded mother, Carol, and an engineering-orientated father, Sid. Spending a lot of time with his grandfathers, a farmer and a carpenter, provided more exposure to skill-based careers. Sid, a software/electrical engineer, encouraged Roberts to pursue engineering. “So I got an art degree,” said Roberts. “It wasn’t a direct rebellion — maybe subconsciously. His work seemed really interesting but also boring. Sitting at a computer didn’t seem like a good option.”

Roberts earned his B.S. Digital Media Arts with an emphasis on cinematography from John Brown University in NW Arkansas. After graduation, he started work as a freelance photographer and videographer. While the travel was fun, the unpredictability of the work took its toll. “I would spend two weeks in St. Louis and then have three weeks with no job,” Roberts said.

001

Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

Looking for a hobby, Roberts began to build custom farm tables in 2012. “I would sell a table, then spend money to buy more equipment, and make another table. It was a slow process,” Roberts shared.

But it was a process that worked. Using sustainably sourced wood to make customizable tables at a good price, Roberts was able to build the business from a one-man show to a ten-man team. He also brought his wife, Melinda, on staff in 2015. “Marketing was easy because it was a product I would want to buy,” explained Roberts. “We built a really good product, sold one table and asked the customer to tell one friend. It was a snowball.”

His digital media experience was also a huge benefit when building the business. “If you have to hire someone for every single process, it’s impossible,” Roberts said. “I grew that company until I realized I wasn’t the best person for the job anymore. I wanted to be designing, not building the company. … Once I realized I was just the email guy, I realized someone else could do this better than me. Someone with business, marketing experience.”

Big Mandala 005

Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

He and Melinda decided to take a step back. In June 2016, they sold most of Emmor Works. A few months later, they traveled across the United States in an old VW van they called Benjy, documenting their journey through their Instagram account, @tires2fires. During their trip, with a stop in Boulder, Colorado, the couple ran into an old friend at a public library makerspace. They toured the location, which included a laser cutter that caught Roberts’ eye. After a brief discussion, they moved on.

They didn’t know when they were getting home or what they would do when they did, and the stress of needing to pay bills was starting to build. Melinda had always wanted to return to library science, the field she had left temporarily to join Emmor Works. “She was really good at her job, but she’s great wherever she goes,” Roberts explained. “It was great to have her at Emmor Works.”

When they got home, Melinda found a job as the school librarian at the Maple Shades High School, while Roberts intended to return to Emmor Works, where he planned on designing and building furniture without having to run the team or manage the business side of the company. “In my fantasy land of my mind, I wanted to separate from Emmor Works while designing products for them,” he shared. “That seemed like the best of both worlds. Hopefully, it’s still possible.”

File Sep 18, 7 13 59 PM

Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

But there were creative differences and mismatched expectations. After several months, Roberts decided instead to combine his love of technical woodworking and design ability into an entirely new company, Art by Philip Roberts. He remembered that laser cutter and the brief conversation they’d had in Colorado, and he decided to invest in his own machine. “I knew I wanted to be in a design-orientated business,” explained Roberts. “and what attracted me to this was the technical and creative aspect. I still get to work with wood.”

Roberts designs his pieces digitally, converts the files into a format the laser can process, and then allows the laser to cut out the pieces. Each art piece consists of 12 layers built from mahogany, and the laser can take up to 9.5 hours to complete all of the layers. The design work itself can take countless hours to plan and execute. And it took some months to figure out. “You hope when it’s all done and you spent hours doing it that it looks okay,” said Roberts.

Roberts sold his first piece in July 2017. “I’d forgotten how much work it took to build a company from scratch,” Roberts shared. “You remember it’s exciting and difficult, but the amount of work is crazy.”

018 Cali Box

Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

Even before marketing, Roberts invested the time in building his process for building the pieces. “It took a couple months alone to master the actual construction of these complicated pieces,” Roberts explained. “Obviously the designs are essential to the art but if the physical piece in your hands doesn’t feel right, it ruins the experience. Emmor Works was the opposite. I believe we created a great product but it came at the cost of sleepless nights and unmanageable hours. The shop was peddle-to-metal at all times to keep up with orders. If we had slowed down to improve our production design, we could have produced just as much with so much less stress.”

Then there was the difficulty of building trust with his customers. “There is no shortcut,” Roberts said, “and the only way to build a strong reputation is putting in the work to prove that trust and reliability. However, it is amazing what customers will do once that trust is established.”

The beginning of October brought a wave of orders, and the reviews and feedback have been positive. “This was an opportunity to jump in and make it work because I have no choice but to make it work,” Roberts said. “That stress and anxiety is a good motivator.”

Even as the business continues to build, Roberts is hesitant to call himself an artist. To build tables was to make a functional piece of furniture, and now, he is making something completely different. He explained, “It’s a very weird thing to be like, ‘I make art.’ It’s so pretentious, and not something I aspired to do. I’m more comfortable saying I produce home decor.”

Sahasrara 002

Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

It’s the respect for the craft that makes Roberts hesitant to define himself as an artist. “I went to school with talented artists,” Roberts added. “I know what talent looks like. I would never put myself in the same caliber as those guys.”

That discomfort is also a draw for Roberts. “You should be doing something uncomfortable every day,” he said. “I enjoy doing it. And I think there’s a place for it. When you’re selling art, you’re selling yourself. If I could sell all day and not tell anyone I’m doing it, that would be great.”

And of course, there’s the challenge. “If you pick a really big challenge, it will entertain you for a long time,” Roberts shared. “I can’t escape now. I’m too far in now. I either have to make it work or bail. The challenge is I’m attracted to challenge. It’s satisfying — you had an idea and now it’s real life. Taking it from your head to real life is really cool. It’s difficult, too. It’s not like I have cold feet, but if I were to look for a ‘real’ job now, I don’t think I’d be an attractive candidate to HR. How does starting three different weird companies convert to finding some desk job? I have no idea so, yeah, we have to make this work.”

As the word gets out and Roberts continues to design, he just wants to improve. “I hope that three months from now I look at what I’m doing now and think it’s terrible,” Roberts said. “As soon as you stop progressing, what’s the point? Why keep doing stuff if you’re not getting better? I feel the things I made that I love the most were things I never sold. It would be great to sell something someday that I absolutely think is the best. I need to develop a style. Seeing other people doing amazing stuff is inspiring but also frightening. Again, good motivation to keep going.”

Visit Phil’s website, Instagram, and Facebook to see what else he is working on and to nab one of his pieces.

Jenna Rayesky Floral Studio: “It is possible.”

Building a family trade holds fond memories for Jenna Rayesky, as she and her husband, Steven, grow their event planning and flower arranging business, Jenna Rayesky Floral Studio, in the historic suburbs of Philadelphia.

From an early age, Rayesky worked side-by-side with her mother at her store, Erdon, which began in Medford 25 years ago. “I feel like I learned so much from interacting with adults as a child and being given meaningful work,” said Rayesky.

16735733_846102794070_240131893_o

Jenna Rayesky putting the finishing touches on an arrangement. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

By the time she graduated high school, Rayesky officially joined the staff but was working in the high-end boutique as young as age 11 on the weekends with her mother. One day, her mother left her in charge while she ran across the street to make a bank deposit. She warned Rayesky not to change the window displays. “I was notorious for changing the window displays,” Rayesky explained. “A coat had come in from a designer in Paris. It was made beautifully, and it was the most expensive coat we’d gotten in at the time. It was $1,000 and it was in the window. A little old lady came in. She had her bag of donuts from the bakery next store.”

Rayesky helped her try the coat on, and she loved it and purchased the coat. Rayesky asked her what she was going to do the rest of the day, and the woman said, “I’m just going to go home and wear this coat and eat my donuts.”

When Rayesky’s mother returned, she saw the coat missing and thought Rayesky was joking when she explained she had sold it. “Everyone wanted to be the one that sold this new expensive coat,” Rayesky explained. “My mom really didn’t shy away from giving me meaningful work and letting me be a part of what typically isn’t a kid’s world. Grown women in their 40s were taking my opinion and letting me pick out things for them.”

Those fond memories encouraged Rayesky to include her own two children in the business she officially launched with Steven in spring of 2016. “My husband and I want them to see your work can be meaningful and you can enjoy it,” shared Rayesky. “I don’t feel like they have to do what we do, but I want to help them uncover what they enjoy so they can pursue that.”

steven

Steven Rayesky in a moment of glee. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

After joining the staff at the boutique, Rayesky started working with her own clients, providing personal shopping. Additionally, she utilized the retail space at the store for events that she planned. “It wasn’t totally random that I started doing events,” Rayesky said. “I just love hospitality in general. It’s kind of naturally evolved.”

The seeds for the business began in 2013 when Rayesky and Steven were asked to assist with a friend’s wedding. What started with floral arranging morphed into the other wedding details, and guests noticed. “My husband and I just loved doing the setup and loved working together,” Rayesky shared. “We didn’t think it would go further than that. We just did it for fun.”

Then the phone calls started, either from those who personally attended, or who had heard about the flowers from someone who attended. “‘We were at the wedding and I heard you were the florist. I got your number from the mother of the bride,’” Rayesky said, sharing some of the connections that led to more clients. “I felt like I was underground. People would call and ask, is ‘This the right number?’ Even my voicemail said nothing about the floral studio. We were like, we should probably make this official. Just this year, we launched our website.”

Now with an official website of February, inquiries have been pouring in and the studio is nearly completely booked for the year. “This has been the most insane month of our life,” said Rayesky.

They’ve been working on the business side, streamlining the process as more and more people hear about the studio. Rayesky also appreciates that the business allows her the space to include time for her children. She had stopped working as a stylist in 2013 to stay home with her daughter, and while she and Steven worked on the wedding, their daughter, just a few months old, was with them the entire time. “She was right there along with us in a bouncy seat while we were doing flowers and setting up a table,” shared Rayesky, who now also has a nearly two-year-old son. “I was home with her. We had free time on our hands when our friend asked us if we would help with their wedding. Initially, they asked if we could do the flowers for the wedding and it just morphed into all of the details. Not just the centerpiece but all the other details. I spent so many years dressing people’s wardrobes, picking out their entire wardrobe, that it’s hard for me to not see life through that lens.”

Rayesky found that her work in her mother’s boutique, creating window displays, helped her develop an eye for the details. “It’s hard for me to not see things through a cohesive lens,” she explained. “That’s how it morphed into more than the flowers. I didn’t set out thinking I’ll start working and do this job. It really fit naturally. I was home with our daughter and someone would find me, call me, and I’d be like, ‘Sure I’ll meet you for coffee and talk about your wedding.” We’d take time planning the details and my daughter would be in bed. Then the wedding weekend would come and we’d be super busy. My daughter would hang out with my mom or mother-in-law. My husband would handle the logistics of it. It would be like a date night/date weekend for us. We love working side by side. I love being creative and serving people in that way. All throughout it, my prayer was, I don’t want it to take away from my family. I only wanted to do it if it would add value to my family.”

16734858_846102799060_866039286_o

Jenna and Steven’s daughter helping before a wedding. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

Even the studio itself is close to home since the couple converted their garage into their working space, and wedding weekends have become dates for Rayesky and Steven. They’ve found that their strengths complement each other, and have been able to build a strong business model. With 75% of floral design requiring busy work, Rayesky handles ordering, designing, and creating the color storyboard board for weddings and events. Steven takes care of the logistics of obtaining and processing the flowers, which requires hours of cutting, hydrating and feeding until Rayesky creates the arrangements.

As their business grows, the duo outsources more, hiring assistants to help with the hours of processing and allowing Rayesky and Steven to handle other tasks. Rayesky has found that being creatively minded does not lend itself naturally to the business side, and they took some time figuring out how to make their business viable. “The first dozen weddings we did, the joke was, how big of a wedding gift do we give this couple?” Rayesky explained. “I would put hundreds of dollars more into the wedding because I wanted it to look beautiful. I didn’t want to think about numbers and margins. I still don’t. That’s been the biggest challenge. I have gotten a lot of wisdom from others on that.”

Rayesky realized that when a talent comes naturally, whether floral design, photography or another creative field, there is an intimidation when it comes to setting prices. “I had to overcome that hurdle,” Rayesky explained. “There was a wedding we did two years ago. When all was said and done, we made $3 an hour while working 80 hours. It’s insanity–working on four hours of sleep. We realized that if we’re going to make this a business, the hardest thing is, you don’t want to resent the love of doing something. You want to do something you love, but if the business model doesn’t work for you, then all of a sudden the thing you love becomes something you hate. We had to create a business structure. That part I don’t like. Starting out, I didn’t realize how long I had to sit in front of a computer. No one wanting to get into floral design thinks, ‘I just love crunching numbers.’”

Rayesky discovered that the time and money to make the business run smoothly was worth it. “It’s been hard but it’s so necessary,” she admitted. “We evaluate every few months to see what we can do better–we learn and change what’s draining us.”

She also holds onto the advice she was given when she started the business: outsource as much as possible, and protect your dreams. “This is hard, easier said than done,” said Rayesky. “It was hard for us. It’s so hard. I totally get the shoestring budget for starting your own business.”

16776111_846102789080_179585059_o

Jenna Rayesky with her handiwork. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

When starting a business in a creative industry, and there are no funds to hire people to write the copy or take care of the finances, it seems impossible to outsource. Rayesky turned to networking, bartering and gleaning from those who had already gone through the process.

She also realized she needed to be careful about sharing her dream. “Don’t just share it with everybody,” she encouraged. “There are not as many people who are creative. There are a lot of people who will say you can’t do something you love, that you’ll be a starving artist. I’ve learned I need to guard these seeds of dreams and not just let anybody hear your dreams. There are going to be so many people who aren’t going to get it. They’re going to discourage it. Try to confide those dreams and hopes with people who have already done it. Be wise with who you share it with. It is possible. We tell our kids, you can be anything you want to be, but when it comes down to it, do we believe it? Find the people who can share those dreams and they won’t crush it.”

Jenna shares her designs on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about the studio by visiting the (recently launched) website.

This is the sixth in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people who make money creating. Contact me to share your story.