#KeepinLocalOpen: Printmaking & Illustration Alum Supports Small Businesses Like Her Own During COVID Crisis

stock image of screen printing

Today we speak with 2008 graduate Courtney Stevenson, who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Printmaking & Illustration, with a minor in Art History. She and her husband, Justin, also a Rowan alum, started developing their successful screen printing business, Wider Awake, soon after graduation. Now they are working with other local businesses to support their campaign, #KeepinLocalOpen, to raise money to “help keep everyone’s lights on” despite financial losses due to COVID-19.

How did you start your business and spread the word as a recent college graduate?

The short answer is: A website and social media, friends and family, and networking! The long answer: I wanted to make and sell artwork after graduating, so we kept an ear out for local art and craft shows where we felt like my artwork might be a good fit. The first art show that we did post-graduation was at a local taco shop. We sold some artwork, but we also began meeting some great people who we still work with on printing projects. Someone might come up to our booth at an art show and
be interested in our artwork, but also have a personal project that they needed printed.

So while we were making and selling our own work, we were beginning to really build up a client base for custom printing without even realizing it. As many times as we were told in college that networking is incredibly important, we didn’t realize it until years down the line when the people we had been meeting, became our long-time clients and supporters! 

Justin and Courtney stand in a tent showcasing their work.
Justin and Courtney showcase their work at a craft show.

Our friends and fellow Rowan graduates have also been a huge inspiration to us and a huge help. Their websites and social media presence were also an inspiration for us, things we quickly realized we needed. And these same friends have also referred our printing services out to others. Other non-art related friends and family members who work at schools or for different businesses began using our print services as well. And then there are the ever-supportive and beloved friends and family who continue to purchase our posters and shirts and spread the word about us on social media. We cannot stress enough how much other people have helped us continue to grow this business. We have put a lot of work into Wider Awake, but spreading the word about the business and garnering support has largely been a group effort!

What’s the story behind the name Wider Awake?
My favorite book growing up was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The name comes from a passage in that book. The idea of Wider Awake is that we are doing something that we love and rather than dulling our senses or putting us to sleep, it makes us feel Wider Awake every day (even though sometimes the work is exhausting). Over time, the print shop has also become a little like my secret garden because I’m often working alone behind its quiet walls. I’m introverted and find great delight in this type of environment. When Justin is in the shop with me, it usually has a much louder and less secretive vibe.

According to your website, you and Justin built your first printing press. Can you tell us more about how the press works, and what inspired you to build your own?

When we graduated from Rowan, [Justin and I] initially moved back into our parent’s houses for a few months. Since I could no longer ride my bicycle over to Westby Hall and use the printmaking facility whenever I pleased and couldn’t afford to rent a studio space, I realized I needed to come up with some way to print from home. Justin is very handy and enjoys a good DIY project on a budget. He researched plans online for a DIY press, which we built in his parent’s backyard in Toms River, NJ. We took over a small room in Justin’s parent’s house as a temporary ‘studio’ space so that I could continue to make custom silkscreen prints.

Simultaneously, Justin began researching other ways to utilize the press so that we could work with customers who might need other items printed, such as reusable bags and shirts. We hoped this might help us generate some additional income so that we could move this operation out of his parent’s house for our sake and his parents’. We still have our DIY press, who we named “Priscilla Press-ley,” but it is no longer a staple in our print shop. Currently, we print on a Riley Hopkins 4 station/4 color manual press (aka “Elvis Press-ley”) that we use for smaller shirt jobs and poster printing and an Anatol Volt 6 color/8 station automatic press (aka “Machine”).

Justin folds a stack of purple t-shirts at Wider Awake.
Justin folds a stack of purple t-shirts at Wider Awake.

Did you have any transformative experiences and/or instructors at Rowan that inspired you to create your business?
I studied abroad in Florence, Italy for my spring semester of my sophomore year. I cannot recommend this enough. Being flung into a different culture, among new people, a new language and thousands of years of history at the age of 19 was awesome. I would never do it any differently and I would do it a thousand times over!
I loved my professors at Rowan and in the art department. Doc Appelson was my initial motivation for pursuing art as my major. I came into Rowan undecided. It was recommended that I take an art class to see if I wanted to move forward as an artist. Doc taught a drawing class that I was able to get an override into because he is awesome. I love him, he is like a Dad and a grandfather and mentor to every art student.
As my major progressed and I met so many wonderful people, it becomes difficult to narrow it down to just a few great professors. Jen Thwing taught my graphic design and stop motion class, one of my favorites, and she was incredibly knowledgeable, resourceful and supportive. I still follow her amazing work on social media and very much appreciate all of her know-how and help to get things done when I didn’t have a clue. And Nancy Ohanian, my illustration teacher, encouraged me endlessly and was a completely positive pioneer for her students, taking us on amazing field trips and introducing us to friends in the art field. I think a combination of all of these experiences and people helped fuel the fire for persevering in this field and also believing it was possible.

How did #KeepinLocalOpen come to fruition, and what are the goals of this campaign?
Green playful letters spell out "Keepin Local Open."We essentially came up with the idea out of a need to drum up business. The idea is that while businesses are struggling because of canceled events and loss of income from store closings, this provides a small (or large in some cases) way to make up for some of the loss.

The spring is by far our busiest time of year, but almost 100% of our work is for large events (park cleanups, races, concerts, art shows, etc.). Almost overnight, all of our orders were either postponed or cancelled [due to the economic fallout of COVID-19]. Justin woke up one morning with the idea of doing a pre-sale fundraiser. We thought that there were lots of people who would be willing to buy a shirt if they knew they would also be supporting someone in need. The same day, we sat in on a screen printing webinar held by a company called PrintAvo about ways to keep your print shop going during difficult economic times. There was some discussion about running pre-sales, but with the idea of marketing it toward local, small businesses. We immediately started adjusting our website, designing and reaching out to people that afternoon.

We have been really amazed by how supportive people have been with this campaign. Its clear that there is strong support for keeping small businesses alive! Our goal is pretty simple at this point: Keep signing people up, keep printing shirts.

How does #KeepinLocalOpen work? What other local businesses are involved?

a stack of six t-shirt designs from Wider Awake
Just a few of the designs being produced as part of #KeepinLocalOpen.

#KeepinLocalOpen is a fundraising campaign we have been running since the end of March. Essentially, this is a t-shirt fundraiser for small/local businesses, artists, or musicians who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, including Wider Awake. It’s a way for businesses, artists, musicians, and more to sell t-shirts to their supporters without having to put out any money.

Participants send us a design that they would like printed on a t-shirt (i.e. their logo or their artwork). We put together a mock-up for them and set up an online ‘pop-up’ store hosted on our website where their t-shirt will be for sale for their fans and supporters to purchase. They share and promote the link for their shirt sale but we handle all of the other stuff: orders, shipping, and customer service. We sell their shirts on our website as a presale for about two weeks. Once the sale ends, we print and ship all the shirts for them and mail them a check from their sales. For every shirt they sell, they receive $10. 

Currently, there are 36 businesses and artists involved, some of them located right here in Mullica Hill, NJ. They range from salons to restaurants to individual artists. Besides the folks in our town, some of the others are located in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, one in New York City, and we are working with an outdoor Bluegrass festival in Baltimore, MD.

How do you think your experience in the College of Communication and Creative Arts at Rowan contributed to your success? What valuable lessons did you learn as a Prof that got you where you are today?
I learned a lot of technical skills at Rowan as relates to the field of art/design because of my wonderful professors and their knowledge. I also learned that the community within your field of study is invaluable, especially what I found at Rowan and within Westby Hall. The classes were small and extremely personal. We were working right alongside our professors and we all became very close. You could pop into your professor’s office during off-class hours with questions. They were in constant communication with us. And then there were your peers who were working alongside of you in class and in the studio for hours and hours on end. We spent a very large portion of our time at Rowan in our studio space in Westby Hall, so we were like a family. I loved the people in my department and as mentioned, still love those same friends today. I feel like the experience I had at Rowan as an art major was completely unique and has stuck with me all these years, just like the community and support that began there.

Any advice or resources for current students studying art and/or looking to start a business?
Take advantage of your time in the studio with your professors and peers! It’s likely that you will not have such an opportune time again to be immersed in the studio with so many amazing and like-minded people by your side. Get to know them and support each other! Justin and I both also dabbled in internships and part-time jobs within our field. During our summers and in between our full-time jobs, we worked at art non-profits and in small print shops to sharpen our skills. Meeting new people and building relationships has been invaluable to us!

We love working with and meeting all sorts of people. #KeepinLocalOpen has allowed us to meet new people and to encourage one another during very uncertain times and we are so grateful for all of those involved. So thanks!!

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Story by:
Nicole Cier, writing arts graduate

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