Two Richmond residents collaborate on separate unique art businesses under the same roof
on February 11, 2016
There is no task too big or small or obscure for Brandy Esparza and Kyle Silber, who know how to market an artisanal stamp for a doughnut wrapper, a latex mask for a life-sized Buddha, or a seal for an architect to sign for his or her work. Together they operate two businesses, Underdog Press and Painted Wonderland, out of their home in Richmond, California
Esparza started independent contracting work about 10 years ago doing face painting, special effects for film or theater, and making “odd” costumes, such as those for mascots. “My initial training comes from working for a special effects and costuming company called Bump in the Night Productions located in Vallejo, California. We made latex masks and props and costumes, and I got trained by a close friend of my dad’s who took me on as an intern,” says Esparza. She then went on to work as a sculptor technician at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Around early 2000, Esparza began Painted Wonderland as a side job to contract out work for special events, doing face painting and making costumes. While working at the university she met Silber, who was studying to get his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in sculpting. “Towards the end of my academy employment, I began to look into making my side job my full-time job. Once Kyle and I had lived together for awhile, the more we talked about our creative skills, and the way we did not like how other people ran their businesses. We thought, ‘We can do this ourselves and make it fun for us,’” says Esparza.
Silber, who had previously worked as a carpenter, industrial designer and sculptor, had acquired thousands of dollars worth of tools. He was inspired by Esparza forming her own business, and decided to venture into his own project. Soon came Underdog Press, which launched the beginning of 2013.
Underdog specializes in rubber stamps of all shapes and sizes—a dancing Elvis, kissing lips or a lotus are among their growing collection—as well as stencils used for face painting. “We made small things we liked to make for ourselves. We both had stamps because we had both worked at stamp shops. We thought, ‘Let’s see if anyone else wants to buy them too,’” says Silber.
To make a stamp, Silber begins with a hand-drawn design. Then he puts it into the laser printer. Next he transfers the design onto a dark sheet and he lays it on a piece of glass. He then tapes it down on all sides and the room is darkened and a clear glue-like material is applied over the design. He then sets the designs to cook inside a polymer photo stamping machine, once that is done he cuts out very carefully the mold and then attaches it to the wooden base.
“We met someone who had a polymer photo stamping machine, so we drove all the way to Oregon to get it, and that was the last piece to the puzzle to launch the business,” he says.
Since the businesses are so diverse, they said, it makes sense for Esparza and Silber to keep them separate. Underdog Press is mostly Silber’s business and Painted Wonderland is Esparza’s, but they help each other out with contributing skills and creative designs. Painted Wonderland is centered on costumes and face painting while Underdog Press is more targeted at professionals and businesses that need a label or stamp to brand their own work. Silber and Esparza both sell their items using both Etsy and Amazon Homemade, two online sites that allow crafters to sell their art.
Since the couple designs, makes, and ships their art from their home in Richmond, they work hard at balancing their work life from their home life. They dedicate certain days to managing their websites and orders and keep other days marked to take off and relax.
“It is tough some days to balance the work. There are days that I spend hours upon hours on a project or piece for a client. But it’s rewarding knowing this something all for us,” says Silber. “If I get a 5-star review on Etsy or Amazon for something I have made, it is direct reassurance you are doing good quality work.”
They say that both Underdog Press and Painted Wonderland have blossomed into profitable endeavors. Their buyers are mostly from Northern California but some come all the way from Eastern Europe.
“It is always exciting to get a notification on your phone that someone bought something from the online shop,” says Esparza. “I think that is the most rewarding part of the job—that we are able to customize pieces and cater directly to whoever is buying it.”
Underdog Press has plenty of stock stamps, designs that are mass-produced best sellers, such as Siamese skeletons and an anatomical heart, a favorite for Valentine’s Day. But customizing is Silber and Esparza’s specialty. Beyond using online sales orders for specific details a client needs, the two also form relationships with businesses in the Bay Area to help them find what they need. A manager at Doughnut Dolly’s in Oakland, for instance, met Esparaza, began talking and soon she had a custom doughnut stamp for her shop.
As Underdog Press hits its two-year mark, the couple says they are thinking that their long-term goal for both businesses is to get a storefront. “I think the benefit for me with owning a store is local interaction,” says Esparza. “You see all these empty storefronts in Richmond. It would be nice to see the Richmond community flourish with more local businesses aimed at drawing a younger crowd to the area.”
Both of them are still experimenting with new ideas and crafts to see what is popular and what people are interested in buying. They stress the importance of shopping locally to support the economy and also to support the arts community. They have noticed that the range of uses for their stamps: for office labeling, to decorate jewelry boxes, for adding designs to ceramic art, or just for people who want to create their own unique craft. As Esparza puts it: “Everyone needs a stamp at some point.”
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