A happy customer with an “Atlasia” piece by A State of Copper
A State of Copper
I have previously written about how difficult it is for highly talented authors and musicians to make a living, in part a result of their work being a labor of love. The situation may be even worse for professional artists. Indeed, a recent study shows that more than 75% of artists make less than $10,000 per year and almost half make under $5,000. It is in this context that I find the success of copper artists Alex and Becky Teselsky (along with their son Alex R., who doubles a welding professor) to be fascinating.
Beatles Portraits by a State of Copper
A State of Copper
I first came across the Teselsky’s art while on vacation to Traverse City, for those unfamiliar, a beautiful resort town in northern Michigan. An upscale gift shop there named My Secret Stash had a significant number of pieces from “A State of Copper,” which is the name of the Teselsky’s business. The store carried a series of framed copper art pieces featuring the State of Michigan or the Great Lakes, along with a series of very sturdy, yet attractive looking coasters. The work was absolutely stunning, and I ended up buying and taking home both a framed State of Michigan Great Lakes piece and two coasters back home to Philadelphia. This was a special moment for both my wife and I, who just truly admired and enjoyed looking at the work – one of those times in life when something beautiful brings joy.
Great Lakes Coasters. These copper and slate coasters are the results of a 42 step, 10 day process … [+]
A State of Copper
Of course after I got home I wished that I had purchased more coasters. So I visited “A State of Copper’s” Facebook page and inquired about buying some more. Alex himself responded quickly and was very willing to help and pleasant to deal with. I also was able to learn more about how the business came about.
It turns out Alex and Becky constructed a copper and stone bar in a Michigan log cabin they had purchased and wanted to put a nice piece of art made with leftover copper near it. They decided that they wanted to design and make an image of the Great Lakes, but search online but were not able to get any guidance on how to go about making such a piece out of copper. As a result, they invented their own process, that is now used for all of their pieces, that begins with a flat piece of heavy gauge copper and makes use of a variety of natural acids. When they get the desired look for a piece, they then then apply a marine-grade resin, leaving a protective coating that is the equivalent of 200+ coats of polyurethane and thereby protects the work for generations to come. The process involves 42 steps. Each individual piece, referred to as Copper Art (Wall Jewelry) by Teselsky, is signed by the artist.
Display at Rebel Magnolia, Saginaw. Michigan gift shop
A State of Copper
While many of the pieces produced by A State of Copper are Michigan scenes, the Teselsky’s have also done a significant volume custom work for businesses and individuals, producing everything from commercial bar tops, restaurant tables, residential tables, and serving trays to portraits of the Beatles, corporate buildings, Darth Vader and artistic versions of college and pro sports team logos.
The company has also produced works given as gifts to politician such as when the City of Detroit commissioned pieces to be given by Mayor Mike Dugan to then Vice President Joe Biden and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. In addition, the company has done extensive work for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation as part of their “Pure Michigan” program— with the art pieces going to businesses throughout the world in an effort to attract investment in the state.
Alex and Becky Teselsky
In conjunction with buying additional art from A State of Copper, I had the opportunity to ask Alex about the business. There are a few fascinating aspects to his story, including how much a labor of love it is— but also the level of success he has achieved. In spite of not having done a lot of marketing and/or formal strategic planning the business has reached the point of having difficulty keeping up with demand.
In terms of how they got into the copper art business, Alex states that both he and his wife grew up in Michigan and love the state’s natural beauty. He describes the impression left on him by his father when he was a boy:
“When my father returned home to Michigan from operating tanks in Europe during WWII, he got work helping to build highways in the Upper Peninsula. He fell in love with Copper Harbor so that’s where we vacationed as a family when we were growing up. All 6 kids, Mom and Dad packed into the 1964 Impala station wagon going to the Copper Harbor dump at sunset to watch the bears was one of all our most memorable family activities. There is so much to love about Michigan and it’s copper heritage, it just seemed that if you lived in Michigan, you loved them both.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden being presented with a work from “A State of Copper” by Detroit’s … [+]
A State of Copper
Alex and Becky got married in 1974, had 3 children, and enjoyed successful careers in finance and business. All along, Alex had a passion for photography and supplemented the family income by doing model portfolios, fine art landscape work, senior pictures and weddings. And then in 2011, they purchased a log cabin and built the stone with copper bar top that started everything. Alex and his son spent hours watching Youtube videos in a vain effort to figure out how to use leftover copper to make a of leftover copper to make a silhouette of the Great Lakes to hang in the bar. So they decided to develop their own process, but it was not easy. Alex observes:
“I became allergic to the chemicals we were using to do this and lost the skin on my arms and face twice and visited the emergency room 5 times. The doctors told me that we should move out of the house because of my condition. The doctors hypothesized that the chemicals had infiltrated my blood stream from the many cuts I got from working with the copper and my body developed acute allergies to them. I am pretty stubborn and not very smart. That with 50 orders for my art kept me going and I finally figured out what chemicals that I was allergic to.”
The output of this sometimes painful process was expertise from years of research on how to acid oxidize copper that resulted in a proprietary process that is unique. Because Alex was posting progress reports on the work on Facebook, he began getting orders from friends, and then even strangers. The piece was made in February, 2016 and within 6 months the orders escalated to the point where Alex and Becky decided to quit their jobs so they could keep up with demand. “We were starving artists but the happiest we had ever been. Working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week making art.”
Alex R Teselsky at work
A State of Copper
The business model for “A State of Copper” is fascinating and fundamentally based on the quality and the beauty of the work. The primary distribution outlets are more than 70 small “Mom and Pop” type gift shops throughout Michigan most of whom are active ambassadors for the brand, as well as a website and Squareup page and a Facebook page with 18,000 followers. The Teselsky’s biggest current business problem seems to be difficulty keeping these outlets stocked in spite of the three artists working at full capacity.
It seems to me that if Teselsky wanted to expand the business “A State of Copper” he would be an ideal candidate for a show like Shark Tank and would receive multiple bids. Alternatively, I think he would have an easy time gaining venture capital if he could promise expanded production capacity. Clearly, there would be major room for growth with high end work for to hand in hotel lobbies, additional geographic scenes, and portraits of famous people and any number of other types of Copper Art. However, it does not sound like the Teselsky’s desire any kind of exponential growth. Alex summarizes the situation:
“We have no plans on ever hiring anyone other than immediate family including my wife, son Alex and our daughter Annie on weekends to help in our business to keep it our secret. We only attend a few art shows per year because we are to busy to do them. We ship all over the U.S. but focus primarily on Michigan and the tourism that drives this state. Copper and Michigan are synonymous and staying put in Michigan is probably our business plan for a bit. When we branch out of state we would first start in Chicago and work our way up Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan’s shops and galleries. I don’t see that happening right away. We just came up with our coaster line last summer and we have a hard time keeping up with the demand on those.”
Being able to keep up with demand is an unusual problem for a family of artists to have, especially given the very limited marketing they do. What does this mean for customers: If you like the work as much as I do, get a piece while you can!