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How Two Art Nerds Turned Their Passion into a Successful Art Business

Entrepreneurship and visual art can both be described as difficult, frustrating and risky. Visual art has a bit of a reputation for being challenging to make a living at. It’s often viewed as a hobby or side hustle — not something you can do full time. And entrepreneurship is just plain hard, with its long hours, uncertainty, and constant demands. But, as challenging as these two things are, art and entrepreneurship are bound by passion and determination. To pursue life as an artist is to pursue that passion and the love of creativity you feel in your gut that never goes away. The same can be said for entrepreneurs, who must be determined (and maybe just a little bit crazy) in order to pursue their dream.

In 2014, Fei Lu and Aaron Fruman opened Winged Canvas Art Hub. Passion and determination were driving factors, but more importantly, it was a serious love of art, a shared adventurous spirit and a thirst for creativity that drove them to become entrepreneurs. Tired of working for others and craving a change of scenery, they called it quits on their secure jobs and backpacked for six months throughout Central and Southeast Asia, Europe and North Africa. Invigorated by this experience, they opened a space in their hometown of Markham where art and creativity would be embraced, encouraged and respected. A place for artists, would-be artists and art lovers to hang out and learn new skills. To form a unique and creative community in the suburbs (a place where the arts are sometimes overlooked in favour of things like big box stores). So how did this dream come to be? Since 2019 is the five year anniversary of Winged Canvas, I decided to sit down with them and learn all about their experiences as artistic entrepreneurs.

Winged Canvas Launch - Art Nerds in 2014
Fei and Aaron with the first students who attended our Summer Intensive Art Camp for Teens in 2014 (when we only had one studio!)

We’ll start with the standard first interview question: Tell us about yourselves…

Fei - I come from a family of artists and entrepreneurs who are a little bit wacky but in the best possible way. They thrive in chaos (something many artists seem to have in common) and have always been incredibly supportive of my artistic journey. I would describe myself as creative, adventurous, passionate, and nerdy (I was the one who always sat at the front of the classroom). Winged Canvas is all about embracing our quirks and nerdiness though.

Aaron - I come from a family of four boys and a mother who played football. It was...a noisy household. I’ve always been a hands-on person and enjoy tinkering, repairing, and building things. My grandfather taught me woodworking around age 7 and framing came as a natural extension of this skill. And, art needs to be framed, so this skill is especially handy in this business. I also enjoy playing hockey and painting miniatures, so I would say I’m a creative, sports-loving nerd.

Before opening Winged Canvas, what were you both up to job-wise?

Fei - I was a full-time Art Director in Toronto, working on branding and multi-media advertising campaigns. My background was in illustration and design, but I was directing artists and designers instead. It was a great job in terms of security and money, but I missed the creative freedom and hands-on aspect of being an artist.

Aaron - I worked as a marine mechanic, a lighting technician at a concert and event hall, and worked in construction and renovations. They were all very technical jobs which I enjoyed and was good at, but they lacked creativity.

Why did you start Winged Canvas?

Fei - I really missed painting and making stuff. I loved working in a creative team, but I disliked useless meetings, formal corporate habits, and the 9 to 5 grind. I am a free spirit, and I recall having the best time of my life at art camp and then in art school, learning the creative process, exploring my imagination, and designing cool stuff. I wanted to create a unique art hub for other creatives, starting in my home community. I’ve seen people of all personalities and ages connect through art, and it’s invigorating. Plus, I wanted to nerd out with my students over things like colour, highlights, and composition!

Aaron - To help my wife live her dream and make her love for art become a way of life, to use my hand-on technical skills to create something meaningful, and to practice my own creativity. I am inspired by all these artists I meet who have incredible talents and passion for something that I had little knowledge about prior to meeting Fei.

Kids at Art Camp pose with their artwork and the studio dogs.
A group of Art Nerds in training pose with Sadie and Pongo (our beloved studio dogs) in the Monet Studio at our current location, 185 Bullock Drive in Markham.

Was it scary to start a small business?

Fei - Yes, of course. But we try to focus on the fun and spend less time being scared because that doesn’t help much. We laugh at the expensive mistakes we made in the first couple of years and work on practicing patience and optimism. It’s getting less scary when we see all of the passionate and talented people we get to work with and call our team. We’re discovering Art Nerds all around us who share the same enthusiasm, which motivates us to keep going. And it’s amazing that people are giving us money to do what we love!

Aaron - Absolutely scary, but Fei made me do it. JUST KIDDING she didn’t make me but her passion was infectious, and I jumped at the opportunity to start something creative and meaningful together. It actually wasn’t that scary to start, but once the ball got rolling and the bills started to grow, the scarier it started to become. But a motto I like is, “the best is yet to come” because it keeps us striving forward, honing our skills and aligning with our like-minded patrons. We try to always stay positive about the future.

Did anyone say like, hey, this is a risk, don’t do it?

Fei - Yes, mostly the annoying little voice in the back of my head who pipes up sometimes. But that little voice is silenced by all the unicorn and superhero paintings in the studio. If you choose to think about risk, you’ll never see the reward. Plus my name spells “FeiL” so I have to embrace "Feilure", don’t I? If we don’t take risks we’ll never grow.

Aaron - People did and still do, including myself at times, but success is a balance of ideas working and ideas failing. If you never fail you’re probably not trying hard enough, and if you never succeed, you’re probably not learning from your failures. I fail at things on a daily basis and still dislike it every time I do.

So what’s the deal with the name? Why Winged Canvas?

Fei - We love the visual of a flying canvas. It represents the adventure you can have through art. We also liked the pun of a ‘winged canvas’ — as in, you just have to wing it sometimes! Like some abstract paintings of mine. Like deciding to quit our jobs to start an Art Hub. We had to find the confidence to just go for it.

Aaron - What Fei said.

“We Love Art Nerds” is the Winged Canvas tagline. What is an Art Nerd?

Fei - When I was a kid I would get my jollies by compulsively organizing everything by colours of the rainbow — like my crayons and my Skittles. I see that in some kids I teach now, and I think, that’s a young Art Nerd! Art Nerds get star-struck at galleries, proudly wear paint-stained jeans, and have clay mashed up under their fingernails. Art is their food for the soul, something that gives them purpose. Time stops when they’re creating, and everything else disappears. Art Nerds are the ones who are truly themselves when they create, and they work hard, sometimes into the night, and are often their own worst critics. Everyone needs a creative outlet, whether it’s making art, music, dancing, or writing. But Art Nerds are the ones who make it a priority in their life.

Aaron - Someone who is artistic and not afraid to show it. They go home to do art, they doodle in their notes and homework. They’ll usually participate in after school arts programs at school, or join arts clubs.

Part of the creative team pose for an all-female picture in the Gallery (Summer 2018). From left: Rachael Ng, Alyssa Wongso, Hripsime Machkalyan, Nasim Abaeian, Fei Lu, Lina Wu, Beth Dawson, Arruniya Mohendran, Alice Yao, Giovanna Ngai, Jess MacGregor.

What is your best advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Fei - Owning a business is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, except it’s in real life. With adventure comes risk, uncertainty, and change. But it’s also loads of fun! It’s meaningful (like a quest!), rewarding and seriously invigorating. It helps to embrace the adventure, to be adaptable, and to have fun riding the roller coaster, even during the lows. If you’re an optimist like me, the valleys only make the peaks seem higher. You need to be passionate about something (other than a steady income) and have a clear purpose, which is the beginning of every great business.

Also, don’t wait until you’ve read all the books and done all the research. You’ll never be fully prepared for what you’re about to create. Just start. Wing it and enjoy the journey!

Aaron - It’s not for everyone. It’s hard. You'll come to forks in the road when you ask yourself, “should I keep going?” It’s never easy, there’s never one clear or right answer, and you’ll constantly find yourself in new situations. Embrace them, think about them, and thoughtfully try to enjoy the journey you’ve chosen for yourself no matter the course.

What does the future hold for WC?

Fei - Lots of new adventures and surprises! We love technology and innovation, so we’re busy developing more digital art programs and exploring new media. We also believe creative people are the leaders of the future (they are the most resourceful problem solvers, they are wired to be more intuitive, and they have heightened imaginations) so we’re planning a creative leadership program for teens at Winged Canvas. Also, we love to travel, so we’ve partnered with Odyssean Travel to launch an exciting pilot project in May 2020 - an Art Pilgrimage in Italy!

Aaron - Fun. Lots of fun and of course, lots of creativity. Aside from that, I’m excited to get our new front reception area changed (we’re doing some renovations along with everything else) and I’ve got some other creative goodies I’ll be surprising the gallery with this year.

Art Enthusiasts at the Holiday Salon Show, 2017
Fellow art lovers check out the 2017 Holiday Art Show in the Winged Canvas Gallery

So art and entrepreneurship aren’t easy. But that’s kind of the point right? The stuff in life that is worth doing — that we grow from and learn from — is never easy. If you’re thinking of becoming an artist, or opening a business, or doing anything that scares you, we’d say “do it.” Take that risk. Welcome the inevitable failures and mistakes, because that’s how you grow. Because if you don’t fail then you haven’t tried. And where is the fun in that?

If you’re in the Markham area this Family Day, check out our 5-year anniversary celebration on Monday, February 18. Bring the whole family for a Painting Party, cake, art activities and of course, meet Fei and Aaron!

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