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Children and adults are exploring their creative potential with the whimsical, eco-friendly art kits from Artterro, Madison’s young and award-winning toy company. Two inspired and resourceful moms (and Willy Street Co-op Owners), Forrest Espinoza and Jen Conn have combined their uniquetalents to create 12 ingenious art kits and one heartfelt business.
Visible through the clear, reusable packaging is a wondrous assortment of materials including vibrantly dyed wool felt shapes, wire, beads, hand-made paper (100% post-consumer waste), fabrics and a colorfully illustrated “idea sheet” of open-ended suggestions designed to guide hours of artistic inspiration. The kits are designed not only with children in mind but also families wanting to share in an age-old need for fun and creative activities.

“I just think being creative is so important and it’s a human need. Being able to make something that you can give to someone else is also important.” -Forrest Espinoza, Co-owner, Artterro

In 2006, Forrest was initially motivated by a disappointing lack of open-ended crafting options for her and her then two-year-old son. Finding mostly stickers, coloring and cutting projects using plastic, imported and sometime toxic materials, Forrest explained, “[I] wanted to provide materials that children and adults would enjoy and it’s taken a lot of research to learn how to make that happen.” Before deciding to launch her first solo entrepreneurial endeavor, her search for sustainable and/or local supplies yielded a good number of Wisconsin- or U.S.-made products, but she has yet to find any U.S. sources for the beads included in some kits. Forrest and Jen remain hopeful for more local and sustainable producers to present themselves, but until then their search continues.

Also in 2006, the company had originally founded under a different, but similar name. However, soon after receiving top honors for the Creativity Kit from the National Art Materials Trade Association for best new product, Forrest discovered a trademark conflict with that name. The next day, Jen accepted Forrest’s offer to become a co-owner of the company after having worked freelance on graphic design for Forrest. Immediately, the two set out to find a new moniker that would capture the essence of the old name. Eventually, Jen came upon “Artterro,” to reflect their mutual desire to provide inspirational art supplies that are also friendly to the earth (terra).

It’s all in the details

After Jen designed the colorful inserts used in their kits, she began searching for local “green” printers before finding it necessary to widen her search. “We looked for a green printer locally,” Jen explained, “but they were just starting, so we found a green printer in Eugene, Oregon. They print all of our packaging inserts and our marketing materials and they use 100% post consumer waste paper, and offset all of their energy usage with wind power. They [only] do green printing and so we have this great relationship and they’re excited to be a part of it. It feels good to be in this community and tapping into these green businesses.”

Remarkably, all assembly and shipping is accomplished through Goodwill Industries in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who provides training, employment and supportive services for people with disabilities and other barriers. With an estimated workforce of 150 in that facility, the workers will have assembled 24,000 kits by the end of the year. Jen says, “This is our first really big holiday production, and as we grow, the more people [Goodwill] can employ.” To which, Forrest adds, “The beautiful thing is, for one, they’ve been amazing working with us, because we have a very different product than they’ve ever had to work with before. So they’ve been very patient. And we started very small; we’re still a pretty small business, especially for them, but they actually love that because they want to help us. They want to help us grow. Also, our kits [contain] very beautiful materials, so it can be very therapeutic for the people they employ.”

Forrest puts price high on thelist of priorities when designing a new kit. She says, “We want these [kits] to be affordable. We want this to be for a family. Making it affordable is number one for us. There’s a lot of value built into one package.” Describing mainstream art material manufacturers, Forrest continues, “What I realized right away was that with the packaging, I didn’t have to put it in a big fancy box with a lot of printing. Alot of money is being spent on the box and [it] goes right into the garbage. Then I realized I was able to spend a lot more on the materials and I didn’t have to put plastic or acrylic materials in the kit.”

“When you start with something that is beautiful, whatever you make is going to be beautiful.”
-Jen Conn, Co-Owner, Artterro

The co-owners of Artterro have structured their company to provide flexibility as they each raise two children in their respective households. Recently, they hired an accountant who is also a work-at-home mother. During our interview at their home-office on the north side of Madison, Forrest and Jen often spoke in unison or finished one another’s sentences in a relaxed and intuitive way, especially as Forrest stated, “We want to be healthy people so we can make good decisions. We share the workload, but we also share what’s going on with each other and our life. It is a lot of work, having your own business, but it’s something we really love and I think we have the right talents for what we’re doing and that is what drives us. And we believe in the product we’re putting out there and it’s fun to sell.”