One of the first lessons Andrea Sonnichsen learned after opening Northern Whimsy Art Studio is that businesses have a way of developing themselves by remaining flexible and making adjustments.
“My focus when I started this was doing art lessons,” she said. “Then the gift shop morphed into what it is.”
Sonnichsen opened the Ninth Avenue art center this past January, and it’s been gaining momentum ever since. She said her initial idea was to create a space that could allow local artists to share their knowledge with students.
“There are a few options here, but not a great selection,” she explained. “Teaching lessons is what I really wanted to do, and get other artists teaching because I by no means have enough knowledge to share all the things that are out there.”
In April she added a gift shop to the mix, selling items that, she said, must be “Handmade, here in Alaska. Those are my qualifications. And quality. So far I’ve had fantastic artists come into the studio, and I feel very fortunate about that.”
The success of the April gift shop opening caught her off guard. “There were so many people here that it was shoulder-to-shoulder in this little space.”
Once the shop was open, Sonnichsen found that her customer base was different from what she expected. “I thought tourists would be more of my customers,” she said. “But it’s been really the locals and repeat customers. The community support has been fantastic. I’ve felt blessed.”
This support fulfills her broader vision, which is to create a space that is open to everyone. “It’s always been my desire to have some kind of community arts center here in Fairbanks,” she said. “Somewhere to go to learn new things.”
Community and entrepreneurship are both deeply ingrained in Sonnichsen. She was born and raised in Fairbanks. Her parents are business owners, as is her husband. Thus, the idea of working for someone else always seemed foreign to her. So when her child reached kindergarten age and she had more time to devote to endeavors other than being a full-time mom, opening her own business made the most sense. She wanted it to be one that would allow her the flexibility to volunteer at her kid’s school as well.
Sonnichsen and her husband found the downtown location in December and quickly got to work renovating it. “It had green shag carpet and pink walls. It was really special,” she laughingly recalled.
When they pulled up the carpet they discovered a beautiful hardwood floor, which they refinished and which lends the studio a homey warmth.
Classes began to be offered in January, and Sonnichsen used her connections in the local arts scene to find teachers. “I just look at their work, and if I think it’s something people would be interested in taking classes in, we try it and see how it goes. So far the classes have booked well. A couple times I’ve put them out there and within a day they’ve been booked.”
Entering the retail market has taught Sonnichsen another important lesson: Let customers drive what’s offered.
“The things that you think will sell are not necessarily the things that do. Just because it’s not your favorite item does not mean that it’s not going to be somebody else’s.”
Looking down the road, Sonnichsen wants to expand the class offerings. At the moment she has people teaching acrylic, alcohol ink, painting, sketching and more. Most classes are for anyone older than 12, but she wants to place more focus on kids in the 10 to 16 range, a group she feels is underserved. She also wants to reach out to homeschoolers.
Surprised by the success Northern Whimsy has become, Sonnichsen said one of her biggest concerns has been to avoid getting overwhelmed.
“Honestly, there was not a huge amount of forethought,” she said. “It just kind of fell into place for us. It’s been a fun project. I feel like it was sort of meant to be the way things came together.”
David James lives in Fairbanks.