With about a month until Christmas, the holiday buying season is in full swing. Shoppers are out finding the perfect gifts for their loved ones. 9 years ago, Jean Becker and her husband Alex Lemay were one of those shoppers. Unlike most of their peers, the gift they arrived on for family members led them to the decision to start a business.
“My husband and I were trying to think of something unique and different for Christmas gifts for our family. We came across some twisted wire tress that we thought would have made for interesting gifts, except for the fact they were cheaply done with the rocks and leaves glued on. So we decided to make everyone our own twisted wire birthstone trees for Christmas that year. That is how we started this business.”
The family members loved their gifts. Jean Becker’s mother-in-law received a big tree with all the birthstones of her children and her one grandchild at the time. “She brought one of the trees into work and her coworkers started asking for them, to the point that by the following May, we decided to set up a vendor table at Passport to Unity. It kept going from there.”
Becker’s husband Alex was the one who actually made those first few pieces. “I was sitting there watching him twisting the wire and there was something soothing about it, like he wasn’t really paying attention to it,” says Becker, who decided to start creating them herself. “For me, I used it as a way to deal with anxiety, just to sit there doing twisting. I found it really relaxing. Then I started to get interested in the healing aspect of the gemstones and the copper.”
What started with trees, quickly included earrings, then rings and eventually pendants. Becker found herself becoming more and more immersed in her art. She went from selling privately by word of mouth, to running vendors tables at local events and shows, then eventually setting up a table at the Mill Market.
“I have been at the Mill Market since it first opened, except the very first day, which was my wedding anniversary,” she says. “When I first walked in there and saw the atmosphere and people, I knew this is where I belong. If you look at it from the perspective of opening a business and renting a space, the market was a great option. Even with the table cost, you just can’t compete elsewhere.”
Northern Twisted Art has remained a mainstay of the market. After about four years there, another opportunity came Becker’s way. “Working at the market, I noticed that they brought in pizza to the market to sell. I made a smartass comment to the market manager that the pizza should be made fresh at the market. The manager made a smartass comment back, ‘If that’s how you want it, then do it.’ So I did.”
Becker had been making pizza since she was 16, but starting a pizza business was something new to her. In addition to her cooking skills, it required a substantial investment to purchase a pizza oven. “I had a beautiful opportunity. Fortunately, my husband and I had a wonderfully generous, local business owner, Francine Floreani, owner of Great Lakes Honda, step up and help us buy the oven. They jokingly said they would help us buy the oven if we delivered pizza to them. In the end, they gave us a loan and gave us a year to pay it off. So within the first year, I had the oven paid off which was my biggest expense. Within four months I was open for business.”
The Mill Market decided to build an area with the intent for customers to sit, eat and relax. “Having the pizza idea helped get the ball rolling for the seating area and the nice counter space for the Croatian Corner and I to use,” says Becker, who notes she uses as much local product on her pizza as possible. “Northern Twisted Pizza gets its produce from the farmers at the market. I get my meat locally from Bruni’s Fine Foods and use the Thornloe Cheese which is superior cheese.”
So now with two businesses under the Northern Twisted brand, this clearly became Becker’s full time gig. “This is not a hobby. This is a business. I love doing it. I am constantly at the Mill Market every Saturday,” she says. “It is so hard for parents even with two incomes because you pay for daycare just to go to work. I’ve had a few really good jobs. When I was working, I was getting more stressed and anxious because I was doing it to buy groceries and pay daycare. So I finally just said ‘this is it’. I am doing the art and pizza and once my kids get in school, then I will expand. Even so, it is a lot, but if you consider that some people go to work for eight hours a day and then do this too. When you add four kids on to all the work, that’s the crazy part.”
About three and a half years ago, Becker was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her fingers. “I had to slow down with the twisting. So I started to get into resin work. Now, I alternate between the two. I find now I can only make one tree, and then I am down for about three weeks. My hands start to swell. It’s disappointing to not be able to do it more often, but it’s not out of the picture. So now it is more by order.”
Resin art creates a similar feeling to the twisting for Becker. “It creates this weird, relaxing feeling for me. But it is also time sensitive. You only have a certain amount of time to work with the resin before it sets. It can be really hard with the kids. If it is late at night and I am pouring resign and the kids decide they are going to wake up, I just can’t stop. I just say, ‘I really, really love you lots but I need to pour this now.’”
The colour in the resin is created by mixing in alcohol, ink, mica powders and acrylic. Once those colours are mixed you put a layer of white and use a heat gun to blow and make what is known as the “lacing.” “It is a very uncontrolled art. So if you really like a certain line and you go to heat up the lacing and it starts to run, that line might be gone by the time you are done. You can walk away from something and then come back and have something different. It is like the art of randomness. Luckily, I love doing abstract. I put the resin on objects like ceramic, wine glasses, coaster sets, mugs, charcuterie boards.
Becker also uses molds to make little resign magnets for kids as they are often attracted to the resin designs. “Kids want to touch it and play with it. It is like plastic when it is cured, so you can smack it on the table. I have four boys, so I will give them a little container of resin magnets that they can rummage through, and play with their dinosaurs and unicorns.”
Becker, who has an obvious humorous side, notes that her husband has remained involved in the art. “This time of year is his ‘ball season.’ I like to say that every year I sell my husband’s balls for Christmas,” she laughs. “My customers are in on it and enjoy coming up and saying they would like to buy my husband’s balls, even if their own husband is standing right beside them. Of course, I know exactly what they are talking about. My husband paints Christmas ornaments that are quite popular at this time of year.”
Becker likes to be true to herself, both in her art and how she represents herself. “I refuse to do these fake Instagram posts where everything is perfect. I will have paint all over my pants when I am out in public. It’s funny because I have these sweat pants and I look like a painter with them on. I can’t go into public with this fake perception of who I am. I am an artist and I am going to get my art supplies in my art clothes.”
What about her business name? She laughs and says it is also an honest representation of who she is. “I am northern, twisted and I’m crazy.”Northern Twisted Art will be at One Stop Christmas Show on the November 24 at Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre and the Handmade Market at the Machine Shop on December 1, as well as regularly at the Mill Market.