In her first year of teaching elementary school art, former teacher Nicole Lewis began upcycling broken crayons. She planned a kindergarten art lesson on texture rubbings and created her first multi-colored crayons by melting the broken crayon bits in wax cups. Nicole’s students loved them, which inspired her to make different crayon shapes and open an Etsy store in 2007—she was the first artist to create and sell a handmade crayon online via her Art 2 the Extreme® Etsy store. A few years ago, the artist began creating crayons using 3D molds of her own drawings.
Fast forward to today, and the creative entrepreneur has made over 40,000 sales on Etsy and even created a custom crayon for The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Additionally, one of Art 2 the Extreme’s products was a finalist in the 2020 Etsy Design Awards. With 4.3 million Etsy shops worldwide, achieving this level of success on Etsy is impressive. We couldn’t wait to learn more about Nicole and her business.
Artisan Joy: Describe your artwork or craft?
Nicole Lewis: Art 2 the Extreme specializes in customized and personalized. I create specialty crayons that provide a unique option for art supplies and gifts for various ages. We’re best known for our Personalized Name Original Rainbow Crayons® and customization for business logos and special events. I was the first artist to create and sell a handmade crayon online as well.
AJ: How did you get started making personalized crayons?
NL: I first started the company in 2007 as a hobby to supplement my teaching income. When I started my side hustle, I was an art teacher looking to recycle crayons while creating a fun and functional crayon. Several of my students could not hold a traditional crayon, and my adaptive art supplies helped solve several problems I was having in my classroom.
I left teaching in 2014 when my first son was born, and Art 2 the Extreme became my full-time job. My art has allowed me the lifestyle to stay at home with my children, grow my business and pursue my passion for crayons.
AJ: When did you realize that you could turn your craft into a full-time occupation?
NL: When my husband and I decided to start our family, we were looking for ways to pay for daycare and avoid driving two hours a day for my job. Leaving teaching to pursue Art 2 the Extreme was the obvious choice at the time, and I never thought it was going to be as big as it has gotten today.
About five years ago, the business side of my operation really started to click, and once I adjusted a few things, the sales started flowing in—so much that we could not keep up with demand. I remember Holiday 2017 like it was yesterday. It was so exciting and frustrating at the same time because I could not produce anywhere near the demand for the holidays, often selling out during the first week in November. Customers ordered over a month ahead of time and didn’t mind too much that their order may not arrive until a week before Christmas—that was how backed up we were. I had friends, family and neighbors working around the clock in our basement, helping out with everything from peeling crayons to shipping and postal drops.
The best change so far was when my husband left his job in education in October of 2018 to work in the business. We knew our struggles with production to keep up with demand and did not want a repeat of Holiday 2017. We were able to almost double our sales in 2018 and again in 2019.
In 2020, we planned on expanding by hiring employees and setting up an off-site production studio to accommodate the growth and demand. Then COVID-19 hit. We decided to keep the work in-house and moved to a new home that could accommodate a studio and production spaces while we waited the pandemic out. We love that our new studio has a filming location for on-site interviews and lighting for future video production projects in the works.
AJ: Where do you find inspiration for your creations?
NL: I absolutely love working with crayons and enjoy how the colors of our creations blend in countless ways. I am a lover of all things rainbow and inspired by bright colors and geometric designs. I often think about shapes that my boys (ages 4 and 6) would enjoy using. These are usually shapes that are easy to hold and manipulate the colors. Fun and functional are my goals when drawing up new designs for my molds. My Original Rainbow Crayons® are perfect for texture rubbings and were originally inspired by melting down old crayons in small wax cups with my mom as a child.
AJ: How do you apply that inspiration to your work?
NL: My original work started from a standard circle silicone mold that you could find anywhere. I wanted to go beyond a standard shape and create designs that are interactive, unique and make a statement.
A few years into crayon making, I started turning my own drawings into 3D molds with the help of my brother-in-law. The first custom crayon I ever created was for The Oprah Winfrey Network. The OWN project was such a fun learning experience for me, and I became addicted to the joy of making my own designs. In my packaging, I let the crayons be the star of the show, using neutral kraft packaging. It also ties in the recycling component of my work, and the kraft color reminds me of the earth and recycling efforts we make behind the scenes in our studio.
AJ: What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
NL: I think a lot of people are surprised that I am a one-woman show for the most part. My husband is mainly on the production side, but I handle all of my own PR (and have gotten placement in over 150 gift guides in the past year, all on my own), social media and shipping. It is challenging and exhausting, but I love the social media side of the business because I am such a people person. I really miss in-person markets—how I started off getting exposure for my company.
AJ: As creatives, we can be continuously creating and refining our art. How do you handle perfectionism?
NL: I embrace the imperfections and find that the fun is in the flaws. Some of my best ideas come from drawings that are a little different. Crayons are a medium that constantly changes.
Once you draw with one, the shape immediately changes, and with Art 2 the Extreme crayons, the colors continuously blend and change with each stroke and scribble. My crayons are not made to fit perfectly in between the lines. They are created to help artists and children think outside of the box and make the art and lines their own.
AJ: What advice would you give to someone interested in putting their art out into the world but feels vulnerable about it?
NL: Just do it! There is no right or wrong step to begin. The hardest thing is to begin, and with each step, each day, you get better and learn so much more with experience. I also would tell them not to compare themselves to others. You have your own unique experiences, personality, and value you deliver in your work that cannot be copied. Stay focused on your own growth and experiences that move the needle for you! Do what you can with what you have and do what you love!
AJ: Has someone ever criticized your artwork? How did you handle it?
NL: Everyone has a critic. When my work is criticized, they usually do not take the time to learn, know and understand my story and art. Usually, the critique is in the ‘I could make this myself for less’ type of comments, but that is not my ideal customer and supporter I focus on connecting with. If I inspire you to go out and make it yourself or for cheaper, go for it! Make it a teaching moment with your kids or inspiration to try something new. In the end, people buy from people. Get to know the artist behind the artwork. Get to know the faces behind your favorite brands and what they stand for. More now than ever, we are looking for a purpose and connection to others.
AJ: Creatives are often very in tune with what’s happening in the world. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming. If this happens to you, how do you cope?
NL: It can feel very overwhelming. I am very much an empath and sometimes take on the feelings of others and the weight of the world around me. In my work, I try to be representative of the social issues and ways I can do my part to support others in my community. For me, right now, it is focusing on projects that help others.
I work closely with a non-profit partner, Crayon Collection, which provides free crayons and art education resources to underserved communities. We donate hundreds of thousands of new and used crayons to communities and schools around the country with the help of Crayon Collection and its mission to keep crayons out of landfills and support art education.
AJ: Please tell us more about Crayon Collection.
NL: Crayon Collection’s mission is to inspire a commitment to environmental consciousness and the infusion of art education in underfunded schools. In addition to donating crayons to vulnerable classrooms, Crayon Collection partners with renowned artists such as Kenny Scharf and Annie Lapin to design and implement lesson plans that use art as a tool to teach STEM, literacy, and social-emotional learning standards. You can learn more about Crayon Collection at crayoncollection.org.
AJ: What brings you joy?
NL: I find joy in each day with my husband and children. They are the number one reason I create art and am building a brand around my colorful creations. I strive to inspire and spark creativity in my boys. I love being able to provide fun art experiences for my family, and we love to travel!
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.