Operating business a part of artist identity

Cloud Coffee will host an art competition as a fundraiser.

Cloud Coffee parks outside of the Tyler School of Art. Its owners graduted from Tyler prior to opening the business and try to promote art in the community. | Skyler Burkhart TTN
Cloud Coffee parks outside of the Tyler School of Art. Its owners graduted from Tyler prior to opening the business and try to promote art in the community. | Skyler Burkhart TTN

Cloud Coffee, located on Norris Street across from the Tyler School of Art, was recently ranked sixth in the “Top Seven Greenest Philly Food Trucks” by Green Philly Blog. Owners attribute this to their pledge to get as many of their products from local vendors as possible. Their roaster, ReAnimator Coffee, is located in Fishtown, and the pastries they sell are made in local bakeries.

What sets this traveling coffee truck apart, the owners said, is their desire to give back to their local artistic community. This spring, they plan on holding their second “Artist’s Prize,” which will allow them to raise money through an art competition among their customers.

“We’ll do a call for submissions and bring in a juror to select three artists, and the money we get for submissions is turned around and given back to the artists to have for their studio practices,” co-owner Kristen Mills said. “It’s just another way of thinking about how to be active and stay connected – I like being able to use Cloud [Coffee] to do that because it’s us, but it’s us in a different way.”

Cloud Coffee is the brainchild of Mills and Matthew Craig, who both graduated with master’s degrees in painting from Tyler in 2012. While the idea of former art students-turned-business owners seems far off to some, Cloud’s owners see connecting with people through art similarly to connecting with people in the form of coffee.

“If you’ve ever lived as an artist, you’re kind of your own manager,” Craig said of taking the initiative to start the business. “It requires decision-making, making do with what you have and a set amount of tools to work with to complete tasks. The tools to making a business function are similar to what you need to make an art practice function.”

For Mills, art and business are all about communication and connecting with people in the surrounding communities. Along with the Artist’s Prize that she and Craig facilitate, she said she strives to encourage the accessibility of art in Philadelphia through teaching. As an adjunct professor at Tyler, she teaches a graduate seminar called “Professional Practices,” which helps graduate students look into what they want to do after graduation and beyond – what Mills called “life application.”

“Being an artist connects with being a problem-solver and an innovator and I think that’s what we do with Cloud,” Mills said. “The idea of what’s happening every day and how we construct meaning from it, or make meaning from it, I think about that and apply it to both my art and business.”

Operating the business feels more authentic to her artist identity, Mills said.

“When I graduated from Tyler, I was questioning if I could do my work but also connect with the community,” she said. “Then [Craig] and I brainstormed this and I think this is more true to who I am. I still adjunct here and in Boston, so I think this way of living my life as [both a person and artist] by doing projects like this – I see [Cloud Coffee] as a project that I’ve set up for myself – is more true to me. I guess I wanted to be an artist educator, but I also want to be a project-based artist, and I think [Cloud Coffee] plays into that.”

While in graduate school, Craig and Mills met during their first day of classes and became friends. The two call themselves “coffee nerds,” meaning they have high expectations for coffee quality – a trait they acquired from their upbringing.

“I’m from Portland, Ore. and [Mills] is from Boston, so I nearly cried when I came out here,” Craig said. “It was weird to come to Philly and not really see any coffee culture like we had at home.”

Things aren’t always easy for Craig and Mills – the usual challenges of owning a business such as money and time management still worry them from time to time, but their overall transition from artists to proprietors has been fairly seamless, they said.

“We saw an opportunity and we filled it,” Mills said. “It can be exhausting, but I really love it.”

Ariane Pepsin can be reached at ariane.pepsin@temple.edu. 

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