Making It: Ryan Callis of Canvas Surf Shop

No one goes into retail these days to make a million dollars. Instead, we’re seeing more and more shops pop up that are concerned with creating a community for art of all forms to thrive. Canvas Surf Shop in Seal Beach, California, is one of those places. Business in the front and art studio in the back, Canvas is a place for artisans to sell their wares and artists to hone their skills. The result is an ecosystem all its own. Ryan Callis started the shop with his wife, Tammy, after working as an artist for many years. Here he talks with us about how he’s like a hummingbird, his days of hustling to make money off his art, and how to follow in the footsteps of masters. 

Tell us about yourself and what you do at Canvas surf shop. What is your brand about, and what makes you so passionate about it?

My name is Ryan Callis, and I co-own Canvas Shop in Seal Beach CA with my wife, Tammy. Tammy and I opened the shop in 2011 as a part of our larger ongoing art project (Look Up Gospel Choir) with a mission to sell quality goods made by small, non-corperate companies. We grew up on punk rock, records by Dischord, SST, K records, etc., and DIY art and music shows, so we wanted to translate that into a shop and be a venue for good folks and products. I also have spent my whole life making, studying, teaching, and showing my art, so teaching art classes in the back half of our shop made perfect sense. We also have a large outside yard and host all kinds of events at the shop. We are very lucky that Merideth and Cat have just joined us as co-conspirators, along with our o.g. pirate Lance, to try and ramp the whole enterprise up with their many talents. The shop reflects our lives, and we are unbelievably blessed to be able to have this space and to be making any money off of it… Surf, make, read, and build community – that is our jam here at Canvas Shop.

How did you start Canvas? When did you start it? Why is Canvas a different and unique shop?

Our story starts with a neighbor’s suggestion, mixes with my ongoing project of how an artist can make a living by his or her art, gets funded by the good folks at Woodshed Films casting our family for a Ford commercial, and through our own ideas, time, and talents, and those of our friends and families, takes on a life of its own. But truly it has been providence and blessing beyond our wildest imagination that has built the shop from the dirt up.

As for what makes our shop unique, I would say it’s the fact that because we have lived unique lives and have unique friends helping us, and unique companies that make the things that go into the shop. It just happens. We focus as much as we can on area shapers, musicians, filmmakers, etc. So because the shop has that lean, that makes for a unique experience as well. Delve Clothing, Nine Lights surf boards, Josh Harmony records, or Camp Design Group might not be household names in Brooklyn (yet), but they are part of the fabric of my zone.

Why did you start this brand or your artistic project?

God made me like a hummingbird that is naturally gravitated towards endeavors. I never know how or why projects start. Maybe curiosity or intuition, but I’m mostly just drawn in. Each thing leads to the next (I know that might sound campy, but it’s true).

I had been working so specifically in the “art world,” and my artistic practice had been so geared towards painting, that Tammy and I felt the need to change course for a bit and develop this. Instead of making a painting, we would make a shop, and see what and how and experience this. It’s insane. Having done this, my hat goes way off to Thalia Street, or Mollusk, or any of the salty dogs who’ve been at this for a long time. Retail is nuts, and I’m glad to have been able to give it a go.

How did you get into the art world?

I always knew that I would pursue a life of art making, but I was an Art Therapy major in college because I thought that would be a way to make a “living” and would still be loosely related to being able to do art. On a whim, I took an internship at ACE Gallery in LA, which is this amazing, blue chip gallery, and it was the best education on the “art world” for a drifting college guy. It showed me a new route that I would not have been able to conceive without actually participating in it. It gave me a lot of confidence as well. That sparked my fire.

You have an art studio in the back of the store. What was the impetus to start that? 

The studio started with my desire to create a space where people would be able to come and make work, and share ideas, and do workshops, and learn basic art skills. That to me felt like as important an aspect of the project as being able to sell good things. My friends were going to come around anyways. Plus, I knew there had to be more artistic types hiding out in Seal Beach, so I thought that I’d give it a try.

How does it work, who gets to use it? 

The studio works like a gym membership. One signs up and pays a small monthly fee depending on material usage and time expected to be spent in the studio. We also offer classes and workshops, and we are a vendor for a few SoCal charter home school programs. There is a tab on the site that says “making art” that has all of the details.

And how do you integrate that into the rest of the store?

The studio vibes out the rest of the store in a good way. It also empties out and is used by artists and musicians to hold shows. We’ve screened movies, and so the space is multi-use, but in the end, it provides space for things to happen. Again, this shop to me is just another art project, so I wanted to have the space function in many ways so that it tells many stories, not just the story of how you went in and bought a board or a shirt. I looked to Thalia, and Mollusk, and Shelter (a now-deceased Long Beach surf shop) as inspiration in that multi-use sense, and then make it our own.

What do you strive for in your business?

That’s a hard one. I strive to honor the purpose, which I’ve yet to figure out yet, that the shop has been gifted to me. Owning the shop feels more like a calling than an occupation. But then I’ll get super frustrated at the fact that people lean on my counter all day and eat up my time. I’m a studio artist making public “art,” yet I get worn out by the “public” side of things. So my easy answer would be, I strive to have a business that can make us all some money and pay for itself while providing our area and community with a rad shop and space. But I’m still figuring that one out. It’s a good question.

What are for you the keys to be successful at what you do?

Get a good night sleep? Keep Perspective? Don’t take anything too seriously? Know that God is in control and I can’t possibly be? Be open? I think that those all are keys to success for me.

What would be a perfect day for you?

Awww, that’s a good one. A perfect day would actually look like a typical day in my life (minus work), with a few additions that may or may not always occur or possibly be able to happen in a 24-hour day:

Make love with my awesome wife, Drink coffee and read, Surf, Eat a good breakfast, Play with my kids, Eat a good lunch, Go to studio the rest of the day and paint, Go to sleep.

What has been the most challenging part of starting your own business?

Tiiiiiiiiiiiime (and money). Also it seems like people are very open to give you the “It won’t work” speeches in talking about doing what we do.

Any advice to someone wanting to start any kind of personal project? Art, shaping, writing, or starting a business or personal project?

Charge it, and have faith, and don’t be lazy, and stay focused, and be a lover and a listener because life is always talking to you. Try to explore what the point is (WHAT’S THE POINT?). Don’t do it for personal glory or gain because you will turn a good thing into an ultimate thing, and that ultimate thing will never deliver. Be real or don’t bother. Just Do It. Ummmmm, go big or go home.