Anthology: Shifting Out of Neutral

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Pixar’s Ratatouille features Auguste Gusteau, a chef who proclaimed anyone can cook. His belief is that cooking is not meant to be restricted to those with culinary backgrounds. Ego, the movie’s food critic, has a second interpretation: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” On Madison’s State Street, the sisters Komai, Sachi and Laura, employ a similar philosophy to Anthology, their paper and craft store. Simply put, anyone can art.

That heartening message is clear before entering; a busy display window shows off crafted merchandise incorporating snarky witticisms, uplifting creeds, and local artwork. Nothing overly extravagant. They’re saying, in Laura’s words, “Hey, you can be creative. These are ways you can bring creativity into your life. … Really, the core mission of Anthology is to facilitate creativity.”

Anthology addresses its mission by functioning as both a workshop and a gift shop. The workshop aspect (temporarily on hold as of this writing because of COVID-19) allows for people to partake in acts of art no matter their skill level or interests. Have an idea for a button? Bring in your design, pay a buck, and use the button press. Looking for something to do with a few friends? Reserve a craft party and customize your own decoupage mirror.

“To me, art is simple things,” says Laura. “Like that core of putting pencil down on paper, whether it’s drawing or how you’re corresponding and connecting with people. Just sending them a card and putting some cute little tape on the background of it.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

As for the gift shop aspect of Anthology, this is not only how the sisters Komai sell their own artwork, but the work of other local and independent artists. They even go out and find artists when they have a particular concept in mind. “We would go to these huge stationery shows,” says Laura. “I’d say, ‘We really need to work on representing people of color.’ We’d walk around these stationery shows, and there aren’t any there. We’d be like, ‘Well, I guess we couldn’t really find anybody.’

“Then it was just recognizing that you have to go back a few more steps before that because not everybody can make it to the stationery show. It’s this huge commitment in terms of money to get to that point. To say I can’t find anyone there doesn’t mean that anyone is not creating. It just means they can’t jump that hurdle to get to those trade shows.

“This summer, we made a Black Lives Matter sticker pack. We have 20 different artists that we found. Some just have digital content, didn’t have product. We pay them for their image, and we’re making stickers out of it and selling the sticker pack. Again, it’s really, for us, how do we use the store to facilitate people’s creativity and to get people who are creating to the next step of being able to create something for us that we can sell.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Oh, right. Another thing about the sisters Komai, they’re very willing to use their store’s voice on political matters…now. When they first opened, in 2008, that wasn’t the case. One of the first investments was the aforementioned button maker, but aside from a little Obama button in a sea of so many other designs, there wasn’t much tied to politics.

That changed in February 2011 during the Act 10 protests at the capitol. “I have a friend who’s a union person,” says Laura. “[Sachi and I] were like, ‘Should we make buttons? Should we not make buttons? Is it taking advantage of the situation?’ And my friend said, ‘You have to make the buttons. Union people love buttons.’ That, for us, was a huge thing. … It wasn’t as much of a risk as we thought it’d be.” In fact, the buttons brought in so much more business that Anthology was able to move into its current location at the old Fanny Garver Gallery, which is three times the size of the old space.

“I think there’s such a mythology of business is supposed to be neutral. I think it’s hard as a businessperson to say, ‘Oh, okay, you can take a stand.’ There’s just so much you’re supposed to please everyone or not displease anyone. You’re just sort of feeling like you should be neutral. I think most businesses aren’t neutral. Their business owners clearly contribute money one way or the other—that betrays neutrality. The general neutrality is just to say we’re trying not to offend anyone.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

And being outspoken doesn’t mean being insulting to other viewpoints. The sisters Komai appreciate that difference in perspective doesn’t automatically translate to difference in morals or values. Much of their store is dedicated to celebrating Wisconsin as a whole. Their website even has a category of items entitled Regional Love, where patches, prints, notecards, and t-shirts show off pride in Wisconsin culture.

Laura credits her appreciation of perspective to her father. “Our dad was a photographer. He’s always aimed to create pictures that are interesting, but not necessarily typical postcard pictures. So the question is how do you portray a space that’s evocative and meaningful, but doesn’t rely on the image that the airport gift shop always relies on. So he, with his photography, was always pushing us, asking how we are seeing things. My master’s degree is in geography, so again, it’s all about place and how you represent place. It all connects.”

As a final arm of its advocating for the artist in all of us, Anthology’s donations go to the things that inspired the sisters Komai when they were young. “Our entire childhood had been the Art Cart, classes at UW Extension.” By helping to keep these programs alive for future generations, they continue to shatter mindsets that art is an unobtainable obscurity for the uniquely deserving or talented. Art can just as easily be the little things. “I have always thought that notecards were just a little piece of art,” says Laura. “And you can get one for $4.”

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson


230 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 204-2644