Kate Dwyer and Penelope Gazin hadn't dropped a bombshell when they told Fast Company that they created a fake male co-founder to help deal with the sexism that they'd experienced while building and launching their online art market. The Witchsy founders had already shared that information in interviews. For some reason, though, the Fast Company story went viral. Gazin thought that maybe the attention they were getting would last a few days. It didn't. More than two weeks after the story hit, Dwyer and Gazin are sitting inside an Echo Park restaurant for yet another interview.
All this goes back to the months leading up to the launch of Witchsy. Dwyer and Gazin had an idea for an online marketplace featuring a select group of artists and no censorship. The project was self-funded. Dwyer walked dogs on the side of her marketing job and Gazin contributed funds from her own art business. Since the budget was tiny, they hired people through Craigslist to work on specific tasks. After a bad experience with a freelancer, they created Keith Mann, a fabrication with a last name meant to emphasize his gender. Keith Mann was a go-between, someone they could copy on emails and use to follow-up when they weren't getting answers. It didn't take long for them to see the difference in treatment: “People are way cooler to Keith than they are to us,” Dwyer recalls.
It's an anecdote that clearly resonated with people. In the days that followed, multiple news outlets covered their story. Dwyer recalls talking to one publication while trying to take care of the payouts from the site. Now, they're taking Hollywood meetings. Production companies and agents want to talk to them. “People are fighting over our life rights now,” Gazin says.
Moreover, they say there hasn't been much of a backlash. “Maybe 1 percent have had a negative reaction or commented that it was how we look,” Dwyer says.
The press has been generally positive, but the angle also overshadows what's radical about Witchsy's mission. The site itself is a response to the censorship that exists on Etsy. Dwyer had been peeved after reading that the site banned the sale of spells. Gazin, meanwhile, had multiple experiences with Etsy censors. She had been selling her work through the site for a decade, making a living from the sales, and says that her site would be shut down about once a year for a week at a time. Moreover, she would have to figure out which piece of art was problematic. Once, she surmised, the offensive piece was a figure drawing that revealed a bit of pubic hair. “Those few charcoal pubic hairs are what made it so that I didn't have an income that week,” she says.
On Witchsy, nudity is OK. Look around and you'll find images that are blatantly sexual. You might also find some that could be construed as violent. In that respect, Wtischy doesn't stand as an alternative just to Etsy but to social media on the whole, where random, anonymous users can report an artist's work as being offensive.
“What happens when you have so much censorship and so many people having to fall into these strict and rigid guidelines is that you start losing unique voices,” Dwyer says. “I think that is something that you're already seeing when you look on Instagram. If someone doesn't like something, or finds it too sexual, risqué, provocative, whatever, it can be immediately removed.”
For Dwyer, online censorship poses important questions. “Are we now holding companies responsible for our moral fiber and what we're supposed to acknowledge and like and what we're supposed to be offended by? Or do we get to make those decisions?”
Witchsy's lack of censorship points to another unusual feature of the site: It's not for every artist. Sometimes, Gazin will approach artists whose work she thinks will do well on the site. Other times, artists apply for a shop. Gazin says they accept about 25 percent of the applicants. Their policy points to the hard truth of the online marketplace, that not everyone will be able to make money selling their goods online.
Dwyer is critical of online sites pushing the idea that anyone can start an art business. “I think there are a lot of sites that tell people that anyone can do it. Give us some money and we'll put your listings up. Pay us some more money for advertisements so we'll make sure people see your scarves or whatever you're making,” she says. “To me, that's wrong. You're selling people on dreams.”
Gazin adds, “Some people love the novelty of having a shop. It's very fun and if they want to do that, that's OK. But we're not going to take somebody's money if we don't think they're going to make their money back.”
Witchsy artists don't pay a monthly fee for their space. Dwyer says that the site functions more like a gallery, taking a commission on sales. So far, the model is working out: Witchsy made a profit in its first year. Dwyer and Gazin have been able to make a bit of a salary, although not quite a full-time one. Dwyer still takes on side gigs. Gazin is continuing to work on art and animation projects. Meawhile, Witchsy is planning a collaboration with Iheartcomix for the upcoming Los Angeles Comic-Con. They also have a licensing deal for Rick and Morty products that they'll be unveiling closer to the holidays. All the extra press about Witchsy and their imaginary guy, though, has been a benefit for the young company.
According to Gazin, “It's directly benefiting 400 different artists.”