By Kate Hanzalik
“People with pets are special,” said Carolynn Lemke, a pet portraitist and founder of the eclectic pet product shop, Noble Friends. “Even if I’m just meeting somebody for just a few minutes, I like to kind of figure somebody out, and I kind of feel like that gives me insight on how to work with someone’s pet, and draw them and really capture their personalities, almost like capturing their souls.”
Lemke is special in her own right. This wife, mother of two children, two cats and one shit-tzu transformed her love for painting pictures of peoples’ pets into a global business with best-selling pet products like home decor, custom wrapping paper, totes, clothes, decor, dishware, and ready-made ornaments.
“What I like about [my work] is capturing the pet’s personality more than their actual look through my artwork, and I’ve had so many people say, ‘Oh my god, you got their eyes perfectly.’ But I think I kind of picture what they would be like if they were a person. I find it with my own pets. I have this one cat. And I always say he is like a British butler. I can just see it.”
In 2009, she didn’t see that her pastime would become her career. She worked at a small design firm for a couple of years after she graduated with a degree in communication design from the University of Buffalo, but then the recession hit, and she was laid off. As she struggled to find a new job, she was blogging and often posted about trying to plan her wedding and other things she was going through at the time. She captured the attention of many women who could identify with her. They started to hire her to do wedding invitations, and the wedding industry also hired her to create blogs and websites. “And it all kind of snowballed from there,” she said. “I could keep working for myself, and almost made it up as I went along. I was making an income, and I could do what I loved, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Could I really do this? Could I work on my own and keep this going?’ It kind of felt like a dream.”
Her personalized approach and interest in working with women-led businesses got her clients thinking about the possibilities. Some asked Lemke to draw portraits of them with their pets for their websites. “This woman, she was a photographer and she had me draw her cat and her and her husband, and she was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this cat portrait. Can I print it out? Can you do one for my mom?’ And it just kind of blew up.”
Eventually Lemke added ornaments and custom pet pillows to her menu of pet products. She created an online shop and called it Noble Friends. “At the time, not a lot of people were doing [custom pet products]. So [by] word of mouth, I just started getting orders . . . And I thought it was really fun . . . [but] I couldn’t tell if all the extra time I was spending doing that was worth taking away from the branding income. So I was like, ‘Maybe I’m going to shut this down.’” Little did she know, a producer from The Today Show was googling pet products and stumbled on her work. The producer fell in love with it, especially the custom pet portrait wrapping paper, so she called Lemke.
“And I was like, ‘Is this spam?’. . . [The producer wanted] to put all my pet products on a segment. She had me send what I thought were my bestsellers, so I sent her wrapping paper, pillows, I sent her a dog dish, placemats, and I created boards with all of my pet portraits on them.” During the segment, one of the hosts raved about the wrapping paper and it quickly became a bestseller.
“[The business] went crazy of course, and I had so many orders in one day that I didn’t even know what to do.” She was drawing so much that she started to draw with a heating pad on her shoulder. “I didn’t really have a system . . . So immediately I had to learn very quickly [how to create] a very organized system on how to take my orders in mass form, and it really taught me a lot. I took a couple of days to figure that out. And I created this system that I actually still use now. I learned a lot about how to run a business very fast. I made a lot of mistakes, of course. But it inspired me to kind of keep going.”
Now she’s navigating new challenges as the business thrives. “My drawing comes totally last. As any entrepreneur business owner probably knows, I’ll go right into emails, getting those done, work on marketing, what I need to put out on social media, what events I need to do, what ads I need to make for myself, what updates I need to make on my website, and then I probably get to drawing after that, which is probably maybe 20 percent of the actual business aspect of things. It’s a lot,” she said. “I feel like when I sit down and I actually get to draw or be creative, it is where I absolutely feel inspired and excited.”
She’s also excited to work with others. “I find that I really connect with people in general. I’m not one of these people who are like, ‘I love animals and don’t like people.’ I really like people. And I like to find a commonality that I have with just like random people I meet.”
Making an Impact
Lemke is using her interests, skills, and talents to make a positive impact on the world around her. She’s on the board of a philanthropy called GALS Foundation, a women-led 501-C3 that partners with and supports animal welfare organizations around the world. According to Lemke, “Our mission statement is, ‘Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.’ While we can’t rescue every single animal, doing these little things here and there can make a big difference eventually.” This holiday season, GALS will be selling pet ornaments, and all proceeds will go toward saving pets around the world from abuse and abandonment.
Locally, she leads Art Camp for kids every summer, which is something she started when she struggled to find an art camp for her daughter that focuses more on the technical and professional aspects of composition. This past summer, she led a version of Art Camp at the Everson Museum.
She’s made a positive influence on the way her children see the world. “[My daughter] really wanted to [go to a horse camp]. I didn’t think she’d do it, [but] I said, ‘If you can figure out a way to make your own money for it, okay.’ So she stayed up two nights making all these bracelets and she took this little wagon, she took my folding table that I take to all my events. She made a sign, she took an umbrella, she set up this whole display in the field by my house where a lot of through-traffic goes. And she said she made sure not to be on her phone and say hi to everybody that drove by. In two hours, she came home and handed me this wad of cash and she said, ‘I’m going to camp!’”
The future is bright for Lemke as she considers ways to scale her business and continue to make a difference in the lives of so many people and pets.
Editor’s note: To learn more about her and her work, visit https://www.noblefriendsshop.com. You can also find her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/noblefriendsshop. To learn more about GALS Foundation, visit https://www.gals.foundation.