Meet the dynamic duo promoting Prince Edward Island through local art and craftmanship.
Husband and wife team Pieter Ijsselstein and Geraldine Ysselstein run The Birchtree Gallery and Island Potato Soap Company in Victoria-by-the-Sea, Prince Edward Island.
Geraldine, a seasoned artist, weaves the island’s beauty into her paintings, which find homes in the hearts of art lovers around the world, from across Canada, to the United States, Europe, and Japan. Pieter has harnessed a unique technique – potato juicing – to produce distinctive handmade soaps and creams. His products, some of which feature Geraldine’s artwork on their packaging, can be found at The Birchtree Gallery and more than 100 craft shops in PEI and two airports. The gallery also sells Pieter’s handmade pottery.
The couple, who have successfully nurtured various small-scale enterprises in the past, proudly contribute to their island community by showcasing Mi’kmaq art, hosting arts and crafts workshops, and hiring local people.
CFIB sat down with Pieter and Geraldine to learn more about their experiences as small business owners.
What are the positives and negatives of working together as a couple?
G: Well, a positive is we both realize the effort it takes to make a good product that has good presentation, so we can encourage each other in that. Negatives? Maybe competing for space!
How are you involved with your community?
P: We collaborate with indigenous people, the Mi’kmaq, and we’re selling products from their community in our shop.
G: It’s a good talking point with guests to the island because they don’t know about the Mi’kmaq community. Also, Pieter does some pottery, and he gives the pottery to a Mi’kmaq artist, and she paints her designs on it. So, it’s a collaboration between him and the Mi’kmaq artist.
This summer, every Tuesday, we invited a Mi’kmaq elder to the gallery who is experienced at basket making. In three hours, she would take students through the process of basket weaving and by the end they had a beautiful basket and they had learned a lot about the Mi’kmaq culture from her.
We’re proud to provide a business with art that reflects the scenery and the beauty of the island. I feel like we’re a vital part of representing and promoting Prince Edward Island. We also employ local people. We have summer students come and work in our gallery and have been doing that for 14 years. They learn a lot about art and the business side of making a product.
What is the best part of being small business owners?
G: It’s always an exciting experience to find a new product or a new way of doing things, or when people enlighten us about what the market is doing. Also, when I sell a large painting, people are happy, and they hang it up and send me a picture of it in their home. They almost become your friends - there’s a rapport with your client and they bring family and friends in and there’s continuation of sales.
P: We’re always looking at new ways to market our products and find more retailers, especially off the island, but we really enjoy the small-scale nature of our business.
How do you promote your businesses?
P: We did a lot of craft sales in the past, but we’ve stopped because we’re in a location right now with a heavy concentration of tourists in July and August and we get between 200-300 people coming to our shop every day. We also go to buyers’ markets, where people from all the retail shops are looking for new products to sell. Our online business is pretty good too – people find us online and order online.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
P: They never teach this in Economics classes, but if you want to know what’s selling, go to the city and go store-to-store and ask about what their best-sellers are. Find something, research it, and see how you can improve it. We’re in the minority, people who produce stuff and sell it to stores.
G: Painting is fine art, but I have to be in tune with the visitors who come to this island. People want to see paintings of the places they’ve seen or experienced, so I try to make my artistic expression reflect that. While I’m free to paint the way I want, I’m also producing something people are looking for. But not just a lighthouse over and over! [Laughs]
Interested in learning more about Geraldine and Pieter’s businesses?
Island Potato Soap was one of the featured products in the 2023 Big Thank You Box.