Mollie Thonneson rolls the dice to find out what color paint she must add to the work of abstract art that confronts her. She lands on green and uses the paintbrush to make triangles. Next it’s my turn. I’m not a fine artist like Thonneson, but it doesn’t matter, because she invented TAG The Art Game to so that anyone could play.
“It’s a collaborative game where any number of players are working together to complete one piece of abstract art,” Thonneson says. Players pull a series of cards that direct them what to draw, paint, or collage on a particular part of the paper or canvas of their choice. The idea came to her while having a conversation with her partner, painter Alan Walker, about whether you have to be an artist to make art. Thonneson wanted to create a product that could help anyone make art.
“I thought, you have to make it fun,” Thonneson says. “What if you made it a game, and you did it with other people? That would be fun. I started building on ideas. Honestly, I was obsessed.”
She used an online business-card printing company to make the prompt cards. “That meant that I had to hand-collate them all,” Thonneson says. “There were thousands of these things, and that was just one part of it.” There are two versions of the game, one that comes with art supplies and one without. “I was manufacturing it out of my living room,” she says. “For a couple of years we were a factory.”
In 2014, Thonneson began cold-calling toy stores. Soon it was a hit at places like Roflcopter Toys & Gifts in downtown Jersey City. Thonneson attended the New York Toy Fair at the Javits Center, where she received hundreds of orders.
In 2015, TAG The Art Game was chosen to be one of FamilyFun Magazine’s Toys of the Year. “That helped put it on the map,” Thonneson says.
She continued to assemble each game in her home even as the popularity grew, until she was approached at a trade show by American Educational Products (AMEP), which wanted to license TAG The Art Game. This meant that AMEP would manufacture and distribute the game.
Thonneson demonstrated the game at the AMEP booth at the 2018 New York Toy Fair in February. The spacious booth looks a lot different from tiny indie ones. TAG shares shelf space with other artistic and educational children’s products. But the giant booth isn’t the only big change that came with the licensing deal.
“I’ll never be collating again,” Thonneson says, happy to close down her home factory and enjoy the royalties of TAG The Art Game.
I Could Do That
For any Jersey City residents who are considering becoming entrepreneurs, Thonneson has this advice: “Get a business mentor.” She received guidance from a family member, Joe Markham, who started KONG, a multimillion-dollar pet toy company that began with an idea that came to him while working in an auto garage. “He helped me with getting the game copyrighted and getting the trademark,” Thonneson says.
She also turned to her alma mater, New Jersey City University, where she recently returned to get her degree. She saw that there was a series of lectures about business open to alumni. There she met professor Donald Egan, who told her about the NJCU Business Development Incubator that helps small companies grow in Jersey City. “He became one of my mentors as well,” Thonneson says, adding that the school as well as the government has many free programs to aid small-business entrepreneurs. She’s open to mentoring Jersey City residents, who hope to follow a similar path.
“Just do the work,” she says. “It seems like a simple thing, but it isn’t. Stick to your dreams, stay up late and believe in yourself. Believe in your product and believe in yourself.”
Artist for a Day
As for my experience with TAG The Art Game? The result is a work of art fit for framing. Layers of paint, colored pencil, and colorful collaged tissue paper have come together to make a masterpiece. Each time the game is played, the outcome will be a unique work of art, often leaving the less artistically inclined amazed at what they’ve created. “A lot of people are so intimidated by art because they don’t know what to do,” Thonneson says. “That’s the biggest hurdle with art. But this game gives people a launch, a little push.”—JCM