Chris Ryniak's basement is infested with creatures — winged, clawed, black-eyed and ... cute.
With names such as Slumberguppy, Tufflepug and Huskyshuffler, Ryniak's critters are crosses between Pokemon and goblins with a touch of humanity. He sketches a new one daily, and the best ones become 3-inch vinyl toys sold online and in stores throughout the country for about $12.
For the past 15 years, he has also been sculpting larger creatures from clay (they're a few feet tall with black glass eyes and fetch about $3,000) and casting resin copies for galleries and collectors.
His work has drawn attention from Pacific Rim and Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro, who viewed Ryniak's sketchbook at a gallery, and DreamWorks Animation, which is contracting Ryniak to sculpt for a forthcoming movie. Meeting toy collectors has even led to Ryniak wandering Pixar Studios and watching special effects reels in George Lucas' screening room at Industrial Light and Magic.
"I wouldn't have been there had I not been part of this weird toy scene," Ryniak says. "You never think that these things would happen."
After attending Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, Ryniak had gallery shows of his paintings and sculptures in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Cleveland and Art Basel in Miami. In 2004, a curator asked Ryniak to craft a custom piece for a toy show, which earned him work sculpting figures for a Chicago toymaker. Ryniak designed something akin to a carp inspired by summers growing up in rural Michigan.
"The first toy was pretty grotesque," he recalls. "I was going through my divorce. I was doing some drawings that were pretty bleak. Things have gotten cuter and cuter and happier and happier." Since that carp, he's designed about 20 toys.
His curious childhood shaped his bright imagination. His parents ran a print shop, so Ryniak entertained himself with scratch paper. If he wasn't sketching, he was exploring the forest or soaking in movies such as Gremlins, Star Wars and The Dark Crystal.
"I didn't identify with people as a kid," Ryniak says. "I identified with fish and turtles. I've always loved nature and love the idea that there's stuff happening under your feet. Why couldn't there be monsters hiding behind your oven or in your backyard?"
Last fall, he left his 12-year job as a graphic designer and illustrator at American Greetings and launched Thimblestump Hollow, a line of otherwordly toys inspired by the fine art he and his girlfriend, artist Amanda Louise Spayd, make in their Bay Village studio.
The couple released their first set of Thimblestump toys in July at San Diego Comic-Con. In a few days, they sold all 1,000. The next 1,800-item order is spoken for too.
Constantly creating, Ryniak posts daily sketches that resonate with his about 60,000 Instagram fans.
"People start to comment," he says. "They will tag each other: 'This is you,' 'This is our dog.' 'This is me in the morning.' "
Ryniak's work has helped him get through adolescence, health issues, a divorce. So now, he's using it to cheer others up.
"There's a lot of garbage in the world," he says. "If I have a platform, as irrelevant as it may seem, if you can affect one person's day positively just for one second, why not do it?"
MORE INFO: bindlewood.com