As a child, Brooklyn-based actress Mandi Masden loved doing puzzles. But as she got older, the joys of jigsawing were largely forgotten—that is, until one night in 2019, when she mentioned puzzling while performing a spoken-word piece at a friend’s art salon.
Not long after, her friend, who’d been unaware till that moment how important jigsaw puzzles had once been to Masden, gifted her a special birthday present: a custom puzzle depicting a painting Masden had once seen and dreamed of owning—but couldn’t afford to buy.
The gift made Masden realize how much more she’d still be puzzling if the puzzles themselves reflected her passions, particularly her cultural and aesthetic interests as a Black woman. But there was limited diversity in the puzzle market, she says, a reflection of the country’s art space in general: According to recent studies, more than 85 percent of the works featured in major U.S. museums are by white artists, and more than 80 percent of American artists represented by top New York galleries are also white.
So, Masden wondered: How could art aficionados like her engage in and learn about the work of artists of color in this largely noninclusive environment? And how could they do it in a way that would also allow the artists to benefit financially?
It was at this moment that Masden had an idea: She’d create and sell a line of curated puzzles featuring works by contemporary artists of color, who would partake in the profits as well. And with that, Apostrophe Puzzles was born.
To bring the brand to life, Masden went into curatorial mode, scouring the internet to choose art that really spoke to her interests then “following artists until I found something that would make for a great puzzle,” she says.
The logistics of manufacturing high-quality puzzles, however, involved a steep learning curve. “It was super easy to make the decision to start the business,” Masden explains, “but figuring out how to run it and manufacture the puzzles was very hard—I had no background in this area.”
Compounding the usual difficulties of building a start-up were the unforeseen obstacles created by the outbreak of the pandemic. Masden, who’d conceived the brand before coronavirus hit, suddenly found herself facing a whole new set of roadblocks. “This was a self-financed project, with no significant financial backing,” she says, “so figuring out the pricing and international shipping delays during the pandemic was immensely stressful and expensive.”
Yet the crisis also had another, equally unexpected, effect on the enterprise: Puzzles, among other games, suddenly became extremely popular as a quarantine activity, creating a market that was more eager than ever for new images.
When Masden released Apostrophe Puzzles’ first collection in early 2021, the response was overwhelming. A second collection followed, reaching the market just this spring. Now, only a little more than a year in, the brand can be found in about 70 stores, galleries, and museums.
“It’s incredible that museums are recognizing and using our puzzles to welcome people of color into their space,” Masden says. “Covid brought puzzling back, and a lot of POC, no longer feeling ignored, returned to it through our puzzles. They tell me, ‘Finally, I see art that looks like me, that resonates with me.’”
The predominately white puzzle community on Instagram has also been hugely supportive of Apostrophe, Masden adds. “Having been puzzling for years, they too recognize how exclusive the puzzle industry has been, and have been very encouraging about wanting to see diverse images.”
Both puzzle collections feature a wide variety of styles—florals, abstracts, mixed media, landscapes. The second also features puzzles of varying difficulty, to suit different skill levels. “Some puzzlers need immediate gratification and won’t gravitate toward [more time-consuming] puzzles,” Masden says, “while meditative puzzlers don’t mind lingering over a puzzle.” She also hopes to drop a third collection this fall, adding 500-piece puzzles—a favorite of both younger and older players—to the 1,000-piece games in the current collections.
Not surprisingly, fans have also been responsive to the high quality of both the art and the puzzles themselves, which allows them to be appreciated as more than simply games. “You don’t want to just piece them together and pull them apart,” she explains, “you want to potentially frame and hang them, too.”
Of course, along with offering more diverse art for aficionados, another top priority for Masden has making sure Apostrophe generates a healthy income for the artists whose works it features. They receive a 12 percent royalty on each of their puzzles sold—a rate that, while higher than the industry average, is one she’d someday like to increase. A percentage of the proceeds also goes to Apostrophe’s nonprofit partner, Project Art, which works with public libraries to offer free afterschool classes to historically divested communities of color.
As Masden sums it up, Aspostrophe Puzzles is supporting “arts education, arts access and arts payment.” Talk about a game changer.