On Valentine’s Day 1998, U-M art students Pete Baker and Michelle Mijal had their first date, dinner at the Original Cottage Inn. Apart from one brief breakup, they’ve been a couple ever since. They finally made it official by marrying in the summer of 2008, the year they returned to Ann Arbor from San Francisco.

Michigan was deep in the recession, but the couple, both now thirty-three, took off running. As freelance artists, Pete explains, they probably did better “than if we had had regular jobs. We cannot get fired.” Though, he goes on, “we can not get hired! As freelancers, we’re used to some lean times.”

A lot of people dream of supporting themselves through their art. The Bakers have pulled it off with a combination of tenacity, talent, and shrewd marketing–with a dollop of good luck.

Planning their marriage, Michelle, on impulse, decided to print the invitations by hand. She and Pete actually built a crude letterpress to do the job. So many people admired the result that she decided to concentrate on designing and printing invitations for other people. (Letterpress invitations have taken off in a big way in recent years; the theory is that people are wearying of computer-generated work and hungry for old-style craftsmanship.) Michelle, who studied scientific illustration, now owns three professional letterpresses, one dating back to 1926.

Michelle has delicate features, a soft voice, and blond hair worn in a longish pageboy. Pete is cherubic, bearded, and impish. Parents of a baby girl, Phoebe Mae, they recently moved from a small house on Depot Street to a larger place on Fountain.

The two are friendly hosts, relaxing in their distinctive living room with its high-raftered ceiling and a brick-covered wall. Each has a separate studio in the house, and Michelle’s printing presses are in the garage. Elevated Works is the name of Pete’s graphic design and photography company; Michelle’s is called Elevated Press. (Pete chose the adjective for the location of his first studio, under the “L” train in Chicago.)

Michelle’s mom, who lives in the Irish Hills, is in the next room with six-month-old Phoebe. “We’re lucky that our moms love to babysit,” says Michelle, explaining that the desire to be close to family was what lured them back to Ann Arbor. (Pete’s family lives in tiny Blissfield, halfway between Ann Arbor and Toledo.)

While Michelle concentrates on invitations and greeting cards, Pete divides his time between website design and, increasingly, photography. He is establishing a national reputation and has an agent. Recent employers include the Wall Street Journal, which sent him to Grosse Pointe to photograph a mansion offered for a mere half-million dollars, to illustrate declining house prices.

His success is especially impressive because professional photographers are hurting; as a result of the digital revolution, more people are taking their own pictures. It helped greatly, Pete says, that “I started one of the early photo blogs eight years ago, putting stuff up every day.” He also posted on sites like Flickr when they were just becoming popular.

In addition to taking assignments, Pete also sells his art photos online; especially in demand, he says, are shots from Iceland, where he and Michelle spent their honeymoon. He has an eye for what he calls “visual absurdity”–a small boat abandoned on a grassy field, a man’s head popping out of leaves piled on a truck. His series called “Detroit Pastures” shows stretches of now-vacant lots, sometimes with a house in the distance. “Some of these houses were torn up so long ago that nature has taken over,” he explains.

They have worked jointly on some projects, including the design motifs (logo, menu, interiors) for Frita Batidos, the new Cuban-themed restaurant on West Washington. “I think they balance each other and seem exceptionally compatible, personally and professionally,” emails Frita Batidos owner Eve Aronoff. “Michelle has a very peaceful manner, which was greatly appreciated and sometimes required throughout the process … Pete brought a very in-depth and precise technical knowledge (of which I have zero) of graphic design.”

“At times we clashed about what we thought was best for her,” Pete admits, adding that such tensions are “not uncommon when clients are closely attached to the project.” The more outspoken of the two, he acknowledges that when they work together, they sometimes fall into “good cop/bad cop” roles.

Both Bakers quickly became active in the local art scene. They’ve helped to organize a couple of craft fairs, including December’s “Tiny Expo” in Braun Court, and in January Michelle was planning to participate in “The Wedding Party,” a wedding expo at the Ann Arbor Art Center. The cultural scene here has made returning to Michigan easier than it might have been, since both enjoyed the Bay Area, where Michelle worked in a gallery and Pete’s design and photography career took off.

Their success as freelancers came through trial and error; nothing at the U-M, they reflect, prepared them to hustle for jobs in a competitive environment. Says Michelle, “I didn’t start out confident. I picked it up along the way.”

For the couple, Valentine’s Day is doubly sweet, as the anniversary of that first date. But they wait until February 15 to celebrate: they don’t like the restaurant crowds on V-Day itself, and besides, it seems more special to celebrate when everyone else has finished. They’re vague on whether they’ll give each other handmade cards: “It’s hard to make things on the letterpress without her knowing,” Pete explains.

Asked what attracted them to each other, Michelle says straightforwardly, “He’s just got a really great sense of humor. He makes me laugh.” Perhaps leery of sounding gushy, Pete appears uncharacteristically embarrassed. After some hedging, he bursts out, “I’m a sucker for artistic girls!”