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Made in Cleveland: The Rise of the Maker Economy in Cleveland



On a brisk afternoon in late October, Suzanne Price adjusts her black dress and leans her camera in toward a table of miniature snow-dusted trees, ice skates with hand-stitched bows, and meticulously assembled holiday streamers strewn across the wall of a downtown warehouse. Calls for set changes led by Stephanie Sheldon, founder of the Cleveland Flea, echo in the background. Presentation in these matters, after all, has become key.

Just south of Cleveland, Brit Charek and Mathias Noble King pour over paperwork in their co-working space. They plot out the nuts and bolts of the upcoming Crafty Mart and Manly Mart, settling over a list of possible artists and DJs and marketing connections and shuttles.

And in her office at the cavernous Lake Erie Building – better known as the Screw Factory – Shannon Okey, the grandmother of all not-your-grandmother's-craft-fairs, pulls up the plans for the 10th anniversary show of Cleveland Bazaar. Behind her, a canary yellow poster for the Chicago DIY Trunk Show reads, "We want everyone to rethink corporate culture and consumerism." The declaration, aptly titled Craftifesto, finishes with the bouncy message, "The power is in your hands!"

Quite literally.

It's inarguably indie craft's reigning decade. What may have begun as a repositioning of conventional ideas about crafting has crescendoed into a flood of artists who, looking for work after the economic crash, found new means of making a living. The "shop local" maxim has become a common cheerleading refrain in advocating for small businesses. And a host of circumstances has created new avenues for entrepreneurship, and no more so than in Cleveland, a city with a long, proud tradition of making things. There was and always will be (hopefully) steel and aluminum and the industrial manufacturing set. Now, the artisans are getting in on the action.

Grassroots Beginnings and the Rise of Internet Crafting Culture

Shannon Okey was living in Boston when she discovered Bazaar Bizarre, an arena of oddities founded in 2001.

"They didn't see it as an arts and craft show," she says pointedly. "They saw it as entertainment."

Bazaar Bizarre would go on to launch satellite shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and come 2004, in Cleveland under Okey's supervision. She planted the annual holiday show in 78th Street Studios, the expansive art community building on the near west side that formerly served as headquarters for American Greetings' design department, lining its multi-floors of space with rows of vendors.

It at once stood alone as a momentous moment in the local craft scene and an example of a tidal wave of similar projects coming to fruition: The young handmade movement was flourishing, with Bazaar bookended by the launch of magazines like ReadyMade, which took off in 2001, and the introduction of like-minded shows such as Renegade Craft Fair, now one of the largest in the country, in 2003.

And there was Etsy, whose launch the same year would not only skyrocket handmade into the public eye with the ease of online shopping, but also lend itself as a networking tool for artists to connect with one another. In 2008, Kathy Patton invited artists who knew each other from Etsy, along with a Cleveland Handmade meet-up group, to form the Last Minute Market where they could sell and trade near the holidays, capitalizing on the shop-local theme and demand.

Word eventually spread south of Cleveland and the Akron/Cleveland connected Crafty Mart was founded in 2009 before eventually being taken over by Brit Charek.

"Etsy is a great starting place but it was becoming a flooded market," says Charek. "When it comes to shows, the vendors who engage with the audience just do better. You get to buy something from the person who made it and hear their story behind it."

Charek, who began crafting herself that year as a way to meet education expenses, learned the impact of local spending firsthand.

"I wanted to invest my dollars in people rather than corporations," she says.

"It's a vote," adds her husband Mathias Noble King, who has recently started his own event, Manly Mart. "You show where you want your money to go."

As the indie craft scene continues to evolve, small companies, markets, and retailers alike have recognized the immersion of technology and social media beyond platforms like Etsy for better and for worse.

"It's become so competitive because it's something that's gained so much popularity," says Charek. "I spent the summer learning to rebuild our website just to stay relevant."

A Growing Community

Accessibility was the driving force when 20 friends met up at the now defunct Lakewood coffee shop Bela Dubby in 2009. Unsure of a place for their edgier off-kilter crafts, they bonded together to form the Cleveland Craft Coalition. The first monthly gathering marked a starting point for community building in all its skull-and-crossbones emblazoned attire, zombie kitsch and rockabilly punk style glory. The stranger, says founding member Rhiannon Blahnik, the better.

"For many people, their very first craft show was with us," remembers Blahnik. "We didn't want to impose a huge table fee like some other shows, so we did it as cheaply as possible and got in as many people who were on the fringe."

After retiring from show organizing, the Coalition embarked on a new venture appropriately named Project Martha, where the goal for the night was to recreate a design from the Martha Stewart Encyclopedia of Crafts. Don't write it off: the Stewart camp is now one of the largest funders of Renegade Craft Fair and has spotlighted regional artists, notably clothing designers 23Skidoo, leatherworkers Fount, and maybe the most recognizable success story in Cleveland, Liza Michelle Jewelry.

Steady Momentum

As the Internet brought more attention to indie craft fairs, the movement reached further through the city when the nomadic Avant-Garde Craft Show began hosting shows from Rocky River to Chagrin Falls in 2011.

"The Internet became such a big role in everything we do," says the show's creator Becki Silverstein. "In such a disconnected world, it keeps that humanistic quality. To know someone put their sweat and tears into something. Despite everything that's changing, we still have this old-school tradition."

While handmade awareness may have exploded in past years, it was the economic state of the late 2000s that collectively united many artists who found themselves having to turn their hobbies into a career. When Stephanie Sheldon was laid off from her architectural job in 2009, she relied on her roots in handmade to work a string of odd jobs to make ends meet. It was a hustle she recognized in other artists when she laid the groundwork in 2012 for what would become one of the most captivating events in the region, the Cleveland Flea, which has exploded from a niche event into a monthly must-attend for thousands.

"Crisis breeds clarity. What happens is you go back to the basics. It all becomes very elemental," she says. "When you're put in that mode, things that are important rise to the surface. If you have to make money, you have to think, 'Well, what am I good at?' How industrious can we be with our own two hands?"

Shoppers came in droves to support the newly established markets in central locations near downtown like the Slovenian National Home, Sterle's Country House and Tyler Village. Building on the idea of a monthly routine, repeated exposure to vendors bred recognition, repeat business, word-of-mouth recommendations and, most importantly, sales.

Artists became more or less household names— people you expected to see every month — and vending at the Flea became a legitimate avenue to grow a business. Sheldon lends examples such as Melissa Hale of perfumery Yates Apothecary, who regularly leads workshops and recently procured a new studio space for expanding classes and output.

"When you buy her products, that's how she feeds her two sons. Sometimes people miss that," says Sheldon in a booth at the Jukebox. Take a step outside the Hingetown watering hole and you're surrounded by evidence of the evolution, a bevy of independent businesses who vended at the Flea before launching their own brick and mortar operations: Beet Jar Juice Bar, Cleveland Tea Revival and Kutya Rév Dog Haven to name a few.

The energy is contagious. For those feeling the void of the defunct Craft Coalition's edge, Emma White's Heavy Metal Flea Market is poised to become one of the largest alternative craft fairs in the city. Planted in the Foundry in Lakewood where White works as a bartender, the recently launched bi-monthly event will open up into the ample adjacent parking space this summer.

The ripped and torn, stitched, destroyed and rebuilt ethos of the punk scene isn't new, but outlets for it in the craft world have come and gone.

"When it comes to the punk and metal scene, DIY has always been huge. I was a punk girl growing up. I stole my grandma's sewing machine to make my own mini skirts and put patches on everything," says White. "I just wanted a market that had things I was interested in."

Screw Factory Flourishes

While Okey schemes up the Cleveland Bazaar, Gina DeSantis paces from student to student in her ceramics studio one floor above at the Screw Factory. "This was all accidental," she says and leans over to contour a young woman's sculpture swirling in a row of pottery wheels.

DeSantis had planned to take a more practical route in graphic design when she stumbled upon ceramics and its creative take on functionality. She now owns two studios in the Screw Factory building. Her ultimate goal is to add Cleveland to the major cities that already host a clay cooperative, opening up equipment otherwise nearly impossible to afford, like kilns, to the public.

Along the back table of her studio are more than a hundred commissioned mugs, each personalized by DeSantis. Meeting demand is hardly a bad problem to have, but it can sometimes skew the expectations of shoppers who don't realize the time commitment for each piece.

"Social media can make business seem completely different. I am one person and I get emails from people thinking I'm a huge company," explains DeSantis. "The reality is it all falls on you."

To show just what she and her fellow artists at the Screw Factory's actually do, she began helping organize annual open houses.

"People can come in and see the actual physical equipment I use and they can understand what goes into something from start to finish," she says.

Collective Business Takes Root at Hildebrandt

Robert Knauer leads the way up the cement stairs of the brick Hildebrandt Provisions Co., a 1800's meat processing building turned artistic hub tucked away in the Clark Fulton neighborhood. "This is like the Screw Factory, just grittier," he says.

The carpentry co-op space, also shared by Soulcraft Woodshop, has been the home of Knauer's Sawhorse Woodworks since he dove into business ownership less than a year ago. Lined with wood in every corner, Knauer seems to know the story behind every piece.

"I grew up going to get lumber with my mom, like that piece over there," he says pointing across the room. Then there's the "slab like that rough piece sitting over there," he says, referring to the bench he constructed that became the first piece to ever be sold at F*Show, an annual designer furniture gala in Cleveland.

He's cut short when a pigtail-ed, plaid-wearing woman walks by. She's the first employee to be added to Knauer's roster, a need he's already encountered in his short time in operation. Handmade garners attention for entrepreneurship but its impact on job creation can often go underrepresented.

He needed the extra help when he landed his biggest gig yet, the buildout of East Fourth Street destination Butcher and the Brewer. It came about on recommendation by frequent partners and Hildebrandt co-habitants Rust Belt Welding.

"I like looking at something and knowing this started as a log and watching what it turns into," says Knauer. "Knowing it was made so close to home, you get a better appreciation of how something starts from nothing and turns into something."

In another nearby corner of the Hildebrandt building, Andrea Howell locks herself in a room plastered with snapshots of global couture. It's been her home since she applied for Fashion Week Cleveland tryouts on a whim and turned her seamstress know-how into a clothing line called Tidal Cool.

"As soon as I got my acceptance letter I changed my whole life direction," says Howell. "Every day there's something new I want to do, make, create and design."

While her globetrotting-inspired clothes have been featured on the glossy pages of international magazines, Howell's demeanor is markedly less glamorous.

"The money I make doing this is how I put food on my table, how I make my car payments," she says.

Her smaller-scale approach finds her aligning with other independent business owners when it comes to where she sells her clothing.

"I work with small boutiques because their model is like mine. The owners are usually the ones there the whole time doing most of the work," says Howell. "They really care, they want to promote artists and they'll push you even more."

Tech, Toys, and New Opportunities of the Future

Just west of the Hildebrandt, three-eyed monsters made on a treadle-operated Singer sewing machine greet you at Kaitlin Juarez's home studio in Lakewood. A boomeranger who only recently returned from Rhode Island, she churns out new handmade designer toys monthly.

While her foot-powered sewing is electricity-free, she uses the Cleveland Public Library's TechCentral MakerSpace to laser cut tags for each creature. Not surprising, one of her first shows was themed around the retro-futuristic stylings of steampunk.

"When I moved here, one of the things I worried about was where I was going to find a laser cutter," she says. "When I found out it was as easy as going to the library I couldn't really believe it."

She'll lead Make Your Own Monster classes at the nearby Breakneck Gallery, an art gallery and retail shop co-owned by former Cleveland Craft Coalition organizer Kristen Burns.

Breakneck is also host to plenty of other handmade pieces, including Lisa Pinkston's Sleepy Robot 13. When Pinkston lost her job in 2009, a late night of grinding out jewelry led her to make an exhausted, hand-sculpted clay robot. She threw it on Etsy and it sold within hours. She's now been at it full-time for five years.

"I've always gravitated towards the strange," she laughs. Not-your-grandmother's handmade, indeed. "I think when a lot of people think of crafting, they only think of little old ladies who sit down with a ball of yarn."

She had a brief stint with a brick-and-mortar store, which eventually closed when Pinkston returned her art to the digital realm. She realized first-hand the financial ups and downs faced by small business owners.

"Art grants can be so competitive and I would love to see more," explains Pinkston. "Not just for students, but people who have gotten their business off the ground but just need a little push."

As interest in handmade continues to flourish, competition from all angles is a sentiment echoed anxiously throughout the community.

Melissa Klimo-Major began making soap from her home under the name Terra Verde after Candra Squire, who now owns the Ohio City handmade boutique Salty Not Sweet, asked her to participate in a craft show she was organizing.

"We have this really good thing going, and if we get some momentum we can send it out past the indie crowd and get everyone on board with supporting small," she says. "Then we can get less competitive and more authentic."

Cutthroat has come to define the jewelry niche. For Anne Harrill, starting with small shows was less about business and more about assimilating herself in a foreign land.

Harrill moved to America from France twelve years ago with little industry savvy when she began making her own jewelry under the name Océanne.

"I didn't speak English very well yet, but making jewelry and being in shows was a way for people to get to know me. It was a way to connect with people," she recounts.

She recently established enough business to add another part-time employee, a level of production and sales that other jewelry makers like Erica Young of On the Lookout hope to soon match.

"I'm at the point where I can think about hiring other people. I never thought of myself as being a boss, but now I've been pushing beyond my boundaries," says Young. "That makes me want to grow my business even more and give someone else opportunities."

Growing Options from Market to Consumer

For makers of jewelry and other wearables, events are a way for shoppers to discover their work and hire them for commissions. It's a unique benefit of the ability to buy straight from the designer.

For leatherworker Jordan Lee, participating in the inaugural Cleveland Flea was his first real paycheck since quitting his service industry job to pursue founding Wright and Rede. He regularly vends at local markets and receives commissions on top of what he already sells.

"I was worried I'd have to compete with goods made in foreign countries and I'd have to explain why mine is different from a big-box store. I got a little of that in the beginning but I haven't in quite a while," Lee says. "I like the idea of being able to respond to the consumer culture of using and throwing away. Instead, I could make something myself that people could use forever."

While markets are fueling an economy where it's easier than ever to find an artist to pique your interest, retail shops have always given a year-round home to artisans. In Lakewood, former Cleveland Craft Coalition organizer Chris Sorensen opened Crafty Goodness to house handmade goods. The shop also hosts regular workshops for the novice to expert crafter.

"You see someone at a show and it's not as though you have to wait for their next one. You can come to stores and seek out these vendors," she explains.

Since managing, and eventually taking over, the Ohio City store Room Service, Jennie Doran has been an active proponent of handmade. The shop also claims responsibility for Made in the 216, the vibrant annual showcase of artists.

"As people become more committed to spending their money locally and supporting their neighbors and friends, they're realizing that buying handmade is one of the best ways to do that," she says. "I think it's our responsibility as retail owners to present these works."

Christie Murdoch has always housed a collection of local artists in her Tremont boutique, Banyan Tree, since it opened in 2001. This summer, the shop expanded to one of three Warehouse District shipping container retail spaces as Banyan Box.

"Now more than ever people are asking for locally made. When we first opened, that wasn't necessarily the case," says Murdoch. "People feel proud to have something from their hometown. They like to have a story."

And behind each piece, the true stories of construction lie in all-nighters pulled alone in studios, passions second guessed, tough decisions, stronger bonds, and a tale of people who weren't going to wait for recovery, but went on to make it themselves. We have always been makers and there have always been stories. Cleveland is just beginning to unravel them.

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