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



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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.

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