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



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"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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