Craftwork: Pursuing Passion To Make Things By Hand

Bethany Nixon paid her rent in college by finding great vintage clothes and selling them to her friends – putting that Central Michigan entrepreneurship major to good use at a young age. Post-college, she worked for other people, married, and bought a house, all the while harboring dreams of someday opening up her own vintage clothing store.

Eventually, she and her web-designer husband pooled their talents and launched ReWare in 2005. Nixon now runs the shop from two closets in her Pontiac home and has expanded to include crafts and some clothing items she’s restyled herself.

Since Nixon was starting the business as an online store (versus a bricks and mortar location), advertising was key those first few years – until she established a following. She’s of the generation that feels totally comfortable living life online, so her customers, who tend to be around the same age, responded. And it’s paid off in spades. Nixon now fully supports herself with ReWare.

Her advice to other would-be entrepreneurs is to make sure you have people to turn to who understand aspects of the business, such as taxes or legal issues, that you may not.

Equally important is finding like-minded people to keep you focused and enthusiastic about what you’re doing, which Nixon found in craft group Handmade Detroit.  “I think it’s important to surround yourself with people that are going to inspire you and drive you.”

One way to do so is at Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market, one big indie artist klatsch. A former big box franchise — an Old Navy store to be exact — at 9 Mile Road and Woodward has morphed into something uniquely homegrown. Some might even view the Rust Belt Market as the former tenant’s exact opposite.  Independent artists and crafters have set up shop in the cavernous store, turning it into one part art fair, one part funky flea market and one part artist community.

The vibe is like a party at your coolest, most creative friend’s place. Music blares, people congregate on couches, and everyone from fine-art photographers to a spiritual counselor/tarot reader display their wares at visually arresting tables.

The Rust Belt Market is a 15,000-square-foot space where vendors can rent a booth for a day, a weekend, or by the month. Up to 70 vendors can fit; more like 50 to 60 or so fill the market on an average weekend (it’s open Saturdays and Sundays from 11-7). Offerings range from vintage clothing dealers to T-shirt makers and food entrepreneurs to fine artists. And like the cherry atop a very funky cake, there’s live music or a DJ spinning much of the time.

Nixon, as well as the artists at Rust Belt Market,  are  members of today’s burgeoning BoHo Entrepreneur class – creative-minded people who are leaving behind the 9-to-5 grind to pursue their passion of making things.

Blame it on the recession or chalk it up to a growing subculture of people who prefer vinyl records to MP3s, the trend toward independent creative entrepreneurship is real and rising. People value authenticity, and that often comes in the form of a handmade object with pedigree and a good story.

“I think when things get really high-tech and glossy, there’s always a swing back, with people going back to doing things by hand,” explains Nicole McGee, of the Cleveland-based recycled art venture Plenty Underfoot. “At a time when we can buy anything by simply pointing a phone in the right direction, it’s nice to do the opposite, to use scissors and glue and make things completely by hand.”

Learning to Fly

Despite their gigs, folks like Nixon are by no means flying solo. According to a report released by MBO Partners titled “The State of Independence In America,” there is a large and growing number of independent workers in the U.S. MBO, which supports the independent consulting sector, puts the current number at 16 million, but they expect that figure to balloon to 70 million – more than half the private workforce – by 2020.

It’s easy to assume that many of these people have been pushed out of their nests and into these less-than-typical jobs by a lackluster economy. But that is not the case for more than half of them, according to the same study, which says 55 percent made a proactive decision to go solo.

Follow Your Bliss

Something magical happens when person and passion collide. Scientists talk about the release of endorphins, when feelings of euphoria kick in and all else fades away. When we are truly immersed in the task at hand, little else seems to matter. That might explain why almost 80 percent of independent workers report being “highly satisfied.”

“When I get in the studio, I’m immediately back in kindergarten art class,” says Laura Nelli, founder of Minneapolis-based Nelle & Harold, a handmade handbag company. “The actual making of the product is a huge relaxation experience for me.”

Nelli graduated in 2002 with a communications degree, and when she couldn’t find a job, she decided to make one. Today, she runs a thriving little boutique, and her made-to-order clutches have been featured in almost every glossy fashion magazine at the newsstand.

“I grew up in the rural Northwoods of Wisconsin with a mom and dad who ingrained in me that if you want to do something, just do it,” she adds. “I’m an entrepreneur; I was born to be one.”

Like many within this BoHo Entrepreneur class, Raven Toney’s journey to occupational bliss is one that seems logical only in hindsight. Easy on the eyes, Toney began snagging modeling gigs in his early 20s. He ultimately settled in New York City, where he launched a high-end event-planning firm that indulged the hedonistic whims of A-Listers like Donna Karan, Versace and Calvin Klein.

Wait for it.

“Along with those kinds of clients come a lot of demands,” says Toney, stating the obvious. “It got to be way too much. I was making a lot of money but I wasn’t as happy anymore.”

Toney ditched it all – including the embarrassingly large paychecks – to apprentice with a cabinet maker in Los Angeles. These days, he makes fine furniture from his Cleveland shop.

“My favorite thing in the entire world is working in my shop all by myself,” he says. “I don’t even have the radio on. I’m completely engrossed in the work.”

The fact that Toney’s past and present careers are the antithesis of one another is precisely the source of his personal and professional satisfaction. As an event planner, he juggled a frenetic web of loose ends that resulted in a nonessential event that lasted mere hours. As a furniture maker, Toney dedicates his time to well made objects with an indefinite shelf life.

“I guarantee you that if I made it, it will be here for 100 years,” he says of his pieces.

But I’m Not Creative

Too often, we tend to classify people as either creative or not. We look at the Mona Lisa – or an elaborate piece of fine jewelry – and we say to ourselves, I could never do that. Maybe so, maybe not, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try, says McGee, a self-described “creative entrepreneur” who makes and sells a broad line of crafty wares.

“There is no wrong way to be creative,” she says. “The more permission we give ourselves to play and explore, the more open we’ll be to tapping into our own creativity. Lots of people are creative in ways they might not know. There’s a lot more to being creative than painting and drawing.”

McGee’s Cleveland-based business, Plenty Underfoot, is built around creative reuse of products, including cereal boxes (stationary), vinyl flooring (permanent flowers), and pop bottles (centerpieces). Unlike many others who abandoned their “day jobs,” McGee loved her previous career in the nonprofit world. It just didn’t fulfill her.

“It was awesome, but I recognized I had a passion to be more creative,” she explains.

As she reduced her hours per week from 40 to 30 and down, it became clear to McGee where her destiny lay, and it wasn’t in the nonprofit world. She was fortunate enough to have the flexibility that allowed her to shift gradually from vocation to avocation, a strategy she highly recommends.

“Don’t just leave your day job to go find yourself,” she says. “I tell people you shouldn’t take the leap until you have a few things already lined up.”

Juggling for Dollars

“I do more than one thing to make a living,” explains Pittsburgh-based jeweler Audra Azoury. While her Steel Town pieces, which are modeled after the bridges of her hometown, are taking off, the work isn’t enough to cover all the bills.

“It’s a really hard struggle,” she admits. “There are a lot of people who say they’re making a living doing this, but they also have rich husbands,” she says with a laugh.

Azoury also does work as a graphic designer, which pulls her out of the studio but into some much needed human interaction. As for which work gets finished first – well, money talks.

“I wish it was more organized than that. But the truth is, when a check comes in you drop other things to do the work.”

Philly-based Jennifer Hermann traded in one jewelry making job for another. The difference? Before she was working for somebody else.

“I had no creative license,” Hermann says of her job in a manufacturing shop. “Now I make what I want. Seeing other people happy about wanting my work and owning it, that keeps me going.”

Of course, working for yourself means that you and you alone are responsible for generating all income.

“Staying motivated, making yourself get up everyday to do the work, that is the hardest part,” says Hermann. “Before I got a paycheck every week no matter what. Now I have to really push myself. But the rewards are so much more meaningful because I’m setting it all up for myself.”

And Then There are the Hands

Invariably, we must give something up in order to pursue our passion. Money might seem the obvious casualty – and almost without fail, creative entrepreneurs make less money – but to most, that hardly is a shortcoming.

While McGee does occasionally find herself romanticizing the days of a steady paycheck, the lack of one has prompted positive changes she’d never abandon.

“When I was making more than I needed, I would buy more stuff than I needed,” says McGee. “This life forces you to be more financially engaged in your life. To pay attention to revenue in and revenue out. It helps you to live simply.”

And then there are the hands.

“My hands now look like my dad’s, who was a coalminer,” says Toney. “I doubt I’d I get work as a model anymore with these hands.”

Douglas Trattner is managing editor of Fresh Water in Cleveland.

Amy Kuras, a Metro Detroit freelance writer, contributed to this story.

Tanya Muzumdar, Assistant Editor for Metromode and Concentrate, contributed to this story.