The craft scene in Baltimore has exploded and we're all too happy to pick up the pieces—in the form of jewelry, ceramics, soaps, pillows, tees, and stationery. We rounded up 50 locals who create—many in their spare time—some pretty astonishing work. They're a super prolific bunch—quite a few are experts at jewelry and soap making or weaving and painting. (With MICA in the heart of Baltimore—we shouldn't be too surprised.) We've also got five featured profiles of crafters—including a married couple—where we learn even more about their methods and daily juggling of family, work, and art. We delve into the craft wars—the battle between the classically trained and the self-taught artists and weekend crafters. And we offer some suggestions about launching a DIY craft business of your own from those who have found success. One of the most charming things about Charm City crafters is the assistance and advice they offer to each other—often traveling together to shows and promoting each other's work. What's more, there are many area shops that stock local goods—generously offering crafters another platform to showcase their work. And that's where you come in. If you're anything like us, you'll spend the next several days visiting these artists' websites and checking out the stores that carry their work. Sure, malls are fun, but there's no better feeling than shopping local.
Kathy Beachler's fourth grade teacher in Connecticut did not appreciate her young student's sense of style. "We were learning cursive, and I was a really good student, but I had this different spin on how to do cursive, and she gave me a C plus!" recalls Beachler with a laugh. "She wrote a note on the report card that said, 'The cursive is too illegible. You took too many creative liberties.'"
These days, Beachler has that teacher to thank for inspiring illegible ink, the fledgling printmaking business she runs out of her Patterson Park brick rowhouse on weekends, evenings, and whenever she's not working with Arts Every Day (a nonprofit that strengthens arts education and cultural experiences in Baltimore City schools).
Beachler's delicately lined, whimsical "linocuts" (in which an original design is transferred from paper to a linoleum surface and hand-carved to create a raised relief that gets inked and impressed back onto paper) with owls, onions, and snapdragons are a nod to her love of nature. Her inspirations come from a variety of places including produce stands at the Baltimore Farmers' Market under the JFX, the wild beauty of her neighborhood Patterson Park, books on ornithology, and historical botanical prints.
When Beachler entered Ohio's College of Wooster, she actually had her sights set on geology or anthropology, but everything changed after a sophomore art class, and she graduated with a degree in studio art. "I took this 8 a.m. introduction to drawing class, and I called my parents and said, 'This is the only class I can get up at eight in the morning for!'" she recalls. She told her parents, "I'm sure it's what I want to do."
The 32-year-old printmaker, who is a member of the Charm City Craft Mafia, a local support group for independent craft artists, will never forget the heady feeling after her first sale. "I do what makes me happy," says Beachler, "and it's an extra bonus when people like it enough to buy it. When I did my first craft show in Baltimore and someone came up to me and said, 'I really like this,' I was like 'This is really cool. This is not my family or friends, and they are not just trying to make me feel better.' I e-mailed a good friend that I had sold my work, and she's like, 'I don't know what your problem is. I've been telling you you have talent for years.'" —Jane Marion
Danamarie Hosler thought she needed to move to New York to become a real artist. She departed shortly after graduating the Maryland Institute College of Art thinking she'd live "the dream." A mere three months later, the enterprising twentysomething was running back to the eccentric embrace of Baltimore, which was cheaper, friendlier, and a whole lot quirkier.
"Baltimore's a weird city," she says with pride. "We're weird people. We like things that are quirky and unique. It's a very [inter] connected, very approachable little city that I think is a good place to be an artist. New York was too big, too separate, and competitive."
The 30-year-old artisan, muralist, illustrator, and teacher certainly hasn't wasted any time here. There's evidence of her everywhere: She's done murals on parking garages (the Baltimore City Health Department), underpasses (columns under Jones Falls Expressway, home of the long-running Baltimore Farmers' Market), and supermarkets (the Waverly Crossroads Giant); her popular Knitimals don the shelves of area toy stores and tables at local craft fairs; and she's inspired many a happy drawing by the children and adults she teaches at The Walters Art Museum, School 33 Art Center, and her alma mater.
Growing up in Miami, it never occurred to Hosler that she'd ever be anything but an artist. She attended the city's famous New World School of the Arts, and started doing murals around the city by the tender age of 12, completing nearly 50 by the time she for left for MICA.
The Charles Village resident's energy to create seems limitless, as evidenced by the sheer volume of what's for sale on her online gallery, greenstarstudio.com (not to mention the fact that she brings yarn—always produced locally, she adds—into movie theaters and, yes, knits in the dark).
Perhaps best known for her lumpy, lovable Knitimals (which look like a cross between cartoon animals and kids' doodles), Hosler believes that art's true place is not framed on a museum or condo wall, but with the people who need it most—a homeless person passing one of her murals, she explains, or a child hugging one of her hand-knit creations.
"I can get you to look at art and you don't even know you're looking at art," she quips with delight. "Art is bigger than a gallery. I don't necessarily think that something has to be in a frame to have value." —Jessica Leshnoff
Want to shop locally for these local crafts? Check out some of the brick and mortars doing their part, plus websites dedicated to the craft scene.
3616 Falls Rd., 410-554-0055
3602 Elm Ave., 410-366-2110
846 W. 36th St., 410-662-YARN
Mud and Metal
1121 W. 36th St., 410-467-8698
921 W. 36th St., 410-366-3456
1007 W. 36th St., 410-366-6100
511 E. Belvedere Ave., 410-323-4333
1623 Thames St., 410-342-5000
813 S. Broadway, 410-522-0941
1704 Thames St., 410-558-2195
Zen at Zoe's Garden Wellness Center
1924 Fleet St., 410-342-7255
American Visionary Art Museum Sideshow
800 Key Hwy., 443-872-4926
906 S. Charles St., 410-685-4483
5707 Smith Ave., 410-578-1919
2 Oakway Rd., Timonium, 410-252-7801
Art & Artisan
8020 Main St., 410-203-9370
8120 Main St., 410-461-2300
200 E. Pratt St., #1100, 410-576-7622
The Baltimore Woman's Industrial Exchange
333 N. Charles St., 410-685-4388
The couple that crafts together stays together? Hey, the formula works for Michael Bracco and Shawna Pincus who create a line of shirts, ceramics, comics, and prints out of the basement of their Hamilton home. They also both spend their days as full-time art teachers in Howard County. "Neither of us is happy unless we're productive," Pincus says. "The real foundation of us is our artwork."
Both graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art—he with a B.F.A. in illustration and she with a B.F.A. in sculptural studies.
The couple met when Pincus attended one of Bracco's art openings at Blue Moon Café in 2001 and were married five years later.
Immediately before the couple got married, they started making jewelry and T-shirts with iron-on transfers as wedding gifts. They founded Spaghetti Kiss in August of 2006.
"I really wanted a name that sounds pretty and feminine, but when you look closer, it's absolutely grotesque," Bracco says of the science-fiction logo.
Eventually, Pincus branched out with her own project, Pink Kiss—an homage to her last name—and they now run two distinct businesses. He screen-prints mythical illustrations onto T-shirts and hoodies using a tabletop press. She hand-builds bowls, mugs, and other dishes, paints them with an underglaze, and screen-prints images on them for a worn, layered look.
"I try to use romantic and nostalgic images," she says. "I hope they get people to take a break from their day to stop and think."
Bracco's other passion is comic books. Birth—published in 2008 by Alterna Comics—is about two alien species with evolutionary differences that destroy each other's populations. The Birth of Novo, which follows the last survivor of these two cultures, was awarded "Best Comic Book" by City Paper. And his latest volume, Novo the Pride, hits bookstores this month.
"The books are me trying to do a simple and objective take on the war," he says.
While they both love teaching, their dream is to make a living solely off their art. "There are so many stores like Red Tree that give us a huge amount of support," Pincus says. (The couple also sell their goods at local craft shows.)
In the mean time, they are encouraged by the fact that more consumers are appreciating the value of local craftsmanship.
"A lot of great people want to see this city reach its potential," says Pincus.—Jess Blumberg
The craft world should have seen her coming. In high school, Juliet Ames won "most likely to be a millionaire" for making and selling original hemp jewelry. It's no wonder that she now runs her own successful craft business, The Broken Plate Pendant Company.
As the name suggests, Ames smashes vintage plates and turns the remaining shards into bold and modern jewelry. A former craft major at Towson University, she turns discarded plates into necklaces, rings, pendants, earrings, belt buckles, and even cufflinks.
"I had no idea people held such sentimental value for plates," she says. "People say they didn't know what to do with their broken plates and now they do."
While working at the Howard County Arts Council, Ames was inspired by mosaic artist Ginger Peloquin and decided to make a new mailbox (one that still hangs outside of Ames' Lake Walker home). After completing the project, she had a bunch of leftover plate shards, which she soldered and made into necklaces. She sold some pieces at the council's gallery store and says she was hooked after her first craft show.
She opened her Etsy store in August 2006 and quit her day job five months later. Driving home on her last day of work, she picked up a pregnancy test—it came back positive. "That threw a little wrench into my plan," she says.
Now, even while juggling her 15-month-old and work load, business is good. Ames says that during his naptimes she has a chance to make about 30 pieces a week. In her basement studio, she breaks the plates with a hammer, grinds the edges until smooth, wraps the pieces in copper tape, and then solders them. And she's constantly coming up with original ideas—like her recent line of belt buckles and custom jewelry.
"I call it an 'artgasm' when I come up with something totally new," she says. "I'm always seeking that."
One day, the full-time crafter and mom wants to have a studio outside of her home and eventually a shop that houses multiple local artisans.
"Trends will change, but hopefully the handmade part of it will remain," she says. "I hope it's just getting started." —JB
A rivalry within the craft movement? Can't we all just get along?
While craft in Baltimore has long been associated with the annual American Craft Council's highly regarded juried show featuring the works of national (as well as local) classically trained, high-end furniture makers, sculptors, and metalsmiths, an independent, progressive craft movement has been born in Baltimore. A younger group of self-taught artists and weekend crafters, as well as some with degrees in fine art, have given rise to a new kind of design featuring handmade soaps, jewelry fashioned from broken plates, and soy ink note cards.
"Is there a rivalry?" asks Jen Menkhaus, who founded a team of local Etsy artists, a national coop/virtual store for buying and selling handmade items. "In some ways yes, but rightfully so. These fine crafters have done their time—Baltimore has a lot of very fine jewelers out there—they make their own clasps and chains and when you looked at someone who made a bead and put it on a piece of string, it's hard not to feel a bit of snobbery and, on some level, some resentment."
The new craft movement has sparked debate between "old school" and "new school" crafters. Baltimore artist Annie Chau (pictured), a metalsmith who makes handmade jewelry out of her Mt. Washington studio, attended the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) symposium last spring at which widely regarded metalsmith Bruce Metcalf discussed "The New Alternative Craft" and ended up having a public disagreement with one of her mentors. "I was so excited to hear him speak," says Chau. "But when he talked about old craft versus new indie craft he used price point differences as a discussion, [suggesting that] less expensive equals not so good, and he said something like 'the average level of craftsmanship is low.' He said he considered us all hobbyists, but this is my full time job, and I feel very successful. I just sat there with steam coming out of my ears then went up and told him he had had hurt my feelings and that I wasn't the only one who felt that way." (She later confronted him again through a series of emails and eventually concluded, "I didn't need him for validation.")
But many "old school" artisans have a more egalitarian view of their fellow artists. "Is being the best soapmaker in the country as valid as what I'm doing?" asks David Bacharach, who has been a metalsmith for 45 years. "Of course it is. As long as the job you're doing is the best there is, there's room for everyone."—JM
"I've always been making stuff," says Jen Menkhaus, 34, who spent the first 11 years of her life in Baltimore City before her parents moved to Howard County. In the early '80s, there were lots of "little hand painted ornaments, goofy things—with googly eyes." She wasn't sure what exactly she wanted to do—she just knew that she wanted to be an artist. After college—where she received a degree in English with a concentration on writing and art (the perfect combination to never get a job, she jokes)—she landed at retail store Anthropologie in Rockville and spent the next three years creating their displays: wiring lighting displays, making chairs out of straws, and fashioning lamps out of gumdrops. "It was intense," says Menkhaus, now a Baltimore county resident. After Anthropologie, she worked for Nouveau Contemporary Goods at their old Charles Street shop as a store designer and then became the assistant director of the Buyers Market of American Craft. She left when her daughter, now 3, was a year old. "That's when I decided to do my own thing."
Her company—The Littlest Bean, which sells mostly vintage-inspired jewelry—was a natural progression. "I've always been a fabric and textile addict," she says. And "if you see my house it's about 300 different colors." The combination of the two—plus a desire to create something she could do safely around her daughter (no chemicals, no easels)—led her to felt. Her broach collection is made from wool felt and vintage plastic. Her site now includes rings, earrings, barrettes, necklaces, and even the occasional mobile and wall hanging. She's had more than 200 sales on her Etsy site. Last January, Menkhaus helped start the Baltimore Street Team—a group of 60-plus crafters who have a presence on Etsy. The site is still evolving as they've come to realize that their main focus shouldn't just be on the online marketplace but area craft shows, service projects for local charities, and skill sharing as well.
Menkhaus recently quit her nonprofit job at Maryland Citizens for the Arts and is making a go as a full-time crafter. "I don't know what the future holds," she says, citing the economy and a second baby due this spring. One recent highlight—her Etsy site has been marked as a "favorite" by viewers over 2,500 times this past year. She puts on her best Sally Field voice, "They like me, they really like me!"—JED
Becoming a creative entrepreneur takes more than creativity.
Four years ago, Jean-Baptiste Regnard stuffed his old Cadillac full of T-shirts, and, with business partner Kevin Sherry, set off for a city-by-city marketing campaign for their then-fledging clothing company, Squidfire (pictured).
"I literally packed up every piece of inventory that we had and put them in the car," he recalls with a chuckle.
Regnard never had a doubt that shop owners would fall in love with their quirky t-shirts, some populated with dancing veggies, others with squids, whales, and squirrels.
Now the Baltimore-based brand is sold in 100 stores around the world, and the duo—Regnard is the businessman, Sherry is the artist—recently opened their first storefront in Hampden.
Squidfire's story is the ultimate DIY—do-it-yourself— victory. And while it's inspirational, no success story can ease the confusion, trepidation, and overall overwhelming-ness of launching a DIY craft business.
Artists are hungry for knowledge of the basics of launching a business to sell their work but can often feel clueless or intimidated about how to get started or take things to the next level, says local crafter Jen Menkhaus, founder of baltimore-etsy.blogspot.com.
To meet that need, Menkhaus will be leading a seminar on how to be a creative entrepreneur at the Patterson Park Creative Alliance on January 25 that will feature a lawyer, an accountant, a marketing specialist, and a photographer, all chiming in on the best ways to be your own one-man-band craft company.
"It can be tricky and there's no easy answer," says Menkhaus, of starting a craft business. "Most people ease into this world, they don't just quit their job." She offers some pointers. First, do your research. Find out who else, if anyone, is making items similar to yours before you buy boxes of materials and launch a website. Then test the waters at local craft fairs to gauge potential interest and marketability. And find a community of like-minded artists to toss ideas around with and even set up group shows.
As for advertising, both Menkhaus and Regnard agree that street and craft festivals rank as one of the very best—and cheapest—ways to market and promote your merchandise. The best part? Instant customer feedback.
As for the whole number-crunching, when-can-I-quit-my-day-job thing? Just be patient, says Menkhaus. "It's a pretty big learning process."—JL