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.

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