‘By Andrea Karen Hammer
From January 25 to 27, 2020, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, artisans showcased their creations to buyers at American Handcrafted Philadelphia. The curated marketplace, which Emerald Expositions organized, featured unique products ranging from glass and fiber to metal, wood and more.
“Success happens when the right people are brought together in one place at the right time.”
~American Handcrafted Philadelphia/Emerald Expositions
Focusing on the practical aspects of running a creative business, one panel addressed “Utilizing and Leveraging The Buyer/Vendor Relationship to Drive Traffic.” Along with panel moderator Robin Kramer, speakers included Michael Higdon, retail manager at National Building Museums; Meghan Bunnell, retail buyer of The Corning Museum of Glass; Michelle Beshaw, buyer and merchandise manager of the Brooklyn Museum; and Kim Megginson, owner of Zig Zag Gallery.
Artisan Spotlights and Tips
Throughout the curated marketplace with originally designed jewelry, colorful glassware, nature-inspired woodwork and more, artisans and craftsman generously shared their experiences. Here are highlights from some of these conversations, along with tips for balancing the artistic process with the business side of running a creative enterprise.
Meridian Street Art Glass
One of the American Handcrafted Philadelphia show stoppers was the colorful glasswork, including a garden totem pole, from Meridian Street Art Glass in Kansas.
Owner John McDonald explained that he focuses on each piece individually and then assembles them according to color and shape. A metal bolt in the center holds them together.
“If I don’t like their placement, then I rearrange them,” he said. John also described the importance of balancing the creative work with production because “it all has to go to a show.”
Although he pointed to a decrease in brick-and-mortar stores and the increase in online activity, John added that gallery owners still want to see the work in person.
To handle the various demands, he said that his son, Gavin, is indispensable in every aspect of the work. If they have different ideas, John walks away briefly to consider the suggestion and then finds a way to compromise.
What are other keys to helping his creative business thrive?
“We are always making new pieces and keeping the prices affordable,” he said.
Owner and jewelry maker Liane Crigler has watched her business grow over 8 years. This year, she expanded beyond her West Coast region, which has also boosted her confidence.
She said that attending the show has provided access to a wide variety of buyers in one location.
During certain times of the year, Liane stays highly focused on remaining business minded. Other periods allow her to focus on the creative process.
“I try not to break the flow or do both art and business on the same day,” she said. “When creativity strikes, I go with it.”
Emphasizing the equal importance of balancing business tasks, she has benefited from outreach programs in Portland and help from a business consultant.
“You definitely need good help,” Liane said.
Although Henry Wischusen of Forestique in Georgia sometimes wants to devote his time to art or business, he works by “urgency.”
The artist added that it’s “challenging” to balance both aspects and stressed the importance of monetizing his nature-inspired creations. They include business accessories, wooden and copper ties, key holders, quill pens, guitar picks, bracelets and more. Instead of using dyes in reproductions of leaves, he integrates elements that plants produce to capture what nature has already created.
“If I need to design, I get in there and do it,” he said. Then, at a show like American Handcrafted, Henry has the opportunity to talk with buyers.
Over the years, he has learned that his “customer is the buyer’s customer. I need to understand what attracts them in terms of shipping, displays and artist cards.”
Stressing that customers are looking for “evocative” items, Henry has adopted a pragmatic approach incorporating perceived value. The artist added that unlike glass artists who need to make a big investment in their studio and kiln, he can operate in a small space.
However, like many artisans at the show, Henry emphasized the critical need to remain competitive and differentiate his work.
Debra Street, creating hand-painted wearable art for 18 years, is based in Colorado. The artist said that she loves color and putting different combinations together.
“I find painting therapeutic and relaxing,” Debra said. “I don’t think about anything else and sort out problems when I’m working on these pieces.”
Debra is especially gratified when customers get excited about her designs.
“I love making them feel beautiful,” she said.
As her business has grown, Debra has faced multiple challenges: the need to hire employees, delegate work, teach others to paint, handle social media and deal with rising prices on imported materials. Despite these expenses and other significant costs, she tries to keep prices under $50, recognizing the importance of a reasonable price point.
Theo Keller Flameworked Glass
Although selecting a favorite collection is challenging, Theo Keller points to his mid-level gradient-scale pieces. Then, he refers to the “quieting down” of his elegant white glass work, following new designs and current house trends.
“This work is more design oriented and not conceptual,” he explained.
Each week, Theo finds a few days to focus on the creative process. Then, he deals with business-related tasks involved in his work.
“I work hard in the fall and spring,” he added. Then, he decides what to show.
Theo has studied with notable artists including the Italian glass master, Emilio Santini. He also spent 6 months as the head glassblower for the United States Center for early American Crafts.
In addition, galleries across the country have displayed his handmade work. They include Fine Line Designs Gallery, Morgan Contemporary Glass Gallery, Iowa Artisans Gallery and elsewhere.
Brauna Rosen, a jewelry maker for 2 decades, believes in magic. Her small “wishing houses,” which she creates with other pieces in Brooklyn, reflect her fascination with inner and outer reality.
Living in Italy for 9 months also influenced Brauna’s design process. She decided to leave her “cottages of dreams” hollow to allow room for the personal nature of wishes.
Brauna added that the shifting trends in arts and business are constantly changing the understanding of her work. To adapt, she listens to customers, follows changes in technology and uses marketing expertise.
“Telling a story is key,” she said, stressing the importance of an expanding one.
When Aaron Dickinson was making furniture, he discovered a utilitarian way to use the scraps: designing and creating handcrafted kitchenware.
With his wife, Kiyomi, he began their family-owned and -operated business Dickinson Woodworking from the house garage before expanding their workshop in Indiana. They source wood locally and sometimes do the milling themselves from recovered storm-damaged trees.
Aaron explained that he gets into a different physical and “head” space for the business and arts-related tasks. During the creative process, he is active in his workshop. When he deals with the business side, he is sitting at a desk.
At American Handcrafted Philadelphia through Emerald Expositions, Aaron has experienced benefits as an artist and business owner. On the creative side, he finds it helpful to see others’ work. In addition, Aaron said that “knowing our clients and making sales are the life blood of business.”
What tip can he share with other artisans who are trying to succeed as business owners?
“Pay attention to why you got into this work and why you are making what you making,” he said, highlighting the need for ongoing passion.
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