Chattanooga area artisans say social media DIY craze brings new life to crafting community

Chattanooga area artisans say social media DIY craze brings new life to crafting community

March 25th, 2014 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Eric Eugene Smith forges a spatula and ladle out of stainless steel in his Highland Park studio.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

LITTLE MADE MARKET

On May 24, the Little Made Market, a juried craft fair for local artisans, will take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. behind St. Andrews Center at 1918 Union Avenue in Highland Park.

The free event will feature products by a select group of 25 to 30 local artisans. Event organizers and Highland Park residents Morgan Claborn and Khristy Wilkinson say the fair will demonstrate the development of their neighborhood and help support local crafters.

"Having these markets helps create community," Claborn says. "This is an opportunity to be face to face and meet the people who are making these things and see what's available in your community locally. Here's an option to buy a gift [you didn't know was made locally] instead of ordering something online."

The fair will continue to accept applications from interested vendors through March 30. All items to be sold must be "totally hand-made" and not representative of a "saturated market, such as mustaches or 'Keep Calm' posters," Claborn says.

An application is available at www.littlemade.com.

Maggie Pate hangs her colorfully dyed fabrics in a window.

Anderson Bailey sorts through finished porcelain pieces at his Highland Park studio.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

PINTEREST ALTERNATIVES

Looking for a site that can satisfy your need to seek out and catalog artistic inspiration online but don't feel like joining the Pinterest legions? Try these five crafty, artistic alternatives:

1. WeHeartIt -- www.weheartit.com -- iOS/Android

2. Juxtapost -- www.juxtapost.com -- Android

3. VisualizeUs -- vi.sualize.us --iOS

4. Gentlemint -- www.gentlemint.com

5. Jux -- www.jux.com

One of Eric Eugene Smith's creations, a forged steel spider, rests on the work table while he continues work on the spatula and ladle.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

As she hikes along trails atop Signal Mountain, Maggie Pate isn't just engaged in a bit of recreational exercise. She's on a quest to fill her palette.

A textile artist, Pate specializes in creating vibrant-hued dyes from area plants. In crested stalks of goldenrod or bushes laden with plump pokeweed berries, some might see weedy blemishes, if they notice them at all. The 29-year-old, however, sees something more: yellow-in-waiting, purple-in-potentia.

A web merchandiser for Smart Furniture by day, Pate spends many weekends and evenings working in her one-bedroom North Chattanooga home, creating items to sell for her artisan textile company, Inks + Thread.

Leaching pigment out of her floral bounty and dyeing patterned tea towels and scarves could take as long as two days, but once they're finished, she says, they possess a level of quality and sense of personal connection lacking in mass-manufactured items.

"I think people like a story," Pate says. "I think when people understand my story and a product's story, it feels a little more romantic. It lacks the immediacy [of off-the-shelf items], but if you're willing to wait, you'll ... support someone local and continue helping to write that narrative of being human."

It's a view echoed by other local crafters. Here in March, designated as National Craft Month, they say they're not only creating one-of-a-kind porcelain cups and forging singular wrought-iron masterpieces. They're spinning yarns, sometimes literally.

If artisan work has always been, at some level, about passing on the story of the artist, then crafters increasingly are sharing their tales in the decidedly modern forum of social media. The intricacy of modern technology is meeting the simplicity of crafts that may date back thousands of years.

COMING TOGETHER

YouTube has become a kind of village green for the DIY set with video tutorials of activities such as quilting, jewelry making and sewing. Some of the service's most popular crafting channels, including SoCraftastic, ThreadBanger and TheCraftyGemini, have hundreds of thousands of followers and tens of millions of views.

On Pinterest, users have flocked to the site's DIY & Craft board seeking needlepoint patterns and tips for sewing baby bibs or incorporating beads into their knitting, among other activities.

Fabric and crafting companies also have taken advantage of Pinterest's DIY fervor. Company profiles for Jo-Ann Fabric and Michaels stores have 170,000 and 370,000 followers, respectively, and frequently post instructions for projects.

In a 2012 interview with Mashable.com, a Pinterest spokesperson said the site's crafting section has been one of the most popular since its launch in 2010.

"They love using Pinterest as a resource to discover ideas or get inspiration for projects from people around the world who share similar passions," the spokesperson said. It's "an endless feed of things people are making, or are inspired by, around the globe."

Ironically, artists say, many of those who seek out crafting knowledge via such high-tech resources are trying to find an escape from the always-connected 21st-century lifestyle and create something that isn't purely digital.

"There are a lot of people who have been bombarded by technology and who want something more tangible and personal," says Morgan Claborn, 43, the owner of women's fashion boutique Fredonia-Provisions for Women on Main Street.

Claborn says she long has been attracted to the history of crafts such as knitting, crocheting and embroidery, which were a matter of survival long before the advent of mass manufacturing and retail chains. Now, when she knits or crochets, however, the even-greater reward is the end product.

"Your senses are involved," she says. "With a computer screen, the process is just totally different. To me, it just dulls the creative spark."

EXPANDED REACH

Other artists say they've found ways to leverage the communal aspects of social media to connect with other crafters, find inspiration for their own work and sell their wares.

Although they practice art forms with roots stretching back millennia, Pate says many artisans rely on the interconnectedness of the Internet to find customers willing to pay more for handcrafted goods.

Pate accomplishes this, in part, by sharing images of Inks + Thread's products with the 50,000 followers of her Pinterest profile, Maggipate. She also uses the network to collect images of designs and patterns she wants to incorporate into her textiles. Through this service and others like Instagram and Tumblr, she has made sales well beyond the Scenic City, from California to New York.

"In Chattanooga, [the market for artisan goods] is still a tiny little seed that needs to be planted, but it's a flourishing plant in other parts of the world," Pate says. "Being on the Internet and having a reach globally helps keep my business floating."

Some of Anderson Bailey's finished porcelain pieces.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Even local artists with less focus on marketing themselves online say having a Web presence can yield unexpected benefits.

In Artifact, a crafters cooperative on Duncan Avenue in Highland Park, blacksmith Eric Eugene Smith, 36, owns EE Ironworks, a metalworking forge. He creates elaborate commissioned works, utensils and furniture out of steel and iron heated to more than 2,000 degrees in his propane forge until the metal becomes as pliable as a coward's backbone.

Smith learned the art of metalworking, including some now-uncommon joinery techniques that he says distinguish his products from traditional welding, from a four-year program at Tennessee Tech University's Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tenn. He maintains a presence online, including an shop on Etsy, a network of independent crafters, but the majority of his sales come through commissions, he says.

Although social media has helped many to learn the art of "knit one, purl two," not every craft can be tackled after watching a handful of video tutorials, Smith says. Online how-to's have lowered the barrier of entry for some activities, but forging is not easy to take up without the right training and specialized equipment.

Still, Smith admits, social media has yielded some surprise windfalls.

"I've gotten I don't know how many different jobs from people who randomly found me on the Internet. That's pretty awesome," he says, laughing. "It definitely helps when I do craft shows. People follow me [online] and come in and say, 'I saw your ice cream scoops on Instagram' and they buy one.

"I'm like, 'Wow. That worked. That's cool.'"

A TALE TO TELL

Smith shares his space with several artisans, including potter Anderson Bailey, 32, and his wife, glass artist Jessie Bailey, 30. The resident artists of Artifact are a supportive bunch, touting each others' work on social media, even if Anderson says the hammering and sawing from the practitioners of more aggressive crafts reverberates throughout the building on busy days.

"Thankfully, we have doors, which help a little bit," he laughs.

Some of artisan Maggie Pate's colorfully dyed fabrics hang in a window.

Unlike Smith, the Baileys rely on social media to sell the functional, small-batch porcelain goods they create for their company, Bean and Bailey Ceramics. Facebook and Instagram, they say, have been their "main source of marketing."

Anderson says he doesn't invest much time in Pinterest, which he describes as a time suck and full of copied images, but he says he often looks to other online networks for inspiration and -- to echo Pate's sentiment -- to take part in the global artisanal conversation.

"As a craftsperson, social media helps us keep connected with what people are making," he says. "That has to have an effect on our work, whether we realize it or not, just by absorbing that. It helps keep ideas flowing."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.