In 2009 Milwaukee artist, business owner, event organizer, activist, feminist, and all-around do-it-yourself evangelist, Faythe Levine, released Handmade Nation, a film and companion book about the rise of DIY artists, crafters, and designers around the world. About the project Levine wrote:
I believe the simple act of making something, anything, with your hands is a quiet political ripple in a world dominated by mass production… and people choosing to make something themselves will turn those small ripples into giant waves.
Even if you don’t subscribe to Levine’s political ideology, it’s impossible to argue that the ripples of small-scale making haven’t made giant waves. In every major metropolitan area, and a fast-growing number of smaller cities, towns, and villages, in American, trades that were once thought to be romantic vestiges of bygone eras are now thriving, and more importantly, providing livable income for families. Box and Everything stores may have done significant damage to the mom-and-pop business landscape, but more and more working people are carving out their niche by, as Levine might say, working with their hands to make something. Handmade entrepreneurship is so prevalent that major cultural institutions are noticing. Take, for instance, Matha Stewart American Made:
We believe we are in the midst of a shift in our culture where creative entrepreneurs are defining a new American economy. From Detroit to Des Moines, Spokane to St. Louis, people are choosing Main Street over mini-malls—supporting the local and the handmade. Our country’s makers are sparking this change by taking a leap, banking on their creativity and craftsmanship, and living their version of the American dream.
Five years after Faythe Levine made a film that many, even a good segment of us in Milwaukee, assumed would amount to not much more than a niche art project, the about page for Martha Stewart American Made basically paraphrases Levine’s intent behind Handmade Nation. This is an incredible cultural and workforce shift, the reasons for which are certainly numerous (The Great Recession, cultural backlash to Box and Everything stores, passion and purpose), but we’ll let those smarter than we are determine causation.
We’re willing to bet that all of you reading this can list five handmade entrepreneurs in your city without much hesitation. Off the top our our head, in Milwaukee we have Milwaukee Candle and Apothecary, Sparrow Collective, Eat Cake!, Tactile Craftworks, Filthy Freehand, and the reason we’re writing this post, Milwaukee Blacksmith. Milwaukee Blacksmith is one of the finalists for a Martha Stewart American Made award with prizes that for handmade entrepreneurs could have pretty significant impact, including $10,000 to help grow the business and several possible features across Martha Stewart channels. From Molly Snyder’s piece about the company’s involvement in the project, it’s clear that Milwaukee Blacksmith is the quintessential, modern, family-run, handmade entrepreneur business:
Milwaukee Blacksmith “uses old school techniques and modern tooling to create everything from a coat hook to a driveway gate.” Kent Knapp serves as the lead blacksmith and his wife, Shannon, handles the business, marketing and promotion. Their three sons work in the shop as apprentices and their daughter provides prep and design for the company. (The couple also have a 2-year-old daughter and a baby on the way.) “Our family goal is to create custom heirlooms for our clients to enjoy and know will get passed on for generations,” says Knapp. “Our deep respect for the history of blacksmithing in Milwaukee and the craft itself makes our work the definition of a ‘labor of love.’ We honor that tradition by offering classes to spark the interest in future blacksmiths and pass down the knowledge of thousands of years.”
If you’re so inclined to help handmade in Milwaukee, you can vote here. If not, it wouldn’t hurt to search through the finalists to find and support a handmade entrepreneur in your area. If you do nothing, that’s fine, too. But know that there are scores of makers in your city making fantastic work you can’t find at the Box and Everything stores.
You may not know this if you don’t live in Milwaukee, but our city is bursting with cultural assets that support and enhance the greater community. Whenever asked, we like to say that Milwaukee is big enough to enjoy the cultural benefits of much bigger cities while avoiding a lot of the annoyances. We have excellent food from those a part of the farm-to-table explosion (we have a lot of farms in Wisconsin) to across-the-board ethnic options (though, one friend always says don’t get Chinese food in Milwaukee and don’t eat Mexican food in New York, but there’s nothing better than Chinese food in NYC and Mexican in MKE), arts institutions presenting challenging, thought-provoking performance that we’ll hold up against any arts institution in the country, and in every community, people working with their hands to make something. We’re proud of Milwaukee Blacksmith and all of our handmade entrepreneurs, whether Martha Stewart or anyone else recognizes their value to our community.
Lastly, we think that what we experience in Milwaukee, and how we interact with our local business community, mirrors a lot of what you experience in your city. So, going forward we plan to write about Milwaukee-area business through the lens of our greater, national and international experience. While Milwaukee businesses will be the recipient of our spotlight, we’re hopeful that our experience will act as a conduit to greater collective conversation about business, the workplace, trends, social-entrepreneurship, and all other aspects of business that we all share in one way or another.