I‘ve been at Artisan Forge Studios now for over two months and, in that time, I’ve gotten to know several of my fellow artists and craftspeople here a little bit. I’d like to introduce you to a few of them.
Artisan Forge is aptly named–it’s a melting pot of creativity within the Chippewa Valley area–a community of artists who work together, collaborate on common themes, and yet create in an incredibly diverse range of media: welded metal sculpture, blacksmithing, pottery, glass blowing, necklace making, and painting, to name a few. It’s a great place to be!
Meet Chad Christensen, Glass Artist
The first artisan I’d like you to meet is Chad Christensen. He does wonderfully amazing glass sculpture consisting of hand-blown creations. Most of his work is ornamental, decorative pieces that you would be proud to hang on your Christmas tree as well as above your fireplace mantle. Colorful striations twist around the whimsical forms of crystal clear glass, shapes that remind you of seashells or an amazingly decked out soft-serve ice cream cone.
What got him started in this glass making adventure? It was winter layoffs in the roofing business and then the recent economic downturn that caused this former crane operator to seek an extra source of income.
“I needed a garage hobby and a friend of mine had recently come back from Oregon, learned a lot about glass blowing out there, and I bought a torch in the winter and started working with him,” recalled Chad.
He started glass blowing part-time as a hobby during the layoffs, and then when the bottom finally fell out of the housing market altogether, Chad had enough experience–about two year’s worth–to make a go of it full time.
“It was either that or sit on unemployment indefinitely,” he added. “I really didn’t have that much of a choice, to be honest. I kind of turned a hobby into a job, just due to a lack of options.”
Necessity is often the mother of invention. I’m glad the economic downturn sparked in an interest in Chad to take up the torch and create some fantastic works of art in glass.
In retrospect, I don’t think he’s upset that the downturn happened either.
When I asked Chad what he loves most about his job, he thought a moment and said, “I’m kind of a firebug. To be honest, it kind of tickles my inner eight-year old. Every time I fire up the torch, there’s something about it–I wouldn’t quite put it as magical, but I like that aspect of it.” (WARNING: Eight-year-olds, don’t try this at home!) 🙂
In the future, Chad plans on teaching some courses at Artisan Forge, when he gets enough torches for everyone to wield and create their own mini-masterpieces of glass work. Having seen Chad personally at his craft, I can vouch that this man is a master of glass blowing (although he admits he’s still learning ) and he’s a lot of fun to watch.
He can create, carry on a good conversation–and maybe even chew gum–all at the same time! I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work and buying some unique ornaments for Christmas.
Meet Paul Nyborg, Blacksmith
Working nearby in the same shop area is blacksmith and woodworker Paul Nyborg. After finishing my conversation with Chad, I walked over and asked Paul a little about why he does what he does.
Like Chad, it seems he acquired this skill out of necessity.
“First I was doing woodworking and wanted to make my own hardware,” Paul said, who has been pounding out hot steel on the anvil since 2011, a relatively short time compared to over a decade of woodworking. He still creates with wood but spends more of his time with iron.
Years ago, this was the only way to change the shape of metal and build custom tools, hinges, and other implements. When I asked Paul why he loves blacksmithing, he replied, “I get a look you don’t see anymore. It’s an appearance you can’t reproduce with welding and fabricating.”
Paul has a large scale forge in the building, complete with crank operated bellows, and a full size anvil. It’s a lot of fun to see all that fire being put to good use!
Creativity and talent seems to be a part of the Nyborg name. Paul’s wife, Katie, an artist herself, is a sculptor who creates functional, precise and delicately ornamented pottery. She is currently teaching classes at Artisan Forge.
Meet Ilana Vocke, Beaded Jewelry Maker
On the other side of the building–and also my next door studio neighbor–is Ilana Vocke, a beaded jewelry maker and owner of Ilana’s Bead Shop. In addition to creating, she also sells the supplies and equipment for anyone who wants to make their own necklaces and bracelets.
Within her cozy, approximately 10′ x 20′ shop, she has quite possibly the largest selection of beads in Northwestern Wisconsin, which you can buy individually and create your own custom jewelry, bead by bead.
That’s exactly what my seven year old daughter did recently. She created a beautiful bracelet for just a little over $3.00!
Ilana, who has experience in scrapbooking, got started with beaded jewelry after some friends took her to a craft shop in Menomonie, WI.
“I was waiting and picked up a magazine and saw a necklace and thought it was really cool, ” Ilana shared with me. “The lady had everything there that I needed. And I thought I can do this. I don’t have to buy a bunch of crazy tools. So I got the beads and thought that was really fun, and that led to the next project and the next project and the next project.”
Unfortunately, beaded jewelry supplies are often hard to find.
“Pretty soon,” Ilana said, “I was into beading things that you couldn’t find the supplies for locally. I had to order everything online, and I didn’t know anything about colors or finishes, sizes, and so when I got my shipment it usually wasn’t what I expected. And that led me to thinking we need a store.”
Ilana has been creating and selling beads full time for six years, and has a fairly steady business now, but the shop began in a much smaller way.
“I started out in my garage, but we lived out in the country, and it was understandable that women didn’t want to go to some stranger’s garage searching for beads, so business was not good. After two to two and a half years, I thought I either need to be done, take the garage back or try to find a space in town,” Ilana recalled.
For a few years, Ilana rented a storage space on London Road in Eau Claire, but high rent costs compelled her to move her business to the newly developed Artisan Forge Studios building in December. Metal sculptor Greg Johnson bought the building in 2015, offering spaces at a very affordable rent cost to make it easier for fellow artists and craftspeople to concentrate on the things they love doing best: creating and reaching out to new customers and clients. For Ilana, it was the perfect place to move her business into.
“My rent is way less, so my life is so much less stressful. I was a stay at home mom before this, this is more my hobby. I’m not in it for the money, I just enjoy it. I pay the rent. I’m able to grow here.”
How does Ilana fit so many beads and supplies into such a small space? She mentioned that most stores carry several brands of tools, and the many choices can be overwhelming for the customer who’s just starting out, to know what works and what doesn’t.
So Ilana came up with a better way that I think makes much more sense.
“My philosophy here is to just offer one option,” she reasoned, “that I have personally grown to love and have used and I think is a good balance of–it’s not top of the line, but definitely better than what you would find at Michael’s or Jo-Ann’s or something like that.
Ilana is also offering classes where students will complete part of the work at her studio and another part at home, and then join the two halves together into one finished piece of jewelry. If you’re going to have a class it only makes sense to give your students homework!
Meet Chad White, Architect
In the front office area of Artisan Forge Studios there is an architect by the name of Chad White who, along with his wife Keri, heads up The Eau Claire Design Company. Together, they have been doing both residential and commercial projects, on their own, full time for the last two years. I asked Chad what got him started in his career as an architect.
“I had an interest in architecture back in high school, took some drafting classes, ” he replied. “I always did a lot of freehand drawing when I was younger, so between that and a bit of construction experience working with my dad it seemed like the natural avenue. I was drawn to it pretty young, and after high school I took some time off, but I decided it was time to go back to school and it was a pretty obvious major. ”
Chad completed his associates degree, but that was the just the beginning of his training.
The process to get licensed as an architect is extensive: architectural students have to track all of their work in sixteen different categories. Once that part is completed it takes three or four years more, and then they are able take their exams, which consist of seven different tests in seven different categories. Finally, if they pass them, they can get their license.
Architectural work is a interesting balance of utilizing art and math skills. I got the impression that Chad doesn’t feel it’s just drawing monotonous lines on a paper. When I asked Chad why he does architectural work for a living, he replied:
“I feel it’s very impactful, because You’re designing the built environment. You stand in a city, look around and the buildings are the major focal point around you. Historically, attention has always been paid to the detail, a real focus on aesthetics, function and integration with community values. It can have a huge impact on the people who live there.”
Both Chad and I got on our soapboxes for a moment and commented on the ways buildings, along with values in society, have changed over the years. The trend has been a downward slide in certain areas, but with all trends there often is a reversal when people appreciate some of the good things of the past.
“I think more attention was paid to detail 100 years ago when a new building was instructed, ” Chad mused. “To build a building was a huge achievement, so you would put your name and the date on the top. And the type of detail you would put into it…you see a lot of tiered bricks and cornices on top of old buildings. That type of detail and ornamentation said something about you and your status, so there was a little more importance to have that exterior aesthetic really dialed in.
“Over the years that’s faded away and now often times people are looking more at volume rather than detail. But I think there’s a trend of people looking at more less volume and more detail.”
I’m glad for that new trend myself, because as an artist, I love to put a lot of detail into my paintings and drawings!
Chad designs both residential and commercial architecture. He started designing energy efficient homes, then hotel chains, and finally worked for an architecture firm. In the last two years, he launched out, along with his wife Keri, starting his own design and architecture business.
One of the things that impresses me about Chad is his versatility: he is able to do both computer aided design, and the old fashioned technique of drawing the design by hand at the drafting table.
Keri, who has a background in traditional two-dimensional art, handles more of the design side of the business. “Her preferred media is sketching and paint,” Chad shared, “but over the years she has been drawn to the graphic design piece.”
Interestingly, most of the artists, myself included, who work here are thirty-somethings, married with children. We are entrepreneurs at heart who have experienced the ups and downs of life, and are willing to embrace the challenges and rewards of owning our own business. It’s more than just making a living for us–it’s about fulfilling a calling and creating things that add meaning, joy and purpose to others’ lives.
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