A Handmade Tale: The Rise of the Artisan

We make things. Talk all you like about medicine or technology or service, but what we're good at — where we really excel — is sculpting, crafting, building.

Our hands drilled for oil, developed electrical lighting and made three types of the earliest cars.

Periods of boom and bust led to diminishing industry and idle hands. But the rise of the local artisan is a gentle reminder that we still hold the power to create.

"It's in the DNA of Rust Belt cities," says Stephanie Sheldon, founder of the Cleveland Flea.

Economic upheaval produced opportunity, and encouraged people who dreamed of creating to decide: I'm going to try this.

Starting in 2004 with Shannon Okey's Cleveland version of Bazaar Bizarre (now Cleveland Bazaar) and followed by Danielle DeBoe Harper's Made in the 216 in 2008, handmade markets evolved beyond the tired craft fairs your grandmother frequents. The popularity of Etsy and other online marketplaces, along with the success of upstarts such as Collective Upcycle and Cleveland Flea (which boasts a 300 percent visitor increase since its April launch), have proven people support local makers. We're not only attracted by the authenticity of the products, but also by connecting with the crafter.

Our tale has the makings of a happy ending. The Upcycle St. Clair project aims to jump-start an artisan economy with the opening of a creative reuse center, workspace and incubator next year. This month, a vacant storefront's windows on Chagrin Boulevard will be filled with artisan displays that can be shopped by smartphone. Other areas are expected to follow.

"People are just doing it," Sheldon says. "They are not afraid to take risks. They are making things with their hands and that's very Cleveland."

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