Illinois artisans turning hobbies into do-it-yourself businesses
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Whether they’re hammering out giant metal dragonflies in a blacksmith shop, stirring gourmet chocolate sauce, or crafting eye-catching jewelry, Illinois artisans say there will always be a demand for the unique in a mass-produced world.
“It’s like a switch that’s on. I never run out of ideas,” said Greg Brummett, who creates custom lamps, tables and jewelry at his Buena Vista shop in Grafton, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River near St. Louis.
Crafting is the second act of Brummett’s career. He spent much of his life working as a probation and parole officer and as a production manager for an oil field.
But in high school, his dad showed him how to cut and polish gemstones, and he started making extra money creating jewelry.
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After their kids were grown, Brummett and his wife Janey opened the Buena Vista shop, where he showcases his designs.
His lamps borrow the Victorian-inspired look of steampunk and the scavenged feel of cyberpunk and resemble Rube Goldberg-esque inventions from Doc Brown’s workshop in “Back to the Future.”
“I hear all the time, ‘Oh my God,’ when people walk in,” Brummett said. “I really enjoy it.”
He gets customers all the way from Asia, Australia, England and New Zealand — many of whom drop in as they tour the nearby Mississippi River via steamboat and paddleboat.
Brummett and other independent makers say they’ve all had “a-ha” moments where they realized their creations could turn into full-fledged businesses.
Take GrownUp KidStuff, the Chicago-based chocolate sauce company founded by Don Strandell and Connie Wastcoat. Their company grew out of holiday parties where people clamored for the couple’s signature dessert: homemade peppermint ice cream with chocolate sauce.
“We only have six ingredients and nothing you need a dictionary for,” said Wastcoat.
Back when Hannah Perri thought she was destined to work as a human resources professional, candle-making was just a hobby. “I was giving them as gifts,” she said.
But then came a “candle-sniff party” with friends where she experimented with 32 different scents. Some partygoers adored vanilla and lavender. Others loved her fragrant woodsy smells like Oak Moss & Acai Blossoms. Their enthusiasm encouraged her to start Wrightwood Candle Co., named for a street in her DePaul neighborhood.
Liz Pham of See Song Designs comes from a family of skilled crafters, so she says it was natural to create her own pendants, earrings, bracelets and rings. “I would make things for friends and family, and then their friends or random people would also ask where they got their jewelry from,” she said.
She began selling her work through pop-ups, holiday markets and her website. The Chicagoan’s biggest break came courtesy of her favorite TV programs — “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” Pham shipped the reality shows’ wardrobe stylists some samples and the gamble paid off — her jewelry has appeared on “The Bachelorette” three times (“I freaked out,” she said of seeing her wares on the show).
One of Brummett’s latest creations is called the “Henry,” named for automaker Henry Ford. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of reclaimed parts: Model T lights, reclaimed barn wood, a temperature gauge, part of a vintage Singer sewing machine and an antique floor grate.
Woodworker Jeremy Klonicki also likes to recycle. That led to MainFraiM, a small Rockford company that transforms salvaged bits of machinery and wood, parts of old buildings and pieces of pipe-organs into frames, frames, furniture, sculpture and lamps.
“We have so many recyclable materials being thrown out,” Klonicki said. “My job is to intercept those things.” Sometimes that means privy digs or hunts at town dumps. He also loves the patina and the power of vintage, like a salvaged railing from an old church. “Thousands of hands have touched this particular railing. People who were sad, or in pain,” he said. “If these materials could speak, they would say a lot.”
Instead of recycled material, Lorelei Sims hammers things out herself at Five Points Blacksmith Shop in Charleston in southeastern Illinois. Working with a 250-pound anvil, she fabricates utilitarian art for homes and gardens such as headboards, tables, chairs, railings, candle holders and coat trees.
Sims, who studied sculpture at Eastern Illinois University, likes to incorporate Illinois botanicals into her pieces. One of her creations is a plant and acorn-adorned chandelier at the Lincoln Log Cabin near Lerna. In another, she made 3,000 handcrafted metal ginkgo leaves for chandeliers in a private home.
She’s never lost the thrill first felt when watching a blacksmithing demonstration as a college student. “When I saw that you just took the metal out of the fire and use the hammer and the anvil to manipulate it however you wanted—it was such a wow moment.”