Aubrey Chaney of Backwoods Belle
(Photo by Stephen Simonetto)
Indianapolis isn't generally considered the craft capital of the Midwest. That title is more often associated with Chicago, home of the Renegade Craft Fair, an event that has become so popular its organizers replicated it in several other major cities, including overseas in London. Here at home, Amanda Maurer Taflinger is making sure Indy at least gets a seat at the craft table.
Taflinger, an Irvington resident who also grew up on the city's east side, moved away to attend college and then graduate school in Chicago. She's since returned with a love for crafting and a drive to develop a following in Indianapolis.
This Saturday will mark Taflinger's INDIEana Handicraft Exchange, a marketplace where crafters sell their handmade wares directly to consumers. Upwards of a hundred vendors will set up shop to sell their creations, from hair accessories to recycled glass candleholders to Scrabble-tile jewelry to one-of-a-kind clothing. The event will be held in conjunction with the Independent Art + Music Festival at the Harrison Center for the Arts.
The craft exchange is part of what many have called a movement, more than a trend, toward buying local. The local food movement has offered consumers healthier, tastier choices and the additional benefit of supporting both our farmers and our economy. Transparency is a big factor in its success; being able to shake the hand of the farmer who grew your broccoli adds an element of trust. It also makes the exchange all the more meaningful.
The same holds true in the craft world.
As Taflinger puts it, "I really like the aspect where people can go in and talk to the people who are making what they're buying. You can pay someone and know that it's supporting their family." Taflinger and her husband, Neal Taflinger, who has played no small role in getting the fair off the ground, are also locavores. "My husband and I go to a lot of the farmer's markets and we try to eat as much local produce as we can. Being local business owners ourselves, it's important to us to frequent local businesses as much as possible. I think a lot of our customers are crossovers to the local food movement as well."
The Taflingers' customers are those who shop at their Irvington store, Homespun Modern Handmade. While Taflinger has been busy running the shop as well as the Handicraft Exchange, not to mention raising her 11-month-old son, her own crafting has taken a back seat for now as she nurtures the work of others. About 80 percent of the goods sold in Homespun, for instance, are made by crafters who participate in the INDIEana Handicraft Exchange, about half of whom are local artisans.
One of these crafters, Aubrey Chaney, who also works weekends tending shop at Homespun, is busy gearing up for this year's event at the Harrison Center. Participation in the craft scene has meant different things for each of the crafters, whether they're in it to make a living or simply enjoy the creative process and the thrill of having someone appreciate and purchase their work. But for Chaney in particular, crafting was quite literally a lifesaver.
Crafting a living
On Good Friday in 2009, Aubrey Chaney's husband was laid off from his job as a specialty welder in the racecar industry. He was not alone, of course; after the economy tanked, thousands of Indiana families were scrambling to make ends meet on one income or none at all. In the Chaney's case, it was none at all: Aubrey Chaney was taking care of their three boys fulltime.
As she tells it, "A couple of months into it, when we had trimmed the budget as much as we possibly could, we were still at an extreme deficit, even with unemployment benefits."
Chaney, a confident redhead who is slight in stature, calls after her 5-year-old son who has wandered away from the playground at Ellenberger Park. With her son in closer view, Chaney continues: "I had volunteered to help my sister run a booth [at the 2009 INDIEana Handicraft Exchange] selling plush creatures that she had crafted out of felt, and between helping unload things I got to start shopping. And although I couldn't afford to purchase much, I was overwhelmed with the camaraderie."
Instead of a competitive spirit, she found a caring one. "Everyone was there to support one another. You'd get something nice and they'd say, if you like my things, please go check out this other artist... You don't always see such fellowship in situations where you're vying for customers' attention, and I just knew I wanted to be part of that."
Chaney and her husband moved to their current home in Greensborough, about an hour east of Indianapolis, sight unseen (although Aubrey had lived in Indianapolis as a teenager). Unable to afford the cost of gas to find a home here when her husband's job meant relocation to the area from Columbus, Ohio, the Chaneys bought their home through an Internet search, not realizing how distant from Indy it was.
"When somebody in the country tells you, oh, we're just down a ways from such and such, they really mean it's 20 minutes to the closest gas station," Chaney says.
This remoteness ended up inspiring Chaney's brand: Backwoods Belle. Chaney explains: "When we first moved from the city into the country, on our first morning, we sat on the back porch with our coffee and were surprised that instead of sirens and arguments, we heard cows and horses. And when people would say, 'Oh, just run over to the Hobby Lobby,' I'd say, 'We live out in the backwoods, out in the middle of nowhere.' And so it became kind of a joke."
Chaney's business was born immediately following her experience at the exchange. "I went home that very same night and tried to figure out what I could make that was a little bit different than what was being offered, because the last thing I wanted to do was to infringe upon other artists that I had met and who were so kind, and I wanted a product that my children wouldn't be tempted to dip into frequently. So having three boys, I started making girlie hair accessories."
Chaney's accessories turned out to be a hit. "I went and signed up for a sole proprietorship that July, downtown, and became an official businesswoman on faith alone and prepared for [my debut at] the October Handicraft Exchange. And it was a success." Chaney sighs happily, and adds, "Thank God. Indianapolis was very, very good to all of us that fall."
Since its launch, Backwoods Belle has been the primary breadwinner for Chaney's family. Her husband is still without fulltime work and has taken on odd jobs whenever available. This year, she'll roll out a new line of dye-free, soy-based candles to supplement the hair accessories, magnets, and bookmarks she already sells. The Chaneys still pinch pennies; few crafters can make a decent living on crafting alone. But they get by.
Chaney grew up learning to make do with what was available, and she's been able to make the most of that mentality now. "When you didn't have something, you made it," she says. "If you needed food, you planted a garden." Before she started crafting, "I was just a mom who sewed things when I needed to." Today she's a bona fide businesswoman, still grateful for what she has.
- Amanda Maurer Taflinger holds her son Zeke in her shop, Homespun. Photo by Mark Lee
Many crafters "upcycle" materials into products such as jewelry, clothing, handbags and pillows. It's part of a crafting ethos that developed during the do-it-yourself shift in the 1990s. In creating her product line, Chaney uses almost exclusively repurposed fabrics. For now, she isn't quite able to source all of her materials from existing or local materials. But she aspires toward that goal, and sees it as an important element of the craft movement.
"Don't get me wrong," Chaney says. "Not all of us can make our own yarn; we do sometimes have to go to a big box store or a large commercial supplies for goods. And as you move along, you can start to back away from that. But I think [the craft movement] was a way of encouraging people to really examine what it is that you were bringing into your home and why you were bringing it in, not just this drive and need for more, more, more."
Betsy Greer, a London-based crafter who coined the term "craftivism," sees the crafting movement as a celebration of the personal over the mass-produced. In part because so many women have been involved, though by no means is it exclusively a female enterprise, the craft world has celebrated connection and community over competition and commerce. Further, it's recognized that crafters, like artists, deserve to be compensated fairly, regardless of gender.
Under the term's entry of the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, Greer writes, "Women began to look at domesticity as something to be valued instead of ignored. Wanting to conquer both a drill and a knitting needle, there was a return to home economics tinged with a hint of irony as well as a fond embracement."
As Aubrey Chaney puts it, "It's possible to change the lives of others with something as simple as a print from an artist instead of a print at Wal-Mart or Hobby Lobby."
This is why so many crafters deploy seemingly old-fashioned skills such as needlepoint and traditional sewing techniques to create their wares. In the contemporary craft world, their products are unique manifestations of the form, at times irreverent if not downright salacious. Like other popular niche names in the blogosphere, Greer and her fellow craft bloggers play a crucial role in identifying trends of the trade. In a recent post, Garth Johnson of "Extreme Craft" proclaims that "The craft world is hotness on top of hotness right now." It's an assertion that seems to be true, if Aubrey Chaney's experience is any indication.
But trends are fleeting. Crafters such as Chaney focus on what they do best, following their creative instincts rather than the latest fashion. "You'll see trendy, and you'll see classic," Chaney says. "I find myself leaning a little bit more towards classic. Only for longevity's sake. I don't have the ability yet, I don't have the overhead to invest in trends on a whim."
Indie in Indy
The term "indie," first associated with independent record labels, has yielded great semantic and therefore marketing possibilities here in Indy. The Arts Council of Indianapolis' slogan, "Be Indypendent," can be seen all over town. Clearly, the INDIEana Handicraft Exchange has taken advantage of the wordplay as well.
Amanda Maurer Taflinger credits the do-it-yourself movement and a punk aesthetic with driving the early days of the craft movement. But today, she sees it as a "widespread contemporary handmade movement," one that is starting to drive a micro-economy all its own, similar to indie record labels.
"People have been making handmade goods forever," Taflinger says, "so it's not anything new. But I think largely what people consider the indie craft movement... started from the DIY ethos and the punk movement. But over the past few years, since that sprung up, there's all these different craft fairs around the country, like Bizarre Bazaar [in Richmond, VA], and Renegade Handmade [based in Chicago]; I mean even the titles of some of them provoke some thought of edginess. But I think as those have become bigger and more widespread, people are becoming more familiar with [contemporary craft] on an even bigger basis. So it's not quite as obscure anymore, or quite as selective or it doesn't quite fit into only that aesthetic. It's definitely widened in its horizon."
Along with that evolution is another, more personal one: the development of each crafter and his or her craft aesthetic. Taflinger says more than 180 crafters applied to get into this year's Handicraft Exchange. The jury accepted roughly 100 of them. As these fairs become more popular, the competition will only intensify, and artisans will have to work harder to deliver a better product.
Taflinger explains, "We get a lot of the same vendors applying, and one of the things that we look for... is if they've evolved, if they're improving their craft or they're adding new items."
With this in mind, attendees can look forward to a greater variety of goods, making it even less of a necessity to purchase that dishtowel or set of coasters at Wal-Mart or Target.
Taflinger adds, "Each year I've seen quite an evolution in a lot of the vendors that have participated in some of our events since the very beginning. It's pretty fantastic because it's just really nice to see people grow."
INDIEana Handicraft Exchange: Additional Info
This year's IHE will feature more than 100 indie crafters selling their wares, inside and outside on the Harrison Center grounds. The event will be held in conjunction with the Independent Music + Art Festival, hosted by the Harrison Center, and will include live music and raffle prizes. Local food and beer available for purchase.
To learn more and see what's in store, visit www.indieanahandicraftexchange.com.
To preview some of the crafters' work, visit Homespun Modern Handmade, in Indy's Irvington neighborhood, 5624 E. Washington St. Call 351-0280, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.homespunindy.com. Hours: Wed. & Thurs. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun. 12-6 p.m.