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Artisans of Michigan

Courtesy: Pewabic

The famous pottery, Pewabic, has been doing much the same thing it has done since the very early part of the 20th century, and using some of the same equipment and molds for its tiles and pottery.

"Pewabic was founded in 1903 by Mary Chase Perry (later named Mary Chase Perry Stratton) who was an artist and became really well known as a China painter. She would paint, overglaze enamels on French China and would teach about it and write about it," explained Steve McBride, Executive Director of Pewabic.

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April Wagner is a glass blower. She has a line of art under her name, but she also makes beautiful and useful things under the Epiphany Glass name. I asked her to describe her work for someone who has never seen it.

Courtesy: Rick Hale, Clockwork

Clockwright's Rick Hale is making clocks unlike any you’ve seen before. It’s a piece of sculpture in motion made of Michigan hardwoods.

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The first thing you hear is the sound of the blacksmith pumping the bellows to make the fire in the forge hotter.

We’re at the Delano Homestead at the Kalamazoo Nature Center because there’s a small shed where a volunteer shows visitors how a homestead blacksmith might work. But he’s better known for what he forges. His name is Gabriel Paavola.

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Megan Williams is a member of a vibrant community of people in Grand Rapids making all kinds of things. Williams works in textiles.  

“Textiles to me is anything with fabric, and I named my company Adventure Textiles because it's whatever I'm experimenting with in textiles," Williams said, adding, "There's so many things to experiment with in the textile category. So I started off with dyeing and that quickly moved to weaving and spinning and felting and everything together. And combining them is what I love to do most.”

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In a nondescript building in Marshall, Derek Smith is reaming a hole to fit a tuning key into head of a mandolin. That sound is a squeaky and a little irritating. 

It wasn't long before I asked Smith if he could create a different sound. I asked him to play something on one of the mandolins in the shop, a much better sound.

Smith and the rest of the team at Northfield Mandolins make high-end instruments. And the demand for the mandolins is brisk.

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Tom Fuleky is showing me some of his work. He’s a stonemason and he’s been at it for nearly 50 years.

“And it took me 30 to really figure it out. And I know it sounds crazy, but once I figured it out, oh my god, it wasn't as frustrating,” he says.

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It's early in the morning in the shop of Johnson’s Sporting Goods in Adrian. Steven Durren is using a rasp to form a rifle stock. He makes custom firearms, mostly early American style from the Civil War to WWI. They’re not exact reproductions, but in the style of those single shot and bolt action rifles.

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Sometimes your plans get disrupted. Sometimes you take a leap of faith.

That’s the story of David Sutherland.

He started as a musician.

“Years after I had finished a PhD in musicology at the University of Michigan and had taught for four years, I couldn’t get a job. And I decided, well, hey, teaching didn't work out so well," he said as he sat at a harpsichord he built.

It's been an interesting journey since.

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David Zaret builds cabinetry for kitchens, but he started out as a software engineer.

“It got to the point where I just couldn’t stare at a screen anymore after 20 some years of doing it. And though I still engineering software and I’m still involved in it, day by day I have to do a physical build rather than a virtual build,” Zaret explained.

When he says physical, he really means it.

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Mike Cameron and Michael Konas are the co-founders and creative forces behind Dog Might Games. 

If you visit their woodshop, you’ll first be greeted by a dog. He’s a rescue.

Dog Might Games says it doesn’t have customers; it has fans. The fans named the dog “Sawdust.”

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This shop is Fidler Furniture Company… headed up by Steven Mark Fidler.

“We do primarily custom metalwork. We do some woodwork where we have exotic woods we mix with our metalwork. Sometimes people want a table and they want a wood top, but a metal base and we can do both of those,” Fidler explained. 

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It’s a two for one as we visit Gemini Handmade in downtown Grand Rapids as part of our Artisans of Michigan series.

The boutique-studio-workshop is home to two businesses. Jacob Vroon’s company is Harbinger Leather Design. Elyse Welcher owns Littlewings Designs.

The two artisans are married.

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Eric Sooy is showing me some of his percussion skills on a snare drum. He made that drum. Sooy is the president and founder of Black Swamp Percussion in Zeeland, Michigan. His company makes percussion instruments that have made it to symphony concert halls, rock and roll stages, and recording studios.

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We’re outside the blacksmith shop of Joel Sanderson of Sanderson Iron near Quincy, Michigan. 

There's a steady putt-putt sound that comes from the heart of Sanderson Iron.

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Since Michigan Radio started bringing you this series on Artisans of Michigan, we’ve been asking if there are any coopers in the state. We have learned of two of them: Lake Effect Cooperage in Traverse City and Kalamazoo Cooperage. We recently got to spend some time with Ben Aldrich, the owner of Kalamazoo Cooperage.

Alex Porbe / Incite Design

There are people in Michigan who are quietly making pieces of art with a purpose beyond art. 

One of them works in Detroit at a nondescript shop on Mack Avenue. Alex Porbe is with Incite Design, a  fabrication and custom design firm.

Porbe works with architects and project managers, working up designs to complement existing architecture or making a design statement.

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We travel the state to find the people who make useful things with their hands as part of our ongoing series: Artisans of Michigan. This time our stop is in a rural area near Rockford.

“I make brooms, all kinds, different sizes, styles, colors. I like to use recycled materials: branches, golf clubs, old harnesses, lots of different things I put my brooms on,” Henry Tschetter of Brooms by Henry said.

He learned his trade when he was very young.

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We like to hang out with people who make things by hand and then report back to you about their work. We call the series: Artisans of Michigan.

We visited Scared Crow Steamworks in Flint. Heather Wright is the designer of steampunk jewelry.

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We like to talk with people who make things we use. This time we make a stop in Jackson.

Chris Maples has been making ice fishing rods for a couple of decades. His company is called Frozen Puppy Custom Ice Rods

He designs the rod handles and hand ties everything. He makes the kind of rods that he likes, but he's open to what his customers want. Listen to his story above.

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We travel the state every once in a while for our Artisans of Michigan series, and this time we went to Flint.

C.H. Schultz & Sons has been repairing upholstery in cars nearly as long as cars have been around. Back in 1917, more than 100 years ago, Clyde H. Schultz was working at Buick and in the garage behind his house. A family business was born. Deborah Schultz-Pawloski is the third generation.

And all that car history is inspiration for her.

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If you spend much time in Detroit at all, you’ve likely seen this guy’s work.

Jordan Zielke is a sign painter with Motown Sign Company. But he didn’t start out doing that. He went to school for fine art. He left that behind and hasn’t looked back.

“I feel great about it,” he said, laughing.

Zielke said he had a hard time finding meaning and purpose in fine art. But, in commercial art and sign painting in particular, the purpose is clear and the rules are definite.

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We’re downstairs at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. There’s a lot of talent inside these walls. (See a previous Artisans of Michigan from Elderly here.)

“This place is like an incubator, really. You can bounce ideas off everybody. It’s pretty fertile ground in here and you get to see just the best examples of historic instruments and you get to see what the good stuff is,” Steve Olson said.

Under his Cone Tone company, Olson has designed a resonator guitar which can be played acoustically or plugged in.

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Outside of Grand Ledge, at the end of a long driveway tucked away among the trees, we found a house and a large steel barn, the workshop of our latest featured artisan, Allen Deming of Mackinaw Watercraft.

He’s been building monocoque strip built boats as a full-time pursuit for ten years. Monocoque strip built is basically a single hull canoe or a kayak or other vessel made from strips of wood glued together and then sealed with fiberglass and epoxy.

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Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

When we talked with Babacar Lo of the Wicker Shop, the weather was still warm and Lo was in his backyard in Detroit, working. Under a tent and surrounded by potted plants, he was repairing rattan and wicker furniture, a skill he first encountered in his home country of Senegal.

“I did a little bit of weaving, making rattan and bamboo furniture in Africa just in my spare time,” Lo said.

Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio

We travel the state to talk to people who make beautiful and useful things. We call the series “Artisans of Michigan.”

We’re visiting with Ed Fedewa. He plays the bass in the Lansing Symphony Orchestra. He also plays in jazz ensembles and repairs bass instruments for players from all over. But that’s not why we’re at his house, we wanted to talk to him about the double bass he built.

two tiger shaped robot lamps
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Cre Fuller was already at work in the garage behind his Ypsilanti house when I arrived. I had seen photos of his work online, but I was not quite ready for the display set up in the garage. It’s great eye candy. 

"I make robot-inspired sculptures. You know, I try to make them look like vintage robots from the future," Fuller said, glancing around at probably 40 of his creations in the workspace. He says he usually has a few more than that on hand.

picture of kelly church holding cradle board
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Soon, the entire park-like area we’re in will echo with the sound of pounding, metal against wood. It’s nearly a ringing or gong-like sound.

But first, Jeff Strand strips the bark from a black ash tree log. Then he takes out a knife and scores the end of it, a sort of pie wedge cut.

“So that the undergrowth rings have relief, so they’ll come up out of it as I’m crushing the growth rings. The ax is for crushing the fibers in between the growth rings and when you do that, they release,” Strand explains.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

We've been thinking about the kind of people you might like to meet. We talk with a lot of authors, musicians, politicians and policy wonks. But, what about artisans? They're the people who use their hands and hearts to build things that we use.

The next stop in our “Artisans of Michigan” series is Zimnicki Guitars in Allen Park, Michigan.

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