Knife makers Ballard Midyette (left) and James Bernard at work in their Monument Avenue Park shop (Photo by Jay Paul)
32, furniture maker
“Growing up in Pennsylvania, learning to make furniture in Vermont, now in Richmond, I’ve found myself in three of the most outstanding furniture havens in the country. When we think of heirloom, we think of these 200-year-old or colonial pieces. What I’m trying to do is create a way for furniture to anticipate its user 100 years from now.
“My background is in consumer design. I transitioned into making handmade, wooden furniture in 2011 to make much more sustainable products that will be very significant to people, as opposed to making a consumer product that’s probably going to end up in the trash.
“If somebody wants a perfect knife or a table or whatever, the first thing you’ve got to do is not make it by hand. Today’s generations are very much losing touch with the process and are very out of touch completely, from how things are made. It’s sort of an uphill battle of describing that and empowering people with that knowledge, because I do think it guides purchases and how people understand value.”
75, glass artist
“This is how your life can change on a credit-card-sized piece of paper: I was having my kitchen renovated five years ago, and I wanted two of the cabinets to have clear textured glass to show off my liquor bottles and wine glasses. My carpenter said, ‘OK Norma, it’s time to go to the glass store.’ And I said, ‘Anything would be an improvement in this kitchen.’ Off I go to Jo Mo Ko Studio. I get my glass, and as I’m pulling out my credit card, I see a small piece of paper, and it says stained-glass classes starting. I signed up. Within three months, I had converted my two-car garage into a studio.
“My background was in nursing and health care, and I retired three years ago. I had never done art in my life, but I had always loved tools. I wanted to be a 17-year-old boy so I could fix cars. In glasswork, there are a lot of tools. I just bought a drill press last week and I was as excited as someone else getting a mink coat.
“For the last three years, it’s been every day, all day. I’m doing it because I can’t not do it. There’s a lot of phony art out there. This is a labor of love.”
33, knife maker
“I’m a jazz trombonist. With music, you sit in a practice room for hours and hours and you don’t leave until it’s right, until it’s ready. I wanted to get away from that. After getting stuck and realizing I had to make mistakes, I started doing knives a year and a half ago.
“Coming from music, I think of the knives I make like little compositions. They’re crafted. There’s an idea of balance. All of that kind of comes into it. I wanted to show the process, so I’ve been grinding at it — literally.
“As I figure it out, it’s just really incredible. It’s like you’re tapping into something deeper than yourself. Any time anybody picks up a hammer or a piece of wood or a piece of metal or even needlepoint, it’s done with a sort of intention to find something. It’s a way of looking a little deeper into yourself and putting something out into the world.”
“I wanted to get into fashion, but I didn’t want to uproot right away, so I figured I’d switch to jewelry. I did repairs when I was at VCU, then I sold some designs from my senior seminar class to Nordstrom. They bought them for about $2,000 — a lot of money for a college kid. I ran to the bank and didn’t have enough money to finance the pitch! At that time, costume jewelry was popular. After that wave, I switched to sterling silver. Now, it’s gold and platinum. I had to evolve with the times.
“I’ve been at it for 27 years now. If I wouldn’t have started when I did, I doubt I would be doing what I’m doing now. I view it altogether different. At first, I wanted to be the best guy out there. That was my plan. After that, it became, ‘I need to be the guy who can survive.’ I think now the longevity has helped out quite a bit. If I hadn’t been around as long as I have, I wouldn’t survive. Times have changed. You can’t really rely on going to craft fairs every Saturday and expect to make your living. The competition is so fierce. You have to have a story. My story is, ‘I’m the old guy.’ ”
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“I had a studio at the old Richmond Dairy in Jackson Ward when I was 28. It was like a big studio house. GWAR was there. There were a lot of painters and sculptors. I was doing stained-glass work and stone carving. There was a lot of junk lying around in the hallways, and there were a couple of big boxes of Army felts. It got really cold in there, so we’d reach in that box, pull out a new hat and cut it up. I realized nobody was making hats anymore. I got my start with a $25 sewing machine from a thrift store. No one was really thinking about hats much at all. You didn’t see them on TV, on musicians, in magazines. Now, for some people, it’s their trademark.
“Hats have their own marketing built in. Your product walks around town at eye level. It’s very noticeable. With handmade [hats], there’s some level of detail that takes you in. It’s interesting and irregular. For me, every hat is kind of an art project. We don’t make the same kind of money we would if we were producing by the dozens or hundreds, but people want to participate in our story. They want us to be successful.”
“The wife of my main professor in college was a potter, and I just started hanging out and learning about it. I asked if you could make a living at it and she said, ‘Wellllllll, maybe.’ One of my apprenticeships that I did in terms of learning about pottery was with a guy who lived in Richmond. That was a good 35 years ago, and I’ve had my gallery for 30 years in the same location.
“The whole RVA Makers thing is a bit of a resurgence. I think ‘maker’ may encompass a little wider variety than just the crafts that we used to think of, and it’s definitely created some new energy both in Richmond and elsewhere.
“Having something that somebody made by hand that you treasure has more intrinsic value than something that was manufactured and came off of a Wal-Mart shelf. Each piece that I do, every single one, is mine from the time I wedge the clay and throw it until it’s fired and ready for the shelves. Each one has my fingerprints on it. It means something to me, and generally, I find it means something more to the person who receives it, as well.”
“I’ve been sewing since I was 8 years old. My mom was a seamstress, and we had industrial sewing machines in the house. I’m at the point now where I can figure anything out sewing-wise.
“When I lived in Austin, [Texas,] I had a lot of friends who worked for themselves and did different handicraft-type things. It encouraged me to think that I could do it, too, so I took classes at the community college and apprenticed for a year. It’s been a learning experience ever since.
“Some of my favorite projects in upholstery will drag out forever, but they’re worth it. I have my own business and I get to make my own schedule. I don’t have a ton of money, but my quality of life is high. If the weather is nice, I can go outside and do what I want for the afternoon. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it, to be honest. Sometimes I’d rather just get a paycheck from somebody. But I feel very thankful for the community that supports me, and it’s nice to be able to produce a living from my own two hands.”
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“After my third child, I was sort of at a crisis point and I was feeling like I needed to do something different. I happened upon a book about Sam Maloof. Sam is an icon in the craft world, collected by presidents and Hollywood elite. When I read the book, I was enamored with his lifestyle, just the way he existed in the world. Something really struck me and I thought if I could make that happen, I would.
“I got my start with smithing at the end of ’99. There’s a lot of risk involved. Sometimes, you don’t really know if something you’re making is going to work aesthetically or functionally. One thing I like about it is the mixture of skills. There’s this real physicality. You’re sweating. You’re getting cut. You’re bleeding. You’re getting burned. It has this very real danger to it when you’re working with hot metal, and yet you have to have the sensitivity of an interior designer. You have to understand architectural space. You have to have an artistic eye. I like that challenge. Europeans use the word ‘artsmith.’ I think that really encapsulates modern blacksmithing.”