Celebrating Creativity at the Makerfest

After watching too much cable TV news, I get really depressed about America. But I’ve found a tonic: Attend an art show, craft fair or a makerfest to connect with real people doing real things. The creativity, imagination and craftsmanship on display are a delight to behold. Yesterday I spent a half day at the RVA Makerfest 2017 at the Science Museum of Virginia. By the end of the day, I felt much better. Here are some of the people I met.

Andrew Sink shows a plastic replica of his brain made with a 3-D printer.

Andrew Sink and his business partner Chris Caswell met in Florida. Caswell moved to Boston where he purchased a 3-D printer, and they brainstormed the idea of retailing 3-D printers and supplies. Choosing to meet halfway, geographically speaking, they launched their business in Richmond two years ago. They believe 3D Central to be the first 3-D printing retailer in the country. While similar ventures have popped up in other cities, they think they’ve got the best business model.

A difficulty with hawking with 3-D printers is that they take considerable effort to learn to operate. Often, people give up and return the product to the retailer. Sink is proud that they’ve never had a return. The key to growing the market, he says, is education and training. 3D Central holds classes, provides individual training, and even teaches summer camps. “You can’t just sell printers,” he says. “You need a holistic solution. I feel that’s what we’ve accomplished.” The company now employs six, and the partners are looking for expanded office space.

As for what these printers can do… In the photo above, Sink shows a print-out of his brain. After taking an MRI to help diagnose his migraines, the hospital gave him a CD image. He fed the data from the CD into the 3-D printer. Voila, a pink plastic brain.


Heidi Rugg and her puppets

Fourteen-year-old Winter Peace says she has been making puppets since she was seven.

It takes a wide range of skills to become a puppeteer, says Heidi Rugg, lead puppeteer of the Barefoot Puppet Theater in Richmond and founder of Puppets off Broad Street, an alliance of four local puppet troupes. Typically, puppeteers make their own puppets. Animating puppets requires mastery over an array of springs, levers, pivots, fulcrums and wheels — in a word, machine mechanics and physics. And, of course, puppeteers must compose entertaining skits and perform them.

Jim Henson and his muppets catapulted puppeteering to national fame in the United States, but the art form is not widely practiced outside of a few big cities. Atlanta, Boston and New York are the big players on the East Coast, Rugg says, but Richmond has a respectable puppeteering community, which has grown to the point where it supports a “performance series” — RVA Winter Puppetfest.


Keith M. Ramsey with his steam-punk inspired art.

After studying at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Keith M. Ramsey landed a job in a graphic design firm in Richmond. One day he passed a co-worker’s computer displaying some steam punk art. “It stopped me in my tracks,” he says. He immediately fell in love with the genre, and began fabricating things made from castaway metal materials, which he refers to as “found” materials. Adding welding to his repertoire of skills led to an explosion of artistic creativity and innovation.

As it turned out, it was a good thing that Ramsey developed a serious hobby. The design firm laid him off. After that, he plunged into his artwork full time and never looked back. Among the creations on display yesterday were steam punk-inspired lamps and pen holders. Trust me, you cannot buy these office supplies at Staples! See more of his artwork here.


Ballard “Viking” Midyette explains how he made a knife.

Ballard Midyette lovingly produces custom hand-made knives, spending many hours fashioning the blades and wood handles. Other artisans make custom knives, too. But Midyette goes two or three extra steps. He finds the personality in each knife and finds a name to fit. “The Wild Card,” “The Minimalist,” “The Cynewulf,” and the “Conjurer” were the names of some of the knives on display yesterday. He also photographs each step of the production process and writes a narrative, which he posts on the Web for his customers to see.

After studying music at VCU — he plays the trombone — he nearly went to law school. But he bailed at the last minute to pursue his craftsmanship, which he supports through a full-time job. Making a quality product can take hours of polishing blades and sanding wooden handles. Some might find the work tedious, but Midyette, whom his friends call “the Viking” for his mane of red hair, says there is zen to the process. “It’s like taking away the parts that don’t look like the knife.”

He and his partner James Bernard aren’t in it for the money — “I started this without any attachment to income,” Midyette says — but they have found that, if they do good work, it will sell.


Mike Harrell hammering an iron rod into a hook.

Mike Harrell discovered blacksmithing on the Internet. For a long time, he followed a number of blacksmith blogs. With a burly build, bushy beard, and gleaming pate, Harrell could have been called from central casting for the village smithy role. When he finally sought out the company of Richmond-area smithies through the Central Virginia Blacksmith Guild, he discovered other bearded men like himself. “I have found my people!” he says.

The guild has about 110 members. While many members are hirsute and hefty, says Harrell, there are female smithies, too. Working a day job at what he will describe only as a “Richmond-area credit card company” (wink, wink, nod, nod), he pursues smithing as a serious hobby. He works mainly on functional items — at the show he was forging a hook that could be used to hang a bird house — but relies upon others for artistic vision. There’s nothing wrong with being practical, he says. As he asks the kids who watch what he does, when the zombie apocalypse comes, would they rather be good at video games or iron-smithing?

Shane Cusick sitting atop a Pello Bikes creation.

Shane Cusick concluded that there was an unmet demand for children’s bicycles when he purchased an expensive bike for his two young  sons. The bike weighed half as much as his tykes, making it difficult for them to handle and learn how to ride. “Imagine I rode a 75-pound bike!” he says. “And I know how to ride!”

Cusick, who works as event and outreach coordinator for Bike Virginia, and a partner started tinkering with making better bikes for children. “Every component is designed for children,” he says. The bikes are lighter. Their handles and brake levers are sized for tiny grips. Their prototypes are “really good adult bikes shrunk into a smaller package.” Naturally, there are more expensive, but he thinks there is a niche market for people who want to give their children a serious biking experience.

Pello Bikes sells 99% of its bicycles through the Web, and Cusick relies upon a couple of part-time employees to manufacture the two-wheelers. At the moment, he’s more interested in perfecting the product than raising outside capital and gearing up for large sales. “I don’t want the crazy pressure of investors demanding bigger profits,” he says.


Pens inspired by Game of Thrones

If you’re looking for the cheapest pen you can find, go to Wal-Mart. If you’re looking for a pen as a work of art, check out Towers Woodcraft. Luis Torres (Torres is Spanish for “tower”), a sergeant in the U.S. Army,  started hand crafting pens about two years ago. He describes the past-time as a serious hobby and artistic outlet.

If anyone needs an idea for a Christmas present to buy me (hint, hint, family members), one of these Game of Thrones-inspired boligrafos will do nicely. Let me make it easy for you: Check out the Towers Woodcraft Facebook page here.


Philip Miranda shows off one of his ties.

The last thing Philip Miranda needs is a hobby so successful that it turns into a business. He already owns his own business, Miranda Detailing, an auto detailing company. But some people just have the gift. Miranda Classic Ties, a “hobby that’s turned into something more,” arose out of Miranda’s desire for a thick wool, herringbone-patterned bow tie. He couldn’t find one anywhere, so he purchased an old herringbone jacket at a thrift store, bought a sewing machine, taught himself how to sew, and then made the tie he wanted.

Next thing he knew, he began making ties for family members and friends. Now he does custom orders, typically using fabric from men’s shirts and jackets, Miranda says, although one vendor in Connecticut sends him old silk ties to re-purpose into bow ties. He wasn’t looking to start a new business, he says. “It just grew.” 


Brick artist Shane Halloran assembles a Lego portrait while Brickworkz founder Brian Korte looks on.

Brian Korte used to do cross-stitch as a hobby about twelve years ago when it occurred to him that the artistic look of the cross stitch could translate into Lego renderings. Playing around with PhotoShop software, he would take a portrait, posterize it, pixellate it, and fine tune it, and create a template that he could replicate with Lego blocks. Creating Lego mosaic portraits started out as a quirky hobby — as far as he knew, only one other person in the world was doing the same thing at the time. People appreciated the novelty value. Next thing, friends asked him to do their wedding portrait. And one project followed another.

As commissions came in through the Web, his hobby morphed into a part-time business, Brickworkz, and then into a full-time job. Now it’s a full-fledged business with an employee. Korte gets calls from businesses who fly him in for corporate events, sometimes to create something as simple as a corporate Lego logo, sometimes, given enough people and time to help him piece together the Lego tiles, to replicate “some very elaborate stuff.”


Crew leader Iijeana James displays a self-watering plant box.

People love planting flowers in planter boxes, but they don’t always take to the drudgery of watering the plants every day. Groundwork RVA, a non-profit group dedicated to creating a new generation of urban horticulturalists, proffers a solution — the self-watering planter. Groundwork recruits teams of young people to learn about horticulture, and one of their jobs is building the planter boxes.

The bottom layer consists of corrugated plastic pipes, which function as a reservoir. A tube (seen in the photo at right) feeds water into the pipes. The pipes are punctured so plant roots can push through and access the water. The top layer consists of soil and the plants themselves. The plants need watering only once a week or so.

Groundwork RVA is part of national network of nonprofits partially underwritten by the National Park Service. Selling the self-watering planters helps pay the stipends of the urban youth who work with the program, which teaches horticulture, carpentry and soft skills such as writing resumes and applying for jobs, says Project Manager Will McQuate.

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5 responses to “Celebrating Creativity at the Makerfest

  1. I’m glad the Science Museum is there, and such a success, but it makes me sad to see those platform awnings in your photos and remember Broad Street Station as the very functional and beautiful urban transportation hub it once was. All that lost just so DMV could expand its office building.

  2. Thanks for reminding us about the real people doing real things .

  3. I highly suggest you ditch the TV. I did years ago. 🙂

  4. Good article. I know firsthand that younger people are choosing to go into business for themselves because they can control their own destiny and their parents’ experience has taught them that the days of depending on a big corporation for everything are passing. There is a real entrepreneurial spark. People like making things with their hands

  5. The big clinker for those that actually rely on their own labor for their livelihood (as opposed to a weekend hobby supported by a full-time job with benefits, is how they get their health insurance.

    One accident.. one sickness, one bad-luck on a disease and they can be transformed into a bankrupt ward of the state taxpayers.

    If we had a system where people COULD be independent and entrepreneurial and not be job-locked at a job they hated but needed the provided health insurance – we’d have a LOT MORE entrepreneurial people who would bring their ideas and products and services to the market for more than just arts and crafts…

    Right now, the law denies people who work for themselves the ability to deduct their health insurance costs from their taxes – unlike those with employer-provided who pay no taxes on their health insurance – to include FICA. If self-employed folks had the same deal – both they and taxpayers would benefit.

    So that’s what I see when I see folks like this… a concern that some are potentially paying a heavy price for their artisan lifestyle.

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