Rod Wright says he was always an oddball in IT.
He prefers talking to people, rather than sitting in front of a machine.
So when he was laid off as a systems analyst in December, he decided to make a few extra bucks doing something that lets him get out in front of a crowd.
Wright, 54, makes pottery in his Ellicott City home and studio, Brick Road Creations
, and sells them at trade shows where he enjoys talking to strangers.
At one show last month, one woman fell in love with one of his bowls.
“’I do not need this bowl, but love this bowl,’” she told Wright. “You are able to make something that someone else enjoys. I love that interaction with people.”
Though he can’t yet rely on his mugs, trays and meat platters to pay all of his bills, he hopes someday he can.
Wright is yet another member of today's burgeoning BoHo Entrepreneur class – creative-minded people who are leaving behind the 9-to-5 grind to pursue their passion of making things.
Blame it on the recession or chalk it up to a generation of people who prefer vinyl records to MP3s, the trend toward independent creative entrepreneurship is real and rising. People value authenticity, and that often comes in the form of a handmade object with pedigree and a good story to boot.
In Wright’s case, his good story is that he still has the clay pot he made in sixth-grade art class.
"I think when things get really high-tech and glossy, there's always a swing back, with people going back to doing things by hand," says Nicole McGee, of the Cleveland-based recycled art venture Plenty Underfoot
"At a time when we can buy anything by simply pointing a phone in the right direction, it's nice to do the opposite, to use scissors and glue and make things completely by hand."
Learning to Fly
Despite their gigs, folks like Wright and McGee are by no means flying solo. There is a large and growing number of independent workers in the U.S., according to a report released by MBO Partners titled The State of Independence In America
. MBO, which supports the independent consulting sector, puts the current number at 16 million, but they expect that figure to balloon to 70 million – more than half the private workforce – by 2020.
It's easy to assume that many of these people have been pushed out of their nests and into these less-than-typical jobs by a lackluster economy. But that is not the case for more than half of them, according to the same study, which says 55 percent made a proactive decision to go solo.
Like a recovering alcoholic recalling his or her last drink, Cleveland's Faith McFluff recites the events of her last day of work with alarming clarity. It was five years ago.
"I told my boss that everyday was starting to feel like Groundhog Day, and that I can't stand coming in," she recalls. She gave her notice on the spot.
A budding seamstress since early childhood, McFluff has always felt comfortable on this side of a sewing machine. But it wasn't until she attended her first music festival that she discovered there was a market for handmade clothing. Before long, she had hopped aboard the festival circuit full-time, selling her own creations. Her specialty, Bohemian costumes
made from recycled clothing, fit the artistic-minded audience like a glove.
Follow Your Bliss
Something magical happens when person and passion collide. Scientists talk about the release of endorphins, when feelings of euphoria kick in and all else fades away. When we are truly immersed in the task at hand, little else seems to matter. That might explain why almost 80 percent of independent workers report being "highly satisfied."
"When I get in the studio, I'm immediately back in kindergarten art class," says Laura Nelli, founder of Minneapolis-based Nelle & Harold
, a handmade handbag company. "The actual making of the product is a huge relaxation experience for me."
Nelli graduated in 2002 with a communications degree, and when she couldn't find a job, she decided to make one. Today, she runs a thriving little boutique, and her made-to-order clutches have been featured in almost every glossy fashion magazine at the newsstand.
"I grew up in the rural Northwoods of Wisconsin with a mom and dad who ingrained in me that if you want to do something, just do it," she adds. "I'm an entrepreneur; I was born to be one."
Like many within this BoHo Entrepreneur class, Raven Toney
's journey to occupational bliss is one that seems logical only in hindsight. Easy on the eyes, Toney began snagging modeling gigs in his early 20s. He ultimately settled in New York City, where he launched a high-end event-planning firm that indulged the hedonistic whims of A-Listers like Donna Karan, Versace and Calvin Klein.
"Along with those kinds of clients come a lot of demands," says Toney, stating the obvious. "It got to be way too much. I was making a lot of money but I wasn't as happy anymore."
Toney ditched it all – including the embarrassingly large paychecks – to apprentice with a cabinet maker in Los Angeles. These days, he makes fine furniture from his Cleveland shop.
"My favorite thing in the entire world is working in my shop all by myself," he says. "I don't even have the radio on. I'm completely engrossed in the work."
The fact that Toney's past and present careers are the antithesis of one another is precisely the source of his personal and professional satisfaction. As an event planner, he juggled a frenetic web of loose ends that resulted in a nonessential event that lasted mere hours. As a furniture maker, Toney dedicates his time to well made objects with an indefinite shelf life.
"I guarantee you that if I made it, it will be here for 100 years," he says of his pieces.
But I'm Not Creative
Too often, we tend to classify people as either creative or not. We look at the Mona Lisa – or an elaborate piece of fine jewelry – and we say to ourselves, I could never do that. Maybe so, maybe not, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try, says McGee, a self-described "creative entrepreneur" who makes and sells a broad line of crafty wares.
"There is no wrong way to be creative," she says. "The more permission we give ourselves to play and explore, the more open we'll be to tapping into our own creativity. Lots of people are creative in ways they might not know. There's a lot more to being creative than painting and drawing."
McGee's Cleveland-based business, Plenty Underfoot, is built around creative reuse of products, including cereal boxes (stationary), vinyl flooring (permanent flowers), and pop bottles (centerpieces). Unlike many others who abandoned their "day jobs," McGee loved her previous career in the nonprofit world. It just didn't fulfill her.
"It was awesome, but I recognized I had a passion to be more creative," she explains.
As she gradually reduced her work hours, it became clear to McGee where her destiny lay, and it wasn't in the nonprofit world. She was fortunate enough to have the flexibility that allowed her to shift gradually from vocation to avocation, a strategy she highly recommends.
"Don't just leave your day job to go find yourself," she says. "I tell people you shouldn't take the leap until you have a few things already lined up."
Juggling for Dollars
"I do more than one thing to make a living," explains Pittsburgh-based jeweler Audra Azoury
. While her Steel Town pieces, which are modeled after the bridges of her hometown, are taking off, the work isn't enough to cover all the bills.
"It's a really hard struggle," she admits. "There are a lot of people who say they're making a living doing this, but they also have rich husbands," she says with a laugh.
“I’m not making tons of money, but it’s something I really enjoy,” says Baltimore’s Ann Tyler, who sells her handmade purses
at Sugarloaf Craft Festivals and online.
But sales are growing for some artists.
Wright’s instructor, Cat Holt, says that when the economy started to sour there years ago, her Parkville Claymonster
pottery business started doubling its income every year. She and her husband Rich Holt keep prices low – around $40 and made oddball monster art with a sense of humor.
She has noticed that some of her fellow artists have a hard time if they sell serious, high-end pieces.The Holts are now scouting for new studio space in Baltimore's Lauraville neighborhood so visiting clients will no longer have to use a neighbor’s parking spot. The Holts employ one full-time assistant and may need to hire more staff after the move.
“It’s time to make it into a legitimate business.”
Douglas Trattner is managing editor of Freshwater Cleveland, a sister publication.
Julekha Dash is managing editor of BmoreMedia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Rod Wright in his pottery studio at his Ellicott City home / Photo by Steve Ruark
Rod Wright's 6th grade pottery from 1969/ Photo by Steve Ruark
Pottery by Rod Wright / Photo courtesy of Rod Wright
Clutches by Laura Nelli / Photo courtesy of Cadence Cornelius Photography
Laura Nelli / Photo courtesy of Cadence Cornelius Photography
All photographs by STEVE RUARK