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DIY Delight in the Heart of Texas

DIY Delight in the Heart of Texas

DIY Delight in the Heart of Texas

February/March 2013 issue of American Craft magazine

Austin proclaims itself the “live music capital of the world.” It’s a fitting moniker for the fiercely independent city known around the globe for a spirited music scene – a scene that’s rooted not in the corporate music industry but in a percolating patchwork of clubs, bars, and an ever-growing lineup of festivals such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the South by Southwest music, interactive, and film festivals. But indie music cred isn’t all Austin is known for; the city’s craft scene can make the same claim to fame.

Increasingly, art is taking center stage in the city’s proudly eclectic, eco-wise creative landscape. And like its musicians, Austin’s artisans defy easy categorization.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art stands as the city’s most esteemed institution for visual arts. On a more modest scale a few blocks away, the nonprofit organization Women & Their Work offers a curated Kunsthalle approach to work by contemporary female artists.

On Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, the small Mexic-Arte Museum features exhibitions of art and craft by Mexican, Mexican American, Latino, and Latin American artists. Just up the street in a sleekly remodeled former department store, Arthouse is a contemporary art exhibition venue, part of a new organization that formed when it merged with the Austin Museum of Art.

Lacking a definable professional gallery scene – or even a gallery district – Austin artists and craftspeople instead create their community through hives of shared studios and self-generated events.

Like many artists, Debra Broz has her studio in East Austin, a neighborhood of modest bungalows and light-industrial structures now home to hundreds of artists. Broz’s creative practice takes two directions. An in-demand professional ceramics restorer, she is also a sculptor with a résumé of museum and gallery shows. She deftly combines seemingly anomalous parts of vintage, commercially produced animal figurines into beguiling, enigmatic works of art. With a tender respect, Broz transforms the kitsch into something that straddles the familiar and the strange.

“I think one of the great characteristics of the Austin scene is that people don’t spend a lot of energy even differentiating about what’s ‘art’ and what’s ‘craft,’ ” she says. “Austin is a town where people just accept that you’re a ‘maker,’ regardless of what you’re making.”

Broz is also the director of Pump Project, a nonprofit art space that’s transformed an old warehouse into a studio hub. Pump Project is just one of several such studio buildings that have taken shape in East Austin in the last decade; Artpost, Big Medium, and Flatbed are others.

Each hub plays host to its own schedule of events, exhibitions, and the occasional class. All participate in the annual East Austin Studio Tour, an artist-created two-weekend event each November that now attracts more than 20,000 people to more than 350 studios.

Partly because of the studio tour, demand is so great for studio space in East Austin that Pump Project opened a satellite location a few blocks away last year.

Among tenants in the bright green warehouse at Pump Project Satellite is MAKEatx, a laser-cutter co-op and workshop run by Kristen von Minden and Eve Trester-Wilson. Trained as architects, the women invested in a high-end laser cutter capable of cutting, etching, and engraving a wide variety of materials including wood, paper, glass, plastic, stone, and fabric. In a high-tech riff on the traditional artisans guild, MAKEatx members schedule access to the cutter, nicknamed “Patty Princess of Power.”

Von Minden and Trester-Wilson are makers in their own right, creating a line of offbeat jewelry, cards, and other small items, such as their Mistaken Lyrics Coasters, with humorously mangled pop music lyrics laser-incised on cork coasters.

The women sell their wares at Austin’s numerous craft festivals, which include Cherrywood Art Fair, the Blue Genie Art Bazaar, and Austin Craft Riot shows, as well as at national events that have found their way to the city, such as Renegade Craft Fair and Maker Faire. Still, they see some their best sales from consignment arrangements at shops such as Parts & Labour, a boutique devoted exclusively to work by Texas artisans and craftspeople. Parts & Labour is just one of many indie stores on the funky shop-and-restaurant strip of South Congress Avenue known as SoCo. If other shops don’t necessarily share the Lone-Star-State-only approach of Parts & Labour, they do offer a generous part of their retail limelight to locally made crafts.

“I think part of what makes Austin a good place for the independent creator is that people here are so fiercely committed to selling local, buying local, and supporting local talent,” Von Minden says.

Artist Christine Terrell suggests that what gives the Austin community its particular strength is “scenius” – a term coined by musician and producer Brian Eno that merges “scene” and “genius” to mean the intelligence of a whole group or scene. “Austin is a place that works because everybody helps each other out,” she says.

Trained as a graphic designer, Terrell takes scraps of visually intriguing metal harvested from discarded tin containers and repurposes them into necklaces, earrings, cuff links, belt buckles, and other accessories under her brand Adaptive ReUse.

“I’ve always been a maker,” she says. “And I come from a family of thrifty Yankee savers of stuff.”

Terrell prefers the term “upcycle” to describe her approach. And, no, upcycling is not simply an eco-trend. “[Reusing] is exactly what we should be doing all the time,” says Terrell. “It’s what people did before.” That common-sense approach to reusing material is characteristic of the Austin mindset.

Woodworker and furniture designer Andrew Danziger, owner of Hatch Workshop, concurs. Hatch blends traditional wood joinery, a modernist aesthetic, and a love of old machinery to craft inventive furniture and cabinetry. “I like to use [found materials] that still communicate a memory of their former use,” says Danziger.

Danziger and his collaborative crew also reach out to local real estate developers to acquire trees felled in the name of progress, then have the wood milled into lumber.

For one project, new cedar tabletops and seats were fitted onto repurposed metal cafeteria table frames to create practical furnishings for the Mohawk, one of Austin’s many music clubs. For another project recently in progress at his East Austin workshop, Danziger planned to make a tabletop from wood milled from reclaimed trees and add it to the armature of a vintage door-clamping machine to create an outdoor table. “If we can make products from material that’s already available,” he says, “doesn’t that just make sense?”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is an arts reporter at the Austin American-Statesman.