Handmade: Metalsmith couple mold skills into successful business
Gabriel Craig knew he wanted to make his living doing something artistic, but he wasn't sure exactly what -- until one day when a teacher gave him a hammer. He felt a sense of "empowerment," knowing there were endless possibilities for using the tool to manipulate a piece of metal into a functional work of art.
"When I was in art school, I was going to study photography, but I took an elective. A teacher put a hammer in my hand, and I realized I could use a tool to have control over this work, and that was an epiphany for me. There was almost a shift in mentality -- from someone who was a consumer to a maker or builder. It was that feeling of empowerment that you can control the building environment," he explained.
In 2005, while enrolled in art school at Western Michigan University, Craig, met his wife, Amy Weiks, who was also taking metalsmithing classes. He said, "Amy was getting a photography degree, then she took one metalsmith class." And, like Craig, she reshaped her career goal.
Craig's work has been exhibited at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D. C. He earned a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. He also completed a short course at the Pon-Aven in Brittany, France, followed by a year as a bench jeweler, working for a goldsmith in Kalamazoo. Weiks, who holds an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, has had her work displayed at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee TN. Both have lectured and conducted residencies across the U.S.
The artists combined their metalsmith skills in 2012 under the name Smithshop, a "functional and ornamental metalwork" studio in Detroit's Corktown. Last year, they moved the flourishing business to 180 Victor in Highland Park, just a few miles from Detroit's Boston Edison area, where they live with their two-year old daughter.
"We needed to increase our capacity to grow as a business. Our first location was about 1,500 square feet, and if we needed to add more equipment, we would have had to put in more electrical service. It was a leased space, so if we had put in a new power service, when we left that building, it would have become property of the building owner.
"We're super passionate about what we've been able to accomplish in our new space with classes, and we have a small amount of bench rental space. We're really trying to create a community around metal work in Detroit. We're on our way. We have a couple renters."
They also have five staff members -- a shop manager, two full-time employees and two interns. "We've had our intern program about seven years. We have three or six-month programs to take them from where they are to a basic proficiency, and if they're doing a good job, we'll hire them."
On becoming a metal craftsman, Craig, a nationally renowned metalsmith, writer and craft activist, said, "Skills are a never-ending process of continual learning. With metalsmithing, it takes a while to develop proficiency. Once you have basic proficiency, you can expand and deepen your skills, but it's a life-long journey to gain your proficiency. Ten thousand times of doing anything, you gain proficiency with the material. It's like five years of full-time work.
"Most people, after they gain that proficiency, specialize in different styles that interest them. Like, if you're a pianist, you know how to read music and you can sit down and play, but what and how you play can cultivate it to a higher degree."
Metals used at Smithshop include gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, brass, bronze and steel. Items produced vary greatly. "We're an artistic metalworking studio. We do everything from goldsmithing and jewelry making to silversmithing -- all the way up to architectural ironwork."
More specifically, Smithshop produces kitchenware, holloware, belt buckles, tables, coat racks, door handles and knobs, stands for signs, decorative home accents, wine goblets, menorahs, , gates, railings with intricate scrollwork, etc. More than half is "commission-based work." Craig, who often puts in 60-hour work weeks, said they aim "to create really artistic and unique objects."
Smithshop also has a product line of about 35 items in boutiques across the country. "We're in an ultra high-end kitchen store in San Francisco, and a men's boutique in Houston. Our goal is to connect with boutiques that carry one-of-a-kind and hand-crafted items all over the world." They also do online retail online at smithshop.com.
In 2017, the metalsmith couple did a French trade fair for interior design in Paris, called Maison Et Objet. "We were the first Americans to ever show in the handmade section of that show," he said.
Because metalsmiths are few and far between, Craig, 35, said social media connects them with others all over the world, although "some do it just as a hobby." However, he's seeing a "resurgence." He said, "You can go on Youtube and see how something is made. People can binge watch these things, and either buy all the tools and teach yourself, or take a class."
Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.
Contact Smithshop (180 Victor, Highland Park) at (313) 559-2237 or smithshop.com. Email: email@example.com.