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Issue Media Update: The Crafty Ones

Every month we'll be running an Issue Media Update, an article from one of the many writers and editors across the country who contribute to the nineteen online publications of Issue Media Group, our parent company. These pieces look at a local trend from a national point of view.

Talk about following one's bliss.

Ask Faith McFluff what she does for a living and you'll likely hear, "I get paid to be awesome!"

That's a far cry from the way she felt about her last job in the hospitality biz, an industry that swallowed up a large chunk of her young-adult life.

"It drove me nuts," says McFluff.  "It was a very stressful work environment. And wearing a uniform every day practically killed me."

McFluff, who lives in Cleveland's Asiatown neighborhood, 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 for 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.

"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," explains 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 McFluff and McGee are by no means flying solo. According to a report released by MBO Partners titled "The State of Independence In America," there is a large and growing number of independent workers in the U.S. 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, Faith McFluff recites the events of her last day of work with alarming clarity. It was five years ago.
"I told my boss that every day 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.

The Facts of Bliss-Following

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 on the newsstand.

"I grew up in the rural north woods 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."

Raven's Flight

As is the case with many members of 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 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 any more."

Toney ditched it all--including the embarrassingly large paychecks--to apprentice with a cabinetmaker in Los Angeles. These days, he makes fine furniture in 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 Nicole 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 the creative reuse of products, including cereal boxes (turned into stationery), 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 reduced her hours per week from 40 to 30 and down, 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 to allow herself 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 home town, 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.

Azoury also does work as a graphic designer, which pulls her out of the studio but into some much needed human interaction. As for which work gets finished first--well, money talks.

"I wish it was more organized than that. But the truth is, when a check comes in you drop other things to do the work."

Philly-based Jennifer Hermann traded in one jewelry making job for another. The difference? Before she was working for somebody else.

"I had no creative license," Hermann says of her job in a manufacturing shop. "Now I make what I want. Seeing other people happy about wanting my work and owning it, that keeps me going."

Of course, working for yourself means that you and you alone are responsible for generating all income.

"Staying motivated, making yourself get up everyday to do the work, that is the hardest part," says Hermann. "Before I got a paycheck every week no matter what. Now I have to really push myself. But the rewards are so much more meaningful because I'm setting it all up for myself."

And Then There Are the Hands

Invariably, we must give something up in order to pursue our passion. Money might seem the obvious casualty – and almost without fail, creative entrepreneurs make less money – but to most, that hardly is a shortcoming.

"I was making tons of money--more money than a 20-year-old should," says McFluff. "I bought a shiny new convertible, I traveled to Europe. But I realized that I was buying stuff to try to find happiness. I learned that you can work less, earn less, and still maintain a level of happiness."

While McGee does occasionally find herself romanticizing the days of a steady paycheck, the lack of one has prompted positive changes she'd never abandon.

"When I was making more than I needed, I would buy more stuff than I needed," says McGee. "This life forces you to be more financially engaged in your life. To pay attention to revenue in and revenue out. It helps you to live simply."

And then there are the hands.

"My hands now look like my dad's, who was a coal miner," says Toney. "I doubt I'd I get work as a model any more with these hands."

Douglas Trattner is managing editor of Fresh Water in Cleveland. Send feedback here.
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