Academy of Handmade

Craft Lake City has been nominated for the Academy of Handmade Awards in 2014, on March 7. Craft Lake City’s Executive Director Angela H. Brown interviewed Sharon of Academy of Handmade to learn more about her and the organization! Check out the interview below:

CLC: Hello Sharon, tell us a few things about yourself beyond your career.
Sharon: Hi! Well, I really started working for myself so I could do the things I love and have the flexibility to be at home with my one-eyed French Bulldog (Turner). So in a lot of ways I feel like my likes and habits are also very much intertwined with my career (going to crafts shows and saying hi to friends/checking out new vendors, learning more about business strategy, hanging out with people, etc.). That said, I’m also very drawn to anything creative, smart and funny.

CLC: What first got you into crafting and DIY projects?
Sharon: Well, I can remember doing this ever since I was little, helping my mom assemble wreaths for Christmas and other projects… even art class in high school. But I think when I first was living on my own and didn’t have a lot of money, DIY projects were something I definitely got into. I have also always been drawn to painting, especially as a catharsis to process things/redirect mental energy. We’ve also conducted a few vision board sessions this year and I find those to be very meditative, as well.

CLC: Prior to the Academy, you were working in media, even interned with CNN during the 2008 presidential campaign. What was it like working in that field?
Sharon: I was mostly studying media for grad school and had opportunities through that. I did a year at the London School of Economics and a year at USC, which were both very enlightening. It was one year of looking much more critically at media and communication and another year looking at strategy and the mechanisms of media. I became very passionate about looking at how the media and nonprofits portrayed those who are suffering and disadvantaged. Ultimately I had enough bad experiences with non-profits that made me want to shift my focus to making a societal impact in other ways.

CLC: You also served as an adjunct professor at Biola University. How did the opportunity come about to work there?
Sharon: Oh man, I am not even entirely sure. I did my undergrad there and a professor I didn’t even know in the journalism department reached out to me asking me if I wanted a job there. I definitely had been wanting to teach for a while so I was interested. The schedule was a bit of a grind (I very much sympathize with teachers even more now!) so it wasn’t something I could continue, but I still love teaching.

CLC: You currently work for Right Brain PR, how did you get involved with their company and how is it working for them?
Sharon: I own and started Right Brain PR. It is my consulting business. I formed it to make PR and marketing services more accessible to creatives and other small businesses.

CLC: What kinds of craft catch your eye or types you personally seek out?
Sharon: Oh, man it varies. I feel like I can get craft fatigued easily since I see all the latest trends in handmade, but I really love everything that Yellow Owl Workshop is doing (including doing some of my own stamps!). I think that a lot of local ceramicists are looking good like Unurth (an Academy member!) and Lustered Walnut. And I’m always into people who make food. 🙂

CLC: What influenced you to start supporting fellow crafters? How did the idea for the Academy Of Handmade come about?
Sharon: I was already working with my co-founder KC who is a maker with a fiber arts background. We had gone through a couple endeavors together and had a lot of friends in the industry that we missed seeing on a regular basis.

We were also inspired by awards show season to create the Academy of Handmade Awards. Every other industry out there has an awards show, but ours doesn’t really have one that reflects what’s going on with modern makers. So, we thought why not have an Oscars of crafting? Then from there we thought how would that work out and having members would make sense and once you have members, you can do things to support them year round beyond the awards show.

CLC: What was it like planning the academy and getting everything together for launch?
Sharon: Well, I wish I could say there was some grand strategy, but there wasn’t. KC and I are both very “can-do” people, so when we decided we wanted to make this happen we just pulled the trigger. We asked a lot of our friends what they wanted to see and just had to go through a lot of trial and error. Going through this process has made me realize that when you are a starting something that is so new you really have to be flexible and ready to alter course at a moment’s notice.

CLC: What benefits do people gain from joining?
Sharon: I think the biggest thing is access to a community that is like you. There are definitely free communities out there (or even paid ones) like Etsy teams, etc. that are easy to join and by all means these are great. But I think we’ve really tried to hone in on members who tend to be a little more serious about their business. They are people who have attended a lot of conferences and workshops, read a lot of books and articles, and have done this long enough to have a pretty good sense of what you “should do” but having a community to turn to when next level stuff starts to happen is huge for them. I would describe most of our members as more intermediate to advanced in their making and business skills. They just know that because they are one person (or sometimes just a handful of people), they don’t have all the capacities for every task. It’s great to have a community to turn to who you can crowdsource advice, get recommendations and also hear how other people handled similar experiences. That’s stuff you don’t really find in “how-to” tutorials or conferences.

CLC: You have a number of events happening throughout the year. How do you decide what kind of an event you want to highlight? As in which events we want to promote?
Sharon: We always bring to the foreground the things we think are going to benefit our members the most. It’s hard now that we are getting bigger and there is more happening, but we try to promote smartly and directly to the people who the event will matter the most to.

CLC: What kind of a response have you had from the public at large to these events? As in the general public?
Sharon: We really have few events geared toward the general public. We did an Etsy craft party as one of our first events and it was a huge success. That said, it was also a ton of work which is partly why we didn’t do one again this year. Our audience is makers who care about their business, not DIYers generally so we try to focus on hosting events that appeal to that audience. As I mentioned, it’s been a lot of trial and error as to what events make the most sense. We’ve certainly had some flops. Business-oriented workshops and social meet-ups seem to be garner the most interest. Since we’ve been doing this for less than two years, that could change and we are open to that change.

CLC: Who are some of the more prominent members you currently have on board?
Sharon: Oh wow, well Kristen and Thomas of PF Candle Co. who we have been friends with for a while have really blown up over the last year. Julie of Julie Ann Art joined this year and that lady is also a juggernaut. You can see more here. What’s really great though is that even people who I think are “big” still have questions about things that are just not their forte or they don’t have experience with. They can ask the group and everyone gets treated like a peer. I really appreciate that. There’s not a lot of “fan girling” or people who think they are bigger than other people. It’s all very collegial.

CLC: What made you decide to form chapters, and how do you decide what cities they’re setup in? Sharon: Well, we knew that in order to grow, we couldn’t just be holding events in LA/OC. Having people locally you know that you can rely on or see at craft shows makes things easier for a lot of people. Plus, we had a lot of people tell us they wished they could go to the events but didn’t live in the area.

Right now we are piloting a chapter in San Francisco. The Bay Area has a very active maker community and obviously a history of artisans that made a lot of sense to pursue that city. Plus, it’s less than an hour plan ride away, which also made it easier to start. The flavor of that chapter is so neat to see too. Their concerns and the way they pursue their craft looks different than LA/OC, which is why having something local just makes sense.

In terms of chapters that are next we have had interest from Fargo, Seattle, Austin, San Diego, Minneapolis, New York, Houston, etc. What’s hard is finding the team put in place to make a chapter happen. For San Francisco, we already knew Rebecca Saylor who is also the SF Etsy Team Captain. She had experience leading makers as a maker. But I get concerned that a maker leading makers alone will get burned out. So, I try to pair them with someone who is a supporter of makers (which is essentially what KC and I are– she makes and I support makers in my business). That’s an ideal combo for me for chapter leadership.

CLC: You also have your own Awards Ceremony each year. What are the awards designed to highlight, and how can people be nominated?
Sharon: The awards are designed to highlight people who are both doing well with their business and making things that people really respect. It’s that combo that I think is unique. Our aim is to bring greater attention to the diversity within the handmade community and to also give recognition to the people who are putting in countless hours to build a great business and make a great product.

Anyone who is involved in the maker community can nominate for $15 and members of the Academy nominate for free. Nominees are then voted on by members for the best artist categories, best supporting business and community superstar awards. As we expand into chapters we are looking at also have locally specific categories as well.

CLC: What is your ultimate goal with the academy and what kind of influence do you hope it has on artisans?
Sharon: Ultimately we would like it to function a lot like any other industry trade organization. It’s a place where you can feel like there are people who “get” you, a place to find resources for doing your job better, a place to find colleagues you can collaborate with or get advice from, and a place where you can contribute and support others.

I’d also like us to be a place where we can explore and advocate for issues that affect the community, as well. Right now I do feel like the industry is a bit fractured to be able to do things like that or it relies often organizations that I think have a real or perceived conflict of interest to do those things. We’ve really tried hard to be a neutral ground.

CLC: Where do you see the academy, or hope to achieve with it, in the next five years?
Sharon: I’d like us to be looking a lot more like what I mentioned above. We hope to be known in the industry as a central and neutral place for makers (not unlike Freelancers Union) where they can voice concerns or needs and we can take a more active role in advocacy. I also see us expanding chapters and having a more robust local presence that is dictated by local needs (this is where my nonprofit background kicks in). And we always want to remain adaptable to the needs of our audience, so it will really depend a lot on what they ask for.

CLC: What can we expect to see from the Academy in 2015?
Sharon: We are looking to up our online resources as we start having more members join that are remote from a local chapter (and we have lots of local members that aren’t able to make everything). It seems boring, but there are just infrastructure changes that will start to happen that a lot of people won’t notice, but will just give us a better footing for growth and managing our ever-expanding community. And we are going to try to expand into new chapter locations.