Right on the heels of the do-it-yourself movement, a new brand of artists is sweeping the country with their hand-made American goods. Fittingly titled The Maker Movement, these innovators and designers are producing quality products for consumers who are tired of mass-produced or imported merchandise.
Fueled by a passion to create, these makers—with work spaces in bedrooms, garages, and cluttered corners of basement studios—are turning their hobbies into money-making ventures. Some are diving in whole-heartedly with a do-or-die mentality. Others work weekends and evenings, selling their wares on Etsy or at local craft fairs.
On the corner of Seventh and Patterson, a group of these artist-makers has turned a former funeral home into a collective studio space. This three-story brick building—which was also the Pyramid Institute of Barbering in a former life—is now home to The Electric Pyramid, a collaborative studio where 17 artists work in unison, sharing knowledge, encouragement, and friendship.
A core group of these artists formerly shared a space at Krankies, working inside an area dubbed the Electric Moustache. But when the coffee shop announced it’d be closing for renovations, the artists were forced to look for a new space. Luckily, the building on Patterson Avenue became available about that time, and they were able to secure a two-year contract. Much of the renovation in the building was done by the artists themselves, who spent weeks preparing it to fit their needs.
Now, the space has the appearance of a working studio, with sewing machines surrounded by bits of colorful fabric, paint spattered on the floors, plants blooming on window sills, bookshelves filled with interesting reads, canvases stacked against walls, and sculptures in process. Though they’re never all there at the same time—they come and go at irregular intervals—there’s almost always someone in the space, even late into the night. (And yes, some say they’ve heard mysterious noises and footsteps in the building; which is about what you’d expect from an old funeral home.)
To get a better look, we decided to tour the Electric Pyramid and talk with six of the artists, inquiring about their trade, their back stories, and their thoughts on Winston-Salem as a whole.
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Laura Lashley, painting & murals
Laura Lashley made the gutsy decision two years ago to quit her secure job as an art teacher at The Enrichment Center and go into business for herself. While she admits it was hard figuring out how to pay the bills the first year, she clearly wouldn’t have it any other way. “It took me awhile,” she says, “but I finally figured out that painting was the most fun thing I could do.”
A Winston-Salem native, Lashley was an art major in college but didn’t start painting until the late 1990s. The past eight years, she has been playing with pattern and color, creating intricate designs of free-flowing movement. She specializes in commissioned works and is best-known for painting interior walls and public-art murals—such as the one at Bailey Park or the one alongside Small Batch Brewery. These days, however, it’s floor cloths that have piqued her interest.
With French origins, and formerly painted on the sails from old ships, these cloths are made from thick canvas. Lashley soaks the canvas in hot water, then sews and miters the edges, paints a background, draws out a tedious design, and finally seals everything with three coats of polyurethane. She has plans for quite a few and welcomes commissions for these works of art. You can view samples of her work at lauralashley.com.
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Emma Wallace, textiles
Emma Wallace started her fledgling business of making travel products two years ago as a side project when she was working as an associate designer for LT Apparel Group. A graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) with a degree in textile design and print making, she initially moved to Greensboro to be closer to what used to be the textile hub of North Carolina. When she decided to “give it a shot” by doing her business full time, though, she set her sights on Winston-Salem’s creative community, where she knew she would find the support she needed. Her studio space in the Electric Pyramid carries the mark of a maker, with leather and fabric stacked in neat piles around her heavy-duty sewing machine and a row of completed bags hanging neatly from a rack.
Wallace believes it’s important to “make time to make art” and says the process inspires her. She loves the idea of taking an everyday object and making it both functional and beautiful, and, certainly, her line of goods reflects this, from dock kits and toiletry bags to her duffels and totes.
Wallace supplements her income by renting out her home on airbnb.com, in addition to doing freelance design. In Winston-Salem, her products can be found at Centennial Trading Co., the Sawtooth Center’s gift shop, and on her online shop at etsy.com/shop/narrowlines.
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Kat Lamp, graphic design
Kat Lamp has covered a lot of bases in the art world, from playing bass in a local band to creating concert posters for The Avett Brothers, an award-winning folk/rock band from Concord. With a degree in graphic design, Lamp now works for online publisher Adplex, which she says “pays the bills,” but her passion is doing freelance illustration and design.
Her designated studio space at the Electric Pyramid is filled with creative doodling and drawings, all in varying stages of process. A row of impressive posters graces the wall and an array of artist tools cluster on her desk, catching the light streaming in through the paned window at her shoulder. In addition to her work for The Avett Brothers, Lamp has done illustrative work for Wake Forest and designed CD covers for local musicians, as well as a variety of other graphic design projects.
Lamp, who was born in Winston-Salem, says she moved back to the city to connect with like-minded people. She adds that sharing a studio space with other designers at the Electric Pyramid has been a huge benefit. Her work has been featured in local galleries and is available on her website. She lives with her husband and three cats, finding daily inspiration from “bad jokes, nature, buildings, and old children’s books.” See some of her designs at katlamp.com.
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Tony Fonda, refined upholstery
Three years ago, Tony Fonda moved from California with his wife and infant son to help his father-in-law with a family business of commercial upholstery in Winston-Salem. With a degree in furniture making, upholstery was a “natural next step” for Fonda, after his training in building and refinishing.
Now settled into the Electric Pyramid, the 29-year-old says he feels fortunate to have found a place where he can “afford living” and have the ability to work in a studio space with 24-hour access. He enjoys the freedom of having dinner with his wife, hanging out with his son, then heading to the studio for a couple of hours where he can crank up the music and make as big a mess as he wants. He also works out of his home and from another studio in Surry County.
Like many of the Electric Pyramid artists, Fonda isn’t defined by one genre. He considers himself an interdisciplinary artist, dabbling in mixed-media painting, vinyl, and various fiber crafts. His work includes auto upholstery, bicycle and motorcycle seats, and custom saddles for Cycle Your City bikes on Patterson Avenue, in addition to restaurant booths for Mellow Mushroom, Panera Bread, and Burke Street Pizza. While his focus has been mostly commercial work, he says he may pursue the home furniture market in the future. View his designs at instagram.com/refried.upholstery.
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Kait Neely, quilting
Kait Neely is bringing back a lost art. On any given day, you might find her bent over a box of fabric scraps, or sketching out a pattern on her drawing table, or operating her long-arm quilting machine in the basement of the Electric Pyramid. (Her studio is housed in the embalming room of the former funeral home.)
Neely took her first sewing class at age 12 and was making her own clothing by age 15. By age 18 she was working at JoAnn Fabrics and had taught herself the art of quilting. In 2007, she accepted her first commission project and has been stitching custom-made quilts ever since, creating up to 15 a year. Her quilts cover babies, grace walls, drape beds, and hug couches. The patterns combine her own designs with modern interpretations of traditional ones, focusing on color and fabric. She finds vintage pieces in thrift stores, antiques shops, or in a bag of leftovers from friends.
Although she’s lived in larger cities, Neely was drawn to Winston-Salem’s artist community. “It’s so inspiring to be in this studio space,” she says of the Electric Pyramid. When she’s not in the studio, you will most likely see her at Krankies, where she works as a barista, or snuggling at home with her two dogs and cat. You can view her work at kaitcetera.com.
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Jess Matthews, vintage clothing
Jess Matthews felt she was on a path to nowhere as a teenager waiting tables and working at the mall. One day she asked herself, “Why am I doing this?” She promptly quit her job and decided to follow her dream. That dream was the creation of Cosmic Circle, a handmade and remade vintage clothing business she now runs with a friend in Raleigh, Andrea Iacobucci. Together, they have an online Etsy shop with more than 300 vintage pieces. They also display their clothing at Design Archives in Winston-Salem and in Rumors Boutique in Chapel Hill and Richmond.
“At first we would take vintage clothing and add buttons … then we’d fix a hem here or a hole there, until it turned into ‘We can make this ourselves,’” she says, reflecting on their humble beginnings. “Everything we use has been recycled from something else,” she adds. “We take a bed sheet and make a shawl, or a curtain and make a shirt, or turn a dress into a kimono, or turn T-shirt scraps into a dress.”
While their target market is teenagers and young women, they find all ages shopping at their stores. “Our purpose is to show girls they don’t have to always do the mall stuff—there’s other options out there.”
Matthews currently lives in downtown Winston-Salem with her cat, Milkshake. Her online shop can be found at thecosmiccircle.etsy.com.