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Homework: home-based businesses are on the rise

Artist Brian Jasinski of Grey Cardigan - Photo Bob Perkoski
Artist Brian Jasinski of Grey Cardigan - Photo Bob Perkoski
Brian Andrew Jasinski rattles off a recent statistic stating that many startups take flight in hard economic times. That was true of his nascent Grey Cardigan, a decorative prints company that he launched from his Lakewood home. Though Jasinski loves his day job as a graphic designer for Epstein Design Partners, he wanted to explore other avenues of the commercial art world.

As the economic malaise enters its umpteenth year, many creative folks like Jasinski are seeing it as an opportunity to grab a little slice of the artisan marketplace. With or without day jobs, a new breed of craftspeople are cultivating home-grown companies by doing what they love. Some are eager to branch out, while others are just tickled to have a creative outlet.

Ask Jasinski why he chose the name Grey Cardigan and he'll tell you, "I've always been drawn to style and fashion, and the cardigan is a classic style with a modern twist."

He favors the clean look of graphics from the period that stretches between the 30s and 60s. In his prints, simple, stylish human forms intersect with other surprising and eye-catching elements. Animals -- especially birds -- and botanicals wind and twine around the heads, feet and hands of his human subjects. Static images are energized by a series of lines.

"I love playing with the way the lines flow freely, then wind tight in detail, only to flow again," he says.

Jasinski's work celebrates the vibrancy of Cleveland, "both in the art and food scenes," he notes. He sells his prints through his website as well as outlets like Native Cleveland, a Collinwood store that features locals-only gear for C-Town fans. Grey Cardigan's latest line highlights the Browns, Lake Erie, and a plum tree setting in the flats.

"The bad economy didn't enter our minds," says Candra Squire. "We just did it." Along with business partner Melissa Major, the pair unveiled a line of greeting cards -- but not your typical saccharine fare.

Described by their creators as "horrible and often gross," some cards read: "Happy Birthday: You're Old" and "Get Well Soon (Faker)." Squire, a part-time assistant at a furniture design company, had been delighting her friends with a string of snarky homemade cards. She says she decided "to see if I could make some income." Success at a vendor show in 2009 motivated her to set up a show in Cuyahoga Falls that featured 70 artists.

Squire produces her cards at home, but success in the local marketplace has led to the opening of a permanent sale space in Ohio City called Salty not Sweet. Squire and partner Melissa Major opened the shop this past spring.

"We had the keys in December and opened in March," says Squire. Salty hosts other vendors as well, including those who offer T-shirts, vintage clothing, soaps and candles. And many are doing well enough to take the big leap, says Squire. "Some vendors are slowly starting to quit their day jobs and move.

Major's craft is handmade soaps -- also solid lotion bars, balms, and soy candles. The Terra Verde approach is to combine environmental responsibility with the things that make "life smell really good." With the exception of beeswax, all of Major's products are vegan, made from vegetable, not animal-based fats. Visitors to her website invariably conjure scents of rosemary, lemongrass, and cinnamon -- all spices prevalent in her wares.

Major started her part-time home-based hobby in 2009, and, she says, the feedback was "beyond positive." Though the amateur soap-maker was passionate about her work and unconcerned about the amount of time it required, she says, "I didn't think it would turn into a full-time job as quickly as it has." She credits a supportive Cleveland community looking for local alternatives. And because the products are consumables, she adds, people keep coming back for more.

Environmental awareness also is at the heart of Jane Pierce's Etsy shop, zJayne. A fervent recycler and upcycler, Pierce combs beaches, surveys thrift shops, and trolls a myriad of other sources for found objects to transform into new and salable items. The end result is Earth-friendly market bags, organic dryer sheets, art and more made from repurposed T-shirt materials and reclaimed jewels.

"Recycling is different from upcycling," she explains. "Recycling passes things on to be used in the same way by someone else. Upcycling, for me, is the artistic reuse of found objects and other materials into more meaningful products."

Pierce was making assemblage art dolls with broken bits of jewelry when an Arkansas shop discovered her online and began purchasing each doll as soon as it was completed. Around the same time, she was approaching the holiday season having not yet shopped for her adult kids. She picked up some used T-shirts at a local thrift shop.

"I chose rock bands and things that each would individually like, made them into shopping bags, and filled them with groceries," she explains. "[The kids] loved them -- used them for everything, including laundry, and said I should sell them."

That was just the beginning, she adds. "There were so many parts left over -- sleeves, the bottoms of the T's, even the fonts from unused words, that I found myself designing new products."

She makes sachets filled with organic lavender, as well as environmentally friendly dryer pillows, a replacement for chemically treated store-bought dryer sheets. "I wanted to get away from chemicals, and these lavender-filled pillows can be used over and over." Another big seller is custom "word pouches," which feature people's names or favorite sayings using leftover T-shirt letters. The roomy pouches hold keys, money, credit cards -- just about anything.

The Broadview Heights-based artist, whose day job is at city hall in Highland Hills, has attracted some pretty big buzz. Her products gave been featured in Everyday with Rachael Ray, Body & Soul and Apartment Therapy. Suddenly, lacking a formal business plan, she was selling faster than she could produce. "Growing a business backwards, as my son would say," she quips. Only recently did she meet with a business agency that helped her incorporate.

Thanks in large part to social media, websites, affordable studios, and the ever-popular pop-up shop, Cleveland artisans have a readily accessible outlet for their creative products. For their part, local shoppers seem hungry to support any quality alternative to standardized big-box merchandise.

For many budding craftspeople, it is a path to economic independence. For others, just a fun diversion.

"I just feel lucky about my home business," says Pierce.

Doubtless her fellow artisans feel the same. 
Photos Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1 - 5: Brian Jasinski
- Photos 6 - 9: Melissa Major
- Photos 10 - 12: Candra Squire

This story originally appeared in sister publication Fresh Water Cleveland.

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