By: Jessica Karsten
From music to moonshine, metalsmithing to manufacturing, Knoxville has a rich tradition of crafting and making.
East Tennessee has been home to skilled artisans for centuries, and the people of Southern Appalachia are renowned for their ingenuity and do-it-yourself spirit. Today, an emerging maker movement and creative-class environment provides local craftspeople, hobbyists, tinkerers, and micro-entrepreneurs the chance to turn their passions into profit.
At the inaugural Make Knox summit in September, Knoxville was proclaimed an official “Maker City” by Etsy, a popular e-commerce marketplace where creative entrepreneurs sell unique, handmade items. According to Etsy, Maker Cities pair strong municipalities that value entrepreneurship, sustainability, and responsible manufacturing with the creative and innovative spirit of the community.
Throughout the summit, local makers came together for brainstorming the future of Knoxville’s creative community and discussing how to move forward with the flourishing maker movement. What emerged was a collective desire for the city to provide business resources, create social events, and develop maker-friendly policy to make Knoxville a great place to make.
“We are forging a new path in Knoxville,” said Joy O’Shell, director of outreach and marketing for the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. “The hard part is getting organized and figuring out what we can realistically accomplish together.”
What Makes a Maker?
A maker is broadly defined as “a person that makes or produces something.” In Knoxville, this manifests through areas like manufacturing, software development, video production, cooking/baking, brewing, jewelry making, and painting. Many local makers choose to use their creative talents to develop a business around their craft.
“As a maker here, you’re drawing on not just legacy of mountain ingenuity, but also on a tradition of access to research facilities at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” said O’Shell. “You can’t help but make this object or technology you’re being called to make, and you’re compelled to craft something with your hands to solve a problem. Then, if you find there is a customer for your craft or trade, you can start to grow it organically through a number of local markets, shared spaces, tech resources, or even online platforms like Etsy.”
Alaina Smith is owner and designer for ColdGold, a Knoxville-based leather goods and geometric jewelry shop. She sells her products on Etsy, at craft fairs, and is featured at local downtown handmade gift shop Rala. As a local maker, she believes Knoxville’s maker movement is a special one and has worked with KEC to brainstorm ideas for the future of Knoxville’s creative community.
“All in all, makers are creative thinkers with a need to create. Hobbies aside, the contemporary maker culture fosters creatives to turn their hobbies into businesses, and our economy is getting stronger because of it,” Smith said. “We are a large enough city to have a focused and strong core group of makers, but not too large a city to have to compete with each other.”
In addition to Rala, a popular location for local makers to sell their products is The Southern Market, a collection of 40-plus shops in West Knoxville featuring an eclectic selection of decorative accessories, distinctive gifts, fine antiques, and original art. Southern Market merchants participate in three festivals each year including the annual Holiday Open House, outdoor Spring Fling, and an orange and white tailgate party each August.
A Place to Make
With a growing community of creative micro-entrepreneurs in Knoxville, there is a need for mixed-use locations for like-minded individuals to gather, design, create, prototype, and make.
“After the Knoxville maker summit, we took an Etsy representative on a small business tour of Knoxville,” said David Harman, owner and founder of Native Maps. “She saw makers working in collaboration with each other. She saw that all of the printmakers not only know each other, but are friends – same with the metalworkers and brewers. She saw a community where creative individuals have the space and support to get their ideas off the ground. In so many words, she told us that Knoxville was better than Brooklyn for makers.”
Knoxville is home to approximately 12 makerspaces that offer tools and resources for local creatives to master their craft and share their work with the community.
The Central Collective is a creative space that hosts private events, workshops, performances, art exhibitions, and culinary experiences. Its studio is home to Shawn Poynter Photography and is available for hourly rental to both professional and aspiring photographers. The Central Collective Kitchen, home to Dale’s Fried Pies, is a small commercial kitchen certified by the Knox County Department of Health that is available for emerging culinary entrepreneurs.
“My husband Shawn and I originally purchased the property that is now The Central Collective because we needed space to do our own making – fried pies in my case and photos in my husband’s case,” said Dale Mackey of Central Collective and Dale’s Fried Pies. “Over time, we thought more about making the space available to other makers – chefs, photographers, artists, and craftspeople.”
She continued, “It’s been really exciting to be the launch pad for several businesses and to give people the opportunity to share their work when they might not otherwise have an easy or affordable way to do that. It’s all about sharing resources and opportunities with the creative community here in Knoxville.”
Similarly, the Hive is a modern bohemian venue that hosts community gatherings, private parties, photo shoots, and houses creative entrepreneurs. Its in-house collectives offer interior design, home and business organization, photography, and floral design.
Technology and art collective Knox Makers is a place for Knoxville’s engineers, artists, hobbyists, and innovators to work and play. It is a non-profit educational organization that offers lectures, outreach programs, and workshops for members. Woodworking, metalworking, crafting, and electronics zones are equipped with tools and supplies for efficient making.
“Simply put, a makerspace is a physical location where self-awareness and community-awareness meet,” said O’Shell. “We’re putting together a list of these spaces so makers who need space can find other makers who have space.”
Knoxville is rich with creative talent, and equally creative policymakers. However, there is a growing need for these two groups to formally come together to dive deep into the challenges facing local makers in the community.
Following the inaugural Make Knox summit, City of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero developed a Maker Council consisting of private and public partners who will work to advance micro-entrepreneurs and manufacturers in the city.
“The Maker Council’s initiative aims to offer the city government insight into how to grow our maker community and help it thrive,” said Smith, who now serves on the Maker Council. “We will be talking about everything from building codes to local taxes to maker meet-ups. The council consists of small business owners, local makers, city officials, real estate developers, and a few experts in law and business. We’re a large, loud bunch, and we’re really excited to be working with one another to grow Knoxville’s creative community!”
Micro-business owners face different challenges from a five- or ten-person enterprise, yet many government programs for small businesses overlook the needs of the self-employed, focusing instead on business growth, finding low-cost loans, or hiring help. Knoxville’s Makers Council will be key in supporting the policy needs of local makers including zoning, permits, and taxes.
Additionally, KEC is developing maker-specific programming including networking and educational events, as well as providing assistance in discoverability and marketing.
“Every neighborhood now has its own vibe and identity, and the goods and services coming out of those neighborhoods can represent a complete micro-economy,” O’Shell explained. “When they all come together, you can really start seeing the depth of entire movement emerging. It’s very exciting and unique to Knoxville because of the range, expertise, and diversity of what is being made here.”
For more information about Knoxville’s creative community and a directory of local makers, visit www.MakeKnox.com.