By Gail Solomon
“Painting your own pottery is cheaper than therapy and a lot more fun,” says Linda Chester, co-owner of Fired! Up Creative Lounge.
And after nearly two years of navigating COVID-19, she and other local arts and crafts businesspeople are ready to embrace the joyous holiday spirit and the unique opportunities their storefronts offer shoppers.
But along with looking ahead, these business owners can’t help but look back on the obstacles they’ve overcome and the ways the past 21 months have changed and impacted their day-to-day operations.
Like mother, like daughter
For Chester, the chance to purchase Fired Up! Creative Lounge in 2009 fulfilled a long-held dream. With a background working in multiple mediums, including glass fusing and ceramics, she saw the shop’s potential to go beyond its original paint-your-own ceramics model.
Since purchasing the store, Chester, with help from her daughter and store manager, Cassidy, has expanded activity options as well as the business itself, with a second storefront in Hendersonville.
Prior to COVID-19, Fired Up! regularly hosted group events, including birthday celebrations, bachelorette parties, team-building workshops and group therapy sessions. However, last year’s lockdown, Linda notes, forced the company to pivot in order to survive.
In June 2020, the business introduced pottery-to-go, allowing customers to select their desired pieces and paint options online. Linda and Cassidy would then create individualized kits for pickup.
“This enabled us to make a little income to help keep us afloat during that time,” says Linda.
The mother-and-daughter team also kept busy repainting the downtown store, which now includes a mountain scene mural that Cassidy completed before the shop’s reopening in July 2020.
Abiding by CDC guidelines, the shop continues to require masks and limits total store capacity. And though special holiday events of yesteryear remain temporarily tabled, Fired Up! features a host of fused glass and ceramic ornaments, along with unique holiday gifts such as earrings, pendants and wine bottle stoppers.
“I am really looking forward to bringing back the events that we had introduced six months before the pandemic hit,” Linda says. “Realistically, though, I don’t expect to see this happen until things are a lot safer with COVID, probably not until 2022.” avl.mx/4q3
Like Fired Up!, the N.C. Glass Center also took some of its offerings beyond its home base. In summer 2021, spurred by the pandemic and the limitations it imposed on crowd size, the River Arts District glass studio purchased a mobile glassblowing furnace. Since August, member artists have visited 10 locations with the equipment, including Foundation Studios, Wedge Brewing Co. and Atelier Maison & Co.
“The mobile furnace enables the center to get out and about in the community, exposing more people to glass art making and breaking down transportation barriers that might prevent people from visiting the center itself,” says Janice Gouldthorpe, the nonprofit’s executive director. “In the year ahead, we’ve already lined up visits to veteran centers, schools and even the North Carolina Trucking Association.”
The center’s 10-member teaching staff is also back at work on-site. The shop’s open garage doors provide ventilation, and total capacity for its main and secondary galleries is restricted to 15 and 12, respectively.
“The center is very mindful of the number of people in our space,” Gouldthorpe points out, noting that masks are required at all times and that all staff members have been vaccinated.
From now through Friday, Dec. 31, the center’s Winter Wonderland gallery displays ornaments, snowflakes, snowmen, candy canes and glass-blown creations of all varieties for purchase. An official gala opening takes place Friday, Dec. 3, 3-6 p.m.
“Supporting local artists is what the center is all about,” says Gouldthorpe. “Having contact with the artists who made these items, who put their heart and soul into the creations they made, adds an immeasurable dimension to the purchase itself.” avl.mx/aux
Fragile and colorful
Not far from the N.C. Glass Center, Andrea Kulish’s Studio A at Pink Dog Creative brings a bit of Ukrainian tradition to the River Arts District. Pysanky is a wax-resist method for designing and decorating eggs. As a child growing up in Hudson, N.Y., Kulish, a first-generation Ukrainian American, learned the process from her mother, an art teacher.
“From the time I was 5, I’d sit in on my mother’s classes every week and make pysanky,” Kulish remembers. “She would put rolls of paper on the walls so I could draw at home. I grew up surrounded by this artistic environment. I guess it’s in my blood.”
In addition to teaching pysanky at her studio, Kulish has taught throughout the region, hosting workshops at the Biltmore Estate, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville, The N.C. Arboretum and the Greenville Center for Creative Arts.
“I feel like it’s my life’s mission to share these eggs with everyone I can,” says Kulish. “Drawn from Ukrainian folk art, the symbols and designs we use embody wishes for good health, long life, strength and protection.”
In response to the pandemic, Kulish took her pysanky workshops online. Like Fired Up! patrons, clients were able to order supplies online and pick up kits at her studio. Kulish says the online workshops broadened her audience in a way that never would have happened otherwise. A large California company, for example, hired her for an Easter employee event.
Following the lockdown, Kulish reopened Studio A in October 2020 and now offers both in-person and online sessions. Masks are required, and class sizes have been reduced for everyone’s safety. Supplies are available at the studio, which also sells Kulish’s own pysanky eggs, mixed media artwork, notecards, T-shirts and woodcut prints.
As in years past, Kulish offers ornamental pysanky eggs as holiday décor and gifts.
“It means a lot to me have my pysanky eggs grace homes and Christmas trees throughout the greater Asheville community,” she says. “Sharing these eggs means sharing the good luck and good wishes that the designs represent. It is a very special tradition and an even more special honor for me to be able to share it locally.” avl.mx/auy
When Rik and Elizabeth Schell bought Purl’s Yarn Emporium in 2010, the couple’s mission was “to create a crafting community,” says Rik. In doing so, the same community enabled the business to survive the rigors of the pandemic and its recent move to Hendersonville Road.
For many shops, Asheville’s growth over the past 10 years has helped sustain business. But for Purl’s, the downtown area’s congested sidewalks and packed parking lots did more harm than good.
“The backbone of the emporium’s business was people coming in to stitch and participate in knitting groups and special events,” Rik explains. The influx of tourists made it more difficult for the emporium’s large local base — which Rik calls Purl’s “bread and butter” — to easily access the shop.
When the store closed during the lockdown, the Schells pivoted to online sales and launched several virtual workshops. “These were a lifeline during the pandemic and enabled us to reach new friends worldwide,” Rik says.
But as restrictions eased, the Schells faced a new dilemma. “We no longer considered our Wall Street home an ideal location,” Rik says. “At the same time, we wanted to do right by our landlord.”
As luck would have it, the store’s neighboring business, Early Girl Eatery, wanted to expand and offered to take over the emporium’s lease.
In June 2021, Purl’s Yarn Emporium opened its new brick-and-mortar shop in a former chiropractic office on Hendersonville Road, affording its customers the accessibility needed.
“The Yarn Emporium continues its focus on building community with events, classes, getting people together and getting to know folks,” Rik says. “It’s the people-to-people connection that we foster. We always try to let our personality shine through.”
Like other arts and crafts speciality shops, Purl’s offers special holiday items for knitters and nonknitters alike. Shoppers will find garlands of miniature knitted sweaters, ceramic ornaments with witty sayings, holiday stocking kits and decorations.
Elizabeth credits the emporium’s survival on the strong local connections it has fostered over the years and urges everyone to support the local businesses that make the community so vibrant.
“Our business neighbors are relying on local support,” she says. “This initiates a powerful domino effect. Keeping local businesses going enables them, in turn, to hire locally and raise salaries, thereby enriching the entire community.” avl.mx/9gv