What’s old is new again: Clevelanders are embracing time-honored trades

While The Land looks toward the future with a boom in growth and development, many Clevelanders are turning towards the past with a growing interest in crafts dating back thousands of years.

Nowhere is this more evident than in MidTown—once home to more blighted industrial buildings than artists, but now bursting with a variety of art studios, including a growing number of hot glass-focused spaces. So many in fact, that on Saturday, ArtSpace Cleveland debuted a tour of them, dubbing the area Cleveland’s “Glass Corridor.”

The tour was the latest in ArtSpace’s 12-year-old trolley tour series exploring the neighborhood’s burgeoning artist scene, but its first focused on glass. “We do them to promote the city of Cleveland and to really show the economic impact that artists have on the community and the city,” says Harriet Gould, founder of ArtSpace.

The tour of Cleveland’s Glass Corridor ferried more than 70 art lovers between Benchmark Studio, MidTown Glass Studio, Petrovic/Russell-Pool Studios, and Superior Hot Glass, where guests were treated to a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it takes to make the work of such world-class artists as Brent Kee Young and Kari Russell-Poole.

Although Benchmark Studio set up shop in MidTown 30 years ago, it was the addition of the other studios, including the newest (Michael Mikula’s MidTown Glass Studio), that signaled the time was right for the tour. “There are more people now working in glass than there ever have been,” explains Mikula.

A nationally-renowned artist focusing on architectural blown glass, Mikula teamed up with Gould to organize the tour. “I think it was a good exercise to remind Cleveland and help make aware that there is this large pool of talent working in this media,” he says. “And this was just one neighborhood in the city; there are many more working in glass in other studios.”

(Glass)Blowing Up the MidTown Art Scene

As Mikula explains, the abundance of glass studios is a relatively recent development over the past 20 to 25 years. When he graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1987, he struggled to find a studio from which to work before landing at Young’s Benchmark Studio. Today, besides the Glass Corridor studios, the city also boasts the Glass Bubble Project, Larchmere Fire Works, and Ohio City Glass—as well as more glass studios outside of the city limits.

So what’s driving the increasing number of glass studios and artists? One reason is the presence of the Cleveland Institute of Art, from which many MidTown artists are alumni or former teachers. What keeps graduates here, though, is the city’s abundance of cheap studio space. The forgotten buildings of our Rust Belt past have turned out to be perfect spots for artists and makers.

Thanks to a joint effort between ArtSpace, whose primary purpose is to help artists find spots to live and work in Cleveland, and City Councilman Joe Cimperman, around 2004 the zoning in MidTown was changed from industrial to live/work space. Bathrooms and kitchens were added to once-vacant buildings. Rents were set at affordable rates. “And they came,” says Gould. “All the artists came, and you see what’s happening today.”

Mikula says it’s not just artists who are flocking to glass studios. There’s a growing demand for non-artists to try out glass blowing. And many studios are responding by offering classes and one-off workshops for them.

”Human beings are makers of things,” he reflects on the popularity of classes. “Even in a digital age where everything is virtual, I think putting hands onto something and having an authentic experience is maybe even more important now.”

Back to Blacksmithing

Brooke Lehman, co-owner of Cleveland Blacksmithing, sees this trend happening, too. When she and her husband, Gavin Lehman, opened their full-service blacksmith shop in Ohio City earlier this year, they intended on having Brooke’s art print business share the space. But when the doors opened in March, their Beginners Blacksmithing Class was already sold out through May.

“This whole thing took off way faster than we planned,” she laughs. “The plan was to split this place. Yeah, I never moved in.”

Instead, she closed her Etsy print shop and took on the business aspects of Cleveland Blacksmithing full-time. After growing her business for nine years, the couple decided it was time to focus on Gavin by moving him from his home blacksmithing studio to a public space where he could teach and take on commissions.

“The maker scene is so hot right now, and people were so interested in getting their hands dirty, [with] workshops, new skills, and crafts—even if it’s just for entertainment or people are looking to explore," she explains. “We knew it was time to get this out of the house.”

Gavin was introduced to blacksmithing by a family friend 25 years ago. The product of pipe welder and art teacher parents, it was a perfect fit for Gavin. “It seemed destined he would end up making art out of metal,” says Brooke. He studied metalwork at Baldwin Wallace and has been doing commission work and private lessons ever since.

But at Cleveland Blacksmithing, he’s been able to expand his teaching to the public with its popular "101" classes where attendees hand forge bottle openers and decorative wall hooks, drawing people from as far away as Detroit and Pittsburgh. Attendees have been a diverse mix of people of all ages, from children to 60-something ladies sipping mimosas on a Saturday morning while pounding hot metal.

The shop even offers eight-hour private lessons where students can dig deep into their own projects; another recent addition has been a membership option where those who fell in love with the craft can work on their smithing skills during open studio time.

While the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” reality show—which features craftspeople smithing weapons—attracts a fair amount of curious people to the classes, Brooke thinks it’s the novelty of the craft that’s most appealing, explaining that there’s no other full-service blacksmithing studio within at least a day’s drive of Cleveland. That, and the workshop trend.

“People are trying to do stuff,” she says. “They want to spend time together. People are trying to get away from their phones and screens, and people are sitting in gray cubicles and staring at a box all day, and they get out of work and they want to go do something. I think that satisfaction that humans have had forever of making things with your hands never went away.”

Riding high on the space’s success, Brooke is busy planning Cleveland Blacksmithing’s next steps, a festival called Cleveland Forge Fest—complete with demos, music, food trucks, and opportunities for smiths to trade tools, as well as her own spin on a studio tour.

“I would like to put together a makerspace or studio tour, where people could go and see all the different studios in town and the work being made, [as well as] maybe have an opportunity to participate in activities and shop directly from the artist or maker,” she says. “There are a lot of really cool tours like that in Cleveland, and that’s one that’s not currently happening. I think it would be a really nice addition.”

Ilona Westfall
Ilona Westfall

About the Author: Ilona Westfall

Ilona Westfall is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. When she's not penning articles for a variety of Ohio publications, she's roller skating with Burning River Roller Derby, rolling d20s with her D&D group, or getting muddy in the woods. Follow her on twitter @IlonaWestfall.