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West Virginia Crafters Practice the Art of Business Expansion

Eight West Virginia artisan entrepreneurs are collaborating with Tamarack Foundation to sharpen their marketing skills and expand their businesses. The artists recently displayed their talents at one of the nation’s largest craft trade shows.

The artists exhibited at the 2012 Buyers Market of American Craft show in Philadelphia, with support from Tamarack Foundation and grants from the West Virginia Departments of Commerce and Agriculture. The 2012 show attracted representatives of more than 1,200 galleries and more than 30 media companies from the United States and Canada.

The participating artists were:

- Matt Thomas, wood and metal, Gilmer County

- Mark Schwenk, metal, Morgan County

- Phil Holcomb & Teresa Holcomb, wood, Roane County

- Susan Ramey Bisgyer, ceramics, Preston County

- John DesMeules, glass, Putnam County

- Connie McColley, jewelry, Calhoun County

- Ellie Conlon, specialty foods, Wetzel County

- Robin Hildebrand, specialty foods, Fayette County

The Commerce and Agriculture departments provided grants that covered part of the costs to participate in the national show. The Tamarack Foundation provided the remainder.

“The Tamarack Foundation has worked with these artisans on entrepreneurial skills,” said Sally Barton, executive director. “Now thanks to support from West Virginia, they’re able to take that to the next level, with the materials and contacts to grow their businesses in this state and to expand their markets.”

The artists’ performance at Buyers Market of American Craft has already shown measurable results. Barton cited the example of Matt Thomas, a crafter of fine wood furniture, including a line ornamented with hand-forged steel.

Thomas supported his growing family as a licensed general contractor, supplemented by making furniture as a sideline. That changed in 2011, when a fall from a roof abruptly halted his construction career.  

Over the months that followed, Thomas regained mobility and refocused on his art-quality furniture.

“When I was invited to be a part of the group to exhibit in Philadelphia, I was elated,” Thomas said. “I hoped that by making the most of the opportunity I was given, I could regain the income source that I lost and I could work from home.”

He contacted galleries in advance of the show, introducing himself and his work. During the show, he received orders from 56 galleries from Maine to California, most notably the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Thomas sees potential for growth in the future. The local economy is seeing benefits now.

“As a result of this success, I’ve hired a part-time office worker,” Thomas said. “I am excited about the possibility of hiring others from my community to help grow my home-based business.”

The Tamarack Foundation mentored the artists for about a year, helping them develop marketing materials and get professional-quality photos of their work. The photos were enlarged and mounted on fabric-covered display panels. The professional displays created a unified look that allowed the West Virginia group to stand out at the national show.

Tamarack executives also persuaded the show to include specialty foods among the artistic wares for the first time in its history.

“Artisan entrepreneurs create jobs here at home and produce quality crafts that are made in America,” said Barton. “That is good for our economy, from the local community to the national level.”

“The support made possible by the Tamarack Foundation has helped make the transition to artisan entrepreneur possible,” Thomas said. “By continuing my marketing and wholesale efforts, I will be able to do what I love, where I love, around those I love.” 

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