Online stores boost sales for Superior artisans during pandemic
Crafters and artisans forge their own creative paths on platforms such as Etsy and Facebook.
Not every business in Superior has a storefront. For local makers and artisan venues like farmers' markets, craft fairs, boutique shops, pop-up booths and Facebook sites offer a way to share their talents with the public. One area where many rub elbows is Etsy. The virtual marketplace was a go-to site for makers during the pandemic, when traditional venues were shuttered. It's low cost — 20 cents an item — and flexibility made it a viable option.
The paths makers take to get there vary — whether it’s a love of art, a desire to create a small business, a hobby grown large or just the need to create — but the online platform offers them an opportunity to share their work with the world. A look on the site, filtered to reflect strictly Superior artisans, reveals a myriad of talents. There are woodworkers, jewelry designers, knitters, candle makers, potters and more. Their mediums range from glass and metal to birch bark and pebbles.
A handful of artists invited the Telegram camera into their workspace to share a joint joy in making.
Pebbles on the beach
Michael Burnham fell into candle making. It started years ago when his daughters wanted to make a special Mother's Day gift, and has been growing ever since. For the Superior man, it’s all about family. Burnham’s three children, Courtney, Tiffany and Andrew, and even his mother pitch in to help with marketing, collecting supplies and other duties. His daughter Courtney created the business logo.
“You know, everybody enjoys it. It’s just, you know, something fun,” said Burnham, who works for the railroad.
Under the name Bear Creek Candles and Soaps , the Superior man traditionally brings his scented goods to vendor shows at the Miller Hill Mall. His last pop-up show, however, was in March of 2020, three days before COVID-19 shut the mall’s doors.
Since then, he’s joined Etsy and unlocked a new passion for pebbles. His candles have been doing well on the site, but it’s his Lake Superior rock soap dishes that have really heated up. As with every aspect of his business, it was inspired by his family.
“My son and his girlfriend came back from walking on the beach, and they had, you know, picked up rocks along the way,” Burnham said.
He had been experimenting with wooden soap dishes, and his brain put the two together.
“For some reason it was like a lightning strike and I’m like, ‘Wait a second. We should make soap dishes out of Lake Superior rocks,’” the Superior man said.
The kids thought he’d finally lost his mind, but he sat down to order molds. He started making the clear dishes, studded with unfinished rocks, in the fall.
“And the response to it was overwhelming,” Burnham said. “I found all I was doing was making soap dishes. We’ve shipped them out to over 30 states, to Canada, to Germany, to France.”
Etsy had brought his Superior craftsmanship to a global audience, but he’s looking forward to sharing the soap dishes locally when vendor shows return to the Northland. It’s a project he enjoys, from rock walks along Wisconsin Point to sorting through the haul, finding ones that fit together.
“It’s like creating a puzzle all on your own,” Burnham said. “And I mean, there’s no portion of it whatsoever that I consider work. It’s just so relaxing.”
More recently, he’s been thinking up creative ways to offer candles when the jars he uses are out of stock. Burnham’s created cupcake candles, mug candles, even cereal bowl candles, complete with floating pieces of cereal, to adapt to the nationwide jar shortage. On tap in the future are molded popcorn and ice cream scoop candles. In addition to Etsy, Burnham has a Facebook site .
Through each incarnation of her business, Reba Granczynski has tapped into Etsy. It began eight years ago with knitted and crocheted goods, then morphed into bath products — sugar scrubs, soap and bath bombs.
Fun fact: Fizzy bath powder is the name given to bath bombs that crumble coming out of the mold if the humidity or temperature isn’t just right.
“Oh, my gosh, they’re so hard to make,” Granczynski said.
The Superior woman was set to open her own massage therapy business when COVID-19 hit.
“So I decided to make candles instead because that’s COVID proof,” Granczynski said.
Today she runs a home candle making business, Lake Superior Treasures , out of her attic. She’s recently paired it with a second sweet-smelling enterprise, baked goods. Granczynski rents a table at the downtown Superior Farmers Market and will be featuring both candles and Lake Superior Treasures Bakery goods every Wednesday beginning May 26.
Art runs in the family. Granczynski’s father is a woodworker; her mother paints the windows of the Children’s Room at the Superior Public Library. Determined to make it as an entrepreneur, the Superior woman has her own “doing business as,” or sole proprietorship, company.
In addition to the farmers market and Etsy, her candles are featured at Art on the Planet in Superior. She creates private label candles for eight different businesses in the region, including a number of coffee shops and restaurants that branched out into retail to cope with the pandemic. She also supplies custom candles to a home staging company. As many of her candles use tins, she's been able to work around the current glass jar shortage.
Granczynski has put her nose to the test, teasing out scents for individual therapy horses at North Country RIDE and creating a candle tour of parks on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Each of the eight parks from Two Harbors to the Canadian border has a signature smell, from the white pine scent of Tettegouche Park and the berry smells of Gooseberry Falls to the leather, tobacco and campfire aroma of Grand Portage. Split Rock’s candle was inspired by a picture of the lighthouse on the cliff with a spray of Lake Superior water.
“I tried to figure out what that image would smell like,” Granczynski said.
The result, a sweet floral with a watery scent, is one of her most popular candles.
Creating a candle involves keeping an eye on temperature — the soy wax must be at 180 degrees Fahrenheit — and humidity. It includes pouring and mixing, a little math and finding a pleasing balance of scent. Good air flow helps, as well, which explains the attic workshop.
Etsy is just one piece of her marketing strategy, and no longer a key one. It's easy to get an Etsy shop started, she said, but it requires promotion and additional work to gain traction on the site. Granczynski has a website as well as Facebook pages for both her candle and bakery businesses. She plans to continue making wholesale connections and expanding her footprint.
Setting sights on the stars
The Scates family’s Etsy journey started in August with the purchase of a laser cutter. About the size of a desktop printer, the machine can engrave on 75 different types of material, from wood, paper and acrylic to leather.
"We didn't know really how much we could do until we actually started," said Teresa Scates.
Already an Etsy customer, she decided to give the online platform a try under the moniker Whitetail by Teresa . Her “Star Wars” themed merchandise, including Rebel Alliance earrings and models of the Millennium Falcon, have been well-received.
"Up until this point, she's done about $1,500 (in business)," said her husband, Joseph.
The engraver requires a computer, and files can be purchased or created using certain illustrator programs. It can create a single image, or cut different layers of a complex design, that are then cut and assembled by hand.
The couple and their three children — Zoe, 9; Owen, 7; and Zachariah, 1 — also bring items to the Solon Springs Farmers Market to sell. Etsy offers them a way to offer merchandise for as little as 20 cents a listing, and opens the door to custom orders. Scates has sent Whitetail pieces to more than 20 states as well as countries in Europe.
"It works pretty well," Scates said. "It's better than making a whole website and doing it that way,"
The Superior woman, who is home-schooling their children, said she enjoys the ability to create and bring a little extra money in.
"I always wanted to do something at home, and I just could never find something that really works," Scates said. "So this really fits our niche."
Inspired by nature
When Lisa Sorvik moved to Parkland in July, she found artistic inspiration around every corner of the family’s six-and-a-half-acre property.
“Just a lot of exploring and realizing that there’s beauty. It’s like a gold mine. There’s just beauty everywhere,” the Duluth native said.
She got a wood burner and began to create. Her work includes mobiles, wall hangings and garlands featuring slices of wood, pine cones, driftwood and birch bark. When she launched an Etsy shop, Sorvik North , people from around the country started ordering the pieces. Some shared pictures of her work hanging over their fireplace, or in their living room.
“It definitely is a confidence booster because it just makes you want to keep going," Sorvik said.
She brings a huge backpack along on hikes with her husband Caleb and their children — Eden, 5, and Gabe, 4. The little ones help scavenge and load it up with a wealth of natural materials.
One of Sorvik’s most popular creations is her birchbark earrings. The surprisingly light pieces are crafted out of bark recovered from fallen trees. Sorvik cuts basic shapes using her children’s pattern block set, and lets the natural beauty of the bark shine. The material can be flaky, a bit finicky, sometimes surprising. A piece can peel revealing pink, gray or white underneath before it is sealed with polyacrylic.
“You just don’t know until you’re officially done what it’s going to turn out like,” Sorvik said.
On a recent Friday, she worked on earrings at a table in the yard as the children played. At one point, Eden called out for help dealing with two spiders they’d found.
Sorvik has brought her work to pop-up shops, and her earrings can be found at Duluth Studio Market. Word-of-mouth has also fueled sales in the area, and Sorvik North is also on Instagram. Etsy allows Sorvik, who is home-schooling her two children, to set her own pace. She can list eight items or 25. With that kind of flexibility, she has time to teach — and deal with spiders.
Sorvik has a minor in art from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and has painted pieces for Va Bene in Duluth. It’s important to focus on both art and family, she said.
“I want to home-school, and I’m excited about that,” Sorvik said. “But I also want them to see their mom pursue her dreams, right? And then hopefully that inspires them to think outside the box a little bit.”
Sorvik said her business has sparked family dreams. Her sister has begun listing watercolor prints on the platform. Her mother, a book collector, plans to turn pages from old books into art.
“I told her ‘You need to create an Etsy shop,’” Sorvik said.
The Twin Ports arts community is very supportive, she said, and Etsy is a good spot for people to share the work they do.
“You can really let your creativity go and chances are someone’s gonna like it,” Sorvik said. “You get excited by what everybody else is doing and the diversity of it all.”
Visit etsy.com for more information.