On a brisk March evening, a diverse crowd packed the upper rooms at Concept Art Gallery in Point Breeze. As exhibitions go, this one — titled Origins — was a hit, with lots of eager buyers scooping up an impressive array of goods.
But this show is unlike most in Pittsburgh. It features some of the region’s most talented makers, all of them of color.
There’s Atiya Jones with her beautiful prints, Angel Ford with her artsy headbands and Nisha Blackwell with her signature bow ties.
While the monthlong exhibit (currently open by appointment only due to the coronavirus crisis) has drawn attention, the program behind it was three years in the making and involves more than the show.
A team led by Katie Johnson, from the Creative Business Accelerator at Bridgeway Capital, and Knotzland founder and owner Nisha Blackwell has been developing the Origins program through close collaboration with these makers.
The goal? To create a support program to help makers of color grow their fledgling businesses.
Blackwell and Johnson worked closely with this community of creatives to discover what they really needed and how best to provide it. The Origins program, Blackwell says, “is a culmination of three years of community building, engagement, research and development.”
“It started as a realization that there is a lack of visibility, lack of resources and lack of community amongst creatives of color in Pittsburgh,” Blackwell explains. Although there are local organizations that serve creators of color, there’s a particular lack of support for “craftspeople and people who are making physical products and want to expand into larger markets.”
That absence of support got Blackwell’s attention. “That’s when I started working with Bridgeway‘s craft business accelerator to help figure this out,” she says. “How do we start to engage and really intentionally build programming around supporting this in any possible way?”
One of the key goals: Building visibility.
The exhibition, which runs through the end of March by appointment only now, is spotlighting the work of these creatives and producing sales. Johnson describes the exhibition as “highly shoppable” — with many items that are small enough to be “cash and carry.” All items are available at the Origins website.
The makers’ goods are also featured in a dedicated section at the PG&H store Downtown (currently closed due to the coronavirus).
Fortunately, there’s also a digital component to the program: A website has been launched for Origins to showcase the makers’ wares, and each of these makers is also featured on the PG&H website.
Helping businesses grow
Visibility is just one component of the programming for Origins. Another focus: business guidance and technical assistance.
When a maker is busy doing their creative work and trying to leverage it into a thriving business, “it’s really hard to see all of the parts and pieces,” Johnson says. So she and Blackwell, “offer that outside perspective. We’ll say, ‘Let’s look at all the hats that you’re wearing. Let’s look at where your strengths are. Let’s come up with a strategy. Let’s ask the hard questions, and let’s celebrate the successes, too.”
Crafters often lack that support and those helpful conversations. They’re likely to work independently, and operate in something of a vacuum, Johnson says.
“We want clients out in the world to see these businesses,” she says. “But we also wanted the businesses to see each other.”
That connection with other creative peers can help them share resources and knowledge, collaborate on products and simply offer each other emotional support. It can also be valuable for creatives of color to realize they are not alone.
Artist Selima Dawson, founder of Blakbird Jewelry, says her business had already been growing thanks to the mentorship she was receiving from Blackwell, but Origins is another step forward.
“I appreciate her sensibility,” Dawson says. “Without always having to talk everything through, she kind of gets the way I make decisions.”
Dawson is among a small group of Origins artists who have been offered workspaces, so they can move beyond working out of their own homes. The spaces in this residency program are free during the early months, and then the artists will begin making small payments to use the space. Along with Dawson, Atiya Jones of TWELVE\TWENTY STUDIO and Mike Potter of Black Brew Culture are also participating.
“Sometimes it’s so hard for creatives who are working at home and they’re kind of in their own silo,” Dawson explains. When she goes to her new studio workspace at Radiant Hall, she feels connected to a community of other makers and she’s able to focus on her work in a new way.
Although Dawson has been running her business from her home since she returned to jewelry making in late 2018, “it really helps to go to a different place,” she says. “It’s like I’m going to my job.”
Dawson isn’t alone. Although many of these creatives have been working at their fledgling businesses for months, or even years, they may still be new at envisioning themselves achieving high levels of success, Blackwell says.
It can be hard for any creative to get up the courage to vie for large projects and push their fledgling companies to the next level, Blackwell says. But it can be especially hard “as a creative of color, who hasn’t traditionally been welcomed into a lot of those spaces.”
While much of the focus is on progress and future success, Origins is also helping makers manage the necessarily slow and careful process of growing their businesses.
“A lot of people think, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna make this product, and it’s going to go to market, and it’s gonna win,” Blackwell says. And those successes truly do happen. But there are a lot of slow and important steps between creating a product and becoming a highly successful business.
So Origins makes sure to “have those conversations,” Blackwell says, and to map out those steps. “You can celebrate the wins, but you also have to continue to work really, really hard.”
The first cohort of African-American creatives in Origins includes Adey Designs, Blakbird Jewelry, Britney Smith Ceramics, Curtis Reaves Design Studio, Edo Scribes & Pleasantries, Emmanuelle Ceramics, Frank & Myrrh, Island Fresh Skincare, Janet Watkins Ceramics, KMJ Metalworks, Knotzland, LaVerne Kemp Studios, Lavish Lamb, Njaimeh Njie, TWELVE\TWENTY STUDIO and Wellness Within.