Amy Weiks and Gabriel Craig are a Detroit-based artist team. While working predominantly in metal, their holistic practice includes writing, craft advocacy, and educational activities. Their artistic work has been exhibited at venues including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, TX, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, and the Metal Museum in Memphis, TN. Their critical writing has appeared in craft publications including Metalsmith, American Craft, and Surface Design Journal. In 2012, Weiks and Craig founded Smith Shop—a nationally acclaimed metalworking studio in Detroit that produces functional and ornamental metalwork ranging from jewelry to architectural ironwork. www.smithshop.com
If you could choose a second career that wasn’t in the jewelry and metals field, what would you choose and why?
AMY: Baker (of bread, mostly). There are a lot of variables that can go wrong with just flour, water, yeast, and salt. So achieving a successful bake is very satisfying. Kneading dough is therapeutic. And nothing compares to the deliciousness of fresh baked bread.
GABRIEL: Dog trainer—because… dogs! Trust, nurturing, unconditional love, no judgment. What’s not to love?
What is the one tool that you couldn’t live without?
GABRIEL: Brass vernier calipers. Didn’t I write an article about those for you all? (see Metalsmith Tech Vol. 1 No. 1) Also our Nazel Lobdell 3B one-piece power hammer. Honestly, it’s not a fair question. We require so many tools to do anything.
AMY: A gas saver for the oxy-acetylene torch. I love small scale forging, forming, and bending with the torch. The gas saver allows you to hang up the torch on a cantilevered hook which closes valves and shuts off the gas flow. When you pick it up the valves open, the gas flows, and you wave the tip by the pilot, and you’re off again. There’s no need to reset the knobs each time you light it.
Who is your favorite jewelry or metals artist?
GABRIEL: There are so many ways to answer this question. Cornelia Parker. Not a metalsmith strictly speaking, but she understands and exploits the cultural potential of the material as well as anyone.
I am always excited to see Instagram updates from blacksmith Lewis Body. There is a lot of bravado in contemporary blacksmithing, as men try to work the largest piece of steel possible. I rarely find large, forged work to be interesting. The form language is Richard Serra, Tom Joyce, or giant chewed up iron booger. It’s hard to work at that scale and exhibit nuance and grace. Lewis Body’s work is technically and aesthetically innovative, but also serially. His work shows an innate understanding of the material and he devises novel ways of intervening with it. He is still finding his voice, but the fluency and sophistication of his form language make him someone to watch.
Hector Guimard designed a jaw-droppingly gorgeous hallstand in 1898, which is now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s like seven feet tall. It’s a marvel. There is a steel strap that looks like a decorative molding that runs round the lower third of the piece to hold umbrellas and canes and such. As the steel band returns to the enameled tile and mahogany carcass, the steel explodes in four directions moving from something that looks like controlled millwork into ecstatic whiplash forms. It was about the third time I saw the piece in as many years that I finally realized this band was constructed from a simple ⅜” round bar nested into a small length of architectural c-channel. It was split on the ends and forgewelded to larger pieces to form the finials. It hit me like a ton of bricks.It finally made me realize that if you were subtle enough, you could appropriate and completely transform the industrial metal forms around you.
This is how I feel about Lewis Body’s work. It’s technically and aesthetically innovative. Its like the same Guimard hit, nearly every time. Lewis is young also, maybe thirty? I think hHe is still finding his voice, but the the fluency and sophistication of his the form language he has created and the fluency with which he speaks makes him someone to watch with interest. I am constantly excited to see what he does next.
Also Erica Moody. Amazing.
AMY: Two of my longstanding favorite artists are Tone Vigeland and Harry Bertoia. I am attracted to the ease in scale shift between their jewelry and sculpture, and the line quality of their work, as if the pieces have been drawn three dimensionally. There is a richness of texture, a looseness and a quality in the subdued hues and tones of the metal I find simultaneously relaxing and energizing.
We broadly agree about historic metalwork, too. Late medieval French ironwork, which is heavy on the file and loaded with forge welds, is a favorite. The mid-19th-century Gothic Revival holloware and liturgical designs of A.W.N. Pugin, which were largely executed by John Hardman & Co., are something we strive to emulate in their mastery of ornamental splendor. Art Deco and Art Nouveau ironwork are also inspiring. Detroit is filled with Art Deco architecture and many significant Samuel Yellin works. Edgar Brandt has been a recent source of inspiration.
How did you save up enough money to open and operate Smith Shop? Did you have to apply for a business loan? I’m still a student, but I want to start my own jewelry business when I graduate. I don’t know anything about building a business…. so where should I begin?
GABRIEL & AMY: Making a living from your metalwork is achievable if you have motivation and talent. It’s not an easy or especially lucrative path in our experience, but it has been very rewarding. First, it is helpful to define your business in one to three sentences. What types of things will you make? What will they look like? How will you sell them? Who are your clients?
Then you can start to make logistical decisions. Create a business plan. Try to project the ongoing costs of doing business and the revenue you may generate from your work to meet those costs. This is often called a pro forma financial projection. Be sure to include the cost of materials, labor (what you will pay yourself and employees), consumables, rent or mortgage payments, utilities, business insurance, bookkeeping, office expenses, credit processing fees, loan payments and interest, and small tools purchases (under $500). Have monthly and annual budgets for these and any other expenses. Once you have an annual total, project your revenue. List your products or categories and the amount of money you think you can generate in each. For instance, we break this out into commission, retail, wholesale, and classes, with more specific subcategories. We then compare our projected expenses and revenue in order to set annual goals. If there is a large shortfall, you need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to create more revenue or cut expenses. Almost certainly your initial projections will be inaccurate. It’s important to revisit and update these each year.
You should also create a separate budget of one-time start-up expenditures. Think about the infrastructure of your space, including water, electrical, and ventilation. Include essential tool and fixture purchases (tables, chairs, rolling mill, welder, etc.). Once you know your one-time start-up costs, you can decide whether you need to pursue a loan.
When we started Smith Shop, we turned in some precious metal scrap we had been saving, worth about $3,000, and opened a credit card. This was enough to get started, but soon afterwards we applied for business loans. Our first loan was $6,000, which we used to buy a power hammer. Today we have a line of credit, a subsidized small business loan, and two high-limit credit cards. Easy access to working capital is essential to any small business operation. If you start building credit early it will benefit you later. Conventional lenders like banks will generally want to see three to five years of financial statements and a business plan before making a business loan, and where possible they will collateralize the loan. The process and burden for opening a business credit card is much less. If you keep your initial ambitions modest, saving a few thousand dollars and opening a business credit card could be enough to get you started, provided your studio space and tool situation are tolerable.
We were helped by several small business support organizations, incubators, and grant programs here in Detroit. Take advantage of local community resources that offer guidance and financial support. Good luck!
There are so many facets to Smith Shop—the steelwork, jewelry, commissions, and classes. How do you split up your roles in running this business? How do you manage work/life balance individually but also as a couple/business partners?
GABRIEL & AMY: After working together for 15 years, our collaboration is pretty seamless, if sometimes charged. It is essential that we trust each other’s genius, judgment, and talents. Part of our secret to success is that we really do admire each other as professionals and as people.
Our design process is the important foundation of each project. After gathering the parameters and specifications, Gabriel often starts with research and sketching rough ideas and ornamental details. Amy reviews the research and begins a first draft of the design. After reviewing the draft together and a brutal critique of our efforts, we decide on refinements, changes, or sometimes starting over. This continues until we are satisfied with the design. We also work out the project engineering, though we allow the design to evolve—if need be—as it takes shape in metal.
We share production pretty equally. We are tired of the chauvinist assumption that the man does the blacksmithing and the woman does the jewelry. We can both forge, weld, solder, and file. We both love gold and steel, and creating both large and small works. Because we are equally capable, there is no half-assing it—we hold each other to account. There are fewer bottlenecks because we can jump in to help at any stage or move to a subsequent step to keep things moving. It’s also terribly inefficient because no one is a specialist. We both do everything.
Obviously we have different interests, preferences, and talents, but from the beginning we decided that authorship was not an important idea in our work. That’s why we created Smith Shop rather than “Weiks Studio” and “Craig Studio.” The important thing is that the work is good, not who did what or how much. We have employees who make great contributions to the studio, which we try to honor and recognize. The administrative load is pretty evenly distributed as well.
Finding a work-life balance is perhaps the hardest thing about running a small business and being a craftsperson. For us, making is a lifestyle. We can’t just turn it off when we leave the studio. We own a 100-year-old historic home which gets a lot of maker love; we love cooking, baking, and gardening.
We are constantly working at home. We often find ourselves doing administrative work at home, which is not a super healthy work-life balance, especially with two young children competing for our attention.
We are not perfect, but our success lies in constantly working to communicate with each other. We ask for what we need and do our best to support and accommodate one another. That might be finding an hour to go for a run or an hour to design or send invoices. We try to take at least two weeks of vacation each year. Sometimes we need to recharge creatively. Attending conferences, doing short residencies, or taking workshops has been great for that. Sometimes recharging emotionally and physically means a trip to the woods for a week.
If you could live and work in another place, where would it be?
GABRIEL & AMY: We would love to live and work in Paris, a city that is dear to us. There are so many things about the city that are appealing. Historically, it is amongst the most important western cities in the innovation and production of jewelry, silver, and ironwork. It has some of the finest museums in the world. The art and architecture are inspiring, the pace of life is reasonable, the weather is mild, the food is good, and the public transportation network is extensive. Generally, we have found that the French engage with a piece and decide if they like it before asking the price. In America, we habitually ask the price first, then form an opinion based not on inherent beauty or functionality, but largely on our relationship with our own wealth. The ability to appreciate artistic production or fine things in general—wine comes to mind here—even if they are unattainable, is a subtle yet distinguishing cultural difference which would make Paris a desirable place to work. Finding a comparable studio space suitable for the type of metalwork we do in Paris that is affordable is obviously next to impossible. One can dream, right?
What is craft activism? What does a craft activist do?
GABRIEL & AMY: At its most basic, craft activism positions actions rather than objects as a vehicle for cultural output and understanding (political, social, environmental, etc.). Craft activism focuses on using the creative act to generate broader cultural connections. Examples include artistic social practice projects (The Pro Bono Jeweler Series, 2008-12; Raising Awareness, 2013), writing projects (The Prospects of Slow Gold, 2011), and direct advocacy work—in particular holding adult and youth classes and workshops at Smith Shop and with partners such as the Center for Craft and Applied Arts and Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation. We believe that craft has a much larger cultural role than that of mere object production. Craft activism, in our conception, seeks to find wider cultural meaning and importance for Craft, and project the discipline as a vital field of contemporary cultural production.
Keep an eye on our Instagram @snagmetalsmith for upcoming opportunities to ask questions to a rotating selection of makers, educators, gallerists, curators, small business owners, and more.