Crafting an arts scene

A cancer survivor's return to Tampa brings together Bay Area crafters.

click to enlarge CRAFTY WOMEN: Meli Mossey (left) and Alison Odowski in front of Alison's Appleseeds display at New World Brewery. - Megan Voeller
Megan Voeller
CRAFTY WOMEN: Meli Mossey (left) and Alison Odowski in front of Alison's Appleseeds display at New World Brewery.

Like most kids who grow up in the suburbs and jump ship for somewhere bigger and more exotic, Alison Odowski didn't plan on coming back. The Brandon native took off for school in Gainesville, then spent time in Miami, Atlanta and upstate New York before landing in Portland, Ore., where she settled into a long-term relationship with her boyfriend and thrived on the city's vibrant arts-and-crafts scene.

Odowski figured she'd found home.

She didn't count on cancer.

Two years ago, Odowski, then 31, sat in a Portland doctor's office and slowly absorbed the news that she had a cancerous lump in her breast.

Almost overnight, her life changed. Regular work proved impractical, so, with the support of family and boyfriend, she devoted her time to healing and making crafts, something she'd pursued since watching her aunts toil at the sewing machine as a child in Florida.

Odowski made wallets and bags, felt magnets and key chains, and, when chemotherapy interfered with her fine motor skills, eventually turned to crafts that involved stamping and collage. The Portland scene provided ample opportunities to sell her work; then, last October, she discovered Etsy.com, a newly launched online marketplace for individual crafters, and began to sell her work there under the brand Appleseeds.

In January, Odowski made the difficult decision to return to Tampa to be near the world-class Moffitt Cancer Center. As she finished chemo, she began to feel like a normal person again, she said. The desire to be social — to engage in her favorite Portland pastimes, like craft fairs — returned.

But Tampa is no Portland. When Odowski went looking for a venue to meet up with like-minded crafters — the kind who combine an earnest devotion to skills learned in high school home economics classes with a dash of hipster irony — she couldn't find one.

So she decided to start her own.

The Etsy online marketplace proved indispensable. She searched for the Etsy sites of other Bay area crafters and began to contact some about starting a local fair. As she talked to people, a theme emerged: Why haven't we done this sooner? Odowski said it still amazes her that none of the people she contacted had ever met. "Tampa is spread out," she said. "I think that's changing and I think people want it to change."

In June, the first fair — dubbed Crafting Out Loud — debuted at Sacred Grounds Coffee Shop near USF. The July and August events that followed were such a success that the group has added a second date each month at New World Brewery, hoping to tap a different crowd with daytime hours (3-8 p.m. as opposed to 7 p.m.-midnight at Sacred Grounds) and the brewery's proximity to Ybor's retail and entertainment.

On Sat., Aug. 27, the first New World event had a laid-back feel. About a dozen crafters ran around scoping out each other's wares, from fabric clutch purses to felt iPod holders and vintage bead earrings. A mix of under-35 customers looked right at home in the bar, as if they might have been at New World the night before and returned after a few hours of sleep. Homemade spicy pickles and mimosa marmalade (yes, it tastes like oranges and champagne) by Jessi Griffith of Seminole supplemented bar pizza. Wheat beer dosed with raspberry lambic seemed to be the quaff of choice.

Tracy Beckett — who sells cigar box purses, pins and collage on panel under the label Porphery at craft fairs and the Seminole Heights shop Silver Linings — drew a stark contrast between Crafting Out Loud and the fairs she typically frequents.

"It's not beercan wind chimes," she said, pointedly. "You're laughing, but there are people who make money doing that."

Sharing space at the same table, Sue Gaudin agreed. Local fairs tend to be dominated by fads, she said: 20 vendors selling the same skinny crochet scarves. At Crafting Out Loud, everyone is doing something different, even though some of them are working with the same materials. "The quality is wonderful, obviously," Beckett said. "It has a different feel because it's urban crafts. ... It has a graphic element too — it's visually exciting. We've done a lot of [craft fairs] that are almost over-organized and soulless. It's a treat to be here."

Yen Reed drives up from Sarasota to participate in the shows and sells her vintage-inspired jewelry in stores there, in South Tampa and on Etsy. She said meeting both fellow crafters and customers in the friendly environment has been a big draw.

"I sell online but I never see faces, I never talk to people," she said. "Same thing with the boutiques — I see the boutique owners but not the [customer], so to be able to see people's faces, to see them touch it and go, wow ... I think that's very gratifying."

The presence of 8-month-old Maya Mossey — who was passed from Reed to Odowski to her mother, Meli, as she gurgled and slumbered through the humid afternoon — enhanced the family-like flavor of the gathering. Meli Mossey, a Web designer who makes and sells handmade baby clothes, bibs and other accessories at melimade.com, has paired with Odowski to share the responsibilities of running the fair, including designing the group's new website.

"I had been looking for local crafters for a long time," she said. "It's a big deal to me not only to be able to sell my own stuff but also to buy from other people because I don't want to buy from mainstream stores."

Despite the kiss-off to commercialism, none of the crafters seems oblivious to the art of marketing. Almost all have websites, signage and business cards with their trademark name and graphics. Odowski mounts her own wares on a washboard-like structure she found at a thrift store for $15 and outfitted with S-hooks. Bags and purses hang from it; her brand name, Appleseeds, is spelled out on top.

She gets enough e-mails from crafters looking for tips on how to get started or display their product — add drama with height, she advises — that her next project may be a 'zine devoted to the art of craft fair start-up.

In the meantime, she and Mossey are busy managing the fair's growth. At the upcoming Sacred Grounds event, a group of Miami crafters known as Cheep! Cheep! will join the fray. At New World, whispers of an expansion to St. Pete floated through the air, but Mossey expressed reservations.

"If we had a third location, I don't think any of us would be able to keep up our stock," she said, adding with a smile, "For right now, I don't have time between the shows to get anything done."

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