Storytellling through craft

Charleston is a particularly creative, art-focused city and for some students at the College, crafting is a way of life. CisternYard interviewed Danielle Mellem of local jewelry business Our Spare Change and independent Etsy shop owner Casey Witkowski to shed some light on the College’s most innovative and talented purveyors of craft.

Danielle Mellem • jewelry maker for Our Spare Change.

College  of Charleston defeats the struggling Drexel Dragons.(Michael Wiser/staff)

All jewelry from Our Spare Change – including short and long chain necklaces, chain bracelets, leather bracelets and keychains – are made with purpose and love. All of the work takes place in Danielle’s room on one of two small desks. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Humble Beginnings

Our Spare Change is a relatively new online storefront managed by Charlestonian sisters Danielle and Hillary Mellem. Danielle, a junior arts management major and the driving force behind Our Spare Change, had a humble start. She took an interest in crafting jewelry her senior year of high school at her aunt’s farm. “I’d go up there and kind of mess around with her tools and stuff. She had made some things out of flower pots, so that’s initially how I got [inspiration],” Danielle said. Meanwhile, her older sister Hillary was travel blogging. According to Danielle, Hillary is the strategic sister who manages Our Spare Change’s webstore, controls the business’s publicity and manages fiscal matters. “Hillary and I have always been very good at working together. She’s very business-minded, I’m very artistically driven, idea-oriented and spontaneous with my ideas; I’m always dreaming. Then Hillary’s like, how do we do it? How do we implement this?” Danielle said.

The importance of storytelling is something both Danielle and Hillary are passionate about. According to Danielle, all it took to get their business off the ground was a road trip together. Hillary blogged about their mountain getaway while Danielle noticed the excess coinage they accumulated. Following the road trip, they decided to combine talents and tell a unique, tangible story using the simplicity of words and discarded change. In addition to her heavy familial and story-based influences, Danielle calls her endeavor God-driven. “We want people to know the Lord. Through hearing people’s stories and telling our own stories, I think it’s a huge aspect,” she said.

How’s Business?

All jewelry from Our Spare Change – including short and long chain necklaces, chain bracelets, leather bracelets and keychains – are made with purpose and love. All of the work takes place in Danielle’s room on one of two small desks. “I wish I could say we definitely have an office. Hillary works from coffee shops because she only needs a laptop,” Danielle said.

When buyers order jewelry through the website – the sisters’ primary sales vehicle – they have the option customize their coins. They are also given the option to share a story, Danielle’s favorite part. “When I get the invoice, I get to read [customers’ stories] while I make their jewelry. I also get to personally write them back,” Danielle said. If you buy from these sisters, not only do you get a special, hand-crafted piece of art, but a pen pal, too.

When asked about the success of local craftsmen on campus and in the Charleston area in general, Danielle replied: “We started by marketing to the people we knew and went from there; it’s about connections. I think if you have a craft, it’s important that you choose the right way of going about it. The Farmers Market is great for that, too. I think [people are] ready to jump for new ideas around here, especially those with stories behind them. Anyone who has a hobby can make a business out of it.”

Casey Witkowski • owner of Etsy shop, Crafty by Casey

Calculatingly Creative

Who says a math-minded person cannot also be a talented artist? Since Casey Witkowski opened her Etsy shop, Crafty By Casey, Casey has enjoyed decorating picture frames and using acrylic paint and whimsical appliques on canvas. Her multimedia pieces feature materials such as woodcuts, natural string and ribbon. Casey also occasionally makes greeting cards. “[Doing what I do] is a nice change of pace from my finance classes,” she said. “It’s fun to me, a destresser. I always feel a lot better when I take the time to be creative. I don’t always have the time, but when I do it really matters,” Casey started in a small, localized setting. This past spring, she had a tent at the Mayfest, her hometown of Bluffton, South Carolina’s largest celebration of arts and Southern culture. “I always did things like this for birthday gifts and really just because I liked doing it. I think it’s important to maintain a balance between both sides of your brain,” Casey said.

A Family Tradition

A large part of Casey’s inspiration comes from her father, who reclaims and rejuvenates old pieces of furniture to sell on Etsy. His pieces – mostly bookcases and shelving units – are resurfaced and repainted in rustic styles and lively colors. Whether she fails or succeeds as a businesswoman, Witkowski is thankful to have inherited her father’s artistic gift.

To sell items, Casey simply uploads photos of her piece, prices it and tags the type, style and material of the item. Etsy also provides shop owners with the opportunity to tell their story in their store descriptions. “They want it to be like a real shop. You try to make it personal and creative,” she said.

The Etsy Conundrum

According to Casey, Etsy has recently changed its guidelines. “I’ve only sold a couple of things,” Casey said. “They recently changed the rules and so [crafts] no longer technically have to be handmade. That’s when [many commercial businesses] got on there and so now unless you specifically search my item title, it’s really hard to find [my stuff].” Regardless, her shop continues to serve a meaningful purpose, both to Casey and her buyers. “I got really excited when I sold my first item,” she said. “It went all the way to California and [the buyer] said she was really happy to be putting the item in her house.” Her favorite item so far is a flower pot-themed piece she made using a canvas, paper flowers and buttons.

When asked about the business climate of local craftsmen, Casey acknowledged some of her successful favorites. “I do think the demand for handmade goods is growing [in Charleston],” she said. “I definitely like Candlefish a lot. They sell locally made candles and you can attend classes there where you are able to make your own.”

For students in search of stress relief or inexpensive ways to surprise friends and family with gifts, it won’t hurt to flex those creative muscles. And, who knows? You might have what it takes to start your own business.

*This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Yard.

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