By: Elise Barbin
Walking into CRAFT, a warehouse tucked inside a business park on East Cesar Chavez, there’s a “junkyard” of bins stacked in a library shelf orientation. These bins are filled with odds and ends like Chinese takeout boxes, pipe cleaners, old copies of National Geographic and googly eyes. The building’s walls are crisp white and the ceilings are lofty with exposed wooden beams, far cleaner than your childhood craft room. Evidence of prior craftiness appears on inspection of the room’s many metallic tables adorned with residual glitter and paint splatters. There’s not much on the walls besides a few examples of glitter painted crafts and a large canvas detailing the only two house rules: put your paint brushes in water after use and no judgments allowed.
As I sit down at one of the metal tables, get out my legal pad and a pen, a woman with a fountain of red hair and bright eyes peeking out behind her transparent frames introduces herself to me. She is Eli Winkelman, the 32-year-old Austin native, and CRAFT’s owner, Creative Experience Officer, and self-proclaimed “jack of all trades.” Winkelman says she created CRAFT to be a space for adults to experiment artistically without the stresses of cleanup and storage woes.
“Instead of going out and buying a bunch of shit you don’t need, making a mess in your space and then having to store all of that somewhere, because you know you might need neon green pipe cleaners again at some point in life… you can just come here and we have kind of a buffet of arts and crafts supplies,” Winkelman says.
CRAFT is primarily a place for Austinites to congregate and craft. Winkelman says although the business’ motto is that it’s a space for everyone (except kids), the clientele is largely women in their twenties and thirties. Sometimes, groups or businesses will rent out the space for team building exercises or parties, which brings unlikely patrons to CRAFT. Another tenant of CRAFT’s philosophy is inverting common perceptions of the word craft. “Craft traditionally, you learn your craft after being an apprentice,” she says. “We’ve kind of switched them so craft is the less formal [compared to art].” However, Winkelman and her business partner Hannah Roye also offer creative workshops a few times a month on a wide-range of mediums such as DIY screen-printing, glitter painting and sushi making.
Most of the supplies in the warehouse are second-hand and were either donated or bought used. Winkelman devotes a lot of time to sorting through things that may be useful for creating and tries to keep an open mind to what could qualify as a supply. She cited a recent donation of pot lids as an eccentric donation that ended up being a valuable resource for her crafters. This cycle of second hand supply hinges on the philosophy of a sharing economy. CRAFT aims to be fully accessible to all of Austin in a sense that the space has any crafting tool imaginable so that people don’t need to buy every niche art gadget on the market.
“Scissors are pretty useful, but not everyone needs to own a sewing machine or a craft heat tool,” Winkelman says.
Despite successfully creating and running a craft business, Winkelman has no formal art background. “I just really like making things,” she says. During her university years at Scripps College, she founded the non-profit Challah for Hunger, a community organization that bakes and sells challah to raise money for social justice causes. After college Winkelman continued running CFH, founding chapters on universities across the country, including University of Texas at Austin. Following the death of her fiancé in 2013, Winkelman found herself wanting a career change. “All I wanted to do was make stuff. This was all I could put any energy into,” she says. A few months later CRAFT opened its doors at its original location, a house on South 1st Street. While such a career move borders on untraditional, Winkelman thinks the two ventures are more connected than one would think. “They’re actually quite similar in that way of people coming together, putting down their phones, being in person, and making something, physically making something,” she says.
While crafting became an outlet for Winkelman following the loss of her fiancé, she has noticed a common theme of therapeutic benefits for crafters in general. Crafting allows for immersion in the activity, sometimes even being an escape for some of CRAFT’s patrons. Winkelman says that challenging oneself to experiment creatively, to try something new is one of the most important reasons to craft.
“Sometimes you have to put yourself in an uncomfortable position here where you don't know how to do the thing you’re trying to do,” Winkelman says. “If you can exercise control over that voice that’s telling you that it’s not going to come out right or whatever, you can really free your mind a little bit.”