Friday, September 3, 2010

From the beginning: The history of Rapt in Maille...

Well folks, it's been a while since my last post. And I thought, to begin again, let's start from the very beginning. So, here's a little history of my venture into jewelry and creating a business...

I went to the University of Illinois in 1991 for Computer Science in the School of Engineering. I know - what was I thinking? In my naïve and simple, young mind, I did at one point envision myself getting dressed up in business gear and working in a cubicle every day. The only reason I can give for why this seemed good to me back then was that I was very shy and I liked the idea of not having a job where I had to interact with too many people. Ha! Silly, silly me.

Anyhow, during my 4th semester, as I hit Physics and my first Computer Science courses (somehow I had made it through Chem and Calc), I was failing for the first time in my life (I had never taken Physics in high school, unlike every other single person in my class). I remember crying in my dorm room, and my roommate said to me - "Hey, I know you like to make jewelry....there's a girl down the hall taking jewelry classes - why don't you do that?"

I have always been creative. It runs in my family. My mom is an artist, my dad played guitar, my sister was a hairdresser, another sister works creatively in I just always gravitated towards making things or building things. I loved art class, I made things from crafts books, I loved building card houses, I made rag-rugs, friendship bracelets, you name it. In high school I started stringing beads and making simple bead earrings, which I brought to college and would give to friends. I had also started working with shaping wire, and I even brought some things I had made to a local consignment store. So when my roommate said those words to me, it was like my ears literally perked up, the sun came out, and the angels sang. Jewelry classes at the U of I? Who knew? I immediately changed my major. I was no longer an engineer - I was an art student.

Even though I was always drawn towards art, I had never voluntarily taken an art class. My high school classes were always geared towards the academics. So once again, I found myself behind everyone else who had previous experience with the subject at hand. Although this time it didn't bother me one bit - because I was loving it. I started my first jewelry class. I took ceramics, sculpture, glass, life drawing, design....most of which I found really challenging. It was really obvious that jewelry was my niche. As with every college program, you have your electives, and your requirements. It's kinda funny on my college transcript that my electives for an art degree include Chemistry 101 and 102, Calculus 1, 2, & 3, etc. (I had to do this to consolidate my time in school). It's too bad my electives for art were taken up by my engineering classes, otherwise I would have loved to take photography.

Anyhow, so here's where the chainmaille comes in: It was required in the jewelry program that we take 2 semesters of Independent Study. For the first semester I picked granulation (which I never really got the hang of). Now, my benchmate had been making some chainmaille, so one day I borrowed a piece of it to study, and ended up teaching myself how to do it by just looking at the weave (European 4-in-1). So I chose to study chainmaille for the second semester of Independent Study. I became so enamored with it, that I continued studying it for my senior thesis. I ended up making a long-sleeved shirt from blackened wire and washers, a long halter top/dress, a gauntlet, and a headpiece. I do have slides of these SOMEWHERE, which I really should digitize, eh? Project to come....

In the meantime, during my last semester in school, I also began working for my old benchmate, who had just graduated and was launching her own line. However, when it was graduation time for me, I did the proverbial packing up of my college days to head home to find a "real job." My sister got me a job working at a newspaper, which lasted a whole 8 months. It had its merits, (I did learn how to use Photoshop - a skill that has proved to be invaluable now), but I was just not happy.

My previous boss (now friend) who I worked for back in Champaign, called me up and proposed that I move back and work for her full time. I jumped at the chance to move back, since I missed it, and my freedom, so I packed up once again. I worked in the jewelry studio during the day, and at night I would come home and work on chainmaille designs of my own. After about a year and a half, my boss decided to move her business up to Chicago, and suggested I move up there to keep working for her, so I did! Big city, here I come...

In Chicago, I also started working at a bar that my friend hooked me up with. I started by checking ID's at the door (yes, I was a bouncer!), and eventually was taught how to bartend. So for a while, I was juggling the nightlife, my days in the studio, and other nights working on my own designs. My boss would have shows and events out of the studio and would let me set up my own jewelry, and the bar I worked at would let me bring in a jewelry case every once and a while to try and sell stuff. Humble beginnings!

Now, the big turning point was when my boss decided to sell her jewelry at the Bucktown Holiday Show in 1998. She asked me if I wanted to share the space with her, so I took her up on that opportunity. This was my first art fair, ever! At the show, I also met another emerging jewelry designer, Melissa Kolbusz, now of [wired] jewelry. It was also her first show, and she was also sharing a space with her boss - amazing coincidence. We loved each other's work, so we ended up trading and exchanging phone numbers.

I had caught the art fair bug, so I was researching some summer shows. I decided to give Melissa a call. We ended up deciding to join forces and try out some shows while sharing a booth space. Our first show was Northalsted Marketdays in 1999. And boy, did we learn some major lessons that weekend! There was a HUGE storm, including a mini twister, (we came with no weights, but our neighbor suggested at the beginning we go at least buy some gallons of water), everything got soaked - never again bring supplies in cardboard boxes...and we were also robbed at the end of the show. Typical 2-person theft where one distracts and the other walks off with the cash box. No more cash box at shows.

After several years of sharing booth spaces, we grew enough to have our own booths, although we still usually requested to be near each other for company and support ;) We also met a slew of AMAZING artist friends, who are some of the dearest people I know, and continued to gain knowledge of the art fair scene - what works, and what does not work. I finally feel like I'm pretty set with my booth and the whole scenario after 12 years, but I am STILL constantly learning. It has been a pretty big curve.

So now here I am! In my 12th year of doing shows, and my business has been growing steadily. (About 75% of my yearly sales are from art shows. The rest is wholesale and internet sales.) I quit working in the bar/restaurant industry about 2 years ago, and have been able to support myself, buy a condo, save money, and live comfortably. It's been absolutely amazing doing this full time. It is hard work. I am telling you - IT IS HARD. WORK. But it's my career now, and I LOVE IT - and I'm all grown up! Awwww.....


  1. Melissa, this is so inspiring! Thanks for posting.

    You were a bouncer?! You are the coolest, seriously.

  2. I'm so glad to read this. It's exciting to see your success & also to know that I too am on the right path based on your words : >

  3. Ahhhh, yes. Soooo long ago and just yesterday. So glad we met that fateful day in Bucktown. It has been a pleasure and an invaluable experience to know you and grow with you all these years. Who knew after saying so many times, "I'm never doing one of these again" that we would be still doing festivals all these years later. I think I said that again this weekend after Robin had the heat stroke!

    To many more years of friendship and shows...Cheers.

  4. CHEERS!!! Back atcha :) and thanks everybody!

  5. For someone like me who's fairly new at selling my work (maille and otherwise), this was a really inspiring read. Thanks so much for sharing it!