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Crafty moves: ACC artists remade lives

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ONE of the great joys of going to craft shows is talking to the artists. It's always interesting to hear how they were inspired to become artists, and how they went about turning that inspiration into reality.

Some of the more fascinating tales involve artists who quit high-paying, prestigious jobs - as lawyers, developers, advertising executives and the like - to become full-time artists.

This weekend, more than 850 artists will attend the 26th annual American Craft Council Craft Show at the Baltimore Convention Center. Each will have handcrafted items to sell and stories to tell.

We talked to six participants, including two local folks, who traded pinstripes and steady paychecks for the risks and rewards of the art world. Most said being a full-time artist was both more rewarding and more difficult than they had imagined. All said they had no regrets about changing their careers.

Susan Levi-Goerlich

Susan Levi-Goerlich studied art in college, but she became a lawyer because she thought that was the sensible thing to do. "When I went to law school, I was very risk-averse," the 43-year-old Columbia resident says. "It was a good, safe thing to do if you weren't quite sure what direction you wanted to go in."

But between law classes at George Washington University she found time to learn pottery and visit Washington's museums. Before she graduated in 1984, she had begun making the stitched-fabric paintings that are now her trademark.

After working for a few years for a Washington firm that did government-contract litigation, she moved to Germany so that her German-born husband could attend school there. The move gave her the freedom to focus on art.

"When I moved to Munich, I really didn't entertain great thoughts that I was going to obtain a law position," she says. She began selling work on Leopoldstrasse, a street known for its artists.

In 1988, when her husband finished his education, the couple moved back to the United States.

"I said I would just do a show or two to tide me over before I find a job, and it's been 14 years," says Levi-Goerlich.

Creating and selling her own artwork has been a challenge, but one that she loves. "I didn't realize just how many hats I would have to wear as an artist," she says.

In addition to creating the artwork, she has to apply to craft shows, take photographs of her work, drive to the shows, set up her booths and handle all the business aspects of the job, including doing her own taxes. Her background as a lawyer sometimes comes in handy when she has to draft a contract.

As the owner of a small business called Stitched Impressions, Levi-Goerlich doesn't enjoy the same financial security that she would as a lawyer. But she's happy with the volume of art she is able to produce and sell.

As the mother of two children, ages 8 and 11, Levi-Goerlich says working from home has been a big plus. And because her husband is a schoolteacher, he can take over domestic duties in the summer, allowing her to work more hours.

"Lifestyle-wise, I now feel very lucky with what we have," she says.

Stephen Perrin

Stephen Perrin used to make a small fortune as an advertising executive for W.B. Doner & Co. By 1990, when he left the company, he was senior vice president and creative director of the company's Baltimore office, working with about 300 people.

But the pressure and long hours were making him miserable. So he decided to turn his woodworking hobby into a career making furniture.

"I just sort of looked at [the advertising job] and said, 'Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?' And the answer to that was no, even though the money was really good," says Perrin, who is 53 and lives in Timonium.

"The idea of making the furniture, that was what I really wanted to do."

Before leaving his job, he saved enough money for the large-scale equipment he would need and put aside tuition money for his kids.

He also used his advertising expertise to research the market for wooden furniture. "It is a business, and you have to keep that in mind," he says. "I didn't just leave one day and say, 'I'm going to try this.' I already had a portfolio of work I could send out to galleries. It was definitely study and homework."

Now, he sells his contemporary-style furniture, which ranges in price from $135 to $10,000, in a few galleries across the country and at four to six craft shows a year.

Even though he makes a lot less money now, he doesn't miss his high-powered advertising days, he says.

Johannes Michelsen

Johannes Michelsen made his first wooden hat as a joke. The 56-year-old Manchester, Vt., real-estate developer liked to wear felt cowboy hats, but they wore out quickly. So he decided to make one that would never wear out - one made out of wood.

Eleven years ago, he quit the development business to sell his handmade hats full time. "Once I started doing the hats, everything became easy," he says. "It's all fun now."

Being a developer was a lot less fun. He liked building, but he hated all the red tape. At one point, he had 13 people working for him, and "All I did was chase paper," he says.

As a sideline, he started making wooden staircases, then large wooden vases. But it wasn't until he began making the hats that everything fell into place.

"When I started doing the hats, I didn't think they would be so incredibly popular," he says.

Most of his clients probably don't wear the hats, Michelsen says, but he notes that his headpieces are lighter than felt and quite comfortable. He wears his all the time.

Making the transition from developer to artist meant a big drop in income, but Michelsen doesn't mind. "The happiness level increased dramatically," he says. "Less stress, more smiles, and my kids are very, very proud of what I do now."

"My best advice: Enjoy what you do. A lot of people don't do that.

"They think of their work as work. It doesn't occur to them that they ought to be looking for something they enjoy."

Joseph DiGangi

Joseph DiGangi, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and now lives in Santa Cruz, N.M., has been an airline pilot, hotel operator and farmer. In 1982, when he sold his dairy farm in upstate New York, he decided to try art.

"I just decided when I sold the farm, ... if I didn't do it now it might pass me by," he says. "I wanted to do something artistic."

Because DiGangi, 55, had always enjoyed both cooking and working with metal, he chose to make knives. He bought a book about knife-making and created a set of four kitchen knives that now sells for $495.

His first craft show, an ACC show in Springfield, Mass., gave him enough orders for six months.

"Then came Baltimore, and I sold out for a year," he says. Now he sells exclusively through craft shows.

DiGangi says coming up with the concept for the knives took between 10 and 12 minutes. Since then, he has devoted thousands of hours to production, marketing, paperwork and other distinctly nonartistic aspects of turning that concept into reality.

"You have to study the business as much as you study the art," he says.

"It's been very successful," he says. "I'm very good at marketing, and so the things that I learned from being in business for myself and surviving along the way have served me well in the crafts business."

Karren Brito

Karren Brito gradually became a full-time artist after leaving her chemistry-professor job at Ohio's Antioch College in 1988. Because her daughter had graduated from college by then, Brito's living expenses were low, and she worked several contract jobs, mostly having to do with chemistry and the environment.

She also began making brightly colored silk wraps and scarves using a Japanese dying process called shibori. She had begun sewing at a young age and later developed an interest in weaving.

Brito's chemistry background was valuable in her work as a textile artist, but she had to learn the marketing part as she went along.

About 10 years ago, her artwork became her sole income source. Now, she's head of a company called Entwinements, with two full-time employees.

"I'm not sure that I planned it," she says. "I could have ended up as an administrator for an environmental organization or something.

"You do things and you let stuff evolve. I was doing different things, and this was the one I let evolve."

Hulda Bridgeman

Hulda Bridgeman taught art at a junior high school before turning her attention to weaving. For her, the job change wasn't a big financial risk, because her husband, Ken, earned the bulk of the family's income as a lawyer.

But six years ago, Ken closed down his practice and joined her as a partner in Hulda Bridgeman Design.

Together, the Bridgemans, both 58, create garments of hand-dyed silk in their Spokane, Wash., studio.

Hulda Bridgeman taught herself to weave so she could pass the knowledge along to her students. But when the couple moved from Virginia to Idaho in 1981, she decided to try weaving full time. "I just found that I was really absorbed by working with fiber and also by running a small business," she says.

Over the years, she built up the business. In 1996, she and Ken moved to Washington state, and he became a full-time partner.

By the time he switched careers, the weaving business had grown to the point that there was no reduction in income, Hulda says.

The couple is sometimes bowled over by the sheer number of hours they work. "Right now we're working seven days a week, and we're working every weekend," says Hulda.

Even though the hours are long, the Bridgemans like the flexibility of being in business for themselves. "As far as working at a job goes, this is as rewarding as it gets," says Hulda.

The facts

What: American Craft Council Craft Show

When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday Where: The Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St.

Admission: $10; two-day pass $18; free for children under 12

Call: 410-583-5401 Web site: www.craftcouncil.org

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