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Do-It-Yourself Art Is Suddenly Cool With the Eruption of Sites Such As Etsy

By Amanda Schoenberg
Journal Staff Writer
          Call it craft. Or do-it-yourself art. Maybe independent design.
        Whatever the lingo, Albuquerque is buzzing with folks making everything from vintage-inspired note cards and crocheted hats to costume jewelry by hand.
        If that sounds like a lot of country ducks and crocheted doilies, think again. Locals are taking traditional crafts and giving them a modern twist. That can mean handmade bags with zombie designs or vintage cards with caustic phrases.
        Most craft in their off hours for creative release and extra cash. Many write blogs detailing their latest projects.
        Crafters agree that the popular Web site Etsy.com has something to do with the craze.
        Just ask Anneliese Steen. The executive at the New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union started making jewelry when her doctor suggested she needed to find a hobby to reduce stress. A few pretty beads quickly turned into a house full of turquoise.
        Before she knew it, Steen was selling her wares on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade items. "Etsy's been phenomenal," she says. "It allows you to turn your pastime into something that isn't a money pit."
        Etsy explosion
        At Etsy, sellers have profile pages where buyers see their work. Like eBay, the site earns a portion of proceeds.
        Touring Etsy's handmade designs can be overwhelming or exhilarating, depending on your tolerance for Web browsing. There are more than 500 Etsy sellers in the Albuquerque area and 1,250 in New Mexico, according to Etsy spokesman Adam Brown.
        So far in 2008, more than 3.3 million items have been sold on the site, harnessing the growing market of handmade, do-it-yourself accessories, clothes and home décor.
        The Etsy world is young, educated and employed. About 96 percent of buyers and sellers are women. The average age of sellers is about 35. Most are college graduates who consider themselves part-time artisans.
        Albuquerque jewelry designer Alison Armstrong, 34, who creates bright baubles with names like "Celebrity Meltdown" and "Swooning in the Cha-Cha Lounge," says Etsy has changed the market locally and worldwide.
        "I don't know of a crafter who hasn't opened up an Etsy shop, and quite a few artists operate only an Etsy shop and don't have a 'traditional' Web site," she writes in an e-mail.
        But Etsy's popularity can make it difficult for jewelry sellers to stand out, Armstrong says. Others say many inexperienced sellers price their wares so low it is difficult for other artists who make a living off their work.
        Spring Griffin, 33, a freelance writer and mixed-media artist, is doing her part to kick the local craft scene into high gear.
        At Duke City Fix, a popular Albuquerque Web site, Griffin's Weblog features a local Etsy "seller of the week." The most common crafts are knitting, crocheting, jewelry-making and sewing, she says.
        "I notice a lot of reuse — people taking items that they find at thrift stores and yard sales and making them fresh by reworking them into something else," Griffin writes in an e-mail. "What makes Burqueños' work so fun is the unique stamp the artists put on their work."
        Albuquerque's emerging craft scene includes the Duke City Renegades, an art-and-craft guild started by local Etsy sellers who joined forces to market their work. This year, the group also organized several craft shows. Duke City Fix also has a "Craftacular Albuquerque" group started by crafter Marina Colon, where members post free patterns and swap supplies.
        After learning to crochet in college, Lori Sanfratello found a new calling with flapper-inspired cloche (French for bell) hats. Sanfratello's unabashedly feminine hats feature Viennese lace, feathers and flowers.
        Sanfratello, 34, who uses the Etsy moniker Crochet by Lori Leigh, says "no one was more surprised than me" when her crocheted hats and dresses started to sell a few years ago.
        Now a physicist at a nonprofit research lab and a University of New Mexico lecturer, she spends about 30 hours a week on her hats.
        At home in Rio Rancho, Sanfratello has a spare bedroom full of hats. In her living room, baskets overflow with plastic bags, each containing a piece of ornate lace or a bright feather. A haughty mannequin head looks on from a nearby pedestal — this is Sanfratello's model.
        Taking it literary
        For Angela Kunkel, 30, it all started with Jane Austen.
        Kunkel, who moved to Albuquerque from Boston in July, earned her master's in Victorian literature from the University of Connecticut. She has since harnessed her love of Victorian literature to a part-time career.
        On Etsy, using the name "Paper Menagerie," Kunkel sells note cards made with a compact Japanese printing press called a Gocco. One set, popular among librarians and, for some reason, Canadians, features vintage library check-out cards.
        Austen appears often in Kunkel's designs. One card, which says "I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal," comes from a letter from Austen to her sister, Cassandra.
        Kunkel also remodels pages from old grammar textbooks and 1960s children's encyclopedias into buttons and magnets.
        Recycling is a big part of the handmade aesthetic. Sandra Williams, who helped found Duke City Renegades and goes by "ElectricNomad" on Etsy, draws inspiration for her hand-sewn bags from 1960s fabrics, calendars and Southwest culture. When creating, Williams thinks about making one item into "a great something else."
        Crafting art
        Linguistic and artistic lines are beginning to blur in the craft world.
        Kurt Nelson, owner of Palette Contemporary Art and Craft, says "craft" has often been unfairly maligned. The distinctions between "art" and "craft" are on their way out, "like the dodo," he says.
        He used "craft" to describe his gallery to showcase the diversity of contemporary art — from oil painting to $3,700 submerged solid glass — but none is what he calls traditional "Aunt Millie" crafts.
        A few doors down in the same Northeast Albuquerque outdoor mall, artists scurry around the Wooden Cow Gallery and Art Space, a new multigenre cooperative gallery that opened last month. At the Wooden Cow, distinctions between high and low art blur as mosaic designs share space with Chinese brush work. The gallery includes pieces that could be called craft, such as resin-coated rings made from recycled Scrabble pieces.
        Lorraine Klover, one of the Wooden Cow founders, is a photographer who also sells on Etsy. She says the term "craft" has been denigrated because it is associated with practical work done by women. Some locals eschew the "craft" label because of those traditional connotations.
        Jewelry-maker Vanessa Barney, 24, owner of the new store "Hey Pretty Cupcake" at Gambei Wellness Spa in Nob Hill, calls herself an independent designer. Kunkel likes the term artisan; Sanfratello isn't sure what to call herself. Armstrong goes by crafter.
        "But you can call me a jewelry designer, or an artist, or a crafter — whatever," Armstrong says. "As long as people are enjoying and buying my work, I can deal with whatever label they'd like to use."