Made In The East Bay

From entrepreneurial spirit to local pride, the East Bay has everything a maker needs to thrive. Meet four local artisans who are doing just that.

Posted

Love at First Strum

Bill Paukert turned a hobby – crafting handmade electric guitars – into a full-time gig

To those that play, a guitar is much more than just a stringed instrument – it is a work of art. Bill Paukert, luthier and owner of Unified Guitar Works in Warren, is both a guitar player and maker. It is through playing the guitar, in fact, that Paukert turned a hobby into his fulltime job.

Paukert originally studied industrial design in college and designed toys for Hasbro for 15 years. In his free time, he played in a band and started purchasing, repairing, and refinishing guitars. What started as experimental tinkering – taking them apart, swapping out components – quickly developed into a passion and skillset that motivated him to “take a leap” and go into the business fulltime.

“For me, the first step [in the process] is to establish what the ‘vision’ of the instrument is,” says Paukert. “What is the purpose of this guitar? Is the guitar gonna be a rocker? Is it going to be more traditional? Is it a gift for someone?” The answers to these questions inform the decisions he will make when designing the instrument, which is neither a short nor linear process.

Paukert starts with reclaimed wood from old homes and barns. He rescues pieces destined for the dump and gives them a second life: “It served a purpose once before, there’s no reason it can’t live again and do even more.” Once the wood is selected, it is then a matter of choosing the right tools to cut and shape the guitar: saws, sanders, files, chisels, or even computer-aided design software, depending on what is needed. Six to eight weeks later – or more, if the design is especially unique – it is ready for Paukert’s favorite part: the first strum. “You get to hear its voice for the first time, and in one instant you get an idea of how the guitar feels and what the guitar can do,” he says.

Owning his own business is not without its challenges, especially considering Unified is a one-man business. Paukert does everything from making the guitars to building the website and promoting the business. “It’s a lot of different hats to wear,” he admits. Despite the difficulties of being an artist/business owner, Paukert loves what he does and continues to expand his creative opportunities beyond the shop through freelance toy design and custom-painted shoes. His motivation? “I just enjoy making cool things.”

Painting from Memory

East Providence painter Karen Murphy captures the mood of coastal Rhode Island

A misty marsh at dusk. Waves lapping the shore. Untrodden sand dunes. An early morning wetland. These are just a few of the subdued scenes from East Providence artist Karen Murphy’s collection.

“I focus on the emotion and mood of a place, rather than the exact rendering,” she says about her pieces. “I want to capture the feeling.” This contemplative style is a nod to the Tonalist movement of the late nineteenth century when artists painted from a mix of memory and aid of sketches.

From a glance, Murphy seems to be living the dream: she’s doing what she loves and it’s paying off, with her work displayed in galleries across New England in addition to her studio. It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t always like this. Murphy has only been painting fulltime since April of 2015, when her husband – a firefighter and fiction writer – suggested she pursue her passion when the commute to her job in Massachusetts was chipping away at her free time in the studio.

“I would say it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” Murphy admits about her decision to trade the corporate world for the creative one. Murphy’s interest in art has been lifelong. Her father, too, was a painter, so the creative gene was in her blood. She grew up sketching the horses on her family’s farm – her first “models,” she likes to joke – and got her first set of oil paints when she was thirteen. While she was working as a graphic artist and then in market research, her weekends were dedicated to plein air painting and commissioned pieces, before finally transitioning to focus on her favorite subject: landscapes.

“As soon as I discovered landscape painting, I quickly knew this was my muse,” she says. “That’s what made my heart beat fast.” The scenery featured in Murphy’s paintings might not be of specific locations, but they are inspired by them, like the East Bay Bike Path near her house or the marshes and beach where she walks her dogs.

“I feel like as a painter, you’ll be a student for life,” Murphy muses. “You’re always learning new things and tweaking your process – where I am now is where I am now, and I don’t know where I’ll go, but I just enjoy the moment.”

A Sweet Trade

Artist Michael Todd Moen creates all-American made leather goods from his studio in Warren

Michael Todd Moen’s studio is a treasure trove of nautically themed items: old life jackets, sailor dolls, wooden buoys, ropes and flags, signs, and posters. Nestled by the window is his workspace, a table covered with various tools, molds, and scraps of leather. Moen is a leather artist and owner of Sweettrade, an online storefront named after another term for the pirate trade.

Prior to Sweettrade’s creation, Moen worked for Patagonia in California, then as part of the America’s Cup build crew in Washington, before finally settling in Warren seven years ago to be close to the world of salt, sand, and sailing – the perfect setting for his then-new endeavor.

“I like the look and feel [of leather], and the personal changes it takes on for the wearer,” Moen explains, talking about his material of choice. “It’s kind of like an extension of your own skin.” Moen sources his hides from one of the oldest tanneries in the United States, Wickett & Craig. He is proud to say his products are all-American, from the thread (from Maine) to the brassware (cast in Rhode Island).

Moen handcrafts everything from wallets and belts to bracelets, cuffs, and coasters, each with a nautical twist, like hidden whale tails and sailor knots. Each part is carefully designed, cut, handstitched, and finished, including the hardware. His distinctly coastal touch has been appreciated at trade shows around the United States in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, and also in Japan.

“I’ve always really liked Japanese culture and their way of thinking, and how they hold craftsmen and tradition in high regard,” Moen says. Through an old friend at Patagonia, he was connected to a Japanese business owner interested in his work. The rest quickly followed: a new wholesale account, trade shows, and even a feature in a special edition of Japanese magazine Clutch.

Moen has carved – literally – a successful niche for Sweettrade in the leather market. However, his business is still evolving, especially around an important issue to Moen: sustainability.

“I’m looking into alternative materials,” he divulges. Despite his locally sourced materials and biodegradable packaging, he plans to make Sweettrade even more eco-conscious in the future.

The Shape of Water

Inside the studio with Arch Contemporary Ceramics owner Charlie Barmonde

Charlie Barmonde never thought he’d be an artist. It wasn’t until high school at Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts, that he discovered ceramics when his art teacher, Bob Mogilnicki, taught him how to use the potter’s wheel and throw clay.

“At that point, it was just for fun, but it was the first time I was good at something artistic,” Barmonde admits. After graduation, he continued on to an education in the arts and earned his B.A. in ceramics and art history from Marlboro College in Vermont. Now, he is a prolific potter at Arch Contemporary Ceramics, which started as his personal studio and shop, but has since expanded into a gallery and school located in Tiverton’s Four Corners arts district. For Barmonde, who “never thought [he] would have [his] own gallery,” the space has been perfect to both make and display his work: mugs, salt cellars, flasks, pitchers, urns, bowls, and more.

“Much of my work is informed by life as a mariner,” Barmonde explains. “Shapes of boats, of sails, of sea creatures…” You can see this influence in his pieces, which feature a soft, oceanic color palette and gentle, sloping lines. He alternates between two kinds of art-making: functional, hand-thrown creations from the wheel, and abstract sculpture. Whatever he is creating, he makes it himself from beginning to end – from the potter’s wheel to the kiln and finishing touches.

“I like the tactile tendencies of clay,” Barmonde says. “It is immediately responsive to touch and every mark is part of its story – even the ones you remove. They are nevertheless inside of the piece and they will occasionally show up again during the firing process.” That process, according to Barmonde, can take 18-24 hours.

Barmonde has had his work shown in galleries along the East Coast in places like New York City and Florida, as well as sold to private collections. However, he has shifted between being a fulltime artist for a living and supplementing with other work throughout his career. “I am lucky that I have a supportive family that believes in my work,” he says.

If there’s one thing Barmonde wants people to know about his craft, it’s that it’s “harder than it looks.” Oh, and that potters “universally hate hearing references to Ghost.”