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Sharing Her Craft

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Eli Winkelman’s crafting studio brings people together to create.

By Hannah Phillips, Photos courtesy of Eli Winkelman and Diana Ascarrunz

Eli Winkelman has always seen the extraordinary potential of everyday items. From Chinese-food containers to a box of 1990s self-help cassette tapes she found on the side of the road, anything could become useful for her next craft.

Winkelman remembers, as a child, painting the wood scraps left over from a fence her parents built.

“I don’t know where I got the idea,” she says. “Neither of my parents are artists.”

Winkelman claims to have no natural talent in the arts except the ability to let go and not worry. And that’s exactly what she encourages at Craft, her DIY studio and workshop space in East Austin.

Sitting in her studio on East Cesar Chavez Street one Thursday, she wears a tie-dye tank top (“I added the splatter,” she says.), handmade jewelry from a local artist and glasses that match her light-auburn curls. Her dog, Dizzy, scurries around the open-concept space, circling the metal and wooden shelves that make up what Winkelman calls the “mini junk yard.” Here, one might find complete sets of National Geographic, bins full of corks, fake fruit and old textbooks for cutting up and collaging.

“This is where we hoard so you don’t have to,” says Winkelman, who launched her craft studio in 2013, basing the business model on a similar concept to local gyms. “I would walk into an art store wanting to just use everything without the burden of owning it myself. Craft is kind of like a gym, but instead of sharing treadmills and weights, we share glitter and paint.”

Guests punch in at the studio’s antique clock, where $10 an hour grants them access to the entire library of tools, materials and supplies. Organized chaos lines each wall: An open-face paper cabinet displays an inspirationally messy assortment of wallpaper, old maps and more. Scissors line the wall above, followed by the glitter shelf, beads section, embossing tools and what Winkelman has decided must be the biggest rubber-stamp collection in Texas. But this can all be a bit overwhelming.

After giving a brief tour of the studio, Winkelman always checks in with visitors to help get them started. Next to the clock are two inspirational gumball machines. Turn the dial and each produces a small plastic box with a folded slip of paper. The first might say, “Create a diorama in the style of…” while the second may be a picture of the Downton Abbey cast.

Winkelman says she rarely sees someone actually put the two ideas together, but it generates ideas like the color of a dress or a favorite memory. For Winkelman, it’s never about the end product.

“You don’t go to karaoke to record an album,” she likes to remind guests. “Your goal isn’t to make something beautiful. It’s to turn off the voice that’s saying that you have to do this perfectly.”

In fact, that’s one of the cardinal rules. A sign above the scissors wall lays down the law: Paint brushes in water and no judgment. Beyond providing a safe space for both seasoned artists and rookie crafters alike, Craft’s mission is to bring people together around a table to create.

Besides drop-in crafting sessions and memberships, the studio hosts between 30 and 40 workshops a month, each led by Winkelman and a host of local artists. Workshops include everything from brush lettering to flower arranging.

The vision to bring people together is not new for Winkelman, who started a nonprofit in college called Challah for Hunger. The group brings college students together to bake bread for charities. Winkelman is still on the board of the organization, which now boasts chapters at nearly 80 colleges throughout the country.

“People always ask, ‘How did you go from baking bread to a craft business?’ ” Winkelman says. “But to me, it’s really obvious: It’s about making something with your hands and bringing people together.”

Winkelman hopes to continue doing just that at Craft. When asked about her vision for the future, she shares that she has “so many visions in so many directions.” Might they include Airstream trailers on Airbnb for creative, craft getaways or a bigger space to host more local artists? Whatever life brings her way, Winkelman is sure to take the materials in front of her and turn them into something beautiful.  

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