According to Merriam-Webster, the verb “craft” means: to make or produce something with skill and care. Craftspeople treat their trade as art, pouring innumerable hours into creating something uniquely theirs for others to enjoy.
Whether they produce gin, glass, murals, or the best shawarma you’ve ever had, local makers define the soul of Knoxville, Tennessee. Meet some of the people responsible for the magic of The Maker City.
Matthew Cummings, Pretentious Beer Co. and Pretentious Glass Co.
Matthew Cummings’ hands deftly twirl a long metal stick, the molten glass stuck to its end glowing, twisting and bending. “You’ve got to give yourself up to the material,” says Cummings, glass blower, sculptor and owner of Pretentious Glass & Beer Co. “It’s got a lot of personality. It’s gonna tell you what it wants to do – you aren’t telling it. You are having a conversation with it.”
Pretentious Glass & Beer Co. is entirely handmade – the bar, barstools, tables, taps, and even the glassblowing equipment were built by Cummings and his team. “Everything you see, we’ve designed and built right here. I wanted to have a place where you feel like you’re right in the middle of it. And we want to capture and push the creative aspect of beer, because I think beer is as much of an art form as glass.”
What started as a side hustle making beer glasses for friends has turned into a brewery venture unlike any other – the glass and beer are inextricably linked. Playful creations like the Blueberry and Cherry Pie Sour are made in fermentation tanks named for the titans of glassblowing, and visitors enjoy their pints in whimsical, Wonka-esque glasses fabricated right next door. If you’re lucky, you can even catch Cummings giving a glass blowing demonstration.
“We take what we do seriously, we don’t take ourselves seriously,” laughs Cummings. Stop in, order a cheekily named beer (Big Fruit Energy, anyone?), and you’ll see exactly what he means.
Stephen Brown, Glitterville
Try not to smile when you walk into Glitterville. You will fail. This cotton-candy-hued dreamscape is helmed by Stephen Brown, former-costume-designer-turned-expert-crafter who has a remarkable talent for channeling happiness into papier mâché and glass.
Brown’s fascination with crafting began at a young age. “I would start crafting for Christmas in June, but the closer it got to the holidays, the sadder and sadder I got. Because the magic is almost gone!” explains Brown. “In those post-holiday doldrums my nana said to me, ‘You’ve got to learn to make every day a holiday.’” And his iridescent artistic vision was born.
Since then, Brown has found immense success – his work has been featured on Oprah’s list of Favorite Things, and he has authored crafting books, appeared as a judge on TLC’s Craft Wars, and even worked with Disney.
For Brown, this creativity has the power to see a community through the toughest of times. “We discovered that, in times of peril and war and unhappiness, people really love beautiful things that make them happy. There are sparklier days ahead.”
Yassin Terou, Yassin’s Falafel House
Yassin Terou is a Knoxville icon. His falafel shop in Knoxville’s downtown serves up a focused menu of Middle Eastern favorites that have earned him a devoted fanbase, and his jovial demeanor earned his restaurant the title of “Nicest Place in America” on Good Morning America.
Terou arrived in Knoxville from Syria in 2011, and it didn’t take him long to begin chasing his passion. “I always loved food, but it wasn’t my opportunity in Syria. So, it was a dream,” he says. But the restaurant ended up being something bigger than just a falafel shop. “I wanted to connect people together and build bridges between communities, so the food was a shortcut for that. This is who we are. We want to be together; we want to support each other. You don’t have to agree with me and everything I believe, but at the end of the day, I’m going to love you and respect you.”
For Terou, food is a creative outlet, and he delights in the development process. “I experiment a lot. Some of the chefs from my original country call me crazy – they say ‘You should not do that!’,” he chuckles. “For them, this is how we do it and we’re not going to change it. No, no, no, give me a reason why we shouldn’t change it!” And visitors reap the rewards – the tender chicken shawarma and the layered flavors of the baba ghanoush are divine.
Paris Woodhull and Curtis Glover, Knoxville’s mural artists
A visit to Knoxville would be incomplete without a tour of the city’s numerous murals. Paris Woodhull and Curtis Glover each have contributed to this kaleidoscopic cityscape, and both are passionate about the power of art to affect positive change.
Woodhull has a background in product design, and her illustrated maps are a Knoxville art staple. Her first mural graces the side of Printshop Beer Co. and was created in conjunction with Walls for Women, an all-female mural project celebrating the centennial of the nineteenth amendment. Her piece “Victoria” is named after her relative Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first woman to run for president.
Woodhull’s most recent work focuses on getting the word out about voting. “Art and design play such a big role in subliminal things, stuff we don’t think about,” she says. “I think that’s my thing, I want to make a really cool t-shirt that says a really cool statement that people want to wear and maybe encourages them to go out and vote.”
Glover holds a similar belief about the social value of public art as a medium. As one of Knoxville’s original and most prolific muralists, Glover asserts that public art is an essential part of the ideological development of metropolitan areas. “(Public art) makes you rethink the image of your city and the types of people that are here, instead of you just in your cookie cutter lifestyle of what you think this is,” he says.
Glover believes the best public art generates change for the better. “It’s meant to disturb, to ruffle some feathers, and I mean that in a positive way. It does have an impact on (people’s) perspective of the city and other decisions they are going to make moving forward. It’s a stimulus and you have a response.”
Check out Visit Knoxville’s interactive mural map to see Woodhull’s and Glover’s larger-than-life work for yourself.
Stanton Webster, PostModern Spirits
Ask anyone about their favorite Knoxville watering holes and PostModern Spirits will rank highly on their list. This distillery and cocktail bar offers an adventurous menu featuring liquors and liqueurs painstakingly crafted onsite.
Co-owner Stanton Webster credits the distillery’s success to the owners’ love of science. “We wanted to take traditional methods and marry them to modern scientific techniques, to put them together in a novel way to make something that’s better and different,” he explains. For Webster and his cohorts, the devil is in the details: vaporization temperatures for essential oils and botanicals, flavors created by chemical reactions, all through the power of science.
PostModern also believes in collaboration with fellow makers; their single malt whiskeys are made with products no longer needed by local breweries, and they source ingredients – like cacao nibs for their outstanding creme de cacao – from other artisans. Their gins are similarly complex, thanks to their dedication to ingredient sourcing and their aversion to artificial flavors.
While much of the culture around distilling evokes the nostalgia of timeworn practices, Webster believes that their business’s forward-thinking approach sets them apart. “When we talk about distilling, it's not that it's some old-fashioned magic. Our spirits are where artistry and chemistry meet. We even put it on the bottle!”
Where to buy: Rala and Jacks
Looking to take home your own piece of The Maker City? In addition to Knoxville’s outdoor craft events, two retailers serve as great starting points.
Jack’s of Knoxville on Gay Street is a cafe/shop hybrid that features a rotating roster of local makers. Grab a coffee and peruse the prints, shirts, earrings, beauty products and more.
RALA (Regional and Local Artisans) sits just down the road in the Old City, and it houses a dizzying array of gift items and fine art from local makers.
For more information, visit www.visitknoxville.com/things-to-do/maker-city/
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