Rooted in Creative Innovation

Nanci Solomon, collector and owner of Rala

Located in the Daniel Building in the Old City, Rala is a carefully crafted shop designed to showcase wares from local artisans, a space that speaks to Knoxville’s identity as a Maker City. Originally opened in 2010 on Union Avenue, Rala has grown to incorporate small furniture and larger art pieces in addition to the collectibles, greeting cards, jewelry and others gifts created by regional makers.

Though Nanci Solomon isn’t an artist herself, her passion for promoting local talent was part of what drove her to open the store in the first place.

“We wanted to provide a place where you could purchase locally made small-batch goods all the time,” she says. “Along with the eat local food movement, we began to see that people also wanted to buy nonfood items from local and regional makers, where they were able to know the story of how they were made and by whom.”

Nanci partnered with Joy O’Shell of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center in 2016 to put Knoxville in the spotlight as a Maker City. She understands that supporting local artists means supporting the local economy, as well as sparking creativity and innovation within the community.

“It is such a privilege to work with local artists, to get to know them personally and learn about their creative process, to have the pleasure of sharing their work with our community and see the joy it brings to the customers who purchase their work,” Nanci says.

Eddie Hopps, Woodworker, 
Hopps Woodworks

For Eddie Hopps, woodworking wasn’t going to be a full-time career. He’d been around the craft his whole life, watching his father repair and build pieces in and around his restaurant business. Eddie helped his dad in the shop, and though he toyed with the idea of going into architecture, nothing seemed to stick. He was an artist at heart, but also a businessman. He went on to work in graphic design and communications. Eventually, those efforts lost their appeal, so Eddie decided to go back to something he loved. Hopps Woodworks officially began in November 2006.   

“The creative thing is what drives me, so I like challenges,” he says. “I like to figure things out. I also like helping people. I like someone to tell me what they want or need and I give them ideas and show them options.”

While Eddie still tools around in the shop, his primary responsibilities involve selling and managing installations. Residential woodworking is the company’s wheelhouse—kitchens specifically–but Eddie has recently moved into the arena of designing yacht interiors, a specialized field on account of all the unique specifications.

“I want people to know that if they have an idea, I’ll listen and put it on paper and help design what they want. When you work with designers, more times than not, they’re designing what they want to show in their portfolio,” Eddie says. “They do what they want to do and not what the client wants. What drives me is giving somebody what they want, and when we’re done, they can’t believe it.”

Darryl Mackley, Gemologist, owner of Mackley Jewelers

Darryl Mackley grew up in East Tennessee under the influence of his father, one of 60 master gemological appraisers in the country. Darryl knew he had big shoes to fill, and though he originally didn’t intend to follow in his father’s footsteps, gemology has been a challenging and rewarding career. A graduate of the Gemology Institute of America with decades of experience as a businessman, Darryl built a company that’s as much about holding the highest standards in quality and integrity as it is providing customers with a jewelry piece unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

“My dad asked me a long time ago what I wanted to do and I said I wanted a store. He said that’s the hardest route to go, but I sleep well at night and have a good reputation, and I make a decent living for my family,” he says. “I’m continuing my family’s legacy.”

Inside Mackley Jewelers is one-of-a-kind pieces, estate finds and myriad elements—from settings and sets to diamonds and gems—suitable to design a ring, necklace or bracelet from the prongs up. Whether the customer has a detailed sketch of what they want or comes in with only a hint of an idea, Darryl is ready and willing to help as his knowledge extends well beyond charts, tools and appraisals.

“I’m a wonderful idea guy,” he says. “I’m an adviser all day long. Every day is different here. You never know who comes through the door. I want to help people the best way I can. I want to create original pieces that can’t be found elsewhere.”

Matthew Cummings, Glass Blower/Craft Beer Brewer, Pretentious Glass

The original plan was to become an architect, a logical career choice for an artistic person, as far as Matthew Cummings was concerned. The Albany, Kentucky, native went to college with this plan in mind, but, after choosing Intro to Glass as an elective, a new world opened up. He changed his major and graduated with a fine arts degree. Matthew went on to a master’s program and studied glass sculpture with fervor. He’d found his passion, but soon the challenge became what to do with it.

“I was in a bottle share club at an art center, and my friends convinced me to make tailored beer glasses, where I carved their handprints out of the glass,” he says. “When I gave the tailored glasses to my friends, they giggled, and one of them said, ‘This is so pretentious.'”

Matthew started making beer glasses and selling them on Etsy. In December 2012, he was selling 30 glasses a month, but, after a September 2013 feature in The Huffington Post, sales skyrocketed. A craft beer lover, he considered a novel idea: what if he brewed his own beer and made glasses designed to fit the drink’s specific flavor profiles?

“We opened the brick-and-mortar in the Old City with no loans, no co-owners and no one having a say,” he says.

Pretentious Glass Company came first, followed by Pretentious Beer next door.

“We like doing the things that only we do. You can come in, drink beer we make out of glasses we make. We even built our furniture. Anything we can do by hand, we do.

“If I had time off, I’d blow glass and brew beer,” he says. “It’s not even a job.”

Jim Biggs, Executive Director of Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and member of the Mayor’s Maker Council Support Team

San Francisco native Jim Biggs has a deep understanding of what it means to live in an area rooted in making. From Appalachia’s crafting legacy to the combined technological advances born out of Oak Ridge and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville is well-suited to be a Maker City. Considering the region’s creative past combined with its endless potential, the future looks bright for Knoxville.

For Jim, the only way to go is forward. Two years ago he and a group of local makers, in conjunction with the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, participated in a conversation with Etsy about how to be intentional in supporting small-scale makers in the community. Those conversations led to more discussions about what it means to support makers, not only as patrons but also in regulatory ways that offer opportunities for growth. By late spring 2016, the wheels were turning to make Knoxville an official Maker City. A summit was planned, the Mayor’s Maker Council was formed, and Etsy took notice. Knoxville was knighted the first Maker City in the United States.

“So we built this beast, and the council was comprised of a broad section of the community: makers, policymakers and so on,” he says. “We thought, ‘how do we keep this momentum going?’ We started organizing a series of events and programs that would continue to coalesce in the community.”

While Knoxville’s Maker City status was born out of a partnership with Etsy, selling on Etsy isn’t a requirement to participate in Maker City events and meetups. The spirit of the organization is to embrace everyone, to share skills and talents, and to support one another in keeping Knoxville’s creative heritage at the forefront of its identity.