Passion may have set the foundation for this colorful store in Woodstock, but it’s the owner’s background in education and his network of area artists that have kept customers engaged.
It’s no wonder that someone with a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree in Art Education enjoys teaching. But Ken West, owner of Material Things Artisan Market, doesn’t teach in the typical classroom environment. He teaches the art of glass fusing from a learning space in the basement of the store he owns at 103 E. Van Buren St., on the Woodstock Square.
Perched on stools and hunched over counters stretching along two of the four walls, anywhere from 10 to 12 students (mostly kids with their parents or grandparents, adult crafters and novices) delicately cut, snap and place glass pieces in various styles. Each unique creation enters the kiln, and the result is a dazzling piece of fused glass; maybe a bowl or a dish, an ornament or earrings.
“I do love teaching,” West says. “The best part is seeing people realize that they can make something beautiful, even if they’re convinced they’re not creative.”
West has been exploring his own artistic abilities for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve always enjoyed taking raw materials of one kind or another and making them into something new,” he says.
Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, West often visited art shows with his aficionado parents. During high school, he sold his own work at art fairs. Nearing the end of his time at the University of Oklahoma, West took a class that allowed students to dabble in a few different mediums throughout the semester, encouraging them to expand their aptitude.
That’s when West tried his hand at glass-blowing. The medium spoke to him, and while he has enjoyed painting and sculpting in the past, he has focused mainly on glass since then. Today, he concentrates not on blown glass, but rather fused, or kiln-fired, glass.
After college, West returned to Illinois, got married, had two children and settled in Woodstock.
From 1979 to 1995, West owned and operated The Artful Glazier, a stained glass studio where he sold his personal creations exclusively. West also used the studio space there to teach classes, helping others learn how to make beautiful stained glass creations.
After a few years in corporate sales, West concluded that if he were to fulfill his goal of owning an independent art shop, there was no time like the present. So, in July 2013, he established Material Things just a block away from where the Artful Glazier had stood. While West sells his own pieces in his new store, he also proudly features the work of more than 100 mostly local artisans. And, of course, West heavily emphasizes the availability of classes, which are offered year-round.
The shop is filled with handcrafted items like hand-bound leather journals, jewelry, pottery, clothing accessories, repurposed items, mobiles and garden art, toys, sculpture and much more. It’s always changing as artists come and go, merchandise sells and new items arrive.
About two-thirds of the artisans, West estimates, are local to McHenry County and surrounding areas in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Recently, West has started selling a few free-trade items from South Africa and Ecuador, like bowls woven from old telephone wires – a craft both colorful and innovative.
Most items sold in Material Things Artisan Market are exclusive to the shop. Many pieces are priced in the “gift price category,” West says, though there are a few more substantial, more expensive pieces. Sign up for the store’s monthly e-mail newsletter and get information not only on upcoming sales but also about classes that will introduce fused glass art, like holiday ornaments or home decor.
West’s extensive network of area artists helped to fill the store when it first opened. With his wife, Patti, a full-time teacher, Ken found many artists through business cards they had collected from art fairs over the years. Because they have similar tastes in art, amongst other things, the couple grew their catalog of art sellers quickly.
Keeping things local is very important to West. And, supporting a local business puts money back into the pockets of the community, he points out. West also does his part by actively volunteering in the community and supporting causes that mean something to him personally
For example, fusing his love of teaching and his call to activism, West hosts a workshop every three to four months where volunteers come in to make glass jewelry called Recovery Pendants. The proceeds benefit Crystal Lake-based New Directions Addiction Recovery Service, a nonprofit organization that runs three transitional homes, or sober living homes, among other recovery-based services. Often, the residents of these homes come in and make the pendants themselves, giving back to the community that supported them.
Considering that most customers come from word-of-mouth, getting out into the community has helped to spur new business, says West. He finds advertising has been the most complicated aspect of owning a business. With so many avenues for advertising, from magazines and newspapers to social media, sponsoring an event or running an ad before a movie at the local theater, it can be difficult to track what is reaching the customer and bringing them into a particular establishment.
“Try to get direct feedback and really understand what got people in your store,” West says, “because you can spend a ton of money, and it’s so hard to determine what you’re getting back and how to compare these different avenues.”
Finding the ideal balance is a delicate maneuver, one that can take some time to figure out. Over time, West has discovered he can quickly drum up interest using social media.
Still, the best way to get information on upcoming events is through a monthly e-mail newsletter or the old-fashioned way: calling the shop. Classes are often added, and they fill up quickly, so it’s helpful to plan ahead. More information is also available from in-store flyers and the McHenry County College continuing education website. All classes are held in West’s personal studio at Material Things Artisan Market.
Head into the market to browse for a variety of handmade wares, experience art up close, or learn a new skill – especially if you think you’re not creative. Above all, prepare to support folks who put a lot of time, effort and love into their work.
“When you support a local business, you’re supporting a connection of neighbors,” West says.