Michelle Smith apologized several times for straying off topic during a chat about her textile design work, among other things.
“I’m sorry, I’m just not a linear thinker,” she said.
For that, the Triangle should be thankful. For a decade, Smith, 34, has worked many angles to present the region in a hipper light, most visibly through the twice-a-year Rock & Shop Market, where dozens of local, young artisans sell their wares and indie bands perform. Smith started the event in her hometown of Raleigh in 2004.
“I realized that other makers like myself didn’t have a place to take their work,” she said. For Smith, that means pillow covers, tea towels and other home products emblazoned with her original art.
“There were craft shows, but they were granny shows. I wanted something for younger people,” she said. “Now, 10 years later, the scene has evolved and grown so much. It’s a testament to the fact that people are starting to understand that locally made products are appealing.”
For a while, Smith staged Rock & Shop, her primary source of income, in Raleigh and Durham, then moved all markets to Durham, partly because of the city’s more lenient food-truck rules. The most recent show, in November, featured about 100 makers and drew more than 2,000 people. The spring market on Saturday is timed to coincide with the Full Frame Documentary Festival held across the street.
“Michelle has an eye for finding a good mix of makers, but also for getting the right crowd to attend,” said Raleigh artisan Derek Keller, who crafts leather accessories under the label 440 Gentlemen Supply. “Without her and Rock & Shop, I don’t think 440 would have gotten off the ground. I’ve done other events, and hers were the most successful. It’s a cool atmosphere she’s created.“
Smith, who juries all vendors, said the market is so popular, “I could probably do the show once a month, but that would dilute it.” Plus, where would the mega-multitasker fit it into her schedule?
Along with planning and promoting the market, Smith raises her 6-year-old daughter with her husband, Ben, a materials engineer. Last August, she opened Gather, a retail shop in Cary. She also works as an interior stylist, arranging items during national magazine shoots in the area and for marketing sessions at retail stores, including A Southern Season. Recently, she also designed wallpaper for a “large home decor company” (she’s sworn to secrecy until it hits the stores later this year).
And, when Smith, who was trained as a Web designer, can squeeze it in, she works on her own art. True to her nature, it involves several mediums and materials. She usually starts with a photograph she’s taken of an animal or a “found pattern,” such as a tangle of tree branches. She paints on and around them with watercolors, then manipulates the outcome in the computer “to make into something wholly different.” Finally, she turns the image into its own repeat pattern.
Smith started snapping photos while still in her teens in the small town of Leesburg, Va., about 35 miles northwest of Washington.
“I was obsessed with photography, always taking pictures of rural environments, like abandoned buildings and rusted machines,” she said. “I was always looking for patterns in everyday objects and in design and fashion.”
She’d walk around Leesburg’s historic downtown dreaming about how to transform vacant buildings.
“I’d imagine what kind of store I would put in each one. I’d have my design studio, things for sale, maybe coffee and tea. I didn’t know how I would fit all the pieces into one thing. I always thought I had to limit myself. Later I realized I’m the kind of person who is better when doing a lot of things, and they all fit into one bubble.”
Opening Gather in downtown Cary felt like her youthful dream realized, she said.
“It’s funny, but downtown Cary reminds me of Leesburg – sleepy, with historic buildings. It also needs revitalization.”
Along with carrying local and other hand-crafted wares, including her own, Smith rents out private office space, runs a cafe and lends a hand to artistic entrepreneurs by offering moderately priced classes, such as photography workshops and Facebook primers for small businesses.
“In all my work, I try to do what makes me feel most fulfilled and allows me to benefit the community as much as possible.”
She acknowledges that Cary is an unlikely locale for her brick-and-mortar presence.
“My demographic is in Raleigh and Durham – young, hip, into local. But Cary is super central, and I’ve found it has the most ethnic and political diversity. People who seek out Gather – and they are seeking it out – say, ‘I didn’t even know Cary had a downtown.’ I’m invested in changing that.”