• October 25, 2014

Artisan couple forges ahead

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Posted: Saturday, July 19, 2014 4:30 am

Johannah Willsey’s first mosaic was on a trivet forged by her husband. That first creation — which would lead to a full-time family business — was the beginning of a “collaborative process,” Willsey said.

Whether it’s running their business or home-schooling their two children, Willsey and her husband, Kyle Lucia, work as a team. The artists are the co-owners and founders of Phoenix Handcraft, a Richmond-based studio where Lucia and Willsey create handmade furniture, railings, frames and more.

The two met while working at a framing shop in Charlottesville, Va.

Their love of art and nature brought them together and has been a driving force behind their work.

The name of their business “comes from the idea of rebirth — a rebirth of material,” Willsey said. “We try to use a lot of reclaimed material in our work. We really try to consider the environmental cost of what we do, and that was just in our personal lives. When we started a business, it was the same way.”

Their studio space, in the industrial neighborhood of Scott’s Addition in Richmond, used to be owned by a woodworker.

There are several office spaces, a larger space for Lucia’s metalworking and a studio space for Willsey.

Willsey and Lucia arrived at their crafts through different paths: Lucia started as an apprentice with Charlottesville-based metalsmith Steven Stokes, then completed a bachelor’s program with a focus on furniture-making at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Willsey received a master’s degree in fine art history, but said she learned to create mosaics by reading books and researching and trying new techniques.

“Both of us have a formal art background, but my process may be a bit more specific,” Lucia said. “I’m able to do things with knowledge from training and from my background.”

The process of running a business has been something they both had to learn together.

Practicing their craft has always been the easy part, Willsey said, but they’ve had to learn a completely different set of skills since they opened the studio in 2010.

“We aren’t businesspeople,” Willsey said. “We have really had to learn how to be businesspeople. We’ve had to learn marketing and networking.”

Willsey said Etsy, the online marketplace for artisans and crafters, has been a big help. Although Phoenix Handcraft can be found at occasional craft fairs and marketplaces, Willsey and Lucia said the Web is the biggest driving factor in sales for their work.

The time, money and effort it takes to take part in craft fairs, Lucia said, doesn’t get the same return that it may once have for artisans.

“The old way of doing it is cumbersome,” Lucia said. “I have a sense that the big three-day craft show might be on its way out.”

Another joint venture for Willsey and Lucia?

Raising and home schooling two children, Brody, 7 and Stella, 4.

Lucia spends about five days at week at the studio full-time, while Willsey spends two or three. Their children are “both makers,” Willsey said. “They are artistic, creative little souls. There is a lot of drawing and coloring and painting and Legos.”

The combination of home-schooling and running a business does come with headaches, however.

Willsey said the flexibility of their work means there’s no focusing on only one thing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We are with the kids all the time,” Lucia said. “Most of the time I love that, but it can be draining. Given the opportunity one way or the other, I would pick being with my kids all day.”

As parents and full-time business owners, Willsey and Lucia said time off is rare. But when they aren’t making furniture or mosaics, they hike with their children through Richmond or work in their vegetable garden.

“We took a weekend off and went camping two weeks ago,” Willsey said. “It’s good that we had kids, because they give us a reason to take time off.

“As our company gets older we’ll take more time off. We’re still trying to establish ourselves.”

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