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portland, oregon | Contagious Creativity

February 25, 2020

The creative scene in Portland is something quite exceptional. We’ve spoken to Lindsay, who makes jewelry out of recycled skateboards, the Martinez family, who have been making leatherwear by hand for four generations, and Mike, the fisherman’s son who makes amazing fashion inspired by 70s working clothes. We hope you haven’t been inoculated, because the Portland state of mind is highly contagious!
Text: Jonas Larsson

The Burnside skate park is located just beneath the Burnside bridge. It’s an amazing place; sheltered from the elements, in an incredibly cool setting that looks like a movie set. It’s all very urban, with rough concrete surfaces. Lindsay Jo Holmes and Kenzie Moss are alone among all the concrete this morning; some pools of water have gathered here and there. I politely decline their offer to have a go–it’s been some years since I last stood on a skateboard, and it seems like a terrible idea. Lindsay and Kenzie, on the other hand, ride more or less every day, as they inform me over a cup of coffee at the nearby Cup and Bean. When they’re not riding their boards, they’re sawing other boards into little pieces to make fashion accessories for their brand MapleXO, one of the many creative businesses in Portland.

“We love all things skateboard. The old boards are given new life as jewelry and accessories,” Lindsay explains. We’re standing in her workshop, which is littered with old, discarded skateboards and wheels. She’s worked here for over six years; the workshop is big, and she sublets parts of it to other craftspeople and artists.
“We get the old boards and wheels from a supplier in San Francisco, but we also get leftovers from skateboard manufacturers in Tijuana, Mexico. That’s where most skateboards are made these days,” she informs me. “What kind of wood do they use for the boards?” I ask. “Almost all the wood comes from the Great Lakes area in Michigan, and it’s mostly maple. It’s a hard, durable wood, that’s also pretty flexible. It grows that way in the harsh climate there.” On the floor, there is six feet of concrete curb lying around. “Woah, what do you use that for?” “Well, this might sound a little weird, but when we get tired of working, we get our boards out and ride for a bit, and having a curbside around for that is great.” “Where did you get it? Did you just break it loose in the street and lug it back here?”

Bildtext: Street skating and park skating are two different styles–and street skating is cooler! Burnside combines both styles. It’s skatepark with an attitude, that has grown organically.

“No way! We did stuff like that when we were kids, sure, but now that I’m an adult I can’t exactly be going out stealing sidewalks, ha ha. No, we got in touch with a local concrete business here in Portland, and went there to ask to buy one. They asked us ‘You want one?’. They were a bit surprised –I don’t think too many people buy just one, I guess purchases are more often in the hundreds. But they were OK with it.”

“What’s the going rate for a piece of curb these days?”
“30 dollars.”
“Good deal?”
“Yeah, I reckon.”

Lindsay demonstrates how they glue the boards together, sand them, saw them, and cut the shapes out. It’s a laborious procedure that demands both precision and patience.
“We’re always learning. I don’t know how many earrings the dust extractor swallowed in the first year, before I invented the guard that we’ve added to it now,” she laughs.

“We try to use everything. When we’ve sawn out the circles from the center of the earrings, for example, we use that part for another piece of jewelry.” “We call these skeletons, what’s left over of the boards,” she says, holding up a board that’s full of holes, a bit like swiss cheese. “We try to be smart about it, and throw away as little as possible. I guess I’m a hoarder,” she smiles.

“As a skateboarder, you form a close bond to your board, and to the material. It’s a piece of wood that you spend time with every day. When my boards were on their last legs, I couldn’t just throw them out; they were a part of me. They’re almost like journals with all those dents and scratches you’ve made in them. I hung them on my wall, but there were quite a lot of them after a while, so I began painting on them and sawing pieces out. That’s when I saw these colors that the layers inside have, and I began to make earrings out of little pieces. Back then I worked as a waitress, and a customer saw my earrings and wanted some for herself–and before I knew it, I was running a business that makes jewelry out of skateboards! That was twelve years ago.

“We mostly sell to stores, but we also sell our wares online, and around the big holidays, customers come to our store. My favorite store is Crafty Wonderland in Portland. They started out by organizing a design fair at Dug Fir, the bar and restaurant of the Jupiter Hotel. I signed up to show my earrings, it cost me 20 dollars to participate, and I sold 70 dollars’ worth of jewelry.”
“I was ecstatic: wow, people want what I’m making! It was a big deal for me back then, but that was how it all began. They run a store up in Alberta now, but they still do the fairs. They draw crowds of 15,000 people every time, so they’re doing really well.”

“Have you always been a skateboarder?” “Pretty much, but I guess I got more serious about it when I was about 16. I reckon I’m on my board every day, but I don’t skateboard to work anymore. But you need to keep at it every day, or you’ll soon lose your feel for it.” “I think it’s about 30 years since I rode a skateboard, so I think I’ll give it a pass,” I inform her. “We have a lot of skateparks in Portland, we have some that we call old man’s parks, they’re a little less challenging. You could try there, perhaps?” she smiles.

Lindsay goes on to tell us that they make a bunch of different products, including earrings, beer openers, and candle holders made from old wheels. “If a wheel breaks, you have to replace all four, and that means we get a bunch of nice, new wheels to work on. Tag along and I’ll show you how I drill them out.”

She stands by the drill press and starts drilling into a wheel. As she works, the most amazingly long, beautiful strands of material emerge from the wheels. They look like works of art. She explains that she keeps that material, too, and uses it to weave different stuff. There’s no creativity shortage here, that’s for sure.

We head down to China Town, in the center of Portland, and walk through the front door of Orox Leather Goods. Walking in here makes you feel happy, that’s really all I can say. The scent is wonderful, and the store is packed with leather goods: bags, wallets, belts, and aprons. It’s also packed with members of the Martinez family, because this is a family business in every sense. Martin Martinez, the oldest Martinez brother, greets us with a big smile in the leather workshop, which shares the space with the store. Little brother Levi walks up to say hi, as do José, the father, mother Jackeline, and Jerome, who is an employee. They’re all focusing very intently on their work. “You sure you have time for this?” I ask. “Yeah, yeah, it’s no problem!” Martin responds. “We’re thrilled you want to come and check out what we do!” Martin is a cool character in a black bandana, a true artistic spirit. His brother Levi is the archetypal kid brother: very attentive, lots of fun, and witty.

The Martinez family’s passion for leather is way more than skin deep. Martin, Levi, and Kevin are fourth generation leatherworkers. It all began in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1933, when Don Felipe Martinez Audelo started making baseball gloves and belts for his team in Los Audelos. Don Felipe’s oldest son Pepe eventually took over the family business, and it grew as time went by. Pepe’s tenth son, José, started working for the company at the age of eight, and proved to have a special talent for design and leatherworking. José traveled around a lot, and on one of his trips, he met a couple of Japanese businessmen who liked what they saw. A deal was made, and José packed up his belongings and moved to Japan. He ended up staying there for six years, continuing to improve his skills and his leatherworking. After returning to Mexico, he took a break from the leather business. He had fallen in love with Japanese food, so he and his wife Jackeline opened a sushi restaurant, which they ran for the next eight years.

“I moved to Portland to finish my economics degree, and I met my future wife here, and decided to stay,” Martin tells me. “I felt a desire to further our family tradition, so I called mom and dad and told them ‘you’re closing the sushi restaurant and coming to start a leather business with me in Portland.’ We’ve based the business on all the experience we have, good quality goods, sustainability, and making all the products by hand ourselves.” “That’s very Portland,” I insert. “Yeah, but it also matches well with the way our family has always viewed the craft. Quality and good design. We want the whole animal to be used, so our leather comes from animals that were slaughtered for meat, not just for their skin. But we’re also collaborating with the university here on trying to develop a material based on plant fibers. We want to work a little like Patagonia–they’re very environmental-minded, and they produce their own materials which leave a smaller environmental footprint. We’re trying to move in that same direction.

The atmosphere in here is very relaxed, and you can tell that this family really enjoys working with each other. Jackeline and José are a little on the quiet, humble side, maybe even shy. Their sons are the complete opposite, talking and laughing continuously.
I’m curious to know more about how José spent six years in Japan and then returned home to open a sushi restaurant in Mexico.
“How come you moved to Japan?” “I suppose I’ve always been someone who says ‘yes’ to stuff, and being a curious guy, I thought it sounded exciting.” José commands respect, and he radiates an inner security that makes me a little nervous. I sense that he has so many great stories–I really want to know more! But at the same time, I know that our time is short and that they have a lot to do, so my next question becomes… “Have you ever cut your fingers?”
José flashes me his mild smile, and says, “many times.” He tells me about the design process. He always starts out by making a sketch of a new product by hand. After discussing the design, and refining it, templates are made, and then, production begins, right here, right now, all done by hand. One of the products that catches my eye is the apron that everyone in the family is wearing. It’s called the Tradesman apron, and looks really great. It’s like an updated version of a cobbler’s apron, with a breast pocket for tools. I don’t know what I’d use it for–my cell phone, or pen? Whatever, I totally need one. I also totally need a bunch of their bags and belts. There’s something about a product that was handmade by somebody who is passionate about their work that fills me with such a desire that I feel like I need it whether I really do or not.

As I begin to tell him of my runaway desires, Martin points out that these are products that last a lifetime, or could even be passed on to the next generation. “In Mexico, in my great grandfather’s days, you bought a good pair of shoes, and then you took care of them and mended them, and they lasted a very long time. We still have that mentality, to some extent.

Orox (the name is a fusion of the family’s city of origin in Oaxaca and their current home in Oregon), is highly contemporary, and yet firmly rooted in crafts traditions, which makes them a very typical Portland business. But does Portland shape its craftspeople? Or do ambitious craftspeople with a strong moral compass simply gravitate to Portland? I’m leaning towards putting my money on the latter after speaking to so many craftspeople and entrepreneurs who have moved here.

We say goodbye to the Martinezes, but not before I’ve dragged Levi out to the street to get a great photo of the coolest kid brother I’ve met in a long time.

Cap’n Mike Elias has the classic biker look: handlebar whiskers and long, dark hair. Of course, his Harley is in the workshop when we come inside. Mike, who grew up in South New Jersey, is a self-taught designer and craftsman, who also found himself drawn to the creative atmosphere in Portland. It’s safe to say that Ship John is doing well; the waiting lines are long for the most popular garments, and they’re all made by hand in this old industrial facility in Northeast Portland. The designs are all inspired by western and working clothes from the 60s and 70s.
“I like that era, a lot of people are inspired by the early 20th century right now, but I prefer that time. It was a little more modern, but the quality was still there. I don’t want a lot of extra material in the clothes. I want there to be room to move around, but nothing beyond what’s absolutely necessary.” “How did you start out?” I ask Mike. “13 years ago, I began making bicycle caps and building bicycles for a company called Vanilla Bikes. I made a whole bunch of bicycle bags with leather details, and then I moved on to wallets and other leather products, while also working as a stonemason and barman.”

“This was my first garment,” he tells me, and shows me a work jacket made from waxed cotton. “It’s called the Wills jacket, named after Bob Wills, the country musician. I name most of the products after country legends. I had made bags out of this material before, and when I was working as a stonemason, the wear on my clothes was unbelievable. I thought maybe I could make a jacket out of the same material as those bags, and that’s how I came up with it. It’s incredibly durable, and it’s made out of much thicker waxed cotton than other jackets.”
“I do my own design work, but I’m not a pattern designer, so I had a friend of mine, Steven Heard, help out with that, and now, we’re partners in the business. The inspiration for the clothes comes either from good quality vintage clothing that you can’t get new, or from some need or other that makes me think of a design.”
“I make sketches, and I show them to Steven, asking ‘can we make something out of this?’ He usually answers, ‘let’s put something together and see how it comes out.’ It works incredibly well. Steven has worked as a pattern designer for 30 years, so he knows what will work and what won’t.

The brand name Ship John comes from a lighthouse in Delaware Bay, where Mike used to work on his father’s fishing boat when he was younger. “I always looked up at that lighthouse and thought how beautiful it was. It’s tattooed on my arm, to remind me of my home. So, when I was changing the name of the business, it just popped into my head, and I thought it sounded good.”

Everything is made in this rather small workshop, and then sold straight to consumers, either in the store or through the online store. It’s fascinating to witness this polar opposite of the consumerist ethos of most stores, which are all about selling as much as possible, quality be damned. These craftspeople make stuff that could last for generations.

Mike tells me he’s doing a collaboration with his old friends at Vanilla Bikes. Bags, handles, and other leather details. It’s very interesting that it seems that no matter who we meet, they have other good craftspeople to recommend us, or some interesting collaboration or other to tell us about. That seems to play a significant part in the success of small and medium-sized crafts businesses in Portland. Which is cool. “I’m going to give you the Grand Tour!” Mike laughs as he shows us around the workshop.

I’m truly inspired; the old machines and tools are so gorgeous! Again, the old stuff works, because it’s good quality. “Here’s my favorite knife–I use it every day for my leatherworking. It’s important to have good tools. I love this knife so much I even had it tattooed onto my arm!” Mike is definitely someone who forms close bonds to the things he loves. Everything is hung up in its right place. The workshop is very neat.

Of course, the materials he uses are top quality. We give a few rolls of denim a feel. “This is from White Oak Mills in the US. They were the last real denim weavers, but sadly, they closed down. I buy a lot from Japan, simply because they make the best denim.

Inside the front door, in just a few square feet, Ship John operates its only physical store. They stock their own jeans, and products from some selected suppliers. Among these is Wesco, who make every biker’s favorite boots in a small town called Scappoose, which is to the north of Portland. Of course, Ship John and Wesco have a collaboration going. This is Portland, after all. I try on a leather jacket that is absolutely divine, but I realize that I’ll need to make some more money first, and I’d kind of need to have a motorbike to be able to pull it off.

Portland is a little like one of those Russian dolls: the more you discover, the more stuff appears. For each creative entrepreneur we meet, we are recommended at least two more. They all support each other, and it seems to work! Good job, Portland!

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