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Front Page - Friday, February 15, 2019

River City: Detour to a world of creativity

Local makers leave their mark at Burnette’s eclectic shop

Sweet tea candle by a small company named Jackson Rose, which hand-pours its candles in small batches. The owner moved north and missed home, so she created a line of candles that would “bring a Southern girl home again.” - Photographs by David Laprad

I’m strolling across Miller Plaza on my way to Taqueria Jalisco on an unseasonably warm and sunlit February day. As I near the restaurant, I see the owners have a new neighbor.

Curious, I approach the store, which is nestled in a tiny space between the restaurant and the outdoor stage, and read the logo on the door. “Handmade Here,” it reads. I can already taste the Arroz Con Pollo I’ll be ordering for lunch but am compelled to place my meal on hold and step inside.

As I open the door, a blend of pleasant aromas greets me at the threshold. A glance to my left reveals a collection of unwrapped soaps, which I later learn are contributing lemongrass, lavender and orange spice to the intoxicating cloud that surrounds me.

Three scented candles to the right are adding their own fragrances to the heady mix, though there’s more to them than meets the nose. Instead of being contained in mass-produced glass jars, like one would see at Yankee Candle, the candles have been placed within simple cedar blocks, each of which is adorned with a hand-painted scene.

On one, unseen lips are blowing the seeds off a dandelion. Clearly, Handmade Here is no ordinary curio shop.

A moment later, I discover why. Seated at the far end of the store, behind the counter, is a woman. She’s perched on a tall chair that allows her to hunch over a workbench placed against the back wall, and she’s wearing blue jeans and a comfy-looking bluish plaid shirt that’s riddled with holes.

Like the candle boxes, her coiffure is a singular creation. She’s buzzed her hair short above both ears and woven strands of white yarn into the dark brown ropes that spill out of her crown, as if she likes streaks of gray, but she’s too young to grow any.

Her long, nimble fingers are busy turning pieces of blue paper into a blossom. Upon seeing this, I suddenly notice paper flowers everywhere. On shelves and tables throughout the store, there are large and small arrangements, bridal bouquets and flowers with long stems curving out of teardrop-shaped jars.

Hearing me enter, the proprietor of the shop stands and walks toward me. Her smile is big as she welcomes me.

The woman’s name is Darcee Lee Burnette, and she’s clearly good at first impressions. But she’s also fashioned an alluring space that invites visitors to embark on a journey of exploration. Along the way, they’ll encounter hundreds of charming items made not by machines on an assembly line, but by hands and fingers that turned crude elements into works of art.

I ask Burnette for the grand tour, and she happily obliges.

As we begin, Burnette says Handmade Here sells products made by mostly local artists and creators. For example, Leah Gray-McDade of Everything Essential provided the soaps that greeted me at the door, as well as tub teas, bath salts and other spa-oriented items (all of which are wonderfully aromatic). The name of her business comes from her inclusion of essential oils in each product.

Many of the items sold at Handmade Here feature a twist that sets them apart from similar products. Burnette picks up a bar of McDade’s soap and points out the organic luffa embedded within it. “Did you know luffa is grown?” she asks, seeming just as surprised as me. “I’d always assumed it was synthetic.”

One of the things I already like about Handmade Here is the way it fuses good marketing practices with unexpected product placement. Placing the soaps by the entrance is smart, I muse, and then my eyes are drawn to three unique clocks on the wall above the spa corner.

The clocks are the work of Denise Bizot, who uses a process called plasma cutting to slice through the metals she uses, Burnette tells me. I’m particularly fond of a clock Bizot fashioned out of a Volkswagen hubcap.

“Denise has sold her work to Catherine Zeta-Jones,” Burnette says. “It’s amazing when someone with all the money in the world buys something you’ve made.”

As I look for a broom to sweep up the name Burnette dropped, she guides me past a display of cozy-looking knitted items, including hats, dolls and other finely woven wonders, to a selection of jewelry.

The first thing to catch my eye is several necklaces by Teresea Patton, whose home-based business is called Creations From Autumn’s Closet. Called trees of life, Patton fashioned the bejeweled beauties from a variety of semiprecious stones and wire and then hung each one on a chain, leather or satin cord, depending on what she felt went best with each piece.

Next, Burnette points out the coffee mugs, honey pots and wine goblets made by Marian Heintz, Handmade Here’s resident potter. The pieces are a cross between rustic and finely crafted, and I imagine myself enjoying a spot of chamomile tea in one of the earthy blue and gray mugs.

As Burnette and I stroll through the shop, each step provides an opportunity to discover something new on the well-stocked shelves. From hand-bound journals and hand-painted totes, to coaster sets and handcrafted spoons and spatulas, Handmade Here seems to have something for everyone.

When I notice a bowl of wooden bookmarks, I think about the uncracked books at home waiting for me to find a few quiet hours to read.

Upon seeing the jars of local honey a few feet away, I connect the dots among the mug of tea, the bookmarks and my reading material. Even though Handmade Here is contained within a mere 440 square feet of retail space, one can dive deep.

I ask Burnette if she makes anything other than paper flowers, and she points to a lamp with an empty bottle of Crown Royal serving as the base. She then directs my attention to a varied collection of liquor bottles on a shelf above her workbench. A tall, thin bottle of St. Germain stands out among them.

“I like to repurpose,” she says. “Most glass bottles are thrown out, even though they’re recyclable. I’d rather people give them to me. Some of them are beautifully shaped.”

Burnette also makes what I feel is the most unique item in the store – zipper jewelry. Imagine a sparkling necklace or pair of earrings made not out of diamonds but garden-variety zippers.

In the hands of an artist, the commonplace becomes extraordinary.

It seems a good time to ask Burnette about the magic of handmade goods.

“When something is made by hand, the maker’s heart becomes a part of it as well. They’re giving of themselves in a courageous and honest way,” she says.

“Supporting them through the purchase of their work not only rewards them for that but also allows them to do more work.”

Burnette, a native of Connecticut, has known she’s a “creator” since she was old enough to draw. The entrepreneurial bug also bit her early in life when she started selling her jewelry in local hair salons.

Like many artists and self-starters, Burnette is driven by a desire to do what she loves.

For example, since moving to Chattanooga in 1996, she’s served as a substance abuse counselor at CADAS and worked in education outreach in the nonprofit world.

But even as the thing Burnette loved changed, she never stopped making things or sprouting small businesses.

Burnette’s paper flower trade grew out of a single blossom she made after being inspired by another artist’s work. Her skills grew as she watched tutorial videos and experimented with different techniques and flowers, and then one day, someone asked her to make a bird of paradise, a rare and expensive tropical flower. Burnette didn’t know how, but that didn’t stop her.

“There were no how-to videos, so I looked at a bunch of pictures, started experimenting and made what I feel was a beautiful version of the flower,” she says.

The next thing Burnette knew, she was making paper flowers for weddings and other occasions and selling arrangements to customers with loved ones in ICUs, where live plants aren’t allowed.

The entrepreneurial spirit within Burnette grew stronger over the years. When she saw the empty space next to Taqueria Jalisco, she remembered working in a shop in Connecticut as a teenager, and how the owners had developed relationships with their customers and fostered a sense of community within their store of odds and ends.

Back then, the 15-year-old Burnette knew she would someday own a similar store, and each time the 41-year-old Burnette passed through Miller Plaza, the empty space called to her, telling her it was time.

Finally, in October of last year, Burnette picked up the phone and called River City Co., which owns Miller Plaza. A hectic three weeks later, she opened for business.

Burnette’s vision for Handmade Here has many dimensions. First and foremost, she wants the store to serve as a space to allow artists to sell their work.

“Being seen is hard,” she says. “You have to find a space that’s not expensive. I had a booth at the Chattanooga Market for years, and while it’s an incredible resource, it’s also a lot of work.

“I wanted to create a space where artists could bring their work and not have to unload, sit for eight hours, and then load back up.”

Burnette also wants Handmade Here to serve as a wellspring of community, and believes the relationships that form out of the encounters people have as a result of making, selling and buying handmade items will build something special.

“I want people to have this space in common,” Burnette says. “When someone walks in, I want them to be swept away by the energy, to love that these incredible pieces were made in their community, and to take these things home to their friends.”

Although Burnette has rivers of enthusiasm coursing through her, she knows a few challenges lie ahead. In addition to attracting through her door, she’s still trying to balance the artist and the entrepreneur within her.

“You become an artist because you love what you do. Then, when you’re running a business, you suddenly have to produce a certain amount of art to make a certain amount of money,” she says. “It’s important to stay focused on the creative process as you find a way to make a living.”

Handmade Here will try to make its mark on the Greater Chattanooga community weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. When the weather warms up and there’s more foot traffic downtown, Burnette will likely open the shop on Saturdays as well.

I’m just glad Handmade Here will be open on the days I have Taqueria Jalisco for lunch.

I’m looking forward to stopping in and seeing what’s new. For now, though, there’s a bookmark, a jar of honey and mug with my name on it.