The Heights

Last of the craft: The twilight of Summer Avenue's artisan culture

From beer to fashion to home furnishings, the U.S. has a growing affinity for handcrafted, locally made goods produced by skilled artisans. Industry leader Etsy has reported steady growth since 2012 and $441.2 million in revenue in 2017.

With increased demand comes a growing need for craftspeople, but after decades of favoring computer technologies and four year university degrees over hands-on technical skills, many industries like welding and stained glass are suffering a serious lack of interest.

Since the 1890s, Summer Avenue has been a place for handmade goods and mom-and-pop businesses. Documents from the 1920s show furniture makers, machinists, bakers and more, and the same types of businesses can still be found today.

Summer's makers and fabricators are proud to be keeping craft culture alive, but they say their numbers are dwindling without young people to replace aging customers and artisans. They want to see a revival in their crafts and are willing to teach, mentor and provide critical hands-on professional development, but they struggle to connect to younger artisans and some fear its too little too late.

DJ’s CUSTOM Welding and Design

Dwayne "DJ" Johnson discusses his craft outside of DJ's Welding and Custom Design at 2992 Summer Avenue. (ZIggy Mack)

Dewayne “DJ” Johnson grew up in Binghampton in the 1970s. His aunt owned a restaurant at the corner of Scott Street and Broad Avenue, and his uncle owned a welding shop a few blocks away. Johnson said he’s lucky to have family who invested time and energy into his formal education alongside informal apprenticeships in the family businesses.

“The schools can only take you so far,” said Johnson. “You have to have an individual who’s willing to actually help you be the person you’re trying to be, to give you a helping hand to boost your strengths.”

Johnson spent 20 years saving for his own shop, and in 2007, DJ’s Custom Welding and Design opened at 2992 Summer Avenue on the border between Binghampton and The Heights.

Much of the business is residential and commercial wrought iron work like banisters, fences, and window guards, but Johnson also does stainless steel repair and builds barbecue grills from upcycled drum barrels and hot water heaters. It’s primarily a one-man operation, but he sometimes gets help from another 40-year veteran of the trade.

“I beat everybody else on price because I’m manufacturing the grills myself,” he said. “I know I’m in that particular neighborhood so I try to keep the prices down to accommodate the people in the neighborhood.”

Related: "Welding served with hot tamales at DJ's on Summer Avenue"

Johnson also wants to give back to his community by developing young welders.

“It’s a beautiful thing to have these craftsmen in the neighborhood who do several different things,” said Johnson. “But what would make it even better, if all of these craftsmen [here] had a way to share it with all of these youngsters who are coming up.”

He’s begun contacting welding programs at area schools like Moore Tech and his alma mater, Tennessee Tech, to offer mentoring and apprenticeships.

“I’d like to set up a marketing team and utilize the young start building these barrel grills and start shipping them all over the United States,” he said.

Welding, said Johnson, is a dying art but not a dying need. Much of the craft can’t be automated or outsourced, and the American Welding Society estimates a 290,000-person deficit in the industry by 2020 because there are too few new welders to replace the aging masters.

Johnson said many people in Binghampton and The Heights need steady, living-wage jobs but don’t realize welding programs are available, cheaper than four year universities, and offer a roughly $40,000 starting salary. That said, most skilled welders learn the subtle lessons of the craft from apprenticeships like the one Johnson’s uncle provided him, which is why he wants to grow his business by teaching others.

“I don’t mind reaching back and helping the community I come from to try to give it back like I’ve gotten it,” said Johnson. “Life is about trying and putting forth that strong effort, but if you don’t see the effort [from] other individuals then you’re willing to give up yourself.”

Arlee’s Ceramic Center

Arlee Applewhite sits surrounded by ceramic tools and the art she's made, both of which she sells at her ceramics center. (Ziggy Mack)

For twenty years, Arlee Applewhite worked for the House of Ceramics on Hollywood Street and learned the craft of ceramic arts. Ceramics  clay products hardened in special ovens called kilns — are one of the oldest human technologies dating back 20,000 years.

“I love to work with my hands. It’s a mind thing, it calms me down. It’s everything,” she said.

At House of Ceramics, Applewhite earned several certifications and attended lectures, classes, and seminars by masters ceramists while learning to run a business.

“Really that’s the important part, the hands on part,” she said.

When the business closed in 2000, Applewhite launched Arlee’s Ceramics Center near its current location at 3221 Summer. The retail space is packed with supplies and finished products — statues, decorative plates, pots and bowls  made by Applewhite’s skillful hands. The back of the shop is home to a studio space with a hardy layer of clay dust on every surface.

“When you make it yourself, you’re in it,” said Applewhite. “When you can put yourself in it and see your piece develop the way you want, it just means a lot to me.”

The shop offers supplies for skilled ceramists, and less experienced makers can sign up for classes or one-on-one lessons. Artisans can bring their work for finishing in the kiln, and people who want a fun day making art can stop by to glaze or paint a piece crafted by Applewhite.

Most customers are local artists, though Arlee’s sells across Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. She also works with nearby Carpenter Art Garden in Binghampton. The nonprofit arts organization brings neighborhood youth to the shop for pizza parties and ceramics lessons.  
“Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve touched any slip or glaze. It’s a totally new thing for them,” said Applewhite. “You let them use their own imagination, and it’s really amazing. You’d be surprised what they can do.”

“I want them to learn it. To leave something I think would do a lot of good,” she continued. “And they love to do it. It’s a lot of fun when they bring them in.”

Classes with young people are especially important because many of Applewhite’s best customers are aging and new interest in waning. Applewhite herself had a stroke this year that forced her to par down services and hours. She expects to be well enough to resume normal business in January and plans to focus on classes to inspire a new customer base.

“I just think more people need to get back into it,” said Applewhite. “I would love to see older people and younger people getting involved in it and bringing it back to life.”

She feels the same about Summer Avenue between Holmes Street and East Parkway.

“There’s a lot of folks [to the East] on Summer, but down on the end that I’m on, it’s kind of scarce,” she said. “There’s a lot of empty buildings and I would love to see them revived, redo them, get new business in….I would like to see that come back to life.”

Laukhuff Stained Glass

Stained glass peacocks adorn the living room of Graceland. Replicas are available for sale, but Laukhuff created the original. (Laukhuff Stained Glass)
Laukhuff Stained Glass is the oldest continuously operating stained glass business in the Mid-South. Stained glass itself is an artform dating back to the 7th century. Laukhuff opened in the 1950s, and according to owner Barbara Raby, it was the largest stained glass fabricator in the region and one of the largest in the country during its heyday from the 1970s to early 2000s. Clients included individuals, residential and commerical builders, and churches from as far away as Florida and Louisiana. Rhodes College has been a long-standing customer, and Elvis’ Graceland living room sports a stunning set of stained glass peacocks crafted at Laukhuff.

World-renown Vogue photographer Jack Robinson worked as an artists for Laukhuff for more than two decades and Raby still has many of his original stained glass designs.

“It was a well known studio, known by its name. We never had to advertise or anything because people knew about it,” said Raby.
St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Jackson. Tenn commissioned four stained glass panels from Laukhuff. These two dedicate the apostles Matthew and Mark. (Laukhuff Stained Glass)
Raby’s husband, Jack, purchased the business from Mickey Laukhuff in 1986, but Barbara became sole proprietor in 1988 when Jack passed away. The business moved to Summer Avenue in the 1990s and thrived until the 2008 economic recession. Post-recession, stained glass fell out of favor with architects and builders which lead to a further decline in business.

“When I first started, the builders in Memphis were putting stained glass into every house they built,” said Raby. “They quit doing that.”

Today Laukhuff has gone from 13 craftspeople to one. Once known for its bold original designs, it now focuses solely on restorations for area churches. Raby said the business is stable but stagnant. She does feel there’s been a resurgence of interest in the last few years, but the company now faces a new problem  a lack of skilled artisans.

“We can’t find the artists to do the smaller projects around town,” said Raby. “We could very well [rebound], if I had the employees. But it would be like me starting over again. It would be very hard. I’m older now, [thirty] years older than when we first started,” said Raby.

Now in her eights, Raby can only work two days a week in the office while her son helps out part-time around the shop and master glass worker Terry Greene completes the restorations.

She said she’s seen the decline in craftspeople on Summer Avenue over the years and the rise of Broad Avenue as an alternative for handcrafted spirits and goods, but Summer still holds a special place in her heart.

“Even before I moved [the business], I used to love Summer Avenue,” she said. “You can find anything you want on Summer Avenue. It’s a very interesting street.”

She believes that the art of stained glass, like Summer, has seen heavy disinvestment in past decades but is on an upswing she wants to see continue.

“I hope it will have a revival, I really do...I hope it doesn’t die out,” she said, though she’s less sure of Laukhuff’s future. “I’m hopeful for someone else.”

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
Signup for Email Alerts