Why Duluth's 'craft economy' is booming

Karin Kraemer
Karin Kraemer in her Duluth pottery studio.
Chris Farrell | MPR News

Duluth is best known for its port, its history as an industrial center, and the aerial lift bridge which anchors Canal Park.

Less well-known is its growing “craft economy” scene. Craft beer. Handmade camping gear. Farm-to-table restaurants.

Among these creative businesses is Duluth Pottery, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in West Duluth. MPR News’ senior economics contributor, Chris Farrell, recently met with potter Karin Kraemer in her studio.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: --2. It's Minnesota Now. Duluth is best known for its port, its history as an industrial center, and the Aerial Lift Bridge, which anchors Canal Park. Less well known is its growing craft economy scene-- craft beer, handmade camping gear, farm-to-table restaurants.

Among these creative businesses is Duluth pottery located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in West Duluth. NPR's senior economics contributor Chris Farrell recently met with potter Karin Kraemer in her studio. You go to all the good places. I'm glad you went to Lincoln Park. That's a great area. That stretches from the ore docks up to Skyline Parkway.


CATHY WURZER: Tell us a little bit about-- I knew you would. I knew you would. Tell me about Karin's studio.

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so the building was originally a bank from 1910. And then it had a couple of iterations, but for a long time, Cathy, it was a paint store. And when she bought the building in 2017, it took a major renovation to turn this building into a studio and a shop. For example, she told me they had to remove something like 6,000 gallons of paint, OK? So, now, you wouldn't know that looking at it now. The inside of the building is clean. It's light. It's airy. It's got these high ceilings, large windows, looking out over Superior Street. And as she told me, it's become home to a number of artists.

KARIN KRAEMER: I own the building, and I own the business. I have another potter who works here, who he works for me half time. And he makes his own work whenever he wants. Like a quarter of what we do is wholesale to restaurants and things like that, like the Duluth Grill, and the rest is from selling art.

And we also have two letter press artists in here called the Warrior Printresses. They have three ancient presses in the back that they make things out of, and you can see their work on the walls here. They do custom work, and then they do artwork as well. So there's four of us that are full-time artists in here, and then I also have two young potters that are kind of not apprentices, but beginning a job here, so they can learn and help us with things.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm. See, Chris, what does Karin work in? What kind of style of pottery is she known for?

CHRIS FARRELL: I wish I could sort of draw a picture for you with words, but it's colorful butterflies, bees, and leaves. And she says she gets much of her inspiration for pottery, it's walking around her large garden. And she wants her pottery to be practical, to be used, say, at the kitchen table. So here's how she describes her technique.

KARIN KRAEMER: My work is what you would refer to as maiolica. So like think old Italian maiolica pottery or things from ancient Persia, that lustreware stuff. Moroccan and Spanish wares and delft are the same process. And Mexican pottery is the same process, where you have an earthenware body of some sort, and you put a white glaze on it or a light-colored glaze, and then paint into that with more color. When you fire it the second time, it all becomes one. So it's an opportunity to really decorate the surface.

CATHY WURZER: Mm, I love maiolica. OK, so Lincoln Park, I mentioned. We were talking about West Duluth. It really was kind of always kind of a rough place, I guess, back in the day. And then it kind of had this rebirth. It's kind of cool. And it's rebranded itself as the Lincoln Park Craft District. And there's some really-- of course, I'm more of the east end. So going to the west end for me is always a big deal. So when I go there, you got Bent Paddle Brewing. Let's see, what else? Frost River, it's outdoor canvas bags. It's a really cool area.

CHRIS FARRELL: It is, and the city has provided a lot of support. And the area is still evolving, Cathy. I mean, it's had its ups and downs, like everywhere, but new businesses are slated to open. And here's the part of the story that I really like. And I think that you would, too. Duluth Pottery has been described as a community of artists. They're making a go of it.

And I've interviewed several small business owners in the Lincoln Park area. And what strikes me is how much these small business owners also support one another. And she says that sense of mutual aid, mutual support in the neighborhood is a big factor behind its development.

KARIN KRAEMER: It's been a huge part of being successful. When we all started this crazy idea of having all things made by people here and being locally supported six years ago, we were hoping this would happen, and it happened quicker than we thought. Even with the COVID slowdown, everybody is doing really well. We made a bunch of jobs. Like, it was me, and now we have six people here. The restaurants and the beer places and the cideries employ a lot of people.

CATHY WURZER: So I mentioned back in the day, this was more of an industrial part of town. So what about those businesses?

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, that came up in our conversation because I was curious about this. And she says, the local ecosystem involves a mix of the old and the new.

KARIN KRAEMER: And we do all try to use each other's services. Like, for me, for my business, anything I need is in this neighborhood. Like, my big machine that we rely on every day broke down, and there's a guy down the street that fixed it for me for 200 bucks because his business takes care of the big international and national shipping industry here, a lot of metal stuff. He had the equipment to do that.

So the base was here. This neighborhood had a pretty strong manufacturing base to begin with. And now it's added on things that are more service industry and making art and food and wine and things, all this stuff that people like to come and visit us for.

CATHY WURZER: So it's not easy making a living as an artist. And I imagine that is true as she is a potter.

CHRIS FARRELL: Yes, I think--

CATHY WURZER: What's it like?

CHRIS FARRELL: I think it's the reality is an artist is pursuing a passion. But here's the other thing. The other part of that is artists are running a small business. And like most small businesses, Cathy, artists don't have a human resource department to call on, a helpdesk, a chief financial officer. They have to run their own business. So we always want to talk about the art, but I asked whether she thought artists were entrepreneurs by definition.

KARIN KRAEMER: I mean, if you're going to make a living, you have to be because nobody's going to do it for you. There's representation, but if you do your own promotion and building your brand, I guess if you want to say that, and getting your work out there, you have to be in control of all of that.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. I mean, I know she doesn't have an HR department, but she does need some benefits, right? I mean, what about health insurance and retirement savings?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so like many artists, she gets her health insurance through her spouse-- in her case, her husband. But she has also started a retirement plan.

KARIN KRAEMER: I finally started a retirement plan when I bought this building for myself. So I didn't really have anything before that. And then the building itself is a plan. One day if I rent it out when I retire or sell it, hopefully that'll help our situation.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm, right. She owns an asset. That can be a big difference. You always find the best stories, Chris Farrell.

CHRIS FARRELL: Ah, but it's always fun to tell you about them.

CATHY WURZER: I know. I can hear it in your voice. Thank you. Talk to you later.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thanks a lot.

CATHY WURZER: Chris Farrell is NPR's senior economics--

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