It's hard not to be inspired by the artists and makers of the Cleveland Flea. Brilliant, talented, creative. They're tough as bleepin' nails on their ways to making their dreams come true. We began The Maker Series to take a look — behind the scenes, beyond the booth — to see what drives our makers to do what they love and love what they do.
Q + A with April Bleakney of APE MADE
Bold, honest, and rooted in hometown pride, APE MADE merch is for the tried and true midwesterner. So it's no surprise that creator April Bleakney wears her rust belt heart on her sleeve. The likelihood of catching her in a tee or tank printed by someone else is pretty slim, and for good reason: she believes in what she makes. It also doesn't hurt that her products are top notch! Chances are pretty high that if you already own APE MADE merch, whether you know it or not. Learn a little bit about how this one-woman show has infiltrated homes across Cleveland in our Maker Series interview below.
Cleveland Flea: What was your path to beginning your business?
April Bleakney: I'll try to give you the short version: I graduated KSU with a BFA in Fine Art (Printmaking) and a BA in History in 2008, with the recession in full swing. After working many, many jobs with very low pay and some with horrible working conditions, I decided to take the plunge into running my business full time. I had been screen printing shirts on the side, with leftover art supplies from college, the initial designs I just made for myself. It developed organically from there - posted a photo on Facebook, people wanting shirts for themselves. I had nothing to lose, and no savings but I figured I could scrape by doing something I loved the same way I had been scraping by with all these crappy jobs, except I'd be doing my own thing, and I wouldn't hate my life. And if it didn't work out, what did I really have to lose?
CF: Why do you love what you do?
AB: I've been creative since I was a kid, I love that I get to make things every day. My own things. Not answering to anyone else is a major perk for me personally.
CF: Why does Cleveland need a business like this?
AB: There are countless Cleveland t-shirt companies in this city. I like to think APE MADE is unique in that we offer more in our line than just t-shirts, we keep the craft alive by hand screen printing all of our products and teach classes to spread that knowledge, and strive to remain an active and positive force in our community.
CF: Why is Cleveland a great place to launch and run a creative business?
AB: AFFORDABILITY! You can actually make it work in this city, due to it's affordability. Even when you're just one in a sea of Cleveland t-shirt companies. :) I've found the creative community to be extremely supportive here, as well as the loyalty of many of our long time customers. Cleveland loving Cleveland.
CF: What's the best part of running your own business?
AB: Not having to answer to the man.
CF: What's your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?
AB: Turning it off. Separation of work and life.
CF: What are your goals for the business this year?
AB: Transitioning to a new studio space successfully and getting my new website up and running. After that, I'd love to work on more community outreach and focus on commissioned artwork.
CF: Did you see yourself growing up to be a creative vendor?
AB: Honestly, no. I was always creative and leaning towards the arts, but the conversation on how to become a working artist/creative was never there. Even while attending college for art, the question was "so what job will you do with that degree", implying it would NOT be an art job. I thank the recession for forcing me to change my views.
CF: What's the first big moment where you knew you were headed in the right direction with your business?
AB: Feeling pretty nervous after officially going full-time with the business, at my first show just days after I received my vendor's license, I won a "best in show" cash prize - that I REALLY needed with my brokeness, and I'm sure my confidence needed as well. There have been many windfalls along the way that encourage me when I am feeling insecure about my path.
CF: Who inspires you?
AB: All the hard working DIY-ers out there. Cleveland is full of them.
CF: Have you learned anything about your business by participating in Cleveland Flea?
AB: My favorite thing about the Flea is meeting the other vendors. On a smaller scale, I had met many other vendor friends at events, but having a monthly community of many full-time makers is special.
CF: What's your favorite piece of advice as it relates to your business?
AB: Doing the work is key. I don't think there are any quick shortcuts to success.
CF: How would you hope to hear your business described by your dream customers?
AB: Super cool gear by a cool human.
CF: What's one thing people would be surprised to learn about your business?
AB: We actually print every single item by hand. Like, with my arms. :)
CF: What's your favorite booth at the flea?
AB: Too many to choose just one. Seriously.