2015 IW Winners

Thunder Bay | Business of the Year

Fireweed Crafts - Kerrie Atkinson, Cathy MacDonald, Marie Clarke

Fireweed Crafts - Kerrie Atkinson, Cathy MacDonald, Marie Clarke

Marked by its gaily painted exterior, Fireweed Crafts is widely regarded in Thunder Bay as the go-to place to find quality locally and regionally made handmade gifts and crafts.

Founded more than 30 years ago by a group of local artists, the store is a fixture in the Bay and Algoma Neighbourhood, a business district noted for its rich street scene of festivals and eclectic mix of coffee houses, pubs and restaurants.

With as many as 200 artists represented from Thunder Bay, northwestern Ontario and across Canada, the small Algoma Street shop is crammed front to back with a wide selection of canvass and paper artwork, jewellery, pottery, photography, stained glass, metal art and other decorative items.

“We have branched out because there’s so much great stuff out there,” said Kerrie Atkinson, a local potter and one of Fireweed’s co-founders.

Fireweed began in 1984 as a collective of a halfdozen local artists including the remaining three members – Kerrie Atkinson, Cathy MacDonald and Marie Clarke – who saw the need for a gallery for local artists to showcase their work.

Back then, Atkinson remembers, it was difficult for home-based studio artists to find reputable places in Thunder Bay to display their work and receive fair remuneration.

“It was really hard to collect the money when you sold something.”

With staff working for a reduced consignment rate, Atkinson said Fireweed ensures local artists receive consistent remuneration in a monthly basis.

“That was a priority when we started, that people would get paid on a regular basis and we would keep track of what sold and what didn’t.”

The store refrains from charging rent for wall or shelf display space, said Atkinson.

“The artist doesn’t pay us anything until we sell a piece.”

As a cornerstone member of the Bay and Algoma Business Association, the owners of Fireweed Crafts have led the transformation of the neighbourhood and its buildings into a unique shopping district.

Other like-minded entrepreneurs have moved in nearby and converted oncevacant buildings into thriving retail outlets and eateries to compliment the arts, culture and entertainment scene in Thunder Bay’s north core.

Atkinson, who serves as the business association treasurer, said shop owners like themselves have successfully lobbied the city for streetscaping improvements with new planters, sidewalks, benches and bike racks. Other beautification efforts they have fundraised and carried out themselves.

It’s provided an attractive backdrop for events like the popular Busker’s Festival in July, which closes off Algoma Street and provides a larger outdoor venue for artisans to display their work.

The shop has been instrumental in promoting Thunder Bay’s rich arts and cultural scene by organizing and participating in events like a city-wide art crawl and a tourism-focussed art map for the city.

Charitable endeavors also rank high among the community-minded owners of Fireweed Crafts; the Drew Drop Inn, a church-run soup kitchen, being one of their favourite fundraising recipients.

But most of all, Atkinson said, the gallery has provided local artists with an outlet to showcase their work and earn a livelihood.

“A couple of potters continually say to me that they wouldn’t be a potter if it weren’t for us.

“This gives people a place they can bring their work throughout the year and have their work on display and available to the public. It really keeps people engaged.” IW

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