The Hands of an Artisan - The Bend Magazine

The Hands of an Artisan

Handmade and heartfelt, each of these makers proves that the life of an artisan is a universal calling to create.

By: Kirby Tello   Photography By: Lillian Reitz

The ultimate expression of love and gratitude comes in the form of something given from the heart. Similarly, expressions from the heart often result in a handmade token of appreciation. To think of hands as the tools with which a gift is made is special. With the work of these hands – two palms, ten fingers, love lines, wrinkled knuckles, hardened nail beds, and cracked cuticles – a vibe, a frequency of connection and appreciation, can be shared. In the spirit of togetherness, four local artisans opened up their most intimate workspaces to invite all of us to bear witness to their creative process. Handmade and heartfelt, each of these makers proves that the life of an artisan is a universal calling to create.

Creators of Custom Handmade Art Tiles

An iconic fixture in the nucleus of downtown, Aloe Tile sits unassumingly steps away from the Bayfront. Its humble exterior hardly suggests there is something mystical happening behind its doors, and until you’re invited in, you can never truly know the magic that is Aloe Tile. Beyond the clay, there is a palpable vibrancy permeating all of the work, their artisan employees, and most notably owners Ed and Cornelia Gates.
And then there’s Miss Loretta. She saunters around the workshop unapologetically. It is her domain, after all. Even with new visitors entering her space, she is both welcoming and unbothered. We immediately dubbed her “shop kitty.” She, too, has the Aloe vibe – cool, calm, cerebral.

For more than 20 years, Ed and Cornelia have subscribed to a way of life that is aligned with the clay they create. “Clay is a slow process,” says Ed, “and the South Texas humidity is our ally. It keeps things from progressing too quickly.” Luckily, the Coastal Bend is fertile ground for a laid-back approach to living, but there is something unique about the way the Gateses create. All of their clay is mixed in-house and by hand. This is not the typical process for a large majority of ceramicists. More often than not, artisans will procure ready-made clay, which is already in a state primed for manipulation. “Our clay is not pre-mixed,” says Cornelia. “We mix our own clay from an old recipe. All of our clay has the red color due to the iron oxide.”

On the back patio, there are four steel tubs, two of which are already filled with processed clay that has been left to cure in the sunlight. We are shown the clay in this stage as a precursor for the work we are about to not only witness but experience hands-on. The rust-colored mixture is both buoyant and dense, loose with a hint of solidity. The Gateses encourage us to put our hands in and feel. In doing so, a euphoric and cathartic buzz trills through us – connection with the earth, cultivated.

The two remaining steel tubs are empty and awaiting their turn to be put to use. Going into this conversation, the Gateses advised our team to wear “something light” because their warehouse is without A/C. We did not know, however, that we would have the privilege of literally getting our hands dirty while experiencing their creative process. “So who wants to mix some clay?” Ed asks. “We are going to need two of you.” Cornelia grabs extra aprons and before we know it, editorial director Kylie Cooper and art director Jarred Schuetze are suiting up, preparing for battle. And for the following hour of our time together, the Gateses offer a step-by-step rendition of how clay is made.

“Each type of clay is different,” says Cornelia. The raw ingredients come from all over the nation – Ohio, Florida, Georgia – and with water and a lot of science, Aloe Tile makes the creation of their clay proprietary.

“It always changes,” says Ed. “Clay evolves, and so we evolve with it so we don’t get stuck in a rut.” Paying attention to the nuances of clay and its ever-changing elements is something of a symphonic process for Ed. “Clay is like a musical instrument. We think of our operation as a band where there is a synergistic experience with every element working together.”

Frankly, the intricacies of an orchestra playing some elaborate symphony are daunting. But there is a certain simplicity that the Gateses offer to allow for the clay to speak for itself. And while the clay is obviously the star of the show, Aloe Tile honors it in a way that breathes life into its form.
“If you open yourself up to a certain frequency, the clay will respond,” explains Ed.

Aloe Tile works with just three types of glazes. They have a certain style and process that is unique to them, and they are still able to offer commissioned pieces to numerous nonprofits around the city, and to countless businesses seeking one-of-a-kind mementoes for a variety of occasions. Cornelia said that even with commissioned pieces, she and Ed have lengthy consultations with their clients to understand exactly what they want. Part of being an artisan is staying true to the craft, but also making sure each client receives a piece they can cherish forever, she explained.

In addition to their individual clientele, Aloe Tile works with designers and architects on various projects in the community. If you have ever walked around Water Street Market, you have been witness to one of the longest-standing Aloe Tile creations in Corpus. The South Texas Music Walk of Fame features Aloe Tile handmade stars that adorn the walkway from Water Street to Executive Surf Club, honoring musicians born between San Antonio and the southern tip of the Lone Star State.

In the nooks and crannies of the Aloe Tile workshop, there are countless custom stencils they have made throughout the years. Many of these stencils are a product of signage for local schools and businesses who loyally rely on Aloe Tile for things all the way from branding to seasonal, annual gifts.

The entire Aloe-stratosphere is brimming with the vibrancy and excitement of innovation, coupled with an overwhelming sense of ease. When asked what their secret to serenity is, Ed explained that the process of making clay is “kind of like Cornelia and me – evolving, aging.” Even the building itself is alive, he says. As artisans, makers, and innovators, the Gateses feel liberated from the confines of traditional art. “We can just create,” concludes Cornelia.

And speaking of the influence of Aloe Tile’s creative frequency, four young professionals in publishing walked away from the unassuming little workshop by the bay with renewed sense of purpose and vigor to let their creative dreams run free.


Creator of Custom Hand-Shaped Surfboards

Corpus Christi is home to a thriving surf community. Over the years, the coast has produced a solid cadre of photographers, artists, independent surf shops, and a dozen or so one-of-a-kind board builders. Being a town on the water provides an outlet for artistic expression for many different types of creators – one of whom is the highly respected Jeff Pollack, owner and artisan of Spindrift Surfboards.

Pollack’s street cred – or “surf” cred, rather – reverberates throughout the surfing community. Though not originally from the Coastal Bend, he has certainly made his mark here and continues to see his work live on. 

Back in the early 2000s, Pollack’s interest in riding boards that bucked the current trends made him realize that what was on the shelves in local shops wasn’t what he was looking for. Like most entrepreneurs discover early on, the driving force behind going into business was his needs not being met with what was already offered in the marketplace. Residing on the coast of South Carolina at the time, Pollack lived within striking distance of a pro caliber board factory. (What are the odds?) He later had another stroke of luck when he was able to convince the owner of said shop to sell him a board in its raw form and walked away with a few tips, too.

“My first shape was an abomination,” Pollack says, shaking his head with a laugh, “but it turns out, guys come out of the woodwork when they hear you’re making boards at cost, so I managed to get a few dozen boards under my belt pretty quickly.”

This is when Pollack found his tipping point. The entire surfboard industry had a collective opinion that the board designs of the ’90s were unimaginative and offered limited variety. Surfers wanted more fun and unique designs with a modern edge. In some ways, Pollack said, this newfound interest in higher volume and playful designs influenced him. “I ended up shaping fish and single-fins for a couple of the local shops for four years before following my (now) wife and our Chesapeake Bay Retriever to South Texas,” he explains.

Pollack takes our team to his shaping bay, a room in his garage that he painted blue and transformed into his workspace. There is a layer of dust covering the space – a sure sign of a shaper hard at work. As we begin to take photos of Pollack in his element, he grabs a piece of what seems to be sandpaper and gets to work. His motions are effortless and smooth, a dance he’s practiced time and time again. It’s rather satisfying to watch. 

Simplicity in well-executed designs is the core aesthetic of Spindrift Surfboards. Using phrases like “graceful trim,” “fluid transitions,” and “elevated execution,” Pollack said he is still enamored with the artistic heft in uncomplicated forms. But outside of the tangible brilliance of each individual board, the true charm of Spindrift Surfboards is Pollack’s belief and excitement in “almost anything that is small batch and handmade … basically creative niches that are impactful not because of their scale, but because of their singularity and authenticity.”

And the possibilities in this regard are essentially endless. As board designs continue to change and evolve, it is in these periods of transition that the possibilities of innovative surfboard design are truly revealed. “I think the holy grail of hand shaping surfboards is to reach that ultimate economy of motion where no movement is wasted; where the physical process becomes almost a meditative act because your body has been through each step so many times,” says Pollack.
At the core of this artisanal flow, however, is fostering community. His circle has grown so much through shaping boards, which has connected him to people with whom he may have otherwise never crossed paths. “So many of my sharpest memories and closest relationships revolve around the ocean and surfing,” offers Pollack. The instant and powerful connection that the act of building a custom board allows is very personal – nearly all of his customers become friends.

For someone who is spoken about so highly and draws such an immense amount of respect within the surfing community, Pollack is refreshingly aligned with that certain universal flow of energy that one achieves from chanting “ohm.” To learn that he also has a fast-paced, intense daytime job in addition to running Spindrift Surfboards is #lifegoals.

I asked Pollack to talk about his views on his legacy and what he sees for his craft moving forward. I got the sense that he was intrigued by this question. As it turns out, Pollack’s outlook on legacy is multi-dimensional. “Ultimately, I hope I’m able to help people find the experience they’re searching for in the ocean, to find some moments of pure joy, which I think is what riding waves is all about,” he says. 

Gone are the days of grappling with the idea of growing the business into a larger-scale operation. Instead, he has come to relish the boutique, artisanal scale at which he operates. “I think I get more fulfillment out of shaping [boards] now that everything I do is custom,” Pollack says. Therefore, you won’t find any shelves stocked with Spindrift boards in local shops. But the good news is that when you get a handmade, custom board from Pollack, you can bet on getting a new friend, too.

In small business, especially the small batch and handmade craft, legacy spans from business goals to personal goals to community goals, but arguably most importantly, family goals. “The familial dimension is one of the truly unexpected but most amazing parts of the story for me,” says Pollack. “I love that I can hear my kids in the back yard when I’m in my shaping bay. I love that they wander in and ask questions about the process. My daughter has started helping me paint boards, and we upcycle foam scraps into art projects and make jewelry with colored surfboard resin. I would love for these experiences to someday lead my kids to make things with their hands, surfboards or otherwise.”


Creator of Vegan Cruelty-Free Makeup

When Rochelle started her journey in entrepreneurship, she used her graphic design background to play around with fun logo designs whose purpose was to provide examples for her portfolio. In this creative whirl back in 2018, she made a logo for a fictional beauty brand, calling it Lemonade Stand Cosmetics. Rochelle and her husband/fearless supporter, Marcus, felt this idea could be something more, and the brilliance in that design jumped off the screen and into Rochelle’s business consciousness, only to reemerge in 2020 and become the brand image for her all-natural, vegan beauty company.

Rochelle is no stranger to branding. She has built her professional portfolio on designing creative identities for various businesses. Gifted to the Coastal Bend by way of Fort Worth, Rochelle and her family decided on Corpus for their next chapter in order to be close to extended family and cultivate new experiences.

The change of scenery was a catalyst for Rochelle to give Lemonade Stand Cosmetics the attention it needed in order to become a full-fledged business. Out of a need for products that could not be found on store shelves at the time, she began to mix formulas for beauty products such as lip balms that contained strictly all-natural, vegan elements. Rochelle was strategic in selecting which ingredients would make the cut.

“Most of the line has shea butter, aloe, and coconut oil,” she explains. These are the foundational ingredients for nearly 75 percent of her product line. The remaining 25 percent of the lineup is made in part by working with different market partners to bring the products to scale. Rochelle explained that her lipsticks, for example, are produced with the help of specially sourced manufacturers. This is one of the most delicate products, requiring much more time to create than any other cosmetic category in the lineup. But fear not, Lemonade Stand Cosmetics will never deviate from its commitment to fully vegan and cruelty-free production processes.

“I try not to use anything that isn’t necessary in the making of each product,” says Rochelle, “and in doing so, the quality of the end result is better than items you’ll find made with animal by-product.”

But it isn’t just her organic recipes that make us as giddy as a teenager fawning over their first crush. The branding of the product line is to die for. Adorned with bright pink linens, a bowl of vibrant, fresh lemons, and an actual miniature picket-fenced lemonade stand that houses lip balms, the studio space has an innate sunny disposition that is infectious. She brings the OG lemonade stand from our childhood dreams to life and then some. 

“My inspiration comes from my own needs,” explains Rochelle, “I make the things I want to wear.” While inspiration for the line also comes from her natural love of makeup from a young age, her mission is to empower anyone who wears her brand to use makeup as a tool to enhance natural beauty. It is all about self-love.

Since launching in June 2020 (you read that right – just five months ago!) Lemonade Stand Cosmetics has been graced with a steady flow of online sales. COVID-19, Rochelle said, has been a pivotal point in her business. As graphic design opportunities became less reliable, and with her husband’s solid faith in her ability to see this venture through successfully, the duo decided to go all in and work on Lemonade Stand full-time.

Eventually, the plan is to create a mobile studio space similar to a food truck operation. When it is safe to explore such opportunities, Rochelle is ready with a list of awe-inspiring branding ideas and new products for her clients. As for now, there is no slowing down on trekking ahead with the business virtually.

Which, in a big sense, is where Rochelle shines on a wider platform. Behind the screen, she is peppy, energetic, and sweet as can be. I can attest to this from my endless threads of emails back and forth with her, which started as interview logistics and quickly turned into what I call “warm and fuzzies,” which is my way of showing my love and appreciation for really dynamic concepts and individuals like Rochelle. In person, Rochelle has an unassuming confidence and a warm, hospitable demeanor. She is subtle in her explanation of her processes to the point that Marcus, husband/partner, chimes in to make sure her undeniable talent as an artisan and businesswoman doesn’t go unnoticed. Having had the privilege to meet many amazing female powerhouses through my work with The Bend, I can easily spot a fierce femme – especially when she leads with humility. That’s Rochelle.

Although Lemonade Stand Cosmetics is still in its infancy, the momentum driven by online sales has Rochelle already creating her next product line and preparing for a late 2020, early 2021 launch date. So, keep your eyes out for each of these delectable beauty nuggets of self-love.


Creator of Handcrafted Leather Goods

Vinny, the owner of Rusty Nail Leather, is no stranger to love at first sight. He was the lucky recipient of such an encounter about a year ago while attending a local pop-up market where he met his leading lady, Amanda. She was a vendor at the market selling her uber-successful earring line, Phat Knits. Not only were they taken by each other (and have pretty much been together every day since they met), Vinny was inspired by Amanda’s tenacity and drive behind building her business. His immediate thought was how great it would be to include some products for men, and how nicely a leather component would complement Phat Knits’ designs.

While Amanda loved this idea, she was the encouraging force behind convincing Vinny to take his ideas for leather products and start his own brand. Leather is one of those timeless things that feels both new and nostalgic at the same time. “A good leather wallet lasts a long time,” says Vinny. And he wanted to build something that his customer would find of great value and an ode to tradition.

The textiles that Vinny works with, he explained, all have their own unique qualities. Choosing different types of leather is akin to building a relationship with it, understanding its makeup to give it the care it deserves in order to promote its transformation into a wallet or a custom belt that is built to last a lifetime. “All of the leather I use is chemical-free, biodegradable, and environmentally-friendly. It’s all natural,” says Vinny. Elements such as tree bark, sap, honey, and whiskey-barrel aging enhance the vegetable-tanned leather that can be found in Rusty Nail Leather products. 

A lot of in-depth research has gone into sourcing quality leather. Vinny uses local manufacturer Tandy Leather, as he appreciates that – it being a local business – he knows the different aspects of the leather’s origins. This is part of his process of being able to remain purposeful in the materials that are chosen so that the leather can be given the honor it deserves. “What can I do to minimize my footprint on the earth and what can I contribute?” he asks. Rusty Nail Leather is not just a small local business. Rather, it is a way of life, a constant ebb and flow of the earth’s waves of energy, and responding in ways that make our community a more deliberate, impact-conscious place to be.

Prior to starting this business in March of this year, Vinny’s work life was a constant drain on his creativity. Shortly after Rusty Nail Leather launched and the pandemic began to grow as a threat, Vinny took the big leap into artisanship and became a small business owner full-time. Now, instead of his creativity being perpetually suppressed, the sky’s the limit in terms of ideas he can explore with leather. 

And it is not just his ideas that drive innovation in the making process. He does quite a bit of commission work in which the client has the opportunity to brainstorm with him. Through these meetings of the minds, new ideas and aspects of creativity that hadn’t yet been tapped into start to emerge. “I just got done making a custom tool belt for a scaffold worker,” says Vinny. And while one may have an idea of how a traditional tool belt looks, the unique part of this commission was the tiny nuances that were woven into the design that were specific to working on elevated machinery and high-risk job sites.

To that point, Vinny explained how he is able to draw inspiration from just about everything around him. Everything is art and everything has a purpose. “I always have a journal with me,” he says – a place to jot down ideas and sketches while he’s on the go.

Starting Rusty Nail Leather proved to Vinny that he wanted to be a full-time leather maker. In a sense, this coming into his own was part of him knowing his self-worth and seeing a bigger, truer life experience for himself. Having a partner who is always pushing him, he said, is validation and motivation too. “Amanda has pushed me to become more social media savvy,” says Vinny. He is a self-proclaimed “laid back dude” and doesn’t naturally gravitate towards social media, even for personal usage. But for the purpose of building the brand and getting more involved in the community of makers, he has embraced social media and continues to grow his presence digitally.

No matter how integrated the business gets on the web, Vinny stands by his unfussed way of life by remembering to slow down and focus on what’s in front of him. “We’ve started to do a 24-hour shutdown – no screens – to relax, eat good food, and connect with the outdoors,” he says. The intentionality of remaining grounded can be seen in all facets of Vinny’s world. It is what makes Rusty Nail Leather a brand you want to invite into your home – your life – and allow its glory to march on endlessly for generations to come.