Crystal Pepperdinein in front of merch table
Flint Handmade Executive Director, Crystal Pepperdine. The organization is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.

Photo courtesy of Jenn Alexander of Allora Art and Design

When you think of Flint, Michigan, you probably think of the Flint Water Crisis. Or you might remember the Michael Moore movie Roger and Me about the devastating closure of the General Motors factory in Flint. But longtime Flint resident Crystal Pepperdine is determined to change our impression of her city.

“The water crisis absolutely happened. It’s terrible. There were terrible effects,” she says. “At the same time, there’s still art and beauty and culture and happiness and togetherness and joy in Flint. To completely write off a community because of incidents that the community members had no control over, I think does a disservice to that community.”

To help draw attention to the creativity that’s alive and flourishing in Flint, Pepperdine founded Flint Handmade, a non-profit organization that creates inclusive pop-up art and craft events for local residents. This year Flint Handmade is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

woman in front of handmade apparel
man standing in front of handmade candles
Sellers showing off their handmade products at a Flint Handmade craft show. Left/top: Purl You Crazy, Right/bottom: Olive and Indio.

Falling in love with Flint

Pepperdine arrived in Flint as a child when her mother’s employer, General Motors, transferred her from Chicago to Flint. Although the family lived in a suburb, Crystal says she always wanted to move downtown, and, at 18, she achieved that goal. Two years later, she bought a house in Flint. “I knew that I wanted to be around a more diverse community,” she says. “The suburbs didn’t provide me with enough diversity, culture, and art.” From her current home in Flint, Pepperdine says she is a five-minute drive from a cultural center, a planetarium, a science museum, a library, and a music school.

“It’s amazing the resources that we have in this city for classical arts, she says.

While living in the city in her mid-20s, though, she began to notice a void among the existing cultural offerings in Flint: craft. As a fan of indie craft fairs, one weekend she’d driven to suburban Detroit to attend a show and, there, she’d struck up a conversation with a woman from Flint who had also made the drive. “I was like, okay, no, we can do this in Flint. Flint deserves this.” That conversation was the seed of what would become Flint Handmade.

flint handmade mug
customers shopping at flint handmade market
Left/top: Flint Handmade branded mug. Right/bottom: Shoppers browse The Lilac Exchange booth.

Creating Flint Handmade

At the start Pepperdine partnered with an established local arts organization, Creative Alliance, forming a “crafters team.” Their first event was a holiday craft market in the winter of 2007. It was small but well-attended and “the vibe was awesome.” When it was over, Pepperdine wanted to do it again so she worked to organize another craft market that spring. Within two years it became clear that the team should form their own organization and, in 2009, they branched off into Flint Handmade. In 2011 the organization filed for non-profit status.

For the first nine years, Pepperdine held a day job at a large non-profit and ran Flint Handmade part-time. In 2016 she was able to transition to being the organization’s full-time executive director.

Rather than having its own event space, Flint Handmade activates existing spaces, taking advantage of idling capacity in the city. Events are held at bookstores, cafes, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, breweries, and senior centers.

Running a non-profit arts organization in Flint is, perhaps, the natural trajectory of Pepperdine’s life, although for a time she didn’t realize it. From an early age, Pepperdine was a planner. “When I was a kid, I just was like, okay, I’m going to get to middle school and then to high school, then get to college, and then get my master’s degree, then I’m going to buy a house and then I’m going to be happy,” she says. But once she’d achieved all of those goals by age 23, she found that happiness didn’t come. “I wish that there had been someone to tell me when I was younger that checking off society’s boxes isn’t going to make you happy, most likely,” she says. Instead, she had to figure it out on her own. So she decided to try to pursue something she was passionate about and see if that be the shift she was seeking. What she was really good at was organizing things.

“I like to bring people together and have people show off their talents,” she says. “I have a passion and interest and skill for that.

To combine that with crafting, which was also an interest of mine, was kind of like the best of both worlds.” As it turns out, her formal education was also perfectly suited for this new endeavor. Pepperdine’s undergraduate degrees are in sociology and women and gender studies, and her master’s is in public administration.

Guitarist Erik McIntyre and Violinist Grant Flick
booths and shoppers at flint handmade market
Left/top: Live music from Guitarist Erik McIntyre and Violinist Grant Flick. Right/bottom: Shoppers at Sista Girl Greeting Cards booth.

Focused programming

For many years, Flint Handmade maintained a hectic schedule running several programs a week, but the pandemic forced Pepperdine to really focus the organization’s programming, shedding events that didn’t serve a large enough swath of the community. Today, the organization centers on four types of events. They host craft markets four times a year. Each market includes approximately 20 local artists and live music. Pepperdine says the goal is for the artists to earn at least five to ten times their $50 booth fee.

“That feels really good to be making that economic impact and supporting these small businesses,” she says.

They also host craft supply swaps in the summer, outside. At these events, residents are invited to let go of supplies they aren’t using and pick up something different.

The Flint Handmade Yarn Brigade brings local residents together to knit or crochet hats and scarves for needy populations in the area. In 2021 the group created and donated 1,109 pieces.

And the newest program offering is coloring parties. Each month the organization hire’s a local artist to design a coloring sheet. Participants use a clipboard and crayons and sit and color together at a local brewery or another spot in town. Flint Handmade works to make events as accessible as possible, locating them near public transportation and offering programming free of charge.

Pepperdine clearly loves her work promoting the arts in Flint, and she also clearly loves Flint itself. She recently became an official tour guide for the city.

“There are a lot of people, especially artistic people, who don’t want to necessarily go where things are already good,” she says. “They want to stay where they’re at, or even move to places where they know that they can be a part of making it a better place, a more vibrant place, a safer place, a healthier place. And Flint Handmade is part of that story.”

Abby Glassenberg

Abby Glassenberg

Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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