Metro Atlanta is home to a large community of artisans and makers.

Made with love: The small, sustainable makers who work in Atlanta’s artisan scene

For Erica Brown and Sabrina Watson, their creative process always begins with a bottle of wine. Brown prefers red, while Watson usually wants white.

From there, the mother-daughter duo is off to the races.

They run Corked Candles together from the basement of Brown’s Paulding County home. From start to finish making the handcrafted soy candles in recycled wine bottles is a labor of love. 

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When the vino is gone (they sometimes tap Brown’s younger sister, Lindsey, and other family and friends to help produce the empties), the bottles get soaked in hot water, which helps the labels come off easier. 

Once the bottles are cleaned and dried, the process of converting Trader Joe’s “Two-Buck Chuck” into a premium $24 candle really begins. Since it started as Brown’s hobby in 2015, the duo have perfected the candle-making process — refined through years of trial and error. 

In 2018, they got serious about their efforts at Corked. When Watson retired from her work in the mortgage industry (the same field Brown still works full time in), they became an LLC and got their brand trademarked. 

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They are among a community of makers in metro Atlanta — across the city there are artisans who carefully craft everything from jewelry to greeting cards. Many say they feel supported by the local makers community, but Brown and Watson have long been able to look to each other for support.

A strong foundation

The two have always had a strong partnership — in life and in business. Watson, 58, was a single mom when her daughters were growing up. That meant they relied on each other, she said.

“Erica and I have been a team since she was born,” she said. “She raised me as much as I raised her.”

Together, they are infectious. They’re quick to laugh and exchange loving jabs. In Brown’s unfinished basement, a large workbench sits in the middle of the room. On top, there are neat rows of wine bottles that have been cut, sanded, washed and dried. 

Erica Brown, who owns Corked Candles with her mom, pours wax into recycled wine bottles. Courtney Kueppers/AJC

Brown, 39, has stuck warning labels to the bottom of each and inserted a wick. They’re ready to be filled with one of the 10 original scents Brown has concocted from essential oils and body-safe fragrances.

“She’s the nose,” Watson said of her daughter.

In a melting pot that can hold 75 pounds of wax, Brown gets ready to add the scent, but first asks her mother which fresh batch she ought to begin brewing.

“We can always use more Bartender – oh, Grapefruit Rosé, definitely” Watson said, surveying the inventory of their candles with wine-theme names. Sangria is a bestseller, Pinot Noir is Brown’s favorite right now — although it changes.

“Alright, then I’ll do that,” Brown said then reached for the large white bottle with a pump top. For the 60 gallons of melted wax, she’ll add six ounces of scent. 

Erica Brown and Sabrina Watson operate their business, Corked Candles, from the basement of Brown's Pauling County home. Courtney Kueppers/AJC

Brown’s methodical approach fits with the fact that her day job is helping people finance their homes. Corked is her creative outlet, but as they continue to grow, Brown — a wife and mother of two — hopes to soon be able to focus on it full time. 

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Taking the leap

Like Brown, many other local makers juggle their artistic work with day jobs. Erin McManness, a 33-year-old artist didn’t take the leap to fully working for herself until she got a push. 

When she was unexpectedly laid off from her job in 2015, she turned her focus to her building her own business. She founded Paper Raven Co, which she owns and operates from her Decatur residence.

Erin McManness founded Paper Raven Co in 2015. Contributed photo by Kelley Raye Photography

In recent years, her “whimsical, but classic” artwork has been licensed by brands across the country, including Macy’s, Target and Trader Joe’s. But the SCAD graduate is also focused on being a presence in the local scene. For years, before catching the eye of national retailers, McManness has shown her work at Atlanta’s Indie Craft Experience.

“I think the artist maker connection here in Atlanta is really, really strong,” she said. “It’s a good demonstration of the power of our creative community.”

Like other small batch makers, McManness is focused on quality. She said being eco-friendly is a big part of her brand, with 100% of her cards being printed on recycled paper. 

Decatur-based artist Erin McManness describes her work as “whimsical, but classic.” Contributed photo by Erin McManness

McManness said from her vantage point, it seems that attention to detail does not go unnoticed.

“When you do good work and have established your artistic voice, I think people see that and respect that,” she said.

Building the brand

Back in Brown’s basement workshop, her steady hand carefully pours the wax into the clear and green glass containers.

She tends to eyeball the 12-ounce pour, while her mother always weighs them exactly. It’s a labor-intensive process, but that also motivates them to make the best product possible, Brown said.

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“We put so much love into making the candles, that it kind of seemed counterproductive to make a subpar candle,” she said. 

Erica Brown startd making candles in recycled wine bottles as a hobby in 2015. In the years since, her and her mother, Sabrina Watson, have scaled it into a business, Corked Candles. Courtney Kueppers/AJC

Already in 10 brick and mortar stores in metro Atlanta, they hope to grow their wholesale and direct sales in the next couple years, so they won’t have to trek to quite so many festivals throughout the spring and summer months. (During high season, they schlep to shows every weekend).

Watson is more the salesperson, while Brown tends to gravitate toward more of the bookkeeping.

Together, they’re a good team.

“We always have been” Watson said.

Preparing to grow

Working the festival circuit is a right of passage for many makers, but it’s a grind. In the last couple months alone, local jewelry maker Stephanie Peebles has been to shows in Dallas, Vegas and Miami. 

During her slow season, she makes a point to trek far and wide to some bigger events in hopes of pulling in some wholesale orders. Like the duo at Corked, she’ll spend most of her spring and summer months on the road. 

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The 32-year-old Atlanta native has always loved to work with her hands. And while she’s made jewelry in some capacity for 15 years, she got serious about it around five years ago when a friend gave her a strand of beads from Ghana. 

Atlanta native Stephanie Leigh began her jewlery business about five years ago. Contributed photo by Stephanie Leigh

From her small, Virginia-Highland apartment, she began to build her brand, Stephanie Leigh Jewelry

Her handmade pieces, crafted with the Ghana fairtrade beads and scraps of salvaged leather, are sold in 75 stores across the country. She and her significant other have moved into a home in Atlanta’s West End, where they’re building her a backyard studio. 

But despite the success she’s starting to see, Peebles said being the owner of a small, artistic brand always presents hurdles.

Stephanie Leigh sells her handcrafted jewelry in stores across the country. Contributed photo by Stephanie Leigh

“Being a small business owner has its ups and downs all the time,” she said. “I’m still trying to get my bearings on everything.”

What the future holds

At the heart of art — especially small-batch, sustainably made artisan goods — is a lot of love.

After Brown carefully finishes pouring the wax, the candles will need to sit to harden overnight. Then they’ll cure for two weeks — meaning they won’t be sold or burned during that time, so the oil is able to incorporate with the soy. 

It helps ensure that the candle will burn evenly and the scent will be maintained throughout the entirety of its 100-hour burn time.

Erica Brown, who owns Corked Candles, hopes to soon be able to make her candle business her fulltime job. Courtney Kueppers/AJC

The idea of one day being able to pass down their business to another generation is what fuels Watson and Brown’s flame. Through all life has thrown them, they’ve always remained close. 

Bonded together by years of adventures: old movies on rainy days, oysters on the half shell in Savannah as K.D. Lang blasted on the tape deck, working together in real estate and founding this business. 

Watson had a rough childhood growing up in Macon — she describes it as “one of those tragic stories.” It’s what motivated her to be a better mom to her girls. 

“I think when I came along you were looking for love,” Erica said to her mom. 

“And I was determined to be a better parent. To be the best parent I could,” Watson said. 

In the basement headquarters of their burgeoning business, that love is at the center of everything they do. 

Some additional Atlanta-based artisans:

Kara Vona Naturals

Earth Child Florals

Polly Sherill Pottery

Sweet Tea Salvage

Fara Fara Jewelry

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