Riverside Artisans in Port City gives local artists venue to display and sell works, socialize
By Mary Beth Roach
What started out as a great idea 10 years ago has grown into a major business attraction in downtown Oswego.
Tim Ames and Michele Southgate, along with other local artists, had wanted a cooperative shop in the Oswego area that would provide artisans with a gallery-like space where they could display their work but also make the items available for sale.
In 2010, they submitted a proposal to Operation Oswego County’s “The Next Great Idea” competition, a program created to stimulate entrepreneurship and to help provide seed money. They won a $25,000 grant to launch their project.
The shop opened in 2011 as Lakeside Artisans at the Canal Commons, but the name was later changed to Riverside Artisans, and Ames and Southgate have moved on to other endeavors.
Ten years after being awarded that grant money, Riverside Artisans has moved in the Canal Commons to the front of the building at 191 W. First St., giving it more space and large windows that face the busy street.
The store is very inviting, with lots of natural light coming through those windows, warm-colored walls and plenty of space to move around.
Each artist has his or her own section, with many of them utilizing eye-catching ways to display their wares. For example, Kathy Fenlon, an artist who works with fabrics, has her goods set on and around a vintage Singer sewing machine treadle table, and one artist has necklaces hanging off what appears to be a piece of driftwood.
“The talent in a small city like Oswego or a small county like Oswego is astounding,” said Carl Patrick, a member who joined more than six years ago.
The nine full members of the cooperative own the store and are responsible for staffing it and taking care of expenses. The 15 consigned members pay a nominal fee for the space to display their handiwork, and pay a higher percent of commission than full members, Patrick said.
The full members form the core of the shop, and the consignment members help to provide the breadth of the inventory, whether it be wood, fabric art, jewelry, paintings and print, photographs, and stained glass, he noted.
“One of the things that we really take pride in is how many different types of art we have here,” he said.
That diversity of the inventory is one of the reasons for the longevity and success of the business — that along with sound business practices, the uniqueness of the pieces and that they are all made by people from the area, he added.
Fenlon, 70, has been sewing since she was a young girl in 4-H. She makes fabric bags of varying sizes, children’s aprons and, most recently, face masks that continually need to be restocked. Net proceeds from the sale of the masks are being donated to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund, which provides nonprofits funds for emergency needs.
She makes about 150 fabric bags a year, but no two are alike.
Cindy Schmidt, 66, who joined the co-op in 2011, is known as the “Cranky Cat Lady,” with her collection of fun feline items, like paintings and key fobs.
Opportunity to interact
Patrick’s medium is woodworking and among his specialties are Celtic knot-wood plaques. With some Celtic blood in him, he was inspired by the intricate knot work he saw during a trip to Ireland. While he uses a Dremel or router to rough out the pieces, all the details are done by hand, using gouges, files, sandpaper and some imagination.
The shop not only affords members the opportunity to show and sell their artwork, it also gives them the chance to meet with each other and their patrons. The work schedules are short and flexible — perfect for retirees, which all full members are.
“I just love being part of it socially,” said Schmidt. “The people in our group are all willing to work with each other, and that makes such a difference. We listen to each other and we make decisions.”
For Patrick, it’s half-club and half-business.
“They’re a great bunch of people to work with. We enjoy digging into the business of it as well. It’s a terrific situation for a retiree,” said Patrick, 73. “I get to make my art, I get to sit here in the store and interact with the community, and you get that satisfaction of somebody liking and buying your product.”
The store’s artisans are working their way back from a period it was closed earlier this year due to COVID-19. The foot traffic has been down, and they lost much of their tourism trade, but local people are coming in and sales per customer are about twice what they had been, according to Patrick.
The artists remain hopeful for a good holiday season and are enthusiastic about the renovations going on downtown and what it means for business.
“This is a great time to be in business in Oswego,” Patrick said. “In spite of COVID-19, there are so many great things happening in the city right now. There’s construction all over. We have new facilities. We have all sorts of new developments.”
As the members look toward the future of the business, they are searching for the next generation of artists, Patrick said.
“We’re trying to recruit new full members that would come in and be the next generation. There’s real opportunities for some of these people who are looking for something to do in their retirement,” he said.