Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Michigan-based, LGBTQ+-owned small businesses capture the spirit of Motor City Pride

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Motor City Pride returned for another year, turning Hart Plaza into a rainbow-colored sea of LGBTQ+ friendly festivities throughout the weekend.

Saturday, the first day of the annual two-day celebration of self-identity, was packed with thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals and allies who buzzed back and forth between live entertainment across four stages and more than 140 vendors, food trucks and booths manned by sponsors and nonprofits hosting giveaways and other activities.

The Motor City Pride parade at noon on Sunday was one of the highlights of the weekend, along with more than 50 live concerts, drag shows and other performances — featuring some big names like Loren Allred, RuPaul’s JAX and Dragula’s Landon Cider — but attendees this year were impressed by the record number of LGBTQ+-owned small business vendors.

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Jenna and Clarisa MacDonald, sisters from Davison and owners of Smiley Cat Co., were some of the new vendors at this year’s event, despite having sold their handmade clay jewelry, rearview mirror hangers, body and hair care products, art prints and more at other southeastern Michigan pride festivals.

The sisters started Smiley Cat Co. back in 2020 when the pandemic trapped them inside.

“We were very isolated and didn’t have an outlet, so this honestly started as a creative outlet for us and then it bloomed from there,” said Jenna MacDonald.

They began making jewelry out of polymer clay just for fun, but when Clarisa posted some of their creations on Instagram and friends offered money for their own clay jewelry, the sisters realized they could possibly turn their creative hobby into a business. Now they create a variety of products and are frequenters at numerous events — pride festivals being their favorite.

“(Our motivation) was wanting to create a safe space for other queer artists and people to come shop and find cool eclectic stuff that interests them. We like to focus on having really wacky, weird things that make you different, so we wanted to highlight that,” said Jenna MacDonald.

Char Galatian, of Lansing, owner of Remembrances Co., was another newbie vendor at Motor City Pride, selling striped candles colored like different LGBTQ+ flags, crocheted plushies — which she stitches together as a way to calm her anxiety and ADHD while doing other activities that require part of her attention — and her specialty, cremation jewelry.

Galatian said she first began making cremation jewelry when her own mother passed away; she and her sister wanted a unique item to preserve their mother’s ashes in, but nothing ever seemed perfect enough. Eventually, Galatian decided if she couldn’t find anything, she’d make it herself.

She gave the jewelry out to family and friends, but as word spread, more and more friends and family reached out with cremation jewelry requests when their own loved ones died, so she decided to turn her craft into a business.

Customers mail in their loved ones and pets’ ashes and she mixes them into jewelry resin, which give the “gemstones” a swirling, sparkly appearance.

While most people might not make an immediate connection between cremation jewelry and LGBTQ+ pride, Galatian thinks Pride festivals are the perfect place for remembrance items.

“There is nobody that loves our animals and our family more than somebody in the LGBTQ community,” she said. “Animals will always love you, and once your family accepts you, you can’t love anything more than that.”

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Kaitlyn Ringe, of Berkley, and her small business Happyish Brand was a particularly popular vendor at Saturday’s pride festival, selling hundreds of quirky and colorful stickers and a plethora of other handmade products.

Ringe said she always had an entrepreneurial mindset, but she didn’t actually jump into the small business world until she accidentally bought too much fabric and made 15 scrunchies instead of one. She put the extra scrunchies on Etsy and her business snowballed from there.

After her YouTube channel earned her a sponsorship from Cricket, she bought new materials to expand into different items, and stickers very quickly became her best sellers.

A fourth of the designs are hand-drawn by Ringe, like a popular cowboy caterpillar and a sketch of a girl with an angel’s halo and devil horns that reads “I’m not like other girls, I’m worse,” while the remainder is drawn by a friend in graphic design.

Besides their references to online pop culture, Ringe says that the stickers tend to be very popular with the LGBTQ+ community because of the themes that her designs reflect.

“I have a lot of lived experience with mental health issues, trauma, questioning my sexual identity. … A lot of my designs destigmatize things like mental health, being gay, being trans and things like that, so people gravitate toward it, especially in this community, because they have those lived experiences,” she said.

At the Paige Abnormal Creations booth, passersby stopped and cautiously reached out to touch framed artwork at the prompting of “Please touch” signs.

Owner Paige Norman’s brightly colored work is dimensional with textural designs that raise above the surface of the art specifically for people to touch. They say their artwork is best received by sensory-sensitive or sight-impaired individuals.

“Once people actually touch the canvas, I almost always get that shocked gasp and excitement,” Norman said. “I feel like it takes people back to being a child in a children’s museum, getting to touch things and interact with the art and be a part of it.”

At the beginning of their career as an artist, Norman experimented with different mediums and typical art festivals but eventually found that the experience as a vendor and the effect that their art had on people wasn’t nearly as rewarding as it was at pride festivals.

“It feels like traditional art fairs are more about fitting into the mold of what people want, whereas pride, people come to support who you are, not what you should be,” said Norman.

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