Go Grrldog: Indie entrepreneur goes global from Russell Industrial studio

When Oneita Porter is running low on inspiration, tired from the demanding mix of metalworking and administrative nuts and bolts it takes to run her Grrldog jewelry business, she stretches out on the sofa at her studio at the Russell Industrial Center.
From there she stares through a wall of windows, up past chipped cinder blocks and graffiti-painted bricks and on up to the rooftop, where she zeroes in a water tower with its crisscrossing supports and accompanying metal features. They have a way of firing up her imagination.
A sofa inspiration session isn't always required to get Porter in the mood to design. But whenever her creativity is stoked she heads to her stash of raw metal, usually silver, sometimes copper, and embarks on a process that involves an array of manly-man tools used to make her girly jewelry.

Survey Porter's two work tables, just several steps from the sofa, and you'll see metal cutters and hammers, tumblers, drills, polishers, pickling acid, a steaming mini crock pot and fire-lovers brace yourself: a torch!
"It's kind of a ghetto set-up," Porter says of the method she's invented. "But it works."
With her fine arts degree, an astute eye for detail and a measure of brute strength Porter knocks out her creations, including the popular selling scoop necklace and earrings. Fittingly, Grrldog jewelry mirrors the ambient surroundings of the studio, one of dozens of artists' workplaces inside the 1920s-era auto factory that's been reborn as Russell Industrial.

Pieces made by Porter in this Detroit spot -- situated south of Hamtramck, north of Eastern Market and east of New Center -- are being worn by customers as far away as Scotland and Ireland and by people around the country -- thanks to sales on Etsy, an Internet community for sellers and buyers of handmade and vintage goods.

Locally, Grrldog jewelry is sold at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Bureau of Urban Living on Canfield in Detroit, the House of Chants in Ferndale and the Paint Creek Center for the Arts in Rochester. Residents of Philly, where Porter was born and spent much of her life, can pick up Grrldog at Orbit Gallery. Porter also custom-makes jewelry and and holds open houses at her studio. One is set for Dec. 18.

Parallel careers

Keeping up with demand for her product is getting challenging now that Porter has returned to work as an auto designer. It was her layoff from the auto industry in 2007 that led Grrldog, which officially became a business in 1994, to jump the fence from profitable pastime to thriving entrepreneurial endeavor.
Her success with Grrldog has put Porter in the ranks of the jobless who have found a silver lining in unemployment. Now employed again, Porter is traveling -- California recently, Shanghai coming up.

To keep up, she's hiring an assistant to handle orders, shipping and similar tasks. Until now, Grrldog has been a one-woman venture, not counting her cuddly sidekick, Staffordshire terrier Ruby, who is Porter's companion at home and at the studio. Grrldog got its name from Porter's beloved Elsie, who was with her until six years ago when she died at age 14. 

Grrldog got going in the early 1990s when Elsie was a pup and Porter was a novice in jewelry. She began experimenting with beading.
"I don't know, I was bored one day. I picked up some beads, made a few pairs of earrings and went into work the next day," she says. She worked at law office at the time and was in college.

"People were like, 'I want to buy those.'  I said, 'Really?' Then people started ordering them. I quit school and went back to Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design."
After co-workers and friends came customers via word of mouth.

"I was making a nice little profit. I couldn't believe it."
She later moved to Detroit to take a job in the automotive field. After a few years she decided to branch out, move more in the direction of sculpture and heavier materials. She took a a jewelry-making class at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Center for the Arts and metalworking became her thing, though it was a sideline to her main gig in the automotive world.
Porter moved into the studio at the Russell Industrial Center not long after her layoff three years ago.
Orders picked up. Porter got busier. She became order-processor, packer, shipper, label designer, blogger, question-taker, you name it. Her return to work means she'll focus on designing only while her assistant handles the other tasks.
Porter is but one example of artists flowing into Detroit looking for cheap space to create.

Within view of her studio are rows of artists' windows. She points out who does what and where. Glassblowers here. Photographer over there. Painter down the way.

On her side of the building are more artistically-inclined and crafts-minded tenants. It's a colony of artists who came for big spaces and affordable rents as artists do in big cities with unused buildings.
"I like the history of it," she says. "And we've made good friendships here. We like to get together for a beer and talk about what's going on with our work, with our lives."
A Philadelphia native, Porter has also lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin and arrived here 11 years ago and plans to stay.
"Detroit is an amazing place for artists. There's so much talent and there's so much interest in talented artists."

Community of artists
Porter just has a cool vibe about her, something she achieves naturally without trying too hard. Her jewelry, which she describes as being influenced by clean lines, mid-century architecture and her own twist on icons of the time, says the same. So does her studio. All are classic, not loud or frou-frou, stylish not trendy.
Her studio is painted in greens and natural colors, partly lit by paper lanterns, decorated in black leather, chrome, glass and eclectic objects about the walls and tabletops.

A lone hula hoop hangs on a wall. It comes out when she and neighboring artists get together. "We're all busy. We don't get together as much as we used to," she says.
Nearly half of her studio is her work area, two separate work tables strewn with her metalworking tools as well as a sewing machine, spools of thread, a sewing mannequin and assortment of other supplies and equipment.
There also is an office area with a desk and chairs made of chrome, glass and black leather and a living room area with rugs and coffee table and a dining room-sized table inviting you to its comfy chairs.
One corner of the studio is a kitchen and bar, made by neighbors at Russell. Down the hall from Grrldog, a concrete countertop maker made the bar top and a metal worker from a another studio provided the legs of the bar.

Other artists contributed as well. When they're together, they use Porter's handmade drink coasters. They're made from industrial felt. "I just really love industrial felt. I plan to do more with it," she says, rubbing the material between her fingers.
Porter is always thinking of what's next, what new thing she can she do. She's working with a metal recycler so that she can start a "green line" of jewelry. She also wants to learn casting and hopes to use wax molds for making her jewelry in the future.
"If there were just more time," she says.
Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer who's asking Santa for Grrldog's wok necklace.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


All photos taken at Grrl Dog studio in the Russell Industrial Center
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