Conversation 01: Midtown Artisans
Our new series features refreshing conversations with Tucson’s makers, creatives, and small business owners via long-form interviews. We aim to share their multifaceted stories, processes, and inspirations through the lens of beginnings, risk, and creativity.
Photography by Meredith Amadee
Andy Littleton / Owner & Project Manager
Sean Hunter / Owner & Craftsman)
Josh Richards / Owner & Craftsman
Jake Reyes / Apprentice
Tell us about your path to what you’re doing now. How did you start Midtown Artisans and what are your backgrounds?
Andy did remodeling work and learned to reuse materials to complete projects while tight on cash. When deciding to start a church in 2014, with eight people, he needed to make an income. He started doing handyman work, got some more interesting jobs, and eventually started Midtown Artisans with Sean.
Sean met Brandon Gore (Gore Design - Hard Goods) while working at Home Depot and going to school in Phoenix. He apprenticed under Brandon and learned the art of fine concrete work (Sean always says he was like Danielson and Brandon was his Mr. Miyagi). When he moved back to Tucson, Sean did some concrete and wood jobs while working at Cartel Coffee when Andy—a regular patron—asked him to help build a pergola. They ended up doing a few projects together. Midtown Artisans grew out of that friendship. Sean and Andy even became neighbors when Sean and his family moved across the street from Andy and his family.
Josh is a longtime friend with an array of skills and the coolest, most collected guy you’ll come across. He’s currently an electrician in the Coast Guard living in Seal Beach, CA, with his wife Kayley & two shepherds. Josh enjoys woodworking and will be joining us in July.
How has your style developed as you’ve grown?
At first we were in survival mode (which may always be a reality to a degree). We would take anything we could get to keep the money rolling in. We’ve always had an eye for fine craft and take as many opportunities to work in those circles as possible. This year we will be putting a high emphasis on “making things that last,” utilizing the highest quality materials and thoughtful design. This value is important. It's better for the consumer to have something that lasts a lifetime and to learn how to appreciate it as it ages gracefully with the addition of wear and natural patina. Creating items that last is also better for the environment; we don’t execute poorly-designed and constructed pieces that contribute to landfills and cost more in the grand scheme.
“These feel like huge risks, but we also know that we can’t do some of the work coming our way without taking them.”
When did the idea of starting your business feel like something you could achieve? Was there an “aha!” moment?
I think the “aha!” moment was when we made an incredible mesquite slab bar for a coffee shop in Oro Valley. Andy had priced out getting the bar made and realized: we can do this! We not only pulled it off but we also feel we found the best slabs of mesquite we could and put more heart into it. This was before Andy had started his handyman gig, but it was a step towards what would become Midtown Artisans.
If you weren’t running Midtown Artisans, what would you be doing?
Andy would be a pastor and would just be doing hands-on projects as a hobby. Sean would be doing concrete work solo, but that’s not ideal for him. Sean is also a legit barista, so there’s a chance you’d still find him pulling shifts at Presta’s espresso bar.
Now that you’re leading your own projects, does your process come pretty naturally or do you find yourself fighting against creative block at times?
Creative block happens, but we also deal with the struggle between being efficient and being creative. We’ve gotten ourselves into some big projects with timelines that make things difficult. Some of the most tense times have come when we’ve had to decide between completing a project within a reasonable timeframe versus taking the project to the next level.
We’ve found that over-thinking things isn’t always our best path forward, and that productivity often inspires creativity. For instance, when preparing for CULTIVATE markets, we’ve often had some of our favorite ideas as we were working on projects for the market. That’s often meant working late nights in order to make the new idea happen.
Have you taken big risks to move forward? Do you see a connection between risk and creativity?
The whole thing has been a risk for us! This year we decided to move into a larger shop and take on a new partner who will join us this summer. These feel like huge risks, but we also know that we can’t do some of the work coming our way without taking them. We also feel like we need to get more solidified in order to really hone in on the projects that highlight our skills and creative desires.
“We feel the tide is turning toward a desire to work with local people you trust.”
Have you had any memorable collaborations? Why do you think it’s important for creatives and makers to come together and collaborate?
Oh yeah! First off, we should say that we love collaborating with gifted architects and designers, as well as other talented craftsman. We really shine when someone brings us detailed plans and we get to interact with those in order to take everything to the next level. We’re also humbled by interacting with other people who are able to showcase their refined craft. Sean’s first major memorable collaboration was helping build and design Presta’s coffee roasting space. It was a blank slate with so much potential and endless options. Tons of ideas were thrown around with friend and Presta owner, Curtis Zimmerman. Sean threw out a direction and, once it was established, the space was transformed over a period of time. Working with Darrick Garner (a welder for repp + mclain architects) on aspects of the project was a highlight. We also LOVE to serve, and some of our favorite projects have been collaborating with volunteers from our church to help make a project happen for somebody who wouldn’t normally be able to afford hiring out professionals. We really hope to do more of that as we grow to offset the hustle mentality that running a “business” can manifest.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out?
Really count the cost and expect to do a lot of hard work without being compensated the way you might deserve to be compensated for a little while. We feel that the reason our company has taken root so far is because we’ve built relationships and have been willing to start small. One of our first big projects happened in our driveway while we renovated a carport into being our first shop. We did a lot of “free work” at first, and worked with what we had. Eventually, we were able to upgrade. If we’d waited to look legitimate and get the big high paying jobs we probably never would have made it this far.
Outline the 3 greatest attributes you need to be a maker / creative / small business owner:
01. Personality. We feel the tide is turning toward a desire to work with local people you trust. People who don’t want that will just continue to shop at big box stores. If you are hard to get ahold of or don’t interact with your clients on a personal level, you probably won’t retain them. But if you become someone they like to interact with, they will probably come back and recommend you to others.
02. Flexibility. We are learning this one, but it is key to remember that you are not a creative god. You also have customers who have real and meaningful ideas. Also, they have practical needs. You need to know what you’re good at and be selective, but can’t take the know-it-all position as an artist. It’s repulsive and will limit your influence.
03. Increasing Skill. In this, we mean that you need to combine the skill you have with a willingness to be a life-long learner. Our hope is that Midtown Artisans is bringing a quality product to the table now, but that our work in a few years will be very different because we’ve learned more, picked up new tools of the trade, learned from the work of others, and have engaged in the new styles and ideas that cutting edge craftsmen are tinkering with.
“Our hope is that Midtown Artisans is bringing a quality product to the table now, but that our work in a few years will be very different because we’ve learned more, picked up new tools of the trade, learned from the work of others, and have engaged in the new styles and ideas that cutting edge craftsmen are tinkering with.”
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger? What type of legacy do you hope to leave?
First of all, we feel that all creative ventures are in essence BIG. That is to say that we see incredible artistry and craftsmanship in the natural world. We believe that our creative power is a gift. That gives a profound depth of meaning to what we do. We aren’t just working for a paycheck or to build our own names. For us, that changes everything and re-orients us when we fail. We hope that our work speaks of our belief in ultimate creativity and craftsmanship, and that the relationships we build along the way undergird what we believe in. We also want to invest in others. We want to teach skills to younger or under-served folks. We’ve had more of these opportunities lately and hope those continue to come our way over time.
We’ve had, and continue to have, a handful of helpers that contribute to various projects on occasion (often guys named Josh, for some reason). We’re excited to have Jake around these days as our first official apprentice. Jake’s a guy who had a lot of ideas, but just didn’t have the tools or experience under his belt to create the kinds of things he saw others making. He is devoted to learning and has become a really valuable asset to the company. We hope to see him grow into an artisan in his own right, and go far beyond what we’ve instilled in him thus far. We’d welcome other “Jakes” along the way.
What brought you to Tucson? How does living in Tucson influence your craft?
We’ve both been around since early childhood. We feel like Tucson is home, so we feel as if we are investing in “home” when we build things that last. We plan to raise our families here and would be thrilled to have our grandkids sitting at one of our tables one day.
For inspiration in Tucson there are a few categories. We love Mid-Century era architecture, so the areas where Tucson expanded in the late 40s to 50s are always fun to see. We have breakfast meetings at Welcome Diner (an inspiring establishment in every possible way) and frequent the Sunshine Mile. We also love meeting men like “Walter.” We once met an incredible older guy with a rad little wood shop in his garage. He put us to shame as a creative, but was so humble that we had to love him. We’re definitely beyond inspired by all of the “Walters” of Tucson. And, of course, we definitely get inspired by exploring thrift stores and unexpected piles of old stuff. We get a genuine thrill with an occasional dumpster dive or hunting the aisles of the thrift stores around midtown. Also, Tucson is a naturally beautiful place. Whether it be exploring the desert, hiking in the mountains, cycling around town, or interacting with Tucson’s people and culture—this city has an incredible vibe and keeps us consistently inspired.
How do you stay creatively inspired? Do you have specific resources that inspire you?
We stay creatively inspired by visiting new places and hanging out with people more skilled than us! We need more of this in our lives; when it happens, we always walk away with revived passion.
For Sean, Brandon Gore has been an incredible mentor in craft, and working with Brandon has led to an amazing network of talented craftsmen and creatives. Staying connected on Instagram has been huge. Meeting those individuals (designers, craftsmen, architects, and even artists and musicians) and appreciating their work is probably the most important and profound source of inspiration. Sean has a lot for general references as well. He’s been known to scour Bookman’s and thrift stores, stocking up on 1950s-1980s-era books that are full of design ideas and resources. He also has a ridiculous magazine collection.
Andy’s a brainstorming guy. He loves to hear a client’s idea, see their space, and hash out the ways their idea could come together. He’s also an opportunist: often times, an idea follows the acquisition of a unique piece of material.
“We feel like Tucson is home, so we feel as if we are investing in “home” when we build things that last. We plan to raise our families here and would be thrilled to have our grandkids sitting at one of our tables one day.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
Sean begins most days at home being a dad to his one-and-a-half-year-old son Remington, while his wife Jocelyn teaches middle school Physical Education. Just after lunch he begins his day in the shop. To make family time work for him, he sometimes has to work late nights.
Andy is all over the place. As a pastor at Mission Church, husband to Michaela, dad to nine year old Abby, business owner, and Sunshine Mile Business Association Board president, he can be found cruising the town and dropping into all the coffee shops. He may meet a client, write a sermon, read a book, grab some supplies at Home Depot, help in the shop, and do some counseling all within the same work day.
What are you trying to learn right now?
Right now we are trying to focus on adding better business practices to support the work we love. We also have the new challenge of learning to say no to good work in order to focus on the work we can do best.
Seeing where you are now, what are your ambitions for the coming years?
We really hope to become more focused and better at a few things. We think that we can especially serve the creative and design community by doing more fine concrete projects. We’d love to be the guys you look to for one-of-a-kind concrete products accented with our woodwork and metalwork.
There are tons of great woodworkers in Tucson, but we feel that our expertise in fine concrete craft needs to be shared. Nobody else is doing quite what we offer. When people hear “concrete” they immediately think of industrial applications or massive home decor elements. Our concrete (GFRC) offers a more advanced technology. We can cast thinner pieces that are extremely durable, while maintaining a sleek, clean, and modern aesthetic (we also offer a more raw and rustic finish). The pieces we craft are well-designed and artistic. A concrete sink you buy from Midtown Artisans will be one-of-a-kind and last forever. This doesn’t mean we’re abandoning wood and steel work, but we believe that our concrete craft is our greatest and most unique contribution to the design community here in Tucson.