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Local “maker at heart” bridges Eau Claire business and art communities


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By Alison Mundth

A 20-something college graduate working at a 10-by-10 bead kiosk in Oakwood Mall probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “entrepreneur.” But for one successful Eau Claire business owner, that is precisely where the idea for a now thriving local business was born.

Erin Klaus, a 2005 graduate of UW-Eau Claire, is co-owner of local art collective Tangled Up in Hue in downtown Eau Claire. ©2018 Alison Mundth

Erin Klaus, then a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was working as a part-time sales associate at the mall kiosk one night making jewelry with her boss, Jamie Kyser. Klaus had worked for Kyser as a college student, and, drawn together by their shared appreciation for art, the two had grown to be close friends. That night, as they worked the kiosk together, Klaus told Kyser about her idea of opening a local art store in the downtown area. After discussing the possibility of co-owning a small business, the pair decided to throw caution to the wind and open a local art collective in downtown Eau Claire.

“I’ve always been extremely creative,” Klaus said, smiling. “I always loved making things. So, I’m a maker at heart.”

Jamie Kyser, Klaus’ long-time friend and now business partner of 10 years, said she didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to take this entrepreneurial leap with Klaus.

“The main thing about Erin is that she’s a go-getter,” Kyser said. “She is the epitome of a small business owner. I don’t know that I would have gone into a partnership with anyone but her.”

Ironically, Klaus had little to no experience in the business world. As a student of English at UW-Eau Claire, she had studied literature with an emphasis on feminist theory and women’s studies. However, she said her studies and the close relationships she fostered with her professors opened her eyes to the world of possibilities and firmly instilled in her the belief that she could do anything.

After completing her undergrad at UW-Eau Claire, Klaus moved to Tucson, Arizona, to pursue a master’s degree in women’s studies. Immediately, she fell in love with Tucson’s incredible art community; she was inspired by its many locally-owned businesses that promoted local artwork by hanging it on their walls or displaying it in their stores.

“It felt like this really close-knit community, even though there’s just tons of people everywhere,” Klaus said. “And I was really inspired by that.”

Shortly after arriving in Arizona, however, Klaus learned that her mother had gone into remission for the third time in her battle against cancer. She felt she needed to take a step back and really think about what she wanted in life, and thanks to what Klaus calls her “entrepreneurial optimism,” she chose to see the situation not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. Inspired by her experience in Tucson, Klaus decided to head back to Eau Claire to be closer to her family and pursue her dream of opening her own local art store.

“Certain doors were closing, and other ones could open,” Klaus explained. “And I said ‘You know what? This is what I’m going to do.’ I finally made the decision to say, ‘Yeah, it’s okay to embark on this incredibly crazy journey and open my own business.’ ”

And that she did. Partnering with her previous bead kiosk employer and long-time friend, Kyser, Klaus opened Tangled Up in Hue, a local art collective in downtown Eau Claire, in February of 2009.

In the early days when the business was just starting, Klaus remembered working long days in the store with Kyser, collecting and organizing local art to sell.

“When we first opened, Jamie and I would work sometimes 17 hours a day,” Klaus said, laughing.  “We actually slept in the store when we were getting it set up!”

The business, which started out selling artwork from just 13 local artists, has expanded greatly over the past 10 years. In fact, to keep up with the rapidly growing market for local art in the area, its co-owners had to re-locate to a larger retail space in downtown Eau Claire in April of 2017. Today, Tangled Up in Hue sells a wide variety of handcrafted items made by nearly 200 different local artists.

Although co-owning such a popular business can be a lot of work, Klaus’ passion for supporting the Eau Claire art community keeps her motivated.

Local art appreciators at Tangled Up in Hue value the store’s dedication to the Eau Claire art and business communities. ©2018 Alison Mundth

“Eau Claire has a strong history of artists and musicians, and with the university here, there’s no doubt that there are so many creative people and forces here,” Klaus said. “I think what Tangled Up in Hue offers is a space to see that all come together and to recognize that what we have in Eau Claire is unique to the culture of this area. I feel like it just shows opportunity to be creative and do what you dream to do, so I think that’s important.”

And as if balancing the many tasks that come with owning a popular small business weren’t enough, Klaus juggles her work obligations with family responsibilities and community involvement. Her typical day begins around 5 a.m., when she wakes up her two daughters, 5-year-old Mara and 3-year-old Evie Jo, to get them ready for school.

Although it may seem like a lot to handle, Klaus’ business partner Kyser said that Klaus’ dedication to both her family and her business coupled with her enthusiastic work ethic help her maintain a kind of natural balance between her home and professional lives.

“Erin is an amazing woman,” Kyser said, smiling and shaking her head. “She feels like she can do anything – she’s kind of a Wonder Woman in that sense.”

And much like Wonder Woman, in a given workday, Klaus could be doing any number of things: meeting with her in-store collaborators to talk about new artwork, events, and design development; communicating with artists and clients about products and orders; scheduling and managing other employees; even bookkeeping and accounting.

However, Klaus’ hard work is not just for the success of the business itself; she is striving toward a larger goal. After falling in love with UW-Eau Claire as a college student, she wanted to give back to the community that had impacted her so greatly. When she decided to return and start a local business, she dedicated herself to supporting the revitalization of downtown Eau Claire with the mission of bringing the city and the university together.

“My experience at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire was so positive and my professors were so invested in my life that I really wanted to be close to that,” Klaus said. “And I kept thinking that there had to be a way that what the university was doing in the creative realm and what the downtown at that point had just started talking about – a major revitalization of the riverfront. And I just thought there was a way to kind of bridge these two pieces using art, or makers. And so, my goal was to open something like I did.”

Aside from her contributions as a local business owner, Klaus’ devotion to moving the Eau Claire community forward can be seen through her involvement in several local organizations. She sits on the executive board and the board of directors for Downtown Eau Claire Incorporated (DECI), an organization that works with local businesses to continue the revitalization of the downtown area. She is also a member of the South Barstow Bid Board, which makes funding decisions for the enhancement of South Barstow Street.

Raymond French, a business assistant specialist at DECI, said Klaus’ dedication to her family, her business, and the local art community make her the perfect person to serve on the DECI board and promote the improvement of downtown Eau Claire.

“She’s certainly done quite a bit to help create a welcoming business environment and a welcoming environment for artists by creating a downtown culture that supports the local art community,” French said. “It’s quite an example she’s setting for her daughters on how you can try to do it all.”

And as Klaus strives to promote local business and build community in the Eau Claire area, her store remains an essential component of the city’s artistic downtown atmosphere.

“I do think having a shop like ours where local artists and amateur artists have an opportunity to sell their handmade wares – that it can sustain itself over ten years – is a sign that the community needed something like this, wanted to support something like this, and clearly that we’re growing in that fusion of arts and culture and music across the board,” Klaus said.

Today, almost 10 years after its opening, Tangled Up in Hue has grown substantially and now welcomes a wide variety of patrons: local artists, college students, tourists and Eau Claire residents alike. Members of the local art community say the store has become a cherished gathering place for art appreciators in the area, as well as an integral part of downtown Eau Claire’s business community.

 

 

Morgan Hines-Munson, an Eau Claire graduate and resident, is a regular customer at Tangled Up in Hue. Hines-Munson said she has enjoyed seeing the store’s transformation over the years, and she appreciates its mission to enhance the city by promoting local artists and businesses.

“If you see something you like, you might buy something by that artist, which will give that artist some money, and then they can put that back into the community,” Hines-Munson said. “Community-based stuff just kind of encourages community and also helps the community grow.”

And at the center of that community stands Klaus, a “maker at heart” with a passion for local business and a commitment to bringing Eau Claire together.

Looking back at her entrepreneurial journey, Klaus said she can’t help but feel proud of all her business has accomplished and how far the Eau Claire community has come.

“I kind of joked that if I had worked this hard at literally anything else, I probably would be rich,” Klaus laughed. “And I am rich in spirit, and success has so many different definitions. And I feel incredibly successful in the sense of how far we’ve come as a community in Eau Claire.”

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Local “maker at heart” bridges Eau Claire business and art communities