HERO Sans Healthcare
Article by Weenta Girmay & Julie Sokolow
Photos by Ohad Cadji
Not just any ol’ artist with a set of colored pencils can peddle her wares at Handmade Arcade – Pittsburgh’s largest indie craft fair. Handmade Arcade just celebrated its 9th year largely due to its rigorous selection process, hand-picking a fine medley of budding and seasoned indie makers, not just from Steel City, but from all over the United States. For example, the husband and wife team behind HERO, a studio that has designed posters for Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, and The Decemberists, to name a few, trucked on over from their Buffalo base to show their work at this year’s Handmade.
Among the Pittsburgh-based vendors was Jes La Vecchia, a zine-maker and painter working under the alias, Jeshaka. La Vecchia holds a graphic design degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, although when asked about it, she said, “They definitely didn’t teach me any of this.”
Both “creepy and cute”, La Vecchia’s work makes a statement about America’s fast food culture, in a uniquely palatable way. Among her work at Handmade was a menagerie of anthropomorphic stuffed-animal-style hotdogs and pizzas, begging to be cuddled instead of eaten.
La Vecchia, 24, says she had been uninsured for two years before she re-acquired coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which allows young folks to stay covered under their parents until age 26.
“I was ecstatic,” she said. “I needed to get my tonsils out. I didn’t go to the dentist for two years when I didn’t have health insurance.”
The Affordable Care Act provision was a relief to her and many of her peers. “When the ACA happened, we were just so happy, almost rejoicing,” she said.
Among Handmade’s best dressed were, Doug Eberhardt, Micheal Burch, Justin George, and Ben Rettig, the founding fathers of New Academy Press.
“I like the idea of a cohesive art project, where we, as makers, are part of the visual experience framing the work,” Eberhardt said.
New Academy Press makes “paper crafts”, which involve screenprinting designs onto paper and transforming the paper into sculpture. With meticulous detail, the creative team turns one of the most delicate materials (i.e. – paper) into anatomically correct beetles and butterflies.
Like LaVecchia, Eberhardt is also covered under his parents, but not for much longer. “I’m under my mom’s insurance right now, but I won’t be in a year or two and at that point, healthcare is going to be too expensive for me.”
Burch, 28, works 40 plus hours as a restaurant manager and has been uninsured for four years. He’s managed to remain healthy but fears the cost of even minor visits to a doctor. “I will not see a doctor for anything less than rivers of blood or suffocating bouts of bronchitis, and even then, will probably wait until I need to be dragged there,” he said.
Natalie Tranelli has 3 jobs. She runs Nelli, a sunprinted fabrics business, she’s a photographer, and she’s adjunct faculty at the Art Institute of Detroit.
In addition to selling her scarves at Handmade, her booth featured a sign that read, “I can also photograph your wedding!” next to a second set of business cards. Although now covered under her husband, a teacher, she vividly recalls the time when she was unemployed, unmarried, and had no coverage.
“There was a six month gap when I didn’t have the best health insurance, and that’s when I happened to get sick. I had to have surgery and ended up with $3,000 in medical bills that I’m still paying off. I’m covered now, but still, I’m struggling every month.”
Mark Brickey and Beth Manos of HERO Design Studio, live much of their life together on the road in order to support their business.
“This booth that you see right here, this eight-foot square, is one hundred percent of the income that me and my wife live off of. This is our eighth show this month. We’ve been to DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, this month alone,” he said.
Neither of them is insured.
“Things got tight,” Brickey said. “We decided we would hold off and pay our insurance two weeks late and we got dropped from our provider. They wouldn’t pick us back up. The cheapest insurance we could find was $900 each, a month, which was $1800 total that we couldn’t afford.”
They’ve made the full transition from crafters with day jobs to crafters solely dedicated to their passion, illustration and design. Brickey says it’s a risk most of his friends are not willing to take.
“I know a lot of really talented people who won’t take the plunge into fulfilling their paths as artists and business owners because they don’t want to leave insurance behind.”
Even with the Affordable Care Act, uncertainty about health care continues to affect the major life decisions of Brickey and his wife/business partner.
“As much as I would love to be a father, I’m too good of a father to know that I shouldn’t have a kid without insurance. So I will probably go through life, only having one child, and he’s a 13-year-old named HERO. He’s a successful little business, and soon he’ll be 18 and 21 and so forth. I would love to have a real kid, but I won’t do it without being a proper provider and insurance is a big part of that,” Brickey said. “I know a lot of people like us, who will just keep floating on, hoping for a better tomorrow.”