Life can get crazy busy for Ava Miller, as with so many Northern Arizona University undergrads. School, work, social obligations — the usual stuff.
At times, it can all get a bit overwhelming, which is why Miller sometimes likes to retreat to a converted shed in the backyard of the place she shares with her boyfriend and another roommate. There, with her large mutt Bella at her feet, Miller holes up for hours and fiddles with crafts, throws around artistic ideas, her head and hands working in tandem to create beautiful objects out of common materials.
“I’ll sit there and do random things all day long,” Miller said, “and maybe one earring will come out of it.”
But making earrings out of recycled bicycle tire tubes, at first merely a therapeutic hobby for a 22-year-old intent on becoming a special education teacher, now has blossomed into a burgeoning side business for Miller.
She seems as surprised as anyone that her jewelry, provocatively titled “Velo in a Jar,” has taken off and gained something of a word-of-mouth following in Flagstaff and environs. Her creations are being sold at several local retail outlets — The HeArt Box, Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters, Fool’s Gold — and she has had brisk business at area festivals. One recent weekend, she sold 48 earrings at the Roam Bike Fest, a women’s mountain bike festival in Sedona.
Miller insists she never set out to be an entrepreneur — she’s right in the middle of doing practicum before student teaching, after all — but the earrings she fashions out in the shed as a stress-reliever have proven popular.
This side business combines two of Miller’s passions — bike racing and art.
Growing up in Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan, she would spend her days as a girl collecting glass from the shore and fashioning it into art. She also would spend afternoons down in her father’s workshop creating pieces out of scrap items using his power tools. When she wasn’t busy in the basement, Miller would be out riding her bike, taking after her dad, Todd, a professional road racer.
Years later, all those interests would eventually intersect when Miller, her mountain bike and her boyfriend arrived in Flagstaff. Miller studied hard as an elementary education major, worked at Babbitt’s to pay the rent and blew off steam by bombing down Flagstaff’s extensive system of trails.
Still, that wasn’t enough. She needed an artistic outlet.
“Where I live, we all mountain bike, so we had bike parts lying all around the house,” Miller said. “And I had made art from bike parts before. I made a big bike out of chain and stuff, but I’d never made delicate objects, you know. So I started playing around with it. I started cutting tubes into loops and putting a hook on it. I kept wearing them everywhere and people would say, ‘This is so cool, awesome.’ They wanted me to make more.”
The process, of course, is much more involved and intricate than Miller makes it sound.
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First, she gets her materials from discarded bike tubes the mechanics at Flagstaff Bike Revolution toss in a box for her.
“I could probably make 100 earrings from just one tube,” she said. “I like the idea of using recycled stuff. I’ll go home and cut the tubes up, just on the top of the (tube’s) circle so it lays flat. The inside of the tube has this weird powdery white stuff, so I’ve got to wash it off. Then I take out scissors, exacto blades and a leather punch.”
Using those materials, she carves delicate patterns that result in styles both utilitarian and sublime. Miller crafts earrings as simple as stripes dangling from hoops, or feathered rods, or a rainbow loop, or simple a stack of tube squares that resemble a type of cairn, but she also fashions elaborate designs.
One is called “Ripples,” an undulating series of overlapping tube strips that sort of resembles a mountain biker heading down switchbacks. Another is a pair of dragon fly wings, still another a piece called “Alien Invasion,” a multi-tentacled creature that bears a liking to a tarantula.
Miller follows no business plan for her earrings; she simply makes them when people ask for them. And, in fact, she had to be asked to have them displayed to begin with.
“My manager at Babbitt’s said, ‘Why don’t you sell them in the store?’” she said. “Before that, it was, if someone liked them, I was like, ‘Oh, let me make you a pair.’ I was in it for fun. I told my manager, ‘I don’t need to make any money, I just want to see if people will buy them.’ He said that was ridiculous.
“So they put them up on a little turnstile on the counter and I’d come in to work and see that a couple of pairs had been sold.”
Sales have soared, recently. Last month, at the Sedona women’s mountain bike festival, Miller was shocked by the popularity of the earrings.
“I emailed (the organizers) and told then, ‘I know I’m not a normal vendor, I can’t afford the 500 fee,’ so they put me in a little corner,” she said. “I ended up selling 48 pairs of earrings in three days. I was constantly making earrings that weekend trying to keep in stock, staying up late and then getting up at 5 in the morning to drive back down.”
Thrilled as she was, Miller felt a little pressure to produce. She was only supposed to dabble in jewelry-making, not have it become another stressor in her life.
“I guess if I put the effort into it, I could make it into my job, but I want it to remain organic. I think it’d be fun to travel and go to more festivals to sell it, but I don’t want it to be work for me. School is what is most important, and I absolutely love it. This is just a little side thing to do when I can’t go to sleep at night.”