The smell of a campfire rises from the CNC laser printer at Cherry Pit Collective, a communal studio space for women artists and makers at 604 E. 31st St. in Kansas City.
Tara Tonser is finishing up a set of “I Heart KC” bamboo coasters. As the laser etches the outline of a heart between Missouri and Kansas, the sweet and smoky smell permeates the studio.
Tonser grew up in St. Louis and was raised by her mother.
“My mom is independent, resilient and super creative,” Tonser says. “Not only did she inspire me to be an artist as I was growing up, she provided the tools for me to make art.
“My mom tells me I was always drawing and that it was one of the first things I did as a child,” she continues. “I have a photo of a 4-year-old me in front of a Christmas tree, obsessively coloring at my own little art table. We even found art in our female lineage; many of our ancestors were creative and one was even a greeting card maker.”
While her mom excelled at sewing and fiber art, Tonser fell in love with 2D art. She moved from St. Louis to Lawrence to attend The University of Kansas and earned a degree in graphic design and illustration.
“I reached out to the community and worked with many nonprofits to bring art education and a hands-on experience to kids via the Nelson,” Tonser says. “We would take our programming to wonderful children’s centers like Operation Breakthrough, The Children’s Place, Guadalupe Center, and even to retirement communities. I would pack up my car and bring the lesson plans and the supplies and do art with them.
“The lessons would tie into a collection at the museum,” she explains. “Then, at the end of the semester, the groups would come to the museum and experience what we had been learning about.”
For example, she taught reductive charcoal drawing with African masks. She started the lesson by teaching about a type of mask and why it was used in special ceremonies. After studying the facial or animal features in the mask, the students transferred it by drawing with charcoal.
Tonser found she loved teaching art and applied for a position at Community School #1, a family-oriented, one-room schoolhouse in Mission Hills that nurtures creativity with an arts integration curriculum. She has been teaching art there since 2013.
“I find that C.S. #1 supports more independent thinking and hands-on learning with our students, so I get to really engage them with problem solving and creative thinking through art,” she says. “I find it very exciting.”
Tonser’s founded Lost & Found Design in 2008. She started by making jewelry and mixed media collages with found and broken objects — hence the name Lost and Found. Some of her first mixed media on wood artwork featured 3D woodcuts of honeycomb and collages of natural objects on a canvas she painted and distressed.
“Fast forward eight years and I have probably sold in at least 100 craft shows, including out-of-state ones,” she says. “If you count First Fridays and pop-up shows, I bet it’s double to triple that.”
Tonser’s jewelry has evolved — her Etsy shop features earrings and necklaces made of natural materials such as bamboo and leather that the artist laser-cuts herself. Lately she’s been experimenting with hammered metal and all different types of stones.
“I’ve been really thrilled to have knowledge on the gemstones I’m using,” Tonser says. “Knowing the different healing properties and the history of where these rocks came from is fascinating.”
Once her business took off, Tonser realized it was no longer efficient to outsource designs to non-local companies due to the high cost of owning a CNC laser cutter. A local maker, Susan De Petro of Tall Pines, just so happened to have a friend who had one in his basement collecting dust. Tonser purchased the machine.
“By learning to use the CNC, I saved money and my product is 100% localized,” she says. “Hammerspace Workshop helped me learn how to use the laser cutter. I still do larger projects with them when I do not have the scale to engrave or cut it myself. Hammerspace is an incredible asset to our community and they have taught me so much.”
In addition to jewelry, Tonser designs and manufactures coasters, bottle openers, plant holders, wall hangings, signs and night light covers.
She has partnered with numerous makers in Kansas City to create and collaborate on handmade products. For example, she and local leather worker, Red Hare Leather, have collaborated to create a line of work that celebrates diversity in their community. As allies to the LGBTQIA community, Tonser and Red Hare found themselves disgusted with legislation and political policies that were advancing hate against people they love and care for.
They teamed up to create a “Trans is beautiful” engraved leather equality pin that sells for $4 on Etsy.
Tonser also works part-time as an operations manager and product developer for locally owned startup SouveNEAR. SouveNEAR vending machines, which are stocked with locally made products, can be found at Kansas City International Airport. Travelers can take home souvenirs such as a KC T-shirt made by local artists Ampersand or a set of Lost & Found’s KCMO Coasters.
Tonser helps the owners reach out to makers, places orders, and restocks the machines when the makers’ products sell out.
Tonser says she’s able to make design and art her lifestyle because of the strong maker community in Kansas City.
“I love that I am able to fluctuate between all these variable opportunities,” Tonser says. “The fact that SouveNEAR reached out to me because of The Strawberry Swing, the fact that I can have a studio with other makers at Cherry Pit, it’s incredible. We keep creating these amazing opportunities that involve each other and I’m grateful for that.”
Tonser adds that the community has created a welcoming environment since the day she moved to Kansas City.
“My best friend Maria has been my number one advocate and cheerleader throughout the years, even bringing her daughter to help me set up my booths at shows over the years and giving me some creative juice in new designs,” she says.
When asked what advice she has for up-and-coming makers, Tonser says, “Just stick with it. It’s OK to change. It’s OK to evolve with your brand and with your business. You’re human and not a robot. Give yourself time, freedom and opportunity to change.”