For two months, Tara Stemper and Bill Solis were positioned about 200 feet apart yet completely unaware of each other's existence.
Both artists remained stationed at their pop-up shops at Art-A-Faire in Huntington Beach's Pier Plaza, rarely getting the chance to wander around the market.
That changed in early 2012, when Stemper's brother Remington stayed at the booth, allowing her to take a break.
"I was really into repurposing everything — I mean, I took milk cartons and made them into wallets — so I walked over and saw his stuff," the 41-year-old Stemper said. "I'd just seen online that people were taking wine bottles, cutting them up and making glasses. I was so amazed and I was looking at it and he's jabbering away, 'Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,' and I was just like, 'Wow. How do you do this?'
"I remember looking up and I swear there was like this little light above him, and he had this twinkle and a smile and I thought, 'Hi, how are you?' It was wild."
Solis, 48, who sat beaming while listening to her tell the story of their meeting, added, "It was a point of no return."
Both had recently gone through a breakup, so caution led them first to friendship and the bonding that comes from spending hours immersed in conversation. Drawn together by a common belief in the interconnectedness of life and going with the flow, they became a couple four or five months later.
"I like talking to everyone — I just haven't met anyone quite like Tara," Solis said, adding that they both accept "what is as opposed to being resentful, bitter or angry and trying to change everything."
Stemper, a former Huntington Beach resident, spent about a year at Art-A-Faire selling repurposed and restylized clothes. Meanwhile, over about two years, Solis had garnered a loyal following for his recycling of bottles into bowls, vases, shot glasses, tumblers, succulent planters and other objects. After they met, the two joined forces, with Stemper handling the business' logistical side and Solis the creative.
"He used to bring out his bottles and just put them on a table," Stemper said. "When I came into the picture, we used wooden crates and different things. And people would always comment, 'Oh, she really took it up a notch.'"
The event's manager and promoter, Pam Free, had a similar reaction. She believes that besides being a quickly burgeoning trend, the artistry involved in upcycling materials, whether furniture or jewelry, contributes to its popularity.
"I have friends that have bought from them," Free said. "They give me bottles for them to turn into vases, glasses, etcetera. Repeat customers are very important to building any business. That demand was always very high.
"Also, their displays are eye-catching and they talk to customers in an inviting and casual way. I tell new artists, 'You only have five seconds to grab the shoppers' attention as they walk by.... Make them want to stop and shop. You can't sell if you sit in your booth reading a book or texting.'"
Like others who knew Stemper and Solis before the start of their nearly two-year relationship, Free has noticed a change in him and catches herself smiling every time she walks away from their booth.
"Bill is much more serious than Tara," she remarked. "[She] has the most amazing, bubbly personality. Now he just glows from their relationship."
Although Solis was used to handling the demands of the corporate world — he left advertising to create Bottle Rehab — he soon found himself overwhelmed as demand overtook supply. Using a warehouse and hiring a few employees offered little relief.
During the holiday season, Stemper would roll out of bed in a pair of sweats, work all day and fall into an exhausted slumber in the same clothes for several days at a stretch. And despite making 200-plus pieces a per day, the couple found themselves continually behind.
"We have our iPad and her phone hooked up to whenever we make a sale," Solis said. "So when we make a sale, you'd hear a cash register — it goes 'cha-ching.' At one point in December, it was just going 'cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.' We got to the point where we were like, 'Please, God, no more.' It was good in one way but not in another."
So, tired of the simultaneous monotony and madness that had engulfed their lives, Stemper and Solis sold their business in January and established another that they hoped would return them to their creative roots and a more reasonable schedule, Industrial Lightworks.
They now utilize recycled wood, produce crates, steel pipes and electrical knickknacks to make chandeliers, wall sconces, desk and table lamps and toilet paper holders. Their vintage-style pieces, purchased for homes, restaurants, stores and clubs, are made in a small garage behind their Costa Mesa home.
Glad to once again be building his creative muscles, Solis visits yard sales and construction sites and even grabs materials abandoned on sidewalks. His work is featured — and doing well — on Etsy, an online marketplace, as well as on the Industrial Lightworks website, where people can place custom orders or purchase items on display.
'Like being a bartender'
Although business is booming, it has kept the couple at home for nearly a year. A few months ago, Stemper realized that she missed being part of Art-A-Faire. She responded by making foot jewelry to sell by the beach, alongside friends and fellow artists. Solis, who is compiling an Industrial Lightworks catalog and building lamps that can be displayed at the fair, recently resumed exhibiting his wares there as well.
"It's almost like being a bartender," Solis remarked. "Folks will tell us about their families and tragedies and funny stories about their pets. You really get to connect with people."
According to Free, Art-A-Faire started 21 years ago on Memorial Day weekend in a parking lot on Main Street. It was called Third Block West at the time and featured 10 vendors. The group has grown to more than 50 artists. Although some people have struck up relationships, none has lasted as long as Stemper and Solis', she said.
"I think of our fair as a small village," Free said. "We are in close proximity to each other. We become involved in each other's lives. We celebrate and mourn together. We see our artists marry, have babies, divorce, fight illness, but most importantly, become very successful. I receive emails and phone calls from all over the world from visitors who want to plan their vacation around our event. That is so rewarding."
For their part, Stemper and Solis appreciate that they are not like partners who have separate careers and come together only at the end of the day. They like the closeness that has arisen from their commitment to build a life together.
"We are together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we still love each other," she said.
If You Go
What: Industrial Lightworks
Owners: Tara Stemper and Bill Solis
Cost: $100 and up