Skip to Main Content
University of Montana Logo A - Z Index
Rural Institute Logo
image of a person filling out a form and a image of a library aisle

Evolution of an Artisan

By Marie Westfall, Organizational Consultant at The Rural Institute

Gene arrived in Missoula, Montana in the mid-1980s with his wife and children, after years of traveling around the country, performing a variety of jobs in many states, and being unemployed more often than he was employed. Welfare was his safety net when he was between jobs, and jobs were getting harder for him to find. By the time he was 40 years old, his degenerative hip disorder had become a chronic source of pain, making it difficult for him to walk, stand, or even sit for extended periods. And after years of being “in the system,” stress was also getting in the way of Gene’s job success; sometimes he would misunderstand employer comments, feel stressed, and end up in a conflict with people.

Vocational Rehabilitation

In 1994 Gene was on Welfare and Vocational Rehabilitation determined he was eligible for assistance because of his physical disability. This was the beginning of a vocational discovery process that lasted several years. After paying for a traditional vocational evaluation, Vocational Rehabilitation hired a community rehabilitation agency to assist Gene in exploring areas of interest and do job development, with a goal of a traditional job placement. But having Gene apply for whatever jobs were available in town wasn’t working; he was still unemployed most of the time.

Gene needed to discover what he wanted to do before he could focus on a work goal, plus he needed to work around his physical limitations and stamina issues. He also worked best independently. Exploring options and building trust took time. The verbal brainstorming that job developers do with job seekers was arduous for Gene. He didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do. Vocational Rehabilitation and his job developer didn’t give up on Gene. After nearly three years of discussing employment options, Gene, his job developer, and Vocational Rehabilitation counselor decided self-employment was a viable option. Gene’s job developer discovered Gene had an interest in music and had a musical background dating back to 1965. The job developer also learned about Gene’s ability to work with his hands, and his experience with wood and tools. In 1997, with the assistance of Vocational Rehabilitation, Gene enrolled in a violin-family instruments repair school with the goal of becoming a violin making artisan and opening his own instrument repair business.

After graduating from this school, he returned to Missoula to open his own repair shop. He currently sells and repairs violin-family instruments, acoustic guitars, and mandolins. He also restores and builds violins and offers violin classes for adults who want to learn how to play a musical instrument. He works out of his home and can adjust his work schedule to accommodate his disabilities.

Blending Resources and Supports

Since returning from school, Gene has received supports in various forms and business development funding from several sources. Together, supports and funding have helped him get his business off the ground and expand his earning potential. Initially Gene received financial assistance from a Montana state Welfare program ($2,000) to purchase supplies for his business. During the seven years Vocational Rehabilitation served him, Gene received tuition for school, career exploration, a computer, supplies, software, and phone services, totaling over $24,000 towards his employment goal. Most recently, while Vocational Rehabilitation continues to keep Gene’s case open, the Rural Institute at the University of Montana, through MontanaWorks and a grant with the Montana Job Training Partnership, has been able to provide invaluable support including $3,000 in business development funds.

In addition to funds for business development, Gene has received a variety of supports from the many professionals who have helped with his business development. Some of the help, financial and other, he has received includes:

• assistance writing his business plan and developing his business idea
• expansion ideas for reaching beyond the local market to state and national markets
• price comparison research in the local community, so he could set competitive prices
• managing daily operations
• web research, web page design, and listings on various luthier web sites
• designing and purchasing advertising in local musical programs and newsletters
• developing an instrument inventory, parts, and supplies
• researching and buying business insurance
• designing and purchasing phone book advertising
• buying a business phone line
• individualized small business and accounting software instruction from a CPA.

Evolution of an Artisan

Self-employment is working for Gene because it was a great match of his interest and abilities. By owning and operating his own business, he is able to work when he feels good, work independently, and take pride his work. But more that just a small business owner, Gene is now a “luthier”—a violin artisan. His customers recommend him highly for his fine quality work. His work has transformed his life. He can take care of himself and be there for his family. He isn’t wearing himself out in jobs he hates. He has built successful relationships with community resources and knows where to go for help. He has goals and wants to keep expanding his business.

The differences in this man, since 1994 when he did not have any idea of what he wanted to do or what he could do, are absolutely amazing. In 1994, his spirit was beaten and on his good days he would have to drag himself in for meetings. Today, he walks with difficulty, but there is a spring in each step. His eyes sparkle and his pride shows in his smile. His voice on his business answering machine is professional and upbeat. Gene enjoys life as an artisan and small business owner.

Contact Information

The Rural Institute
52 Corbin Hall
The University of Montana
Missoula, MT 59812