Brodie Stutzman

“Music and art didn’t seem like the most realistic career path, so I studied biology. I got through school okay, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue down that career path, so I took a break, stayed here in Steubenville, and got a job working at Nelson’s. I also had a small group of friends who had stuck around the community and we were part of a nonprofit organization called The Harmonium Project, a group trying to bridge the gap between the university and the city a little more by bringing music, art and other things to the downtown area. I had been working here at Nelson’s for a year, and they were beginning to express some more interest in helping the downtown area as well. We were collaborating and had some of the same goals about how to bring revitalization to the downtown and attract more businesses, people, and families.

It was probably around 2015 when I first heard Mark Nelson wanted to do a European-style Advent market for Christmas. I immediately thought that it was something I wanted to be a part of. I studied abroad in Austria and saw some Christmas festivities at the Advent market there. Basically, it’s an outdoor farmers’ market but with gifts and Christmas items. It’s set up in the center area of the city in a town square on Main Street and we have a whole bunch of chalets, or vendor booths, that are built and decorated to look like an old historic market and they have a Christmas style to them. Not only does it provide the community with a cool event and businesses an opportunity for selling, but it gives people an opportunity to get outside and get together. I took my family trick or treating in the neighborhood this year and it occurred to me as a parent that this is a really rare occasion: it’s one of the few times a year where everyone comes out of their house for a communal event where everyone has the same purpose and interacts in that way.

So, one day Mark Nelson was talking with Jerry Barilla and they had this idea of decorating the downtown with nutcrackers during Christmas. Some cities have big dogs or other animal statues that they decorate, and that idea got combined with the idea for the European-style Advent market, and that became the idea behind Nutcracker Village. Businesses or groups could sponsor them and help come up with ideas to decorate them in their own unique way, and it could be a way to get the community involved and create something that locally we can take pride in. We have a workshop at Nelson’s, so Mark goes on Google and prints out a six-foot-tall image of a nutcracker, pins it on the wall, and says, ‘How can we make this?’

We came up with a system that involved Styrofoam and a CNC router combined with a makeshift wood lathe, so it would spin and then the router head would cut the profile. That gave us this delicate Styrofoam core nutcracker that we would then coat in an epoxy shell for durability and smooth everything out to get its final shape.

The first year, we made 37 crackers and the second year, we made 75. As the collection grew, I tried to make more unique nutcrackers, and the more recent ones have been more hand-turned and carved individually. I’ll study handmade wooden nutcrackers and try to get ideas of how to be somewhat authentic to the style, but build upon an existing tradition. In total, there are 204 nutcrackers this year, and six new ones.

In my generation, the place you would go to gather, shop, and spend money was the mall. But malls are dying and there’s been a shift in culture back to downtowns.

I’m in charge of overseeing a lot of the repairs, crafting the new ones and doing some of the painting. I’m really grateful for the opportunity that I have to make these. Watching people experience it all gives me a lot of feelings. It gives me the chance to be paid to come up with creative ideas, something I didn’t think I would really get to do. I don’t really put myself out there saying that I’m the master carver behind the nutcrackers. I’ll be downtown and see people observing them and talking about them, but for the most part,  I won’t say much: sometimes I’ll answer a question or tell someone the story behind them.

It’s more about just letting the public enjoy them.

Nutcracker Village is important because it’s important to give people reasons to take pride in their city. Our focus with this project has been preserving the downtown and its historic value as a gathering space for the public. In my generation, the place you would go to gather, shop, and spend money was the mall. But malls are dying and there’s been a shift in culture back to downtowns. We have Amazon and you can get everything you need without leaving your house, but people are now reconsidering the idea of walking in a downtown area and spending time there and gathering there as a community.

We want people to spend locally and not just push money out of the state by buying online. There are lots of ways to do that, but we know how to build things, so we decided to build something. The first year was a complete experiment and we had no idea how it was going to go. We invested a lot of money and work into the project, but it caught people’s attention and gained momentum. That resulted in a spotlight on Steubenville and the downtown, and with that, it brought more money that slowly comes into the city from all different areas. It’s been surprising how many people really have embraced it. There are individuals who grew up here and are always walking around downtown, and they will say, ‘Thank you for one of the best things that has happened to the city in years.’”

—Brodie Stutzman, Nelson Fine Art & Gifts

Steubenville, Jefferson County