Detroit resident Craig Hejka creates and perfects the essential piece of a painting you may often forget about: the canvas.
By Hannah Owen
Photography by Alyssa Lopatin
Growing up in Royal Oak, Craig Hejka says he often walked past an art gallery and boutique called 323 East when he was a teenager. At the time, Hejka liked to create art of his own.
“I always happened to walk past when they were closed, and I finally went in when they were open one time and was like, ‘Hey do you guys want to sell my paintings?’ ”
Hejka began putting his paintings in the boutique, unaware that this endeavor would lead him down a different type of path.
“I would go and check like every weekend to see if they sold and obviously they didn’t,” he says. But workers at the gallery offered to teach him skills such as how to use Photoshop and make T-shirts. “I kind of got immersed into that, and I got hired on shortly after that,” Hejka says.
In 2011 323 East formed 1xRun, a business that sold limited edition prints online, and Hejka was its first employee. He says he would help out with tasks like shipping the prints. After the business grew it moved to a building in Detroit’s Eastern Market.
Hejka was the studio manager for 1xRun until recently; he would build panels and canvases for artists, prepare the gallery for exhibits and help with other miscellaneous tasks. He says after being with the company for around 10 years he wanted to branch off to do his own thing.
“I mostly do artist services like making canvases and panels, hanging the art, packaging the art for shipping and stuff like that,” Hejka says.
Hejka also offers services like repairing damaged paintings or priming a wall for a mural.
He says artists will call him and explain exactly what kind of canvas they need for the piece they are planning. “I’ll make a specific canvas or panel,” Hejka says. “Custom work is my main thing right now. I gave up on the art career a long time ago because I found more satisfaction in helping artists do their thing.”
The best part for Hejka is seeing the canvas he provided once the artist has finished. “I love the opportunity to work with extremely talented people and see what comes of whatever they create on top of the surface I’ve given them,” he says.
“What I like most about it is being friends with them,” he adds. “I can go and check on their work halfway through and see how they’re making progress. Ellen Rutt, she’s a good friend of mine and a good customer as well, and her studio’s just across the way. I get to see what she’s working on and help her along the way.”
Rutt, a Detroit artist, says she’s been working with Hejka for almost a decade, and he never disappoints. “He is the behind-the-scenes secret sauce to countless projects,” she says. “Whether he’s constructing custom-sized canvases, building professional-grade crates for shipping delicate work or just helping artists turn their sketches into physical, tangible objects, Craig enables me to bring my work to life, ensures that it won’t warp and arrives safely at its destination. He is careful, resourceful and with over 10 years of experience under his work belt, his understanding of materials and craftsmanship is unparalleled.”
Hejka says he made a panel for Rutt that he also ended up installing in the gallery that purchased it from her. “It’s kind of cool that I get to see it full circle before any paint touched it,” he says. “It goes into her hands and like two years later I’m hanging it on the wall.”
An average day of work can be filled with a mix of site visits, sending out quotes, making panels or anything else artists may have ordered, Hejka says. “It can be anywhere from me being in the shop to touching up a painting,” he says, “or making a frame or being in a boom lift and priming a wall before someone puts a mural on it.”
Hejka is the logistics director of Murals in the Market, an annual mural festival 1xRun holds in Eastern Market in September. “I work with artists to help them work on the walls,” he says, “and I run a team that assists all of them.”
The community of artists in Detroit makes it a great place for him to run his business, Hejka says. “Everybody seems to know each other,” he says, “and everyone does a great job to elevate everyone else’s work.”
“I just like being the background support for artists,” Hejka explains. “There’s all sorts of stuff that artists don’t need to worry about because there’s people like myself who can help them.”