In December 2012, Jess Sheldon went on a first date.
The Cincinnati native has always been the creative type. Her art form of preference, photography, has been in her life since her days at Walnut Hills High School. So when this particular first date went particularly well, Sheldon decided to create something for the guy that would show him what she was all about.
As a junior in high school, Sheldon used to drive down to Over-the-Rhine from her home in Mt. Lookout to take photos of the buildings, talk to people and get a feel for the community. At that time, Over-the-Rhine was far from what it is today; many of the now-restored old buildings hadn't been touched in decades.
"I always loved how gritty, loud, lively and candid it was," she says.
In 2012, Jess still had the original black-and-white photos from her OTR trips. After that first date, she superimposed the photos onto old, antique tiles she found in a dumpster to create tiny pieces of tangible art, then gave them to her date as a gift.
"He thought they were coasters," she says. "I didn't mean them to be, but the more I thought about it the coaster idea actually made a lot of sense."
Today Sheldon is running a self-funded business by creating durable, high-end "coasters" featuring photos of favorite landmarks in Cincinnati and around the world. She describes her tiles as having a "grittier" feel, one that calls the past to mind.
"I like the idea of creating something tangible in the digital era," Sheldon says. "Coasters have a dual purpose as mementos."
When Sheldon decided to apply for ArtWorks' 2015 Big Pitch competition
, she entered with the name of her wedding photography business, Hazel Brown Photography
. She's since decided to rebrand the tile-crafting part of the business as "Cityscape Tiles" to reflect her primary focus.
Sheldon's business has expanded rapidly over the past few years. Her tiles now appear in specialty shops in Columbus, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, popping up at places like Mica 12/V
in OTR and Red Tree
in Oakley. She also sells at City Flea and has made a habit of taking custom orders from companies like Sam Adams and LaRosa's.
Though the photos on the tiles primarily feature physical places, Sheldon is open to expanding her concept.
"It's more about the idea of home, of passing things down," she says.
Right now, Sheldon is in Europe documenting an outdoor adventure trip to the Alps. After nine years as an outdoor adventure leader with Apogee Adventures
, she's received numerous photography commissions from the company.
"Traveling offers me perspective," Sheldon says.
The goal for Cityscape Tiles is to expand by one city per year, eventually branching out to more niche markets like universities. Regardless of Sheldon's active travel schedule, she is a firmly rooted Cincinnati resident living in — you guessed it — Over-the-Rhine.
And that guy, the owner of her first set of tiles? He and Sheldon are still together today.
Soapbox is profiling each of the eight finalists in the 2015 ArtWorks Big Pitch, a 10-week mentorship program that offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes and professional services. The program concludes Aug. 27 with the finalists giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience.