This past weekend, I accompanied my girlfriend Amanda to New York's 27th Annual American Craft Festival, at the Lincoln Center in middle Manhattan.
Bear in mind, I did not want to go to this craft festival. For the days leading up to the event when Amanda asked me if I'd like to go, my response could be summed up as indifferent with a proclivity towards disinterest. For one, I thought a show where people display their crafts was called a craft fair. A fair is defined as, "A gathering held at a specific time and place for the buying and selling of goods; a market", while festival is defined as "An often regularly recurring program of cultural performances, exhibitions or competitions."* To me, fair seems to be the more appropriate term for a gathering such as this. I mean, the idea is to sell the crafts you've made at these events as far as I can tell. Why else would people put price tags on things?
But a simple semantics idiosyncrasy was not what warranted my unenthusiastic response to Amanda's invitation. When I relax my mind and think "craft fair," I usually think of a lot of things that I don't want gathered all together in one place. Handmade crafts that people have poured their blood and sweat into, crammed into a small booth between a bunch of mostly identical small booths in the hopes that you might buy something. Anything. Crafts made from wood, ceramic, cloth, leather, metal, glass, rock, gemstone, paper and more. Somethat artistic, some practical, some innovative, some old-fashioned - you name it, you'll find it at a craft fair.
And if you're me, you'll probably leave it there, too.
Not that I've never bought a craft. I possess a lovely sock-monkey of the female gender purchased at a craft show of sorts some years ago in Raleigh. Having once made such a sock monkey of my own, the fine craftsmanship of this monkey was obvious. I was quite pleased.
Unfortunately, for every craft fair sock-monkey success story out there, there must be a hundred craft fair disappointment stories: The earth-tone new-wave motif dress story; the hand-knit sweater costing nine times the price of a comparable store-bought sweater with no clarification as to what you're really getting for the additional costs story; the gaudy carved turquoise bolero shaped like a steer's skull story; the airbrushed and jeweled with the be-dazzler canvas bag story; the hand-blown glass similar to one from last season's Pier One collection only the craft fair vendor probably won't accept returns and exchanges within six months from the date of purchase story. I mean, you can ask him if he'll accept returns for six months, but I wouldn't count on getting it.
But despite all of my sense that going to this fair was a waste of my time, despite the assumption (which turned out to be correct) that I would not find something I would actually take home with me, and faced with the realization that I had nothing better to do with this, one of the few Saturdays that New York City hadn't been drenched in rain since the spring of 2003 began, and perhaps most importantly, realizing that I needed an article topic for Intrepid in a bad way, I agreed to accompany Amanda to the so called festival.
As I suspected from the beginning, most of what was on display when we arrived did little to attract my attention. Bedazzled garments, country décor and other typical craft fair products abounded. Still, I stopped to admire a few items. One artist showed of his oversized black-metal sculptures of insects. Eye-catching, they were. Costly, they also were – one such sculpture decorated with shiny rocks for eyes and being about the size of a 13" television had an $850 price tag. I mean, maybe that’s reasonable – I happen to work in music, where the going sale price on a single song apparently is $.99 from Apple.com. Perhaps I'm in the wrong line of work.
There was also one guy who made custom hats. I smiled at one top hat that had a working rabbit puppet that came out of it, seemingly inspired by the old magician's "watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat" trick. I didn't even look at the price tag because I wouldn't have been caught dead in the hat, but I was impressed with the creativity.
I stopped in at one booth occupied by an Asian couple who hand-carved custom designs in polished stone that could then be dipped in sealing wax to seal your envelopes. I struggled to think of what I might have engraved on such a stone were I to have my own seal. They definitely were a touch of class in this self-adhesive envelope world we live in.
At 3:30 in the afternoon, one booth that featured handmade wool products presented a sheep shearing demonstration. The sheep bleated throughout the ordeal. One bystander said, "He probably likes it, getting all that weight off of him." I made up several different interpretations of what the sheep was trying to say, most of which were curses and snide remarks. I thought he'd make quite a funny pet. I would have been more likely to impulse buy had they been selling sheep instead of sweaters.
[writer's note: given this and other exhibitions, festival, it turns out, could be an appropriate title for this event. Still, I think fair is the more appropriate term].
Wandering amongst the myriad of booths, I began to realize that each one of these craftspeople were a lot like me. An artist who makes a necklace, stitches an article of clothing, or builds a piece of furniture is not that much different from me when I am arranging the chord progression for a song. A person sitting behind a table full of handmade goods in the hopes that someone may appreciate what they've done isn't dissimilar from me posting my latest Intrepid article in the hopes that someone will be drawn to my work; not that different from me performing a song from a club stage in the hopes that the crowd will react positively. Like me, each person at their booth waited in the hopes that their work would please the fickle public. They, like me, hone their craft day after day, hoping that one day our efforts will earn us a better life where our crafts are sought by many, and that then we will have a slightly tighter grip on our destiny.
Most shoppers at craft fairs walk past the booths of many, being drawn into only a few booths to inspect goods, and purchasing something rarely. To the outside observer, running the average booth at a craft fair must seem like an exercise in futility. One may ask themselves, "How can a craftsperson return to fair after fair with such a minor amount of accomplishment?"
As I looked at my music career over the past decade, I saw the answer. I keep making music because I love to do it, and because I really think I have something to offer. They keep making their crafts and returning to these fairs because they believe they have something worth offering. We craftspeople are not textbook examples of futility; we are confidence incarnate.
* The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd edition.
A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.
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6.18.03 @ 1:00a
As one who has been a professional crafter (i.e. one who can make a living at it) for many years, I almost got testy about your tone here. I still object to the dismissive nature of some of this, but you redeemed yourself a bit at the end. What we do is put a little bit of ourselves on display, open ourselves to ignorant criticism, and it's not an easy thing to do. Glad to see you were able to draw a parallel.
6.18.03 @ 1:47a
More power to people doing what they love, but honestly, crafts and craft-like items are about as far from my personal style as you can get.
I guess I just have a vastly different (not better, just different) sense of design and creativity compared to someone who owns a mailbox that looks like a cow or a knitted bunny rabbit-shaped tissue box cover.
6.18.03 @ 2:05a
I agree with both Juli and Matt, and with you as well. This was a well crafted column.
6.18.03 @ 11:05a
Juli, ignorant criticism yes, but there are some legit criticisms about craft fairs, too. I mean, maybe you like turquiose bolaros, but...
Everything has some point on which criticism can apply. I'd like to think that a piece like this may make someone who had already written off a craft fair as pointless (like Matt, perhaps) think twice.
6.18.03 @ 11:31a
There's certainly a good chunk of crap that makes it into craft fairs - the first thing that pops into my mind is those silly "knickers up" yard ornaments - but there are a huge number of craftspeople who could better be described as artisans. Those of us in that category have to cope with not only the public perception of craft fairs as "crap fairs", but also with the competition from other craftspeople. I have found that an educated consumer is my best customer :) So I will often spend most of my craft fair time demonstrating my craft so that people understand WHY the jewelry I make is priced the way it is.
6.18.03 @ 11:46a
Did you write a song about this? Seems like you stumbled upon an emotion worthy of exploring. Or, better yet, maybe you made up a story in your mind - of the poor craftman's daughter behind the table, dreaming of staying in the big city to make her mark in the demanding cut-throat world of braided leather braclets. Oh yeah, this has Oscar winner all over it.
6.18.03 @ 2:19p
The craftsman's daughter and me and leather. I like it already. Maybe the sheep can join in, too.
Here's to Juli, in the hopes that consumers are smart enough to distinguish crap from good crafts.
6.18.03 @ 2:31p
I think it's more discerning the difference between "crafts" and "craftsmanship."
6.18.03 @ 3:36p
sounds about right. good.
6.18.03 @ 3:54p
The sheep part is very disturbing, on so many levels.