In Counting Victims of This Great Recession Don’t Forget to Add Artists and Artisans

March 3, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

For most people who produce handmade arts and crafts, their work is an act of true love. Love for what they do is the secret sauce that keeps them going through sickness and in health—–and through market ups and downs.

We don’t think about these artisans much because we don’t encounter them or their handiworks often. Their woodwork, glasswork, jewelry, wearables, and other creations are not that evident on retail shelves. Crafts remains what it always has been, a cottage industry with many admirers and small sales markets.

Now and then, a few of these gifted people may hit it lucky and find an outlet for their creations through an iconic high-end retailer like San Francisco’s Gump’s. Or they may turn the head of a buyer for a chain like Neiman Marcus. But most tough it out at endless crafts shows, setting up and taking down booths for a few days at a time, hoping to make back their costs and maybe a bit more to spare.

Seven hundred artisans lined up last week at the Baltimore Crafts Show, the biggest crafts enchilada on the American Craft Council schedule. To get to the floor of the Baltimore Convention Center for this show you have to be at the top of your game in designing and fabricating original handmade arts and crafts.

This year the show was open for 2 days exclusively for wholesale buyers, and then 4 more for the general public. I visited the show on the second “wholesale” day and I suppose what I found shouldn’t have been a surprise: hardly anyone was there. Well, that’s an exaggeration. The exhibitors were there. So were some media people. Guards were on duty at the entrance and concessionaires were dispensing food and drink. But this huge hall was so empty of buyers it echoed eerily.

I’ve been to this show many times before on “wholesale” days when the floor buzzed with energy and buyers were lining up to make deals on popular products. This year, the number of wholesale days was cut from 3 to 2. Even with the shorter buying period the place was tomb-like. A number of exhibitors didn’t even bother to set up for wholesalers, waiting instead for the follow-on days where the public could buy directly.

What’s going on? Add crafts makers to the victims’ list of the current Great Recession.

For 30 years Charles McBride White of Licking, Missouri has been fabricating beautiful water fountains from copper and other metals. The fountains sell for thousands of dollars…when they sell, which they aren’t much these days. He tunes these fountains to create sounds as expertly as any musician with a fine instrument. But singing fountains are not essential food or shelter and so White’s products have slipped down a few places on buyers’ wish lists.

Daniel Grant and Ingela Noren, a couple from Westtown, N.Y. hand paint and lacquer wood furniture using traditional Swedish methods passed down through generations of Ingela’s family. Most of the work is glazed using a unique buttermilk and pigment mix. It’s beautiful work. But like McBride’s fountains it is selling slowly in a market where the number of buyers has thinned and the ones who remain are cautious.

Brenda Goldman of Glen Arm, Maryland recycles glass into extraordinary forms and objects. Local groceries and bars near her home save their used glass bottles for her. She crushes them, filters them into different sized pieces, and then applies the various glass colors to her forms. Then she fires the pieces into works of art. This is a style she first developed using old Styrofoam forms. It’s really original and eye-catching.

Jerry and Deborah Kermode of Sebastopol, California also are recyclers. They recycle redwood, maple and other woods they gather near their home into a wide range of products—-large bowls to small pepper mills. All of this from felled trees. They even save the shavings for neighbors to use in their fireplaces.

In fact, as a sign of the times, recycling is a strong running thread through the crafts community. “Greencraft” was listed as one of the new categories for exhibition.

By definition, crafts are one-of-a-kind items, the polar opposites of mass production. The loving care often results in beautiful creative design and workmanship. But that same intensity of care mostly carries a higher price tag. Not a good thing in times like these.

Those selling at lower prices are doing better. Connie Verrusio, who’s been making recycled button jewelry for the past 20 years in Highland, New York says this year’s show wasn’t bad for her and feels that business is picking up. Janet Griffen, of Hudson Beach Glass, Philadelphia, also thinks the market may be coming back. Her products sell for an average $60 apiece.

While the first two retail days were slow, show spokespeople say the last two drew big crowds and lots of sales.

It’s been demonstrated for nearly as long as humans have walked the planet that people love to decorate even those most mundane objects in their lives, starting with the jugs they used to fetch water and the crude instruments they used to hunt game. There’s no reason to think that love affair isn’t still going strong and will revive once the Great Recession’s disconnect between products and prices fades.

There are more big crafts shows ahead. Atlanta, March 12-14; St. Paul, April 16-18; San Francisco, August 13-15. Many smaller ones are probably on someone’s schedule within driving distance of where you live. Go to one of them if you can. Fall in love with these gems of human artistry, and the unheralded artists who produce them.