Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Review: The Renegade Craft Fair

On Saturday, June 17, my friend Steph and I ventured to McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for the 2nd convening of the Renegade Craft Fair.

Billed as “a unique DIY [Do-It-Yourself] event,” the fair offered nearly 200 booths of work made by an enthusiastic group of mostly younger (20-35) artists and crafters at a broad range of commercial and artistic development. It was started in 2003 by Sue Blatt and Kathleen Habbley, two women from Chicago who had taken “up crafts as a hobby after college and decided to try selling our stuff in local fairs. To our surprise, no events were catering to the burgeoning DIY craft community or even prohibited crafts all together. So we thought of organizing a fair of our own that tapped into this movement and provided a laid back, fresh venue for artists and shoppers alike.”

What We Saw

Most of the work for sale was image printed (tee-shirts, bags, baby onesies, note cards, buttons, magnets) or sewn (handbags, skirts, tee-shirts with felt appliqué). Bookbinding made a strong showing, as did jewelry. There were only a couple soap-makers (many fewer than I expected), two ceramicists, and a smattering of knitters, spinners, and stuffed doll makers. Steph noticed that everything seemed fairly portable as befits the needs of the urban consumer, and probably that’s why there wasn’t a lot of furniture or sculpture.

We were somewhat confused and disgruntled by how some booths were crammed with shoppers and some were empty, and it seemed to have much less to do with the quality or originality of the work than with how many publicity mentions from Lucky magazine and Daily Candy were stuck to the pole holding up the canopy. Yet we agreed that there was very little junk and we both saw lots of items we liked. Nothing was expensive, though I made the mistake of bringing only $30 in cash, limiting my take to a few Brooklyn-made note cards by Foxy & Winston (shown at bottom) and an instant-favorite tee shirt by Maryink sporting the designer’s take on the fair logo.

While the sunny faces, palpable community spirit, and outdoor invigoration felt very craft-fair-like, content-wise the Renegade Craft Fair bore little resemblance to the New Hampshire fairs of my youth in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. In place of potters, basket weavers, furniture makers, and bluegrass musicians there were hipster tee-shirt-, handbag-, and note card-designers, funky jewelry makers, and a motley group of bombastic “revolutionary cheer leaders.”

Yet as much as the Fair seemed like a ‘70’s country craft fair turned on its head, the predominant aesthetic trend represented there seems to draw directly from that era. Many of the work seemed to draw from a Partridge Family look and palette. Think Cat Stevens album covers and avocado-and-mustard colored living room schemes, then translate that into a tote bag (like the one by Maryink shown above), and you get close to the idea. It’s an appealing mix of nostalgia and postmodern clambake for the under-40 set who grew up with that aesthetic. As Steph writes, “It's interesting to see how things settle in the subconscious of an entire age group only to be expressed years later in slightly different form.” Indeed.

What We Thought

The overall sociological sensibility seemed to relate to the 70s as well. Steph observed that among the crafters there “seemed to be a lot of third-wave feminists,” and definitely not many “hippie-crunchy folks.” I’d call them instead “hipster hippies.” Peering into the fair’s demographic, Steph writes, “DIY is an interesting phenomenon for feminists to latch onto. It's a great way to express creativity but there's also such a strong anti-consumerism (mainstream consumerism, that is) ethos to it. They take traditional ideas, materials, methods, but then put a sort of rebellious spin on them. It's an interesting juxtaposition. And a statement about the mall-ification, mass-produced nature of our society.” To some extent I think that’s what craft has been about since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the American and European Arts & Crafts movements (see previous posting on this topic). It’s pleasing to see the next generation in action.

This issue of where craft ends and design begins came up in my mind about halfway through the fair. Feeling like I couldn’t look at another clever appliqué-over-silhouette design, I turned to Steph and asked, “is screen printing a tee-shirt really craft?” At the American Craft Council fair, unless the artisan wove the cotton jersey and stitched the seams themselves (and I’ve seen nothing of the sort), you will not find a single printed tee shirt. But at the Renegade Craft Fair, unless it’s an abandoned chair someone found on the sidewalk then covered in pages from vintage magazines, you won’t find a single stick of furniture. Is “craft” big enough to accommodate both extremes?

Later that day, Rena from Rare Device stopped by to compare notes – she’d been at the fair as well. She put her finger on the button when she mentioned another craft fair in Seattle recently going “more indie.” That was it – indie! That was the word Steph and I had been searching for.

Craft is a large, flexible word. It is the umbrella concept under which you will find everything from indie to fine. I’d venture that at a certain point of technical proficiency and clarity of expression a crafter becomes an artisan. But other than that, craft is for everyone who makes it. If you’re not sure about that, then next year treat yourself to the Renegade Craft Fair and decide for yourself!

Highlights from the 2006 Renegade Craft Fair
(Some of these may be appearing one day at Greenjeans...)

:: Jeweler Kurt Van Maarth’s sturdy display case made from cardboard, duct tape, and plexiglass. His work – especially the skull belt buckle – is a highlight too.

:: Sew Betsy Ross’ packaged dress and skirt patterns--just like Mom used to get at JoAnn Fabrics, but hip

:: Jessica Rosenkranz’ beautifully bound small edition books (charming tiny storybook about a chicken).

:: Prints and note cards by Julie Meredith (girls on swings, riding bikes)

:: Strawberry Luna’s fabulous rock posters (Iron & Wine, Belle & Sebastian) - see above

:: Mat Daly’s woodblock posters for Renegade Craft Fairs past and present

:: Necklaces and rings made from silver casts of twigs and birch bark by Twigs & Heather

:: Scott Urban's custom wooden eyeglass frames


shawn said...

Wow! What a great review on the fair. The correlation of the DIY movement and feminism - I need to think about that more. The things Greenjeans carry are not the normal crafy stuff I've come to expect (screen-printed t-shirts, hand-woven socks), but they are so much more refined and well-built...

More on the DIY bit, do you know about this site? (I haven't gone through in depth but it looks interesting)

Aimee said...

Thanks for the mention, girls. Also- a very insighful review of the fair.