Galleries : The Artisans Festival : A Community Of Artists
Threats of an economic downturn didn't stop customers from flocking to the Memorial Day weekend opening of the Artisans Festival at West Tisbury's Grange Hall. An Island institution after almost 13 years, the Festival has become the place to find unique jewelry, handmade products, and unusual items for the house.
Open for business every Thursday and Sunday, 10 am-4 pm, from June 8 to October 12, it is part of the Vineyard scene. This year a show has been added in mid-December.
"Yes, the economy may be affecting us, but not really badly," says Andrea Rogers of Oak Bluffs, founder and organizer of the Festival. It has grown from a half-dozen exhibitors in 1995, to 60 by mid-summer, and 110 for the Labor Day show at the Agricultural Hall.
"The consensus was, we had a good show," says Lucinda Sheldon, the Oak Bluffs artisan who has sold her jeweled enamels since the first Festival in 1995. The special enameling technique she loves to do was learned her from her mother, who created it in the 1950s.
The customers were not "tire-kickers," Ms. Sheldon's label for those who show up in July and August mainly for entertainment value. "The people who came were interested in the arts, and that's why they came," she says. "I couldn't be more delighted."
What sells, according to Ms. Rogers, is "that very special Vineyard article with a good price point." Jewelry attracts both men and women. Other popular sales items are those that offer something unique, and are easily transportable.
Unlike the Chilmark Flea Market, Festival work is juried. Participants, who must be Island residents, have to submit an application annually along with slides of their work. Acceptance entitles them to a booth, the cost of which varies according to the number of shows the exhibitor attends and the size of the booth, which can vary when the location shifts to the Agricultural Hall.
Photo by Susan Safford
David Duddy, Director of Retail Operations for the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, serves as juror for the Festival. The advantage to the jury system, which was put in place five years ago, is both to insure the quality of work displayed and to maintain a balance that ensures variety in what is shown. Exhibitors who consistently get accepted achieve tenure after a certain period of time.
Ms. Rogers prefers avoiding comparisons with the Island flea markets. People go to a flea market expecting a bargain. It's a place to haggle a little; there's no bargaining at the Artisans Festival.
One hallmark of the show is the camaraderie among those who exhibit their work. With a studio in the Oak Bluffs Arts District where she also sells her work, Ms. Sheldon says the Festival group provides tremendous support. Everyone's success matters.
Jeweler and charter member Diana Stewart, who has entered juried shows around New England, recognizes a cohesiveness in the Festival. Because she was ill, she missed the opening weekend, but she heard about the show from others.
"We're all good friends," confirmed Ms. Rogers.
Photo by Alan Brigish
Another benefit comes from the interaction artists have with their customers. All kinds of people show up. Some are on-Island for the day, others are bicyclers, year-round Islanders, or people staying on the Vineyard for the summer. Many are return customers.
Hannah Beecher, who sold her "crooked little chairs" at the Festival until two years ago, explains an advantage: It's far less expensive than a gallery, which takes up to a 50 percent cut of each item's sale price. Although Ms. Beecher stopped participating after taking a full-time job with Community Services, she hopes to return. "Everybody wants to keep it going at a level of artistry so it doesn't turn into a yard sale," she says. A special youth category has been added, and the Festival sponsors scholarships for graduating high school seniors who plan to go on in the arts.
Ms. Beecher credits Ms. Rogers with being a wonderful organizer, who plans everything from insurance, electricity, and security to food and music. Ms. Rogers holds potluck dinners over the winter for participants and solicits input so everyone gets a chance to have their say.
"It's been like watching a child grow up," Ms. Sheldon says, referring to how the Festival has changed over the years. "It's been a wonderful journey for me, as I have evolved as an artist."
This year Ms. Rogers is changing her own inventory from dried flowers and lavender. After taking a course over the winter, she is selling Appalachian-style corn brooms and seat weavings. They are crafts her great-grandfather practiced, and she will grow her own corn for the brooms.
She is not alone in trying new products. That is a way the Festival remains vital, as well as through exhibitor turnover.
"I'm always looking for new ideas," Ms. Rogers says. One may be a cookbook put out jointly by the participants. And this year Lola's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs will provide the food.
"This has given the Island's artists a place to plan their future and earn a living," Ms. Rogers says.
Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.