Fiber Artists at the Fair: A Sampler

Hooked Rug
Hooked Rug from the Foxy Lady Rug Hooking Guild

As soon as you walk in the door of Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair, you see the colors just beyond the gate and hear the noise.  You realize that this is a big show and that it’s probably going to overwhelm you and that you don’t care.  It’s exuberating when you set out into the vendor booths because you know it’s all ahead of you: hours of joy.  The more you lose yourself in this world, the better.  This is why you work hard all week.

I had the pleasure of attending the MFFAF this past weekend with my cousin and her daughter, a beginning knitter (and as of Saturday, a spindler, too).  Not having children myself, this was the first time I’d had the pleasure of seeing a young person take an interest in a craft I love.  I had little to do with her taking up knitting, but it was a singular treat to be present as she discovered firsthand what the world of fiber arts has to offer.

The MFFAF is a good show to make your first because it showcases fiber artists along with musicians and knitters, crocheters, quilters, spinners, and rug hookers.  As I’ve said before on this blog, we can’t lose sight of the artists.  They inspire us and–I firmly believe–we inspire them.  Just like my cousin’s daughter who has newly taken up her needles, I, a knitter of some twenty-two years’ experience, draw inspiration from her excitement over the new world she’s entered. As she discovered that she already knows all the stitches it takes to make a sweater, I was reminded that there are still many ways to push my own skills.  No doubt the fiber artists who entered their work at the exhibits felt the same way when they saw so many hundreds of fair goers crowding the booths, enjoying their work, thinking up new projects.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Felted Tunic by Cynthia Boudreau
Felted Tunic by Cynthia Boudreau

Cynthia Boudreau fashioned this Felted Tunic from Nuno silk and merino wool.  She used the wet felting technique to mesh the wool to the silk and then added beads.  Besides the design, which reminds me a little of Monet’s waterlily paintings, I love the shape and presentation, which reminds me of Japanese kimonos.  I wish you could see firsthand how light and refreshing this piece is–like a breeze.  Here’s more about Cynthia:

Principal plans return to her roots as an artist – The Doings La Grange.

Two entries in the handbag exhibit caught my eye.  To gain entry, artists had to construct a handbag by riffing off an older pattern–this year’s pattern was from 1945.  Click the link for a picture of the pattern and exhibit details.   You’ll be astonished at how different these entries are from the original.  But believe me: all the entries were wildly different.  In fact, in all the years I’ve been attending, no two bags are ever alike, like–not even close.

The beaded purse (below), entitled Dancing Abundance, by Marianne Biagi, was made using an altered peyote stitch.  Biagi describes, “I don’t have a plan.  I design as I go, letting the colors and shapes of beads guild me.”  And this I love: “I finish when the art tells me to stop.”

Dancing Abundance by Marianne Biagi
Dancing Abundance by Marianne Biagi

The reverse of this bag is in a different color scheme, which is equally beautiful.

Beyond color, texture plays an important part in Biagi’s work.  Her beaded art deserves a more careful look.  Here’s an article I found that provides more pictures and background information on this artist from thecity1.com.

Another piece that needs mention is Boa Bag by Judith Reilly.  It’s a knitted and crocheted piece that uses Reilly’s own handspun wool along with commercial novelty yarn.  I love the colors as well as the creative use of mitered squares.  (Modular knitting is great for free-form knitters and satisfying for anyone who only has a small amount of time to knit each day.)  Equally inspiring is Reilly’s description of how she created it: she started with the beads.  In her words, “I thought they’d be a nice echo of the diamonds on the top of the bag.  Then I found the perfect colors in the roving. . . and the rest is history.”

Boa Bag by Judith Reilly
Boa Bag by Judith Reilly

Just like Biagi, Reilly’s approach reminds us that we don’t always need a pattern or plan.  What we need is to be open to inspiration.  Fairs like the Midwest Fiber & Folk Arts Fair help us all–hobbyist and artist alike–find ways of pushing our craft and our skills.  As important as it was for my cousin’s daughter to attend as a new knitter, so it is equally important for longtime practitioners to refresh ourselves, see the latest trends, and connect with the vibrant community that makes up the fiber arts.

Artisanal Flowchart Postscript:

Incidentally, all four of these pieces featured above are artisanal (did you expect anything else coming from me?).  They all express the artistic vision of the fiber artists who made them and they all possess utility: they can be used.  Will they be used is another question.  Sometimes the potential for use is enough.

Food Fails Flowchart

photo by Alex Anlicker

Not without hesitation do I send food through its inevitable course along the Artisanal Flowchart.  We love to eat–especially if it’s good.  And it so often is.  I do not except myself.  I mean, what would life be like without my mother’s rouladen, each rolled-up beefy morsel drenched in flour, not to mention the delectable gravy it makes. . . gravy that must be poured liberally over both the meat and the homemade spaetzle.  Oh, sweet heaven!  Her recent foray into Moroccan food has left us all wishing she’d give up gardening and reading and all other earthly pursuits to do nothing but cook.

And it’s not just my mother’s cooking that sends me.  There’s a little Indian grocery store near my workplace that makes the best samosas I’ve ever had.  Just last week they served up dish that looked like rolled up cigars made of golden pasta–I didn’t catch the name–that I fear I’ll never taste again, so delicious was its every bite.  I could eat Indian food every day of my life, but then when would I fit in all the other wonders of world cuisine?  Don’t even get me started on Ethiopian or Hmong or Cuban or countless, countless others.

And so, dear readers, what I’m about to say may come as a shock: no food is artisanal unless it exists solely as art, never to be eaten. . . need I even mention the travesty that would be?

I will leave it to you to follow food’s course along the Artisanal Flowchart for yourself.  You will, no doubt, get stuck where I got stuck.  For food to be called artisanal it must possess both utility and artistic expression.  I can’t think of a single food that does this.  Certainly bagels don’t.  Nor lettuce.  Maybe fancy cupcakes made by a small-scale bakery?  Maybe?  Let’s not forget that an artisanal cupcake–an artisanal anything for that matter–must express the inner artistic vision of its creator.  The fancy cupcakes I’ve seen are just that: fancy.  And if you can’t eat them because they’re so beautiful, then they’re art, which is another matter entirely.

Then there’s cheese.  I’m a cheesemaker myself, so I know that the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée has its categories and that artisanal is among them.  To them, I say touché.  You have defined your system and stuck to it.  More’s the better for you.  In my system, a cheese must express artistic vision and I’ve never seen a single cheese that does this.  One can admire a cheese for its form, its aroma, its bloom, its texture, its taste.  You can sample this year’s Brillat-Savarin or Forme d’Ambert and pronounce it ambrosia.  But it must also speak as art, and this it does not.  

I harp on this, my friends, because art makes a difference.  We cannot put a cheese or a bagel next to a handmade textile on display at a gallery and call it the same thing.  And why should they be?  Let them each have their glory as the things they are.  Why must we search for success anywhere else but where we are?

Ah, but this is an age-old problem for people, too, n’est pas?

A Fiber Fair that Values Artists

Modular Shells

If you work with fiber, you may very well enjoy the fiber show circuit that starts in Spring and lives on strong into late Fall.  We all have our favorite festivals.  I like to start the season every April with the Moonspinner’s fiber fest in Stephenson County, Illinois.  Its down-to-earth approach reminds me of the practical side of my craft.  Beautiful things can also be useful things.  By the same turn, a practical life can also be a beautiful life.

On the other end of the season, my grand finale is always the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival the second week in September.  I book a hotel and stay all three days.  By the third day, I’ve blown all my money and am contriving ways to make one last purchase.  I always promise that I will not, under any circumstances, buy another fleece.  Oh, sorrowful weakness.  I usually have a fleece in hand by noon on Day 1.

Both of these shows favor spinners.  You can certainly get yarn and felting supplies, among other things, but they offer a great variety of fleeces, roving, and equipment.  For an urban spinner, these essentials are hard to come by.  Between these two shows in mid June is a different sort of gathering, unique–at least in this area–because along with all things fibery, it showcases fiber artists.

The Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair is this June 22-24 in Grayslake, Illinois.  Now in its sixth year, this fair is a knitter/crocheter/quilter/spinner/rug hooker/felter/folk craft fair.  It has always made welcome the work of local fiber artists alongside all the vendors and classes. Because you need both, of course. The one feeds the other and back again.  Artists need ways to connect with the community because good art cannot exist in a vacuum.    It needs to be in dialogue with the community so that art and the viewer can exchange meaning. The fiber artist and the fiber enthusiast need to support one another in a synergistic relationship; both sides are equally important.  The organizers of the Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair understand this, which is why I love to attend year after year.

And did I mention the live music?

With Artisanal Dead, Let’s Move on to Homemade

Reader Jeremy P. recently helped me understand a bit more about how high-end saxophones are made.  He was responding to my recent flowchart test that used musical instruments to determine when an instrument maker can apply the artisanal designation.  Jeremy’s point was that automation has improved saxophones: many high end makers use computer-aided technology to determine precision tuning.  Can we begrudge them an automated process if it results in a superior product?  Certainly not.  Again, as long as automation is not facilitating mass production, we’re still on the chart.

Now, let’s apply Jeremy’s question to something more commonplace: how much automation can we allow and still call an item homemade?  We throw around the word homemade far more often than we use artisanal, so this discussion should be even more juicy.

The question, again, is one of definition.  What does homemade mean?  For starters, it must be made at home.  This ought to be obvious, but it’s not.  For example, why do restaurants routinely call their food homemade?  That can’t possibly be true.  (More fascinating is that diners don’t object–but I digress.)

Second, a homemade thing must be made by hand.  We can say this because homemade can be used as a synonym for hand-crafted.  People who use the term hand-crafted to describe their item may not like the comparison because homemade bespeaks a sense of homeyness or crude, even slip-shod construction; but, it can also mean made from scratch and made by oneself and this gives the word a sense of ingenuity and self-sufficiency.

The made-by-hand requirement, however, is also where the trouble begins.  Especially today, automation is almost impossible to overcome.  To show just how difficult it is to avoid, consider baking.  Most people who bake do not mill their own flour.  They use store-bought flour that was mass produced using automation.  Nor do they make their own butter or harvest their own sugar.  But few people would object to calling a cake made in a kitchen homemade.  In fact, many people would be pleased to call a cake from a mix homemade.

We just don’t live in a world that will allow us to mill our own flour or churn or own butter.  With a few exceptions, we just don’t have the time or the resources.  We did once, and this indicates to me that the definition has shifted.  Maybe not when a person bought the first bag of milled flour.  That moment was probably a celebration of survival.  But that first cake mix must have been a threat.  Is a box cake a real cake?

Once, this was a big deal.  Today, we think nothing of it.  Homemade is a shifting target, and that’s why restaurants can claim it for their own.  Just like artisanal, we no long know what it means.

I don’t know about you, but I find this slippage exasperating.  Too much arbitrary shift.

Testing the Artisanal Flowchart Using Musical Instruments

Now that we have a working definition of artisanal (see the flowchart tab above), let’s put it to the test with a series of examples.  Our first test case is musical instruments.

The primary question is of skilled craftsmanship.  If the instrument maker is a master luthier or even produced through the collaboration of skilled craftspersons we can proceed.  Quality is implied (and perhaps should have its own space on the flowchart.  A master craftsperson could produce a poorly made instrument, which would disqualify it immediately from the artisanal tag.)  If the maker is a neophyte or if the maker has not achieved a high level of skill, we stop.  The instrument, no matter how beautiful, cannot be artisanal.

The second step is about mechanization.  Most musical instruments are produced using tools.  If, however, they are produced using an automated process that allows us to mass produce our instrument, then again, we stop, for we know that mass production precludes us from creating anything artisanal.  An artisanal instrument must be made fully by hand or as nearly by hand as possible in these modern times.  Here, now, we remove any mass produced guitar, piano, mandolin, drum, etc., by major manufacturers.

In some music circles, the question of automation is a hot topic.  Just how much automation can we abide before the instrument is no longer entirely hand made?  Can we, for instance, allow a machine to cut the general shape of a hollow body guitar that will later be refined by a master luthier?  The question of where to draw the line is a fascinating one, but not to be drawn here.  All we can say is that the automation must not allow mass production.  Once it does, we are off the flowchart.

The next question is of utility.  This one is easy, for all musical instruments are meant to be played and therefore have use.

Now, is the item meant to exist as part of another item?  A musical instrument is the end product made from other materials like wood, metal, and laquer, so we can stay on the flowchart.  If we were considering only a part of the musical instrument, like the piano soundboard, we would bump ourselves off the chart, even if it was beautiful and handmade by a master craftsperson because it cannot function by itself.  It’s meant to function as part of a larger whole.

And so, we come to our final question, one which separates our group of instruments into two classes, one very large and one very small.  Does the musical instrument express the artistic vision of its maker?  This is the most important question, for the word artisanal has art at its root.  An artisanal object must have dual purpose: both as a useful object and as art.  So much of what claims to be artisanal has no artistic quality at all.  Do not confuse artistic with beautiful.  They are not mutually exclusive terms.  Not all art is beautiful.  Not all that is beautiful is art.  Therefore, for a musical instrument to be artisanal, it must be more than a fine specimen of its class.  It must express something that comes from within the artist.

Let’s run a Steinway concert grand piano through the chart and see what happens:

  1.  Made by master craftspersons?  Yes.
  2.  Mechanized?  Yes.  Automated?  No.
  3.  Utility?  Yes.
  4. Exists as the end product?  Maybe.
  5. Expresses the artistic vision of its makers?  A tough one, but ultimately, no.  Beautiful, yes.  Breathtaking sound, yes.  Clear, impressive, among the best in their class : all yes.  But do they exist as art?  No.  They exist to make art.  The only exception could be a special Steinway created to exist apart from the others as the unique vision of a single craftsperson or group of craftspeople.  If this instrument exists, then it could be considered artisanal.  I will leave it to you to tell me if it does.

Will the Real Artisans Please Stand?

FromMSN Bites on Today: a controversy over artisanal bagels has me wondering: should any food be called artisanal?  What the food producers and chefs in this article seem to suggest is that artisanal = handmade from scratch.  Really?  Is food art?

Just because a trained chef makes the dough from scratch and puts it in the oven and cares does not an artisanal bagel make.  Does not an artisanal anything make.  It’s a bagel.  Maybe it’s a really good bagel.  Maybe it’s the best bagel in the world.  But is the person who made it an artisan?

What if the chef studied for years at CIA?

What if she ground the wheat herself using an ancient mill?

What if she hand packs the bagels in decorative bags?

This article contains several troubling definitions.  One producer says, “Your process is what’s artisan, not your flavor. There’s no such thing as an artisan recipe. It’s related to the actual, physical process.”  So the process of making the bagel is what’s art, not the final product?

Or what about this definition from Dave Taiclet from Fanny May: “The reason why we believe we have permission to call it artisan (is that) it is something uniquely different than anything we’ve ever done in our history.”  First, it’s interesting that they believe they need permission from anyone to use the word artisanal.  Second, since when does artisanal mean first of its kind?

I agree with Jillian Eugenios, the writer of this article, who suggests that the term artisanal has lost its meaning.  Artisanal is a dead metaphor.  No one understands what it means because no one understands what it means to be an artisan.  We do not value true artisans or artists.  And frankly, when bagel makers make a fuss over an identity they co-opted from weavers and glass makers and potters, one has to wonder about the state of art and craft in the world today.  Why aren’t the real artisans guarding their territory?