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Artisan Guilds Holiday Show: A Community Tradition, Tripled

a seated woman spins wool beside a table of handmade wares and yarn hanging from a rack

The holiday shopping season is underway, and in Bloomington, one alternative to the mall or the Internet, is this weekend's Artisan Guilds of Bloomington Holiday Show. Three local artisan guilds that had long been hosting separate shows every November are showing together this year for the first time at the Bloomington/Monroe County Convention Center.

Karin Lauderback is a member of the Bloomington Spinners and Weavers Guild, which was established in the early 1980s. "If you know any fiber artists," Lauderback laughs, "we are the keep-your-hands-busy people."

You're getting a piece of that artist when you get a handmade item.

For most of us, looms and spinning wheels would seem to belong to the pre-industrial past, when these skills were indispensable. But the spinners and weavers are not historic reenactors.  As the commercial textile industry turned spinning and weaving into electives, the hand-made fiber piece has acquired a different kind of value.  As Lauderback explains it, "You have people who don't just weave a scarf.  When you wear one of their scarves, it's a work of art."

 Tangible Objects, Intangible Value

"When you wear a scarf, say, that was hand-made," adds Rebecca Lowery, a member of Local Clay Potters' Guild, "then you are the only person wearing that. It's a one-of-a-kind, because every piece is made differently, there's some little bit of uniqueness to it." The same might be said for the functional and sculptural ceramic pieces that will be showcased in Local Clay's show, which will occupy the convention center's Great Room on the second floor.  Local Clay has been presenting an holiday show since 1998.

When it comes to determining the value of a handmade object, the uniqueness of the product combines with the human capital each item represents. "There's only so many one person can do in a lifetime, so you know there's a limited amount," Lowery asserts.  "You're getting a piece of that artist when you get a handmade item."

And that, as the ad copy goes, is priceless. Given that intensely personal relationship between an artisan and her creation, determining a handmade object's value is especially challenging. Calculating worth on a per-hour basis would be next to impossible, if Mike Bell's metrics are any guide.  Earlier in the glassworker's career, he did a lot of demonstrations of his technique.  "People would ask, 'How long does it take you to make [a hummingbird]?'" Bell recalls.  "And I would say, 'Well, ten minutes and six months.' Because it took me six months when I first started to make a hummingbird that I was happy with."  Bell is a member of the Indiana Glass Guild, which will be showing on the convention center's  first floor, as will the Spinners and Weavers Guild.

People look forward to this show because it's a quintessential Bloomington eventand of course the quality of the work is just so good. But it goes beyond just the object. I think that we're also talking about what makes community.

The personal investment that a handmade item represents is part of its draw, ventures Lowery: "[The customer] knows that somebody made it, it wasn't made in some factory in China."

In A Virtual Age, The Craft Show Endures

And it could be why the craft show model is still a viable one, even with Etsy and other virtual shops peddling handmade items online.

"I had been on Etsy since 2009 and I sold very little," recounts Lowery, who has a substantial online presence.  "I've done way more sales this year on Etsy, but [in most cases, they are to people who] have actually walked into my booth, and regretted not buying something, or bought something and said, 'I want more,' and went to Etsy to buy it.  Really, it's a piece of the artist, it's a piece of the world that they're in, and what they see, their point of view, and you don't get that from looking at a picture."

"Fiber is very tactile," Lauderback elaborates. "We encourage people to touch. You've got to feel it! Alpaca feels different from wool from a sheep. Cotton's different, linen's different. The feel of a cup, the feel of a bowl. I'll look at two bowls and this one will speak to me and not that one."

The artists agree that the craft show is indispensable because it allows the customer to commune with the object's auranot to mention the opportunity to get to know the artist who created it.  Even beyond the object itself, the human element is critical, the artists confirm.  "I think that we're also talking about what makes community," speculates Local Clay member Karen Green Stone.  "The artist community in Bloomington is particularly supported.  There's this element of people wanting to support local artists. People look forward to this show because it's a quintessential Bloomington eventand of course the quality of the work is just so good. But it goes beyond just the object. There's more in it where people identify with the person who's made it, as well."

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