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Upcycle, Hark Back: Bloomington Handmade Market

Hand-bound journals, one-of-a-kind plush toys, artisanal goat's milk soap. Precious little luxuries, all crafted by hand, by artists you can get acquainted with.

The resurgence in popularity of items like these is clear. Now, in Bloomington, there's an opportunity to go straight to the source for your next craft purchase.

Filling The Breach

Recognizing a marked absence in the local arts and crafts market, Nicole Wolfersberger, Mia Beach and Sally Harless set out to fill the breach between traditional gallery spaces showing oil paintings and quilt shows at high school gyms. The Bloomington Handmade Market offers representation for contemporary artists and craftspeople outside the fine-arts department circuit-the self-taught, the "outsiders"-who make everything from crayons to book safes to celebrity finger puppets.

With its first sale in November 2009, the semi-annual market seems to be participating in a larger cultural trend. The founders cite the success of Chicago's Renegade Craft Fair, as well as the online arts and crafts source Etsy, as representative of what they call the "alternative" craft scene.

The Power Of The Hand-Crafted Object

Although they range in media from metalsmiths to illustrators, the artisans who show their work at the BHM share their values. At the core of the movement are the practice of upcycling-re-using materials that have served their original function-and a do-it-yourself spirit.

"I think people are really embracing the empowering nature of having the ability to go from a pile of materials to a very finished product, that they've done completely on their own," reflects Mary Uthuppuru, the bookbinder and artist behind Spring Leaf Press. "It's something that gives a lot of value to yourself, as well as meaning to the things around you."

The artists involved with the Bloomington Handmade Market keep coming around to the power of the unique, hand-crafted object-both for the artist and the consumer.

Laura Stantz, of The Wind and The Sail, produces plush hand-sewn objects for kids and "fun adults," as she characterizes her clients. "I make large amounts of the different patterns that I have," Stantz explains, "but each one is different from the next. It's yours, it's something that I have made so that you can have it."

The nature of the commercial exchange is humanized as well. "I think people like to feel like they're supporting another person," ventures co-founder Beach.

Fostering A Relationship Between Artist And Customer

"We really build relationships with the people who seek us out," explains Geoffrey Davis, the woodworker behind 50 Little Birds. "I'm looking forward to the people I'm going to see at this next show. They're people I've gotten to know. I know what pieces they have, and I make things anticipating the visit we're going to have."

Davis carves wooden birds in a traditional style, using old tools. "In my head, I'm working in my Grandfather's workshop in the 1930s."

Harking back is another common theme among the artists represented in the handmade market. Whether it's borrowing a time-honored illustrational style-as in the case of Vincent Desjardins, who is inspired by vintage children's books-or taking an old-fashioned technique and updating it somehow.

Craft Through The Generations

The artist Sarah Fisher, doing business as Purple Hippo Stitches, makes deceptively traditional samplers. Instead of the alphabet, a monogram, or a Bible verse, these cross-stitched messages have attitude. One says "Hussy" in a proper script; another, "Fierce." "You've got to fight for your right to party" is stitched primly across a third, gold-framed sampler.

There's clearly an edge to some of the work you'll find at the Bloomington Handmade Market. It's almost too much of a cliché to say, "this is not your grandmother's craft fair." So the fact that some of the young artists involved are practitioners of techniques that haven't been in vogue since their grandmothers'-or perhaps their great-grandmothers'-days, at first seems incongruous.

"I think every human has the drive to create," Davis speculates. "I think for a generation, women avoided at all costs the creative things their mothers and their grandmothers had to do. So when they brought it back, they made it their own. That's why we're seeing these quirky, wonderful, radical twists on traditional craft. It's their way of saying, 'I have to do this, but damn it, it's going to be mine, I'm going to do it my way.'"

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