Needles and Pins

By - Jan 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Evan Solochek

The ballroom of Turner Hall is filled to capacity. Patrons can barely squeeze past one another to reach the next vendor’s table. The temperature outside is in the low teens, lower with wind-chill, a shockingly cold day even for mid-November 2005. It is the sort of bone-shattering weather that keeps people bundled up at home, unwilling to bear the elements for any reason. And yet, the ballroom of Turner Hall is filled to capacity – a testament to the resolve of people or, more specifically, to the people’s love of crafts.

Art vs. Craft is one of Milwaukee’s premiere craft fairs, featuring over 100 artists from Milwaukee and beyond. Inspired by such fairs as I Heart Rummage in Seattle, Bazaar Bizarre in Boston and Chicago’s D.I.Y. Trunk Show, Milwaukee is riding the national independent design wave.

All across America, as price-slashing megastores choke off the locally owned and operated businesses, an underground collective of artisans is taking a stand. With knitting needles and fabric swatches clenched in their fists, these crafters are refusing to succumb to the sterility of Big Retail and are, instead, embracing a world of consumer goods where each individual item is made with personal affection.

“I think that the popularity of handmade hip goods has created an alternative to mass marketed goods and that has encouraged many creative types to get involved locally and nationally,” says Faythe Levine, founder and co-coordinator of Art vs. Craft, co-owner of Paper Boat Boutique & Gallery in Bay View and sole proprietor of Flying Fish Designs. “Art vs. Craft provides Milwaukee with a chance to view many different kinds of work. It also creates an exciting space for networking and sales, which in turn stimulates the arts community in a positive, fun way.”



One-of-a-kind fun

Fun is a key component of the scene. The personal touch of the designer makes each item unique, and that is precisely what drives most craft shoppers. Silk-screened and stenciled clothing, embroidered bags, reconstituted vintage wares and kitschy knickknacks when you buy from an independent designer you are not getting a mass-produced product. Having an item no one else owns fosters a truer, more individualized sense of ownership that also appeals to many.

“Younger people are really concerned that their individuality will be swallowed up by mass consumerism,” says Amy Schoenecker, who sells reconstructed vintage clothing through her label Softly, Fiercely. “As a designer, I emphasize with that fear, and make pieces that are one-of-a-kind in order to revolt against the notion of a herd of sheep or mere followers.”

The idea that these creations are functional works of art also allows the consumer to take pride in what he or she chooses to buy and wear, a rare thing today. There is something to be said for buying a one-of-a-kind piece you know was labored over with love, as opposed to pulling your size off the rack. At that point, what one buys becomes much more than just an article of clothing or random accessory.

This common social conscience permeates the independent craft scene. Predominately internet-based, the
“cooperative” is loosely connected through personal relationships and tightly connected through a communal ideology.

“Art accessibility is one of our community-based goals and we see wearable art as a perfect fit for this role,” says Vanessa Andrew, co-founder of the Fasten Collective and creator of the Madam Chino clothing line. “Through melding our knowledge of traditional drawing and sculptural techniques with sewing, we aim to change current ideas of what art can and cannot be.”


Independence vs. the “real” world

More so than their grandparents� generation of craft fairs filled with dressed up teddy bears, needlepoint wall hangings and crocheted afghans, the DIY craft movement aims to feed not only artisans desire for creative fulfillment, but also the dream of an independent, sustainable living.

“I think that there are two craft scenes, the traditional craft fair scene and the hip craft scene,” says Emily Kircher, who sells knit wares through her label EKRA. “I think this hip craft scene in Wisconsin is growing. The more it grows, the more indie stores open up and the more hip shows are organized.”

While the ideals of the independent design scene are admirable, the need to balance artistic creation with daily reality is ever-present. Rochelle Nason, who has a line of women�s clothing called LACKA, works days at an insurance company while Alyssa Schulte�s clothing and accessory line Neon Danger is supported by her job at Educational Credential Evaluators. Day jobs are a necessary evil for many, and the experience of Amy Schoenecker, who also works at the Boys and Girls Club through AmeriCorps, is all too common.

“It’s hard for me to be the nine-to-five desk-working type, so the idea of working for myself, working my own hours, is very attractive,” says Schoenecker. “The drawback is that I have to work a full-time job in order to pay the bills. It’s really frustrating because I want to dedicate the time and effort it takes to perfect my craft, but working full time really limits how much time you can put into other things.”

Alyssa Schulte echoes Schoenecke’s sentiment.

“I would love to be able to quit my job and just sew and paint all day, but unfortunately I’m not at that point,” Schulte says. “The hardest part for me would be health care because it’s pretty certain that at some point in the year I will need to go to the hospital. It’s hard when you’re an artist with medical bills.”

Burdened with the conflicting priorities of desire and need, the importance of remaining independent can come into question. It’s a classic struggle “to sell out or not”

“My goal with LACKA is to grow to a national level,” says Nason. “I’m not a very proud person. I’d sell LACKA in a second if I knew it would be picked up by a decent company. Independent is what it is. Realistically you can only take it so far.”

Schoenecker, on the other hand, despite her circumstances, has no intention of changing her status anytime soon. To her, independence is directly related to her happiness.

“My ultimate goal is to be working for myself doing something that makes me completely happy,” she says. “I know everyone says that just want to be happy, yet it amazes me that a lot of people are not doing things that make them happy. They stay in jobs that they hate or live complacent lives. I often feel like complacency is my enemy.”


The new grrlz school

While inherently embraced by a younger, more liberal-thinking audience, no such political manifest explicitly exists. People from every strata of society and every political ideology are warmly accepted by their fellow crafters because the craft spirit takes precedence over all. However, despite its inclusive nature, any significant male influence can still be difficult to find. While hardly a conscious effort to exclude men, the world of knitting and accessory design lends itself to a female base.

“One thing that started female-domination (in crafting) is that many feminist magazines helped rekindle the crafting scene and helped move it to a national level,” says Schulte. “As much as I wish they did, not that many guys read feminist magazines. Females already making cool crafts got excited when they realized their work could transcend the hobby level. The reason it still seems like mainly a female scene is that we are the ones being highlighted, and deservingly so. The thing about the new craft scene is that it really has nothing to do with the old stereotype. It’s now a scene of mostly younger people making really cool functional art, which men not just women were already doing.”

Rochelle Nason has a slightly different interpretation.

“I think men are intimidated by this industry because they were brought up to not venture into domestic activities,” she says. “Most designers learn to sew from their mothers and grandmothers. It’s just our culture to assume a guy would not want to learn to sew. It’s a shame.”

However, the lack of male presence is not necessarily a bad thing. With so much in the world being bogged down for both genders by the pressures of sexual equality, it is a welcome sight to some to see the movement blossom this way.

“Since a lot of what is coming out of this scene is not only “craft” but also amazing creative and beautiful artwork and considering this could be one of the largest female-dominated art movements in history, this element of the scene is very important,” says Levine.

Whether male or female, there is no question that the members of the new craft movement are striving for a common goal. They want to transform the impersonal world of commercialized consumerism and reestablish the relationship between shopper and merchant. By doing what they love, these local crafters hope to engender a more genuine impression of self through the rejection of mass production and the personalization of material possessions. While many agree that the Wisconsin scene is in its infancy, it continues to grow and break new ground, while remaining at its heart a fun and creative alternative to the bland shopping world dished out at the local mall.  VS

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