When we talk of jaded indie rockers, shiny-shirt clubbers, bearded beer snobs, weekend gallery voyagers and quirky alterna-crafter chicks, the "S" word gets tossed around like Canadian change. Yep, many are obsessed with the word "scene." It's efficient enough a phrase because a scene unites diverse groups for a common cause, usually for a chuckle and a cocktail, and at their best they can define decades. Either way, they exist in a state of flux: exploding, crumbling and, if lucky, finding a plateau. Sometimes a scene can become integral to a city's cultural soup. Sometimes it gets cooked out.
So to find that a metropolis synonymous with hot rods and cold steel, smashed glass and dive bars, that still claims a surging craft craze — some four years after planting roots — is a surprise. I thought a conversation with the ladies of Handmade Detroit, the online hub for Detroit's DIY community and the organizers of the Detroit Urban Craft Fair, would help tell the story of what happens when a scene, an extracurricular public trend, finds its level.
"How do you ensure your scene survives? What do you do when the frenzied buzz recedes to a cozier hum? Forecast your evolution ..."
That's the story I wanted to write, but it's one that Handmade Detroit and the DUCF couldn't help tell. Not that they didn't want to. Crafters, by nature, have a sort of innate knack for helping out where they can (insert grandmotherly joke here), but Lish Dorset thinks they're "just getting started in Detroit."
Last year's fair went down at the sizable Fillmore theater. Dorset and her handmade mafiosas — Carey Gustafson, Stephanie Tardy, Beth Nixon and Amy Cronkite — saw more than 4,000 walk through the doors. This year, they're back at the Majestic Theatre (Gustafson calls it home base), a local business that can match the independent streak that fuels the DUCF.
Metro Times: What can you tell us about the progress of alternative crafting communities nationwide and how Detroit compares?
Stephanie Tardy: Austin, Portland and Chicago all have big craft scenes, and now lots of other cities do, including Detroit. When we started, we just wanted this group of "makers" to be recognized in this city. When we started, we had to explain what DIY craft even is — now there's a much broader awareness around the city. How do we compare? I think Detroit's artists and crafters tend to be a little more edgy and loose than in other cities. Detroit forces you to take risks and a lot of the art produced here — music, craft and otherwise — reflects that on some level. The other thing that sets us apart is that the ideas behind DIY are very much tied into how Detroiters look at the life. No one is going to start the things we want, so we have to create them ourselves. For Handmade Detroit, that meant we had to create our outlet while creating our crafts; we have this duality of creating the work and creating the space for it. This makes us dedicated on a deeper level than just selling "X" amount of one-inch buttons.
MT: How have economic realities impacted the handmade community and the urban craft fair? Where do the two intersect?
Bethany Nixon: We've watched the economy motivate so many talented people to venture out into new ways of bringing in a second income. Crafting is definitely a great way to make some money, but you make new friends, as well.
MT: What is Handmade Detroit at this point? What can we expect at the DUCF? We've heard it's "not your grandma's craft fair," so who are those 4,000 people who show up — broke-ass hipsters?
Amy Cronkite: At the heart of the DUCF is the belief that our culture's traditional craft techniques and materials can be used to explore an individual's nontraditional interests and ideas. The methods being used are common, but the way each crafter uses those methods is very different. This makes the DUCF a celebration of both unity and diversity. The fair brings out a fascinating crowd that you can watch all day without ever growing bored, and it's one of those dynamic Detroit crowds that you're proud to be associated with. It costs nothing to walk through the doors, so it's something that everyone in metro Detroit should experience at least once. You'll meet all kinds of people: older and younger, singles and families, proud Detroiters and visitors from other states. We find that people come for all kinds of reasons: Some are there to celebrate creativity and human expression, some are there to socialize and share a few drinks and some are consumers looking for something ...
MT: Does the urban craft world interface with the fine art community?
Cronkite: Many objects at the fair test the boundaries between traditional craft technique and artistic expression. These kinds of objects have long been a keystone of the arts in Detroit. The industrialization that was so central to Detroit's history always had a counterpoint in the arts and crafts movement, a celebration of handmade objects and traditional craftsmanship. This movement played a huge role in Detroit's art community, and fed the roots of such important arts institutions as Cranbrook and the College for Creative Studies. We have now entered an era in which Detroit's industries are facing as many challenges as they are questions, so it's not surprising to see a renewed interest in the kind of handcrafted objects and small-scale production celebrated at the DUCF. The artists, designers and other creative types in Detroit are working to transform a great industrial city into a great postindustrial city. I think the area's crafters have a lot to contribute to that project.
MT: It all can't be this perfect — what would you like to see more of?
Gustafson: More men. The indie-craft market is packed with talented and original gals, but it's so fun to see talented fellas in the mix too. DUCF is great not only for shopping but also to network, brainstorm and collect cards for future projects.
Dorset: It could be a more interactive experience for shoppers. We're working on ways to get feedback from our attendees in "real time" this year, but as more and more of us spend our days online, we can find interesting ways to get comments from the community around us.
MT: How can you measure and observe the successes and failures of the fair? What's proven to work, what's proven to fail, and are you still building momentum or has the craft-scene found, for better or worse, its plateau?
Dorset: It's pretty easy to measure — we hear a lot about it. You really can't ask for more than that. We had more than 200 applicants for the fair this year, our largest applicant pool yet. We're pretty sure we're far from reaching a plateau. There really haven't been any failures with DUCF that we see. As a group, we've tried our hands at lots of different events — some have stuck and some haven't. We've moved the fair from August to November, thinking it'd be a great way to get holiday shopping going and remind people to remain true to supporting local business.
Google before ya go:
The 2009 DUCF vendors are:
All Things Grow
Always the Forest
Chain Chain Chained
Courtney Fischer Jewelry
Hands and Notions
Herb + Ginger
JD Makes Things
Jennifer Joy Creative/Noonday Textiles
Kristin Perkins Glass Jewelry
La Femme Monkita
La Otra Camilla
Liz's Handmade Books
LMNOP & CE Photography
Mimi & Ferne
My Vintage Kitschen
One Straight Shot
Rar Rar press
Rhymes with Twee
Sloe Gin Fizz
Small Screen Designs
Wei's Open Secret
Yum Yum Chum ChumTravis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]