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Article from "The Chicago Tribune, Tribwest", Dated November 20, 2002:

"Event Showcases a Master in His Element: Wood"

Event showcases a master in his element: wood

Article from The Wall Street Journal, Startup Journal, Dated November 20, 2002:

'Tis the Season to Profit From Homemade Crafts

Walk into any church or temple basement in the coming weeks and you'll find someone like Carol Sarau, 59, of Harleysville, Pa., selling quilts and doll clothes, or Alice Hirsch, 58, of Buffalo Grove, Ill., pitching hand-painted baby shoes and Italian link bracelets. Pay an entrance fee to one of the upscale events whose organizers actually charge people to shop, like the One-Of-A-Kind show in Chicago's Merchandise Mart on Dec. 5-8, and you'll meet people like Kathryn Alm, 39, who designs $600 necklaces and bracelets using tourmaline, Peruvian opals and other semiprecious stones. Who are these folks, and do they make any money? The answers are, to say the least, sketchy. There's no official census of artisans and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks only 11,930 "fine artists, sculptors and illustrators," who earn an average of $35,770 a year. Then there's the distinction between artists and craftspeople. Becky Steinkellner, associate professor of art at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Mich., says that most experts see "art" as purely aesthetic, like a painting, and "craft" as having some function, which puts that clay coffee mug you picked up at a folk-music festival 10 years ago into the same category as glass artist Dale Chihuly's $35,000 glass bowls. One thing about this business Mrs. Steinkellner is sure about: Most crafters don't charge enough for what they do. When the Crafts Report, a magazine published in Wilmington, Del., surveyed readers, full-time crafters said their average gross annual sales are about $68,000 while part-timers take in about $9,300. But that's before you subtract the cost of the semiprecious stones, leather, lumber or other materials they use. And figure in the cost of participating in all those shows. Holiday bazaars, street fairs and arts festivals are the most profitable marketplaces for crafters, and thousands of them participate in 30 or more shows a year, according to those interviewed for this article. Mrs. Hirsch says that crafters pay between $100 and $300 entry fees to sell items at outdoor community fairs and local holiday shows, and sometimes a 15% to 20% commission to the sponsor. "I've left shows with $5,000," she says, "but sometimes it's as low as $100. All shows aren't appropriate for everybody." The Price of Admission And all shows don't welcome every crafter. The giant of all holiday fairs -- the Nov. 21-24 Sugarloaf Crafts Festival on the Montgomery County (Maryland) Fairgrounds that attracts 60,000 shoppers (who pay $7 apiece to get in) -- carefully screens which 600 artisans will be allowed to sell there. George Verdier, 53, and his wife, Deann, 51, began hosting sales events for their artist friends in the 1970s and now organize 15 different annual Sugarloaf Craft Festivals along the East Coast. Mrs. Verdier asks all applying craftspeople to send in colored slides of their work, so she can eliminate the kitsch, "like fur-ball animals with googly eyes" and provide variety. In popular categories, like jewelry, she turns down five applicants for every one she accepts. The entry fee for the Montgomery County event averages $550. Mr. Verdier says artists who exhibit in heated buildings at the fairgrounds pay more than those who sell from open stalls or their own tents. Sales average $6,000 to $7,000 per artist although some, such as high-end jewelry and clothing designers, make much more and others earn only what Mr. Verdier calls "a subsistence." One way to master the economics of craft shows is to have something to sell in all price ranges. Mrs. Hirsch was an executive recruiter for 11 years before turning her networking skills to the crafts scene, where she sells those hand-painted baby shoes for $32, bracelets for $10 to $200 and little girls' furniture painted with Victorian-style designs that can cost up to $300. Mrs. Sarau knows she's not earning much when she spends a week and a half to finish a queen-sized quilt, then sells it for $400. But she can make "good money" on small items -- doll clothes, table runners, and seasonal wall hangings -- that she sews up quickly from remnants. Even the lowest-grossing crafters prefer selling their wares at shows than in craft stores or art galleries, where owners usually take commissions of 30% to 60%. Mrs. Sarau, who started making quilts and clothes in the 1960s to put her scientist husband through grad school and never stopped, says she has enough of a reputation that store owners pay her outright for her work. But she cringes when she's shopping in the upscale Peddlers' Village outside Philadelphia and sees "a wall hanging priced at $112 when they paid me only $50 for it." Or you could sell your wares online. The Verdiers' displays the items from 425 crafters, divided into such categories as clothing, pottery and leather. All listings are free, although the Verdiers collect a 20% commission on each item sold. So far, sales have been slim and total only $345,000 for the first 10 months of 2002. Applying Business Skills The best way for crafters to earn more is to charge more for their work. Not surprisingly, professionals who discovered their crafty sides later in life after careers in business are doing just that. Carolyn Lee Vehslage, 41, was a retired computer engineer when her mother-in-law's Jersey Shore garden inspired a second career as a fabric artist. The flowers were so beautiful, Mrs. Vehslage says, that she wanted to paint them, but while shopping for acrylics and canvas, she picked up a book on Impressionist quilts instead. After her first, and to that point, only quilt, "Nana Sue's Garden," won first place in a local contest, Mrs. Vehslage unleashed her business and technical skills on the quilting world. "I researched what the top quilters charge for their work," she says, "and put together a business plan with ever-increasing rates, from $200 to $1,200 per square foot." She sold a recent work, "Gardens of the World," for $9,600 and expects to make even more from her latest effort, "System Overload Version 1.2" that features a motherboard-green background, CDs and quilting in metallic wire. And she's designed a Web site that brings her e-mailed commissions from all over the world. Upping the Ante For more than 20 years, Joe Dillett, 59, was an electrical engineer who spent weekends carving Colonial-style wooden plaques in the basement or on the front porch of his Somonauk, Ill., home and selling them at art fairs. In his best year, he sold 600 plaques, of women spinning wool or churning butter, for $15 apiece, not exactly the kind of money that would convince his wife to let him try woodcarving full time. After the kids were grown, Mr. Dillett engineered a plan -- he designed and financed a commercial building that includes rentable stores and apartments, as well as a studio. Then he quit his job, jettisoning the plaques for $1,500 to $2,500 customized mantles that trace a family's history with carved renditions of their farms, houses, cars and lists of ancestors. He made a treaty with his wife. "I can continue to carve," he says, "as long as I bring in $50 an hour." That sum, by the way, puts him above 99% of the other carvers he knows. Ms. Alm, who left a career as an art buyer three years ago to design jewelry full time, uses her marketing skills to scout out the best shows. "I use the Internet," she says, "or talk to other vendors at the shows where I participate, to find out where else they've sold well." But Ms. Alm stays clear of advice from other jewelry designers. The field is very competitive -- and they might not be telling the truth. When her system works, she can ring up sales of $20,000 or more from a single event. Like most crafters, Mrs. Sarau and Mrs. Hirsch could not support themselves on their sales, and so far Mrs. Vehslage has spent most of her lofty commissions on materials and promotion. To his wife's great relief, Mr. Dillett is earning about $70,000 a year, and Ms. Alm says she is earning more than she did at any of her past corporate jobs. But, she adds, "It doesn't matter how much you make as long as you enjoy it. I'm not a corporate person, and I always felt out of place in a suit and heels. I'd rather be right here, working with my gold, silver, tourmaline and opals, getting ready for the next round of shows."

-- Ms. Bennett is a free-lance journalist based in Northbrook, Ill.

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