Even before traditional businesses came into being, people were creating craft as their livelihood, says Keona Tranby, director of marketing and communications for American Craft Council.
“I think craft is really at the heart in so many communities of business owners,” she says.
It’s that collective heritage that the council wishes to preserve, as well as reiterate how much connection these artisans still give us today.
The American Craft Council Marketplace—now called American Craft Made—is returning to the Baltimore Convention Center after two years. It will run Friday, May 20 through Sunday, May 22.
As a national nonprofit, which serves artists through resources, grants, an in-house magazine and a research library, the council also hosts marketplace events all over the country—but Baltimore is its flagship event.
The concept started here 45 years ago by Aileen Osborn Webb as a way to preserve the communal art of craft.
When you buy from a fourth-generation weaver, you not only get a quality product, but also the story of how it was sourced and the history of the family, Tranby says.
“Those stories just add so much to our culture and community,” she explains, and were especially essential during the COVID-19 pandemic in a time of disconnect.
Also its largest marketplace, the Baltimore event usually hosts about 600 artists. This year, numbers will be kept to about half this amount, along with more spacing, a requirement of masking when not eating or drinking and proof of vaccination to protect against COVID-19.
“We’re doing everything we can to make this as safe as possible—even up and above what’s required,” Tranby says.
This show is a big deal because all artists are vetted by a juried selection, so you get the best of the best from all over the country, she explains. Many artists return—some have been doing so for as long as 35 years.
Tranby notes 13% of artists are new to the marketplace this year.
With its Baltimore event base, the event gives locals a time to shine among them. Eighteen percent of artists are local to the DMV and Delaware, Tranby adds.
This year, a new “Explore Local” section will feature a buildout from Baltimore-based Ase Design Studio with work from nonprofit collective Made in Baltimore. Hilton Carter’s Good Neighbor venture will create a dry floral and botanical display.
In addition to these artists, Baltimore Style spoke to three local crafters below about being featured among this year’s crop of talent:
Amy Blair | Stories of Cultures through Clay
Amy Blair began dabbling in polymer clay as early as age 4, and it was a comfortable medium to go back to when she started transferring patterns from fabrics onto it to make jewelry. The Parkville artist traded metalsmith studies at Towson University for clay following pre-pandemic travels to countries such as Japan. She was inspired by the cultures she saw and how their fabrics seemed to encapsulate them.
“I think it’s interesting how patterns from other cultures sort of represent everything that culture is,” she says. “It’s born from such a deep history.”
A graduate of the American Craft Council’s emerging artist program, Blair has now been showing her work at the marketplace for about seven or eight years (including five through the program).
Being in a high-end craft show comes with more pressure, she says—but in a good way. It challenges artists to push their boundaries and create not only for mass appeal but for art-minded people who are looking for something interesting.
For Blair, the community aspect of crafting is at the core of why she does it.
Art is communal from start to finish. You’re not simply creating for yourself, Blair explains. You’re creating with interaction in mind. Having someone relate to her work or relating to another artist is how she connects.
“I think that the way I communicate—and I think other artists do as well—is through their art,” she says. “You want to take a piece of the art not only because it’s pretty but because you want a piece of the artist. When you see it, it reminds you of something you connected with them through.”
Jennifer McBrien | Bird’s the Word
Jennifer McBrien’s Baltimore story goes back to the 1980s. She was a painter before becoming a thread illustrator about 15 years ago. Taking up sewing as a way to honor her grandmother, she was inspired by a rich array of birds in Original Northwood that she hadn’t seen in her previous Fells Point neighborhood. Her projects turned to ink drawings of them, which she then worked from to free stitch by hand or with a sewing machine. They have evolved to include other materials, figures and plants.
“I started putting bird heads on people for it to tell a narrative,” she says. “They kind of almost feel fantasy-oriented. They’re also saying we need to do something about this planet.”
McBrien also feels a connection through her art to women of the past. Embroidery was a utilitarian art, which women were expected to learn whether they wanted to or not, or a status symbol of the wealthy, she explains. Women would train to become a Dane like Martha Washington.
McBrien took a drawing and stitching class in North Carolina with women ages 21-85—an
opportunity to create a kinship through this traditional skill.
“We all still do these Zoom classes and critiques together, and we call ourselves ‘the Dane school dropouts’ because we never would have made it,” McBrien says.
Although she was once a booth sitter, it’s McBrien’s fifth year showing at the marketplace (including last year’s virtual show) which she sees as an honor. She had tried to get into the show for many years.
But the culture of the show is community-based—a healthy competition, not a brutal one, she says.
Nina Scala | Color Me Happy
Starting from a very different background as a civil engineer, Nina Scala later found herself in the craft world studying to be a metalsmith at Maryland Institute College of Art. In 2008, she was inspired to start a jewelry business with pieces from her husband’s stained glass hobby. Scala’s process for the last five years involved making glass gems tumbled with sand for an industrial sea glass look. Flattened silver or black rings that give the sense of chain mail are one of her specialties. Working with stained glass encouraged her to incorporate more color.
“I used to be the black-and-white kind of person, or simple silver, but I realized that glass has offered me this new dimension of creativity where I can actually put together almost a mosaic of colors,” she says.
It’s her third or fourth year at the marketplace, and as her work is solitary by nature, she thrives on the community aspect. American Craft Made is a particular honor because of how well-known it is in the United States and beyond, she says.
“Jewelry is one category that is very difficult to get into because there’s so many jewelry artists out there,” Scala adds.
She’s most excited to introduce a new line of faceted gemstones. They provide a twinkling contrast to the matte sanded finish of the glass and new colors that complement her palette.
The market is free this year, but American Craft Council encourages donations to help support its work. Applications are open through July 15 for craft artists interested in showing at next year’s marketplace in March 2023. An online marketplace is also available, now open through May 29.