BECKY JOHNSON, formerly one half of the insanely brilliant improv duo (with GRAHAM WAGNER) IRON COBRA, is the current proprietor of Toronto’s SWEETIE PIE PRESS, maker of buttons and zines, whose wares can be found in stores all over North America.
She is also the co-founder of CITY OF CRAFT, both a loose union of crafters and Toronto’s largest independently run juried craft show and sale.
The 2012 CITY OF CRAFT SPRING SHOW is coming up this Saturday, April 21, at TRINITY ST. PAUL UNITED CHURCH in the Annex. This week we asked Becky about City of Craft, the community and evil corporate poachers.
Correct me if I’m wrong: Sweetie Pie Press (your crafty company) started making buttons… How did you go from that to running the city’s best –sorry One of A Kind Show, but you kind of suck– venue for handmade and one of a kind objects?
Well, I have always been a maker in a broad sense, even when I was making theatre (which is what I primarily did before taking on crafts full time). Similar to the craft scene, the theatre/comedy scene was not offering me the exact venues I wanted to present work in (or not all of them, anyway) so I self-produced there, too. I’ve been taking that kind of upstart DIY approach to performance production since I was in my teens, so the transition from making product to making events is not as bizarre to me as it may seem. I have kind of been working in this mode for as long as I have been working. The urge to self-produce is probably a result of general fussiness and a certain lack of regard for my own well-being.
When you decided to start up City of Craft were you surprised at the number of people ready to take part? Or had you already established a kind of community by that point that just needed an organizing voice?
I should point out that I founded City of Craft with two co-conspirators, LEAH BUCKAREFF and JEN ANISEF. They are both still around for support but have moved on to other cities (Berlin and Hamilton, respectively).
When we ran the first event in 2007, we did have a generous pool to draw from. I had been running small monthly fairs in Parkdale, Leah ran to TORONTO CHURCH OF CRAFT and Jen was publishing the TORONTO CRAFT ALERT, so we did know a lot of makers. We felt that we had deep roots in the scene but there is still never any way to know what a call for vendors will yield. One twelve-hour jury session later, we had realized how profoundly rich the talent pool is in this city.
I am completely stunned at the applications I get each time I put out a call now. The submissions invariably consist of an even mix of amazing new work from vendors I know well and completely gobsmacking turn out from people who seem to just emerge from the woodwork. Currently, one of the biggest challenges City of Craft is facing is finding ways to support the overwhelming amount of brilliant makers in this city.
An embarrassment of riches is not the worst problem to have.
There are stores all over the city now –FREEDOM COLLECTIVE, KID ICARUS, BLUEBIRD, FRESH COLLECTIVE– that sell handmade goods exclusively; does that year-round presence help or hinder an enterprise like City of Craft?
A few of those stores predate our event and did a lot to establish a community interested in buying the sorts of things our vendors make. Really, the positive impact that handmade retailers have on fairs is immeasurable.
City of Craft has partnered with a bunch of them, in fact, to find way to work in tandem and support one another – the workroom, CORIANDER GIRL, THE PAPER PLACE, TYPE BOOKS, THE DEVIL’S WORKSHOP, THE KNIT CAFE and more. There will always be things that a fair can do that a store can not and vice versa so the relationship overall is very symbiotic.
The reality is that all these businesses are up against big box retailers, mass production and cheap labour. More people probably shop at the Eaton Centre every day than shop at indie craft fairs all year in Toronto. Presenting a large and cohesive alternative to that kind of consumption is as close as the independent world can get to mega-branding. The more ubiquitous all of these shops and events are, the better chance we all have to keep going. To me, that is the way community can win over bottom-line mass marketing – Together, yet apart.
Is Blue Banana Market the crafter equivalent to Walmart? As an outsider it kind of feels like it is.
Ha! I am an outsider, too. I think I have only been there once or maybe twice, so I don’t really know and probably shouldn’t comment. I do know that it is formatted like an antique mall in that individual vendors rent small spaces within and manage their own stocking and displays. So, no, certainly not like Walmart. It’s probably a really affordable way for makers to dip their toes in retail. As a shopper, you should also look at it like a sampler platter. There may be gems to be found.
Then again, I am not sure what people are selling in there. Maybe they are mostly imports. Their system of curation, if they have one, is certainly looser than that of an indie craft fair or micro-boutique. But I don’t really know too much about it. I am going to pick up posters at Kid Icarus today, though. Maybe I will pop my head in!
Do you have any advice for would-be crafters looking to a) get started, and then b) break into the big leagues?
Geeze. What is I just said ‘no’? Just kidding. I never know how to answer this question.
Getting started: Be clear in your vision. Work hard. Focus on quality and skill. Avoid getting mired in the small stuff and taking things personally. Do what you love. Be nice.
Big leagues: Prepare yourself for a lot of risk and material sacrifice. Keep good records. If you are not good at managing your money, hire someone who is. Collaborate. Make friends. Take good pictures. Master the subtle art of non-annoying social networking. Embrace change and evolution.
There are also some really good books that answer your question in far less abstract terms. I recommend CRAFTY SUPERSTAR by Grace Dobush. Of all the craft business books I have read, she really nails it. One of the things I like best about Crafty Superstar in particular is that, while it offers resources for shifting to craft full-time, it de-emphasizes the golden myth of quitting your day job. I think letting go of the binary thinking about what success is in craft is one of the biggest challenges facing indie makers at the moment. So… let go of that, too.
Is idea-theft a big probIem for crafters?
Another doozy of a question! There is probably a book in the long answer to that question and I hope someone smarter than I writes it.
In short: yes. Idea theft, although practiced by an irksome minority, is rampant, confusing, grey. We live in a time when basic ideas of ownership are changing, evolving and blurring with exceptional flux. Coming into that time from a set of practices that were traditionally passed down freely from generation to generation (the feminine arts end of the craft spectrum), the indie craft community has landed in a veritable soup of ownership issues.
I can tell indie makers this much, though: although some similarity just happens, people will notice quickly when you flat-out rip someone off. Makers in the indie craft world are far too connected for nobody to notice. We usually encounter one or two such issues in jurying every year. With 12-15 engaged craft makers in the room, someone always seems to notice bold similarities. We do take it seriously and, without full-on policing, we do research these things when they come up. So, copying really doesn’t serve anyone well as a starting point. Now, if only we had that sort of power over Urban Outfitters and Target…
Give us your three top go-to crafters:
Oh, no! Three? Blah! I have something like a top 1000. Here are just three exceptional makers from my top 1000:
1. Sandi Falconer. DEADWEIGHT, and her collaboration with Danielle Wright, FALCONWRIGHT. Her design sense is impeccable, bold, personal and singular. And her work seems to be gaining momentum at the moment like a juggernaut.
2. Caitlyn “Mustard” “LEMONADE” Murphy. Caitlyn is the 2012 designer for City of Craft and it is always deeply satisfying to open mail from her with new design elements attached. I find her illustration a remarkable fusion of hard and soft all at the same time – like, stark line drawings that feel somehow warm. She also does crazy things like hand drawing every single one of her note cards, even when she is putting the same image on each one. There is something incredibly beautiful about the basics of that.
3. Alexx Boisjoli – RC BOISJOLI. Working in slip-case porcelain, Alexx has somehow mastered clean design that is playful – And I mean playful as a whole. The interaction of form and embellishment work to create pieces greater than the sum of their parts – Perfect harmonies of form, function and design.
And three newcomers to the up-coming show from whom you expect big things:
There are eight. At the Spring show, for the first time ever, we have created a section for youth vendors 14 and under. There are sock monkeys, screen prints, vintage button rings, sewn badges, polymer sculptures, crochet. It feels like I am hiring my replacements in the best possible way. Vendors previews are popping up HERE. Just scan that gallery for youth vendors to see what I am talking about.