A troupe of gypsies

A troupe of gypsies

Like a troupe of gypsy peddlers, vendors at summer art fairs around the country, pitch their tents and sell their wares.  Sun, rain, wind, and thunderstorms make this kind of retail merchandising a challenging occupation. Still, nearly every weekend of the year, white tents pop up in parks and on streets all over, and artists and craftspeople sell their paintings, prints, photography, cards, pottery, metalwork, jewelry, quilts and more.

Since one of the hats I wear is that of a fiber artist, I can sometimes be found carrying a tent, display racks and tables, totes of merchandize, a cooler of food and water, and a cash box across the grass of a park somewhere. I feel a little like the itinerant merchants who criss-crossed the prairies in an earlier day, bringing homemakers the things they had no other opportunity to purchase elsewhere. Much like those peddlers with their carts of pots and pans and yards of fabric, artists and craftspeople bring art to people who may never step inside a gallery.

Some artists travel to a different city and art fair every weekend of the summer and fall. They are professionals. You can tell. They have well worn and efficient packing crates and carts. Their unpacking and packing routine is well orchestrated and practiced. Everything has a place in their vehicles and trailers. Their tents are not the lightweight, hardware store, pop-up variety, but the expensive, sturdy and rain proof kind. They have elaborate systems to keep their white shelter from becoming a large kite when the wind picks up–weights, stakes, tie downs, clamps. They come with everything they need. Their tents are ten-by-ten or twenty foot retail stores in vans and trailers.

After a few years of taking our mobile store on the road, my business partner and I have come to know other regulars on the route. Artists help each other. We tend each others’ stores when someone needs a break. We share food and advice about setting things up, business practices, techniques, and resources. We discuss the merits of other shows and other places to market our work. We barter for each other’s work. Even though we may be competing for the same customers, artists cooperate more than they compete. We become part of the same gypsy band.

Art fairs bring art to people in a welcoming and relaxed environment.  They expose potential customers to kinds of art many would never see in a museum or gallery. Almost all fairs require that the artist be present in their tent where customers have the rare opportunity to talk to the person who created the work. Most artists are happy to talk about how they create their art and sometimes even demonstrate their skills.  In our globalized economy, it is rare to be able to talk face-to-face to the person who made the bowl you are going to eat out of or the person who painted the picture you are going to hang on the wall. Nearly everything else we buy is made somewhere else by someone we will never meet.

Sometimes you can even catch a writer/artist putting the finishing touches on her regular newpaper column.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains