Story by Travis Rocha
For the first time since the pandemic began, the Fine Craft Fair has returned to Rittenhouse Square Park. Large white tents housing various creative wares—clothing, jewelry, and household decorations—were set up around the park, welcoming passersby.
“It’s more than I could ever dream or hope for,” Carol Heisler-Lawson, the Fine Craft Fair manager, said. “I missed these people for two years. I consider them friends.”
One day, in early March 2020 Heisler-Lawson was at an art show in Baltimore, looking forward to the spring Fine Craft Fair, and the next she was at home under lockdown restrictions, she said.
“At first, we thought we could reschedule the spring show,” she said. “But, by June, we had to just cancel for the whole year.”
Local and state ordinances meant they couldn’t open safely or legally, but it wasn’t an easy decision for management at the guild to accept. Planning for the fairs continues all year long, which is a lot of work to be unceremoniously undone at a moment’s notice, she said.
That’s because the Fine Craft Fair is not only one of the Guild’s most popular and well-attended events, but it’s also a vital source of income for guild members.
“They’re not artists who exist for the guild,” Heisler-Lawson said. “I worry about their well being, I worry about their families’ well-being—what they’ve had to go through for the last 20 months.”
One artist who planned to attend the spring fair is Linda Doucette, a fiber artist who has been a guild member for more than 10 years. Doucette was excited to finally return to Rittenhouse.
“You never know who’s gonna walk through here,” she said. “Maybe I’ll hook up with a gallery or get a commission. There’s always possibilities.”
Doucette creates sustainable handmade artwork with wool and alpaca from her own farm, she said.
“I do plant dying—natural dying—which is kind of out there,” Doucette said. “I don’t even draw first. I just get an idea and start creating.”
While Doucette’s booth offered decorative fabric pieces, another artist, Sierra Cole, had a booth entirely dedicated to hats and scarves.
“Most of our customers are past customers,” Cole said. “So it’s really cool to see people who have purchased hats from me at past art fairs who I haven’t seen in a year because of the pandemic.”
Like Doucette, Cole also works with fabric, and all of her products are handmade, she said. Though, unlike Doucette, Cole does not hail from Pennsylvania.
“I’m based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan,” Cole said. “I come to the fair because I love the location. It’s really cool to be a part of the city.”
While it may be called the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, being a Pennsylvania resident is not a requirement for membership, Erika Juran, executive director of the Guild, said.
“We’re a statewide organization, but we actually engage artists from all over the region,” Juran said. “Because we’re a fine crafts fair, everything’s handmade, and you must be a member to be a part of these shows.”
One of the Guild’s purposes is to provide a supportive network for its members, Heisler-Lawson said.
“We’re obviously here supporting small businesses,” she said. “All these artists, who, for some of them, this is their bread and butter. Especially the Fine Craft Fairs, and not having been able to do this for a good year, they’re very, very thrilled to be here.”
The Guild also engages with the community through both online and in-person classes based out of their headquarters in Lancaster, PA. Patrice Hoenninger, who stumbled upon the fair coincidentally with her daughter Nevin, is from Lancaster and has attended classes there.
“I just love everything,” Hoenninger said. “The uniqueness of each stand is what impresses me, seeing something different, nothing ordinary.”
Hoenninger is hoping to become a guild member after the pandemic settles down. Heisler-Lawson is also looking forward to the Guild returning to its pre-COVID state and restoring the fairs to their full capacity.
“We’re going to do four fairs next year,” Heisler-Lawson said. “Maybe a fifth. Which means I have to get applications for the 2022 shows. Once we get the artists selected, we start planning the process, security and that. It’s year-round.”
Through all the planning, Heisler-Lawson never loses focus of her chief goal of supporting artists.
“Knowing all of my artists had wonderful sales, and that there was great weather, so we all go home and say, ‘I had a great show,’ that that to me is a success,” she said.
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So glad things are somewhat back to normal in Philadelphia. This fair is always great as is the weekly Farmers market in Rittenhouse Square.