MANASSAS, Va. — Thirty times a year, Brian Beckenheimer puts his pottery into a big white van and drives. One weekend to Michigan, another to Richmond, mostly up and down the East Coast, from one craft show to another, selling his wares. Then it’s back home to the studio to replenish his stock.
It’s the same kind of life for jewelers Mariya and Anatoly Sigalov, who emigrated from Ukraine and are doing the craft show circuit here.
And for clothing artist Dori Herrmann and her husband, Dennis, but with a twist. The Herrmanns drive from show to show in a motor home, pulling a trailer with her studio behind them.
Ah, the craft show life. You might call it the artist’s rendition of a traveling salesman.
The schedule is set up on Thursday, pack up on Sunday, sell in between. Often, there are only a few days before the next show.
“It’s not an easy life, but I like it. I love it,” Beckenheimer said. “The best thing about being at shows on weekends is the customers. They’re like family to me.”
Thousands of craft shows and fairs are held across the country each year, some high-end extravaganzas, others as simple as the church bazaar.
Carol Sauvion, co-executive producer of the PBS series “Craft in America,” calls them a “coming together” matching artisans and their customers.
“It is a public expression of what is sometimes a very solitary existence,” she said.
It’s also big business.
The Craft Organization Development Association estimated in 2000 that crafts were a $13.8 billion business and that there were about 127,000 craft artists in the country. Nine out of 10 crafts people in the United States were white, and nearly two out of three were female. The median age was 49.
Half sold their art directly to the public. Of those, half did it at craft fairs.
Linda Van Trump, the organization’s managing director, said she believes overall sales today are about at the same level as in 2000. She blames the struggling economy.
“The market has changed,” she said. “Probably the middle end is not doing as well, but the upper end is still selling.”
Still, rising gas, motel and other costs are cutting into profits, forcing some to leave the business, she said. At the same time, “young people are not going into it as much as they used to because it’s more difficult to make a living,” she said.
So where does that leave people like Beckenheimer, who makes his living selling pottery?
On a beautiful Sunday morning in late summer, he talked to customers who came to his booth at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival in Manassas to admire his ikebana pots for Japanese floral arranging, mugs, vases, bowls and other pieces of pottery.
“My stuff is functional pottery,” he said. “Stuff people use every day. I keep my prices reasonable and affordable.”
But the crowd was small, and there was a full day to catch up on. The show hadn’t opened as scheduled the day before because of heavy rain. The 150 exhibitors received vouchers to participate in another Sugarloaf show, show manager Lorrie Staley said. On average, it costs about $525 for exhibit space.
On top of that, one of the canopies under which Beckenheimer displays his pottery was damaged in the storm.
“That’s the life of a potter,” he said. But he looks on the bright side; none of his pottery was damaged.
Beckenheimer, 53, of Owings Mill, Md., chose this life over going into the family supermarket business in Baltimore.
“I thought it would be neat,” he said.
He apprenticed with master potter Geoffrey Borr in Boston in 1979, worked at a pottery co-op in Newton, Mass., and refined his techniques and glazes during summers on Martha’s Vineyard. He returned to the Baltimore area in 1984 and sold his pottery off a pushcart and then from a store at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. But after 18 years, he closed down.
“I got frustrated with the whole scene,” he said. “I’m a potter and I didn’t want to be a boss.”
He’s been going “full force” at craft shows ever since. The next few months will be particularly tough, he says, with 15 shows in 17 weeks.
“I don’t know how much more I have in me,” he said.
While Beckenheimer gets home between — and sometimes during — shows, the Herrmanns are on the road months at a time before they can return to Bowling Green, Ky., and their grandchildren.
“With the grandchildren now, it’s very difficult,” she said. “But this is how we make our living.”
On this particular day, clothing painted with fall and winter themes — leaves and pumpkins and snowmen — was hung around their booth.
“I’ve done crafts all my life,” she said. “One thing just evolved into another.”
Still, her husband, acknowledged, “it’s a financially challenging business at times.”
The Sigalovs, of Pittsburgh, do about 20 craft shows a year.
“It’s very difficult,” Mariya Sigalov said. “Between shows you have to work and find the materials.”
The homepage of the "leading voice for the crafts in America" celebrates the gifted and persistent artists who continue to express their talents in the traditional medium. The site offers information about craft as an art form, resources for those looking to get involved themselves, details about upcoming craft shows like the annual American Craft Council Conference, and more. More »
The Web site of the Peabody Award-winning public television series includes background information on craft, including its role in the creation and promotion of memory, community and education. More »
In August 2007, the Times published this profile of local master potter Geoffrey Borr, offering a glimpse inside his art and approach. More »