Making It: Artists, craft fairs, and the holiday season hustle

on December 13, 2018

It’s late October and a dozen linocut block prints are hanging from the drying racks above Christina Cordova’s small kitchen table. In black ink printed on thick raw-edged paper, Dos Manos (two hands with an all-seeing eye on each palm and cornstalks running up the fingers) and the Memory Jacket (an elaborately embroidered Mexican coat framed by flowers) will hang for a week before she tucks them into a portfolio thick with other images that are listed on her website for $45 to $80 each.

Below them, tubes of ink and a glass plate and spatula for mixing it await her next printing session. In the other room, in front of a sunny, wood-framed window overlooking Oakland’s Beacon Street, several carved blocks sit on a stack of notepads beside a brightly-colored bowl full of linoleum shavings.

Cordova, a printmaker, is planning her holiday season, considering what she’ll be able to print between now and Christmas. Her hopes of getting into her first major craft fair were dashed when Renegade Craft Fair’s San Francisco holiday show didn’t accept her application, and she’s reflecting on why—and what’s next. Cordova dreams of building her art into a full-time business. This year, she turned a profit for the first time. But, she says, it was hardly a wage. Swiping through her Instagram feed, she points out businesses she thinks have made it. “They’re really good marketers and self-promoters,” she says, “and that is something that I struggle with.”

She picks up an uncarved block covered with sketching. It’s in the “blob stage,” she says. It’s a cactus, and cactuses are in this year. Instagram, craft fairs—even Target is full of them, along with macramé, vaguely southwestern patterns, and all things desert-themed. Also, beige. Everything this year is beige, Cordova says. None of this is why she’s drawing the cactus, which, drawn alongside a migratory Mexican long-nose bat, is more a statement on the arbitrariness of borders and her own Chicanx heritage. But she can’t help but wonder if this print might have done well this year, had she finished it, or been able to sell it at Renegade.

Increasingly, thanks in part to millennials’ preference for authenticity, consumers want to buy handmade work directly from artists like Cordova. And craft fairs are on the rise, replacing more traditional gallery experiences with these in-person, meet-the-artist events. This year, there are scores of fairs in the Bay Area alone, from special artisan days at farmers’ markets to the Treasurefest Snovember Holiday Market, which advertises having more than 400 vendors at their Thanksgiving weekend event. For Bay Area artists, Renegade and West Coast Craft are among the biggest shows in town, filling San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center two November weekends in a row with hundreds of vendors and tens of thousands of holiday shoppers. Also: cactuses. And macramé. And beige.

For artists, fairs are fun and an opportunity to interact with customers, but they’re also really difficult. They’re unpredictable, resource intensive, and the biggest fairs are increasingly competitive to get into. For some artists—especially emerging ones—they can be a key source of income and business validation. For many others, fairs are more about exposure and customer interaction, while the real money is made elsewhere. For those like Cordova who don’t get in, all of this can be harder to come by.

To be a successful working artist or craftsperson in this Instagram age means finding a balance between building a brand, growing as an artist, and figuring out how to make the economics work. And during the holiday season, the pressure is on. While Cordova is planning her print schedule, artists and craftspeople all over the country are building, sewing, painting, firing, throwing, sculpting, and dying work, preparing for holiday sales. Many will make nearly half their annual income in these final two months of the year. They’ll end the season exhausted, with new insights into their customers and businesses, and, hopefully, with enough money to make it through the slow months that follow—or at least to justify pressing on.

There may be more sales opportunities than ever, but there are more artists, too, says Pamela Diamond, a painter and director of communications and marketing at the American Craft Council in Minneapolis. Inspired by Etsy, Pinterest, HGTV, and Instagram, she says, more and more people are stepping away from their screens to use their hands instead.

“In this day and age,” Diamond says, in order to succeed as a working craftsperson, “you need to have extraordinarily quality, beautiful work at a reasonable price.” And artists need to be marketing: on Instagram, on Facebook, over email, and in person at shows. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” she says. “I watch these artists schlep across the country, and the ones that do the show circuit, I’m just in awe of them. You’re not only making all your product, you’re designing it, making it, pricing it, packing it, designing your booth, setting up your booth, tearing down your booth, going from town to town, away from home. It’s not an easy life.”

These big shows are not for everyone, Diamond says. Not everyone wants to scale their business or brand to the point required by increasingly competitive national shows. But a good show can make an artist’s business, she says.

Eight years into her own business as a jewelry maker, Lisa Anderson Shaffer, based in Fairfax, considers herself “old gangster” at this point, and makes a full-time living on her art. But even her business is unpredictable. This year, she’s going to Renegade, but she didn’t get into the winter edition of West Coast Craft—usually her most lucrative event by far. “I make a living as an artist. So to not get into a show, financially it’s frustrating and devastating,” she says. “Not getting into West Coast Craft, all I can do is say, ‘Okay, well, how many things can I do to make up the revenue for that?’”

She’s been able to make up the gap in years past—it’s not the first time this selective show has passed on her work—but it’s a hustle. This year she’ll sell at six Bay Area fairs.

Cordova had hoped that Renegade could be the break her barely-2-year-old business needs. Now, she’s evaluating what’s best for her business and how to make it work in a way that feels true to herself and her art. She’s floating her business—Mano con Ojo—on teaching classes when she can, plus a seasonal retail job she picked up when she realized she wasn’t reaching her business goals.

She has one more chance to finish her year more solidly in the black: She’s waiting on her last application, for the East Bay Print Sale. That sale saved her business last year when she sold almost all of the 88 prints she’d prepared. The income nearly exactly paid for an unexpected medical debt. “I don’t know what I would have done otherwise,” she says. She’s optimistic about getting in, and she’s planning her printing schedule as if she will: She hopes to complete 200 prints for this year’s show. “This is kind of an all eggs in one basket situation,” she says.

She sets the blob-stage cactus back on the stack of notebooks. She won’t have time to finish it. She has six weeks to print everything she’ll sell this holiday season.

***

 At her home studio, Lisa Anderson Shaffer is surrounded by very well-organized chaos. Everything is in piles according to status: wholesale orders that need to go out today; woven necklaces, each at varying stages of finish; cloth draw-string bags awaiting the stamp for her brand, Zelma Rose. Rope and cord are everywhere—on spools, in laundry baskets, and at her fingertips, as she hand-wraps hemp thread around loops of fat cotton cord. She’s making her San Gabriel Necklace, which features a large ring of cord wrapped tight to the necklace, inspired by the moment the sun briefly merges with the horizon.

That necklace—along with her signature woven design—is all over her Instagram page, which boasts nearly 8,000 followers and features other artists and Instagram stars modeling her work. Her necklaces range from $86 to $350, depending on the labor involved in weaving or tying them. A simple knotted bracelet—her most affordable item—is $38. Her business is a full-time endeavor that she says is profitable, growing steadily, and has allowed her to be home to parent her 8-year-old daughter. Depending on the season, media attention, or sheer luck, she says she makes anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000 a month.

Her business relies on at least one holiday fair per year, and even though West Coast Craft passed on her application, she is selling at Renegade. A regular there, she’s returning this winter for her seventh show. The fair is just three days away, and Shaffer has a lot to finish. On top of that, she’s also about to launch a book, a journal filled with photographs from her daily Instagram practice of capturing three common objects at a time: flowers, stones, eyeglasses, balls of cord. She’s selling prints from the book at Renegade, and isn’t sure when she’ll have time to frame them.

Shaffer’s day has already been interrupted by a call from her daughter’s school—she just returned from bringing her sick child home. The life of an artist and a mom, she says, is “like every burner on the stove is on full blast.”

“The only way I’m not completely drowning for this weekend is that I put in two probably 14-hour days Saturday and Sunday,” Shaffer says. And she has no idea whether it will all pay off. Even after six showings at Renegade, she says, “it’s still unpredictable for me. I still can’t guarantee how I will do.” She tries to prepare based on past numbers, and always hopes to do 25 percent better than her most recent show. But to some degree, she’s still just hoping for the best.

One show can bring Shaffer anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to more than $10,000, on top of being “the single best advertising you can invest in for your business,” she says, given the sheer number of people who attend big shows. Or, it could flop: At her worst-ever show, she sold one item, for $39. It didn’t even cover the booth fee (which runs $700 to $800 at this year’s major fairs), let alone the travel costs to get there. “If you like things to be predictable,” she says, “it’s a very bad business for you.”

Her preparation—for this weekend, at least—is nearing an end, as she works through each of the piles around the studio. Whatever she’s able to finish will be in front of 25,000-50,000 people during the show. “Tomorrow night will be the night where I’m like, okay, realistically I can get two more of this done or one more of that done,” she says. “And then I have to kind of go: Okay. Everyone will survive.”

But will they? Mady Renn, manager of experientials and communications at Renegade Craft Fair, says that this year’s San Francisco holiday market “was one of our most competitive and applied-for markets ever.” She won’t share the number of applicants for this or past years, but says for this winter’s show, it was more than last year, “probably by double.” Yet the number of acceptances was about the same: Shaffer is one of 215 artists from around the country selling at this show. A record number of others—like Cordova—will be at home.

***

By 8 a.m. on November 10, activity at Fort Mason Center is already in full swing, even though Renegade Craft Fair won’t open to the public for three more hours. People are pulling dollies, suitcases, wheeled clothing racks, and collapsible cloth wagons back and forth, unloading into 10-by-10-foot spaces chalked out with hash marks and booth numbers on the black concrete floor. A scissor lift is beeping in one of the aisles, while the man in it, high in the rafters, is hanging an exit sign. The room is a cacophony of preparation: drills and hammers; wood dragging on concrete; dishes rattling; the careful folding of dozens of plastic dress bags.

Shaffer arrives with her dad in tow. “This is so luxurious, all this space!” she tells him. She and a friend, Amanda Hunt—who makes fine jewelry with gold, silver, bronze and diamonds—are sharing a double booth. Hunt unfurls a carpet onto her half of the floor. The women hang black curtains behind their tables, trying to find the right height to compete with the plywood wall another artist has built behind one half of their section. They each lay necklaces, earrings, and rings on their tables and display mounts, then step back to inspect.

“I mean, I don’t think it’s bad. It looks…” Hunt pauses, “…fine.”

The pair keeps fussing, enlisting dad to help move the carpet and tables. Hunt pulls the curtains into an angle, framing the tables.

“I don’t know why that made a difference, but it did!” Hunt says. Shaffer agrees, and they pull the angle a little bit smaller.

“I think that’s as good as it’s going to get,” Shaffer announces. “What time is it? 10:10? We’re not even in panic mode!”

Hunt, like Shaffer, is a full-time, profitable artist, and has been running her business for a similar length of time. This holiday season should bring in about a third of her annual income, she says. And while this weekend’s fair should make up a big portion of that, if all goes well, she expects West Coast Craft next weekend to be even more lucrative. There, her jewelry—which runs from $80 to $150 for a silver ring to more than $1,000 for some of her gold work—will be surrounded by other fine jewelry and furniture priced in the thousands. At Renegade, most booths offer at least some items in what Shaffer calls the “gift range,” or about $40.

The scissor lift is now further up the aisle, hanging yet another exit sign. Somewhere nearby, someone is still drilling. The bustle in the giant pavilion has slowed from on-a-mission vendors rolling wares to their booths to a more meandering pace. Artists are taking time to visit and hug each other—many are on the same show circuit, and this is a rare moment to say hello. Customers are starting to walk through, peering cautiously into booths where artists, like Hunt and Shaffer, are still fussing over the details of their displays.

By 11:30, Hunt has made her first sale: a woman in a black sweater and jeans over scuffed black boots buys a Lake Ring featuring a large, organic oval set on top. “I’m glad you got it,” Hunt tells her. “It looks beautiful on you.”

Next door, Shaffer helps a customer with a bracelet clasp. “It’s machine washable,” she says, explaining that she does all the weaving and dying of her jewelry, and that she has other sizes if this one doesn’t fit. It’s not quite right. The woman gives it back and moves on to another booth.

In those other booths, hundreds of artists are doing the same: adjusting their wares, chatting with customers, hoping for sales. They’re here because they love this show and how it’s curated. Because it brings in a good amount of income. And because it’s nice to sell to people in person, rather than on the internet, many of them say. Here, they get valuable feedback in addition to lots of eyes on their work.

Melissa Buchanan, one half of The Little Friends print shop, is selling vibrant screen prints of cats and other creatures. She and her partner sell at as many as 30 shows per year. “We like to hear how customers think,” she says.

Jennifer Foster, selling brightly painted pots as Black Mountain Ceramics, says the bulk of the income from her part-time business is from wholesale accounts, most of which discovered her on Instagram. At her first Renegade show earlier this year—the July edition of their three annual San Francisco shows—she made several thousand dollars. That’s enough to make it worth the trip, she says, even after the booth fee, hotel, and travel costs from Los Angeles.

“Renegade is my go-to show,” says Akiko Oguchi, of Good Company Wares, who is selling hanging planters made from leather and brightly patterned fabric. “They curate and market so well, and customers here are so supportive of handmade culture.” And, she adds, it’s a good stream of income to supplement her wholesale business. She thinks she got into her seventh Renegade show because “they say they’ve never seen anything like this,” she says. Her leather and cloth planters are unique in a room filled with ceramics.

And the room is filled with ceramics. And jewelry made from clay, bold screen-printed designs, and so many cactuses: in the ceramics, next to the jewelry, on the prints. Some of it is innovative. Much of it is gift-range. All of it is very well branded. Or, as Renn says, “It’s a glimpse into the future of your Instagram Explore page.”

At the end of the weekend, Shaffer tears down her booth and heads home. It was a good show, she says: she met her goal of a 25 percent improvement over the last one. She has a 40-minute drive to process her weekend, her success, and what she’s learned from which pieces people couldn’t help but touch. “And then I’m at home getting a kid into pajamas, finishing dinner, singing night songs,” she says. Her work sits in a suitcase, the full number-crunching of her weekend sales on hold until she’s dropped her child off at school the next morning.

She has a few more craft fairs to prep for, her annual website sale to organize, and a book launch in a couple of weeks. On December 23, she says, she’ll start planning for 2019.

***

Fairs like Renegade are polished. They really do look like an Instagram feed, and serve much the same purpose: attracting as many looks as possible. But this isn’t the only kind of craft fair. Dozens of smaller shows abound, and more are added every year. Phoebe Sherman, founder of Girl Gang Craft—which sells uterus-shaped enamel pins and also offers events and workshops for female artists—began hosting craft fairs in 2017, starting with a 19-woman show at an Oakland café. This year, Girl Gang’s fifth show, a November holiday market at Oakland’s Scottish Rites Temple, has a roster of 137 vendors. The show is juried—she says about 25 artists didn’t get in—but it aims to be a more accessible and affordable show. The big fairs, she says, “don’t necessarily give people who are just starting out enough of a chance.”

“If people have amazing art and not necessarily amazing branding, we do tend to overlook that,” Sherman says. And Girl Gang events charge less than $100 for a booth.

At this show, most displays are small and unpolished, and they fill the main hall with 20 rows of tables covered in macramé designs, scented candles, soaps that look like geodes, and earrings: beaded, hammered metal, bent wire, hand-painted. At a large table in one corner, jewelry designer Iris Willow is selling glass enamel earrings. She’s here for the customer feedback on new designs and for the focus fairs give her this time of year. She’s back to her business after several years off to have a child. Like Shaffer, she’s learned that income from her work, especially at fairs, is really hard to predict. She compensates by over-planning. “Whatever is my best seller, I create more of those,” Willow says. But it doesn’t always work out. “This year, studs are really popular,” she says, pointing to the row of them displayed on the table. “And today I’ve only sold one pair.”

Textile artist Isa Fix is relying on this show to expand her business beyond farmers’ market sales. “Today is really important,” she says from behind her display of cloth pouches, wallets and bags. “It’s only my second fair. I told myself if I was accepted to this one, that I could keep doing this. If not, that I should keep being a nanny.” Halfway through the day, as thousands of customers walk through, she’s sold out of several items.

As for the 25 artists who didn’t make it into this show, Sherman says they have options, too: She got her own start at the Patchwork Festival in Oakland, which accommodates emerging artists, and she advocates selling at non-juried events like First Friday street fairs.

Every sales venue has pros and cons for artists at all levels. Major craft fairs like Renegade carry a hefty booth fee, and most artists opt for beautiful, expensive displays with professionally-made signs, mounts and shelves. The fixed costs of participating can be hard for any artist to overcome, but on a good sales day, they’re ideal: These costs can run far lower than the commission per item they might pay a gallery venue.

For less established artists or those who are more risk-averse, commission fees can be a godsend. While they might pay more in the end if they sell a lot of items, they never run the risk of coming up short, because the gallery only takes its cut when an item sells.

Still, there’s an opportunity cost for selling in a gallery. The piece—or full inventory of them—must sit at the gallery for a period of time before it sells, which is a risk for artists whose materials are expensive. For this reason, some artists do better selling through retail shops that buy wholesale. Wholesale accounts typically pay an artist half the retail cost—less than an artist would make anywhere else—but they buy it upfront. Once a piece leaves the artist’s hands, their money is made, whether or not a customer buys it.

Online platforms like Etsy—or the artists’ own websites—can be big moneymakers, too, since selling online means paying only a few percentage points of the sales price in transaction fees. But to get any traffic, they often require advertising dollars, search engine optimization skills, and social media savvy.

The trick, for most artists, is finding the venue that best suits their business model. For Hunt, whose material costs are the bulk of her retail prices, storing her own inventory and selling on her website is ideal. For Shaffer, whose customers often see or handle a necklace up to ten times before deciding to splurge, craft fairs are a good brand-building tool. For Cordova, who can’t afford big risks and whose work is more art than useful object, wholesale accounts or an art-specific sale—like the East Bay Print Sale—might be a better fit.

***

While Shaffer, Hunt, and the women at Girl Gang are schlepping, setting up, selling, breaking down, and hoping the math will add up, Cordova is at home printing. She’s still waiting to hear from East Bay Print Sale, but she has to print anyway, on almost every day she’s not at her retail gig. Her drying racks hold 60 prints at once, but each piece takes a week to dry. She still hopes to have 200 done for the show, pulled in batches of 20-30 each weekend.

She’s working in her kitchen, where a small press is mounted to the table. Above her, prints she pulled the day before are hanging on the racks she made herself: clothespins on a strip of wood, hung from the ceiling. The whole room smells like ink—a little bit like petroleum, since she’s hand-mixed it with oil to her preferred viscosity. Cordova says many printmakers enjoy the smell, the same way others enjoy the smell of coffee. “I don’t notice it anymore,” she says, carefully rolling the black ink back and forth over the Metate Tribute block, on which she’s carved the traditional stone tool for grinding corn. Surrounding it are lush flowers with fine details in every petal. She must not over-ink the block—those details would be lost.

She sets the block on the press, and carefully lays a piece of thick white paper over it. When she first learned to print, she watched YouTube video after YouTube video of this process, amazed that others knew how to set it straight. The answer is practice, she says, and screwing up a lot. She pulls a thick felt mat over the paper, and then she turns the three-spoked wheel of the press: one direction to move the press platform all the way through the round roller, and the other way to move it back. She lifts up the mat, and then one corner of the paper, peeking at the print. She pulls it off, satisfied.

“When I first started, I thought for every ten tries, there were maybe two successes,” Cordova says, still inspecting the print. “It’s very satisfying to have some consistency be the norm now.”

Over the course of two hours, she pulls a dozen more prints, making happy exclamations almost every time. “It’s such a relief when things go well. Especially when I’m trying to produce so much. One bad print can put you in such a bad headspace,” she says. It feeds the voice of self-doubt that tells her to give up, to never print again.

Every available surface in the living room is home to a fresh print. When she runs out of space, she hangs each one carefully from the rack.

Before they’ve dried, Cordova learns that she has, in fact, gotten into the East Bay Print Sale. This is a financial boon: The sale charges a commission of 28 percent, but if Cordova sells everything, she could net more than $4,000.

And although she’ll pay more in commission than she would for a booth at a fair like Renegade, artists don’t need to be present at this sale, held at Max’s Garage Press in Berkeley. Instead, volunteers write up the sales tickets, track which items by which artists have been purchased, and ring up customers. That means Cordova doesn’t need to schlep a display, and she can instead spend that weekend working a second venue: The retail shop where she’s been working has offered her a solo pop-up event outside the shop.

She’s relieved, honored, excited to have gotten into the East Bay Print Sale. “I’m so in awe of the other printmakers there,” she says. “I still feel out of my league there, and am so grateful that somehow I find myself there. It still feels a little surreal.” And she feels it’s a better venue for her work than other craft fairs—people are there to buy art, she says, rather than mugs, jewelry or planters. At a sale like this, she says, her art rather than her brand are on display: a far better fit for her business than the craft fairs she had first pursued. “I didn’t realize how much I was editing my work so that it fit into those spaces,” she says. “I’m happy to feel a little freer in that regard.”

She’s still short of her production goal, at 160 pieces. She plans to deliver 136 of them to the print sale while she takes the rest to her last-minute pop-up. Then she’ll anxiously await the call from Max’s Garage Press that she can pick up what she hopes will be an empty portfolio and a big check.

“I have a feeling it will be good,” she says. “But I really never know.”

***

By the end of the weekend, she finally does know. A stunningly pink sky is just beginning to seep into Cordova’s apartment. It’s a catch-up day, only her second day off in a month, and she has a backlog of business emails, four web orders to prepare for shipment, and updates to make to her website inventory.

At the print sale, right now the very last customers of the weekend are pushing through the still-crowded room, past the 60 or so prints of hers that are still sitting unsold on the tables. It’s more than Cordova had hoped would be left, but she’s content. “I’m blown away,” she says. “Literally every time someone buys my art, I feel that way.”

She also sold $500 worth of cards, prints, and t-shirts at the pop-up, where she made several good connections for her business: potential wholesale accounts, a local art school interested in hosting her classes. It was her best sale of the year, she says.

Sitting on her couch, Cordova is hand-writing thank you notes to website customers. “Dear Debbie,” “Dear Carly,” “Dear Catherine,” she writes in pencil. “Thank you so much for your order!” In each note, she goes on to share something personal about the piece that was purchased.

Each note is long, but they do not belie her exhaustion, or the way that yesterday, her face ached from smiling as she walked home from the pop-up. They don’t indicate her sore feet from hours of standing at her printing press or retail job, or the stress of a month with just one day off. These customers will never know how grateful Cordova is that the retail shop has just offered her a job after the holidays, which she hopes will allow her to keep trying to make Mano con Ojo into a full-time business that can support the life she wants: a dog, a lemon tree, a $9.99 bottle of wine at the end of the day.

Whether that future will pan out is “still TBD,” she says. But for now, “I thank them for choosing to buy from a small business. I hope I convey just how much their support means to me.”

She flips on Christmas lights and an episode of Great British Bake Off Masterclass and settles back onto the couch. For the first time in weeks, her drying racks are empty.

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