If the word "crafts" makes you think of baskets made of sticks and heavy pottery in muted earth tones, the American Craft Council Craft Fair is going to be a shock.
Twenty years after its first event, the craft fair is a glorious wonderland of sumptuous and luxurious objects, from earrings to bowls to clocks, boxes, folding screens, and silk and leather clothing.
This year craft artists are going for the gold, with gold prominent on objects of wood, metal, leather, glass and ceramics. It may be part of a wider trend toward more opulent materials such as tapestry and gilt in the home furnishings market, but the artists cite a variety of reasons for their interest in the shiny metal.
"I think people are looking for really elegant things," said metal artist Suzanne Donazetti, a native Marylander who now lives in Carrizozo, N.M. She uses gold and silver leaf in her woven metal pieces. Baltimore craft shoppers are especially sophisticated, she said, because they've been educated over the years by the craft show. "They're looking for that one small piece that really speaks to them."
Ms. Donazetti will be showing her wall hangings, clocks, frames and furniture at the 20th annual ACC Craft Fair, which opens Friday at the Baltimore Convention Center. She's one of more than 750 crafts people who will be offering objects whimsical and functional, big and small, elaborate and elegant, and mostly one of a kind, in materials from paper and fabric to silver and steel.
Richard Kooyman, who, with his wife, Barbara Browning, creates mostly functional items such as clocks and mirrors out of wood, said their use of gold is linked to the fact that "we're really interested in and really enjoy religious iconography," such as that found on wall altars and other religious artifacts in Mexico.
Mr. Kooyman draws on the wood with an electric wood-burning pen, and Ms. Browning paints the object. One example is a clock with brightly colored dogs, snakes, a human figure, and vines with a gold border. Around the clock face are the words, "Your name is being called by things sacred."
zTC "Most of what we do is completely out of wood," he said, because it's a material that is easily manipulated into any shape. With gold paint, "we can make it not look like wood," he said. "It adds another dimension you don't usually see on wood."
A nicer finish
But he thinks other artists are using gold as a way of adding "a specialness" to objects.
"My designs are very simple," said Flavio Bisciotti, of Los Angeles. "What makes the designs great is the finish and the look." Mr. Bisciotti, who is from Argentina, is an architect who creates small cabinets, screens and other items of furniture. "In all my pieces, the design is very contemporary, but the finishes and the look are medieval." One example is a double-paneled screen with tarot figures, with a narrow interior gold border. He also uses gold leaf on mirrors, then paints it to get an antique look.
His methods are contemporary as well. For painted objects, such as the screen, he used to paint the designs on the object, he said. But now he uses a computer to draw the designs, and the computer prints them out on canvas.
In contrast, Nina Gelardi, of Belle Mead, N.J., uses the ancient technique of lost-wax sculpting to create her belts, earrings and other metal accessories. She plates the metal with 18-karat gold, and then embellishes it with semiprecious stones, incisions and small cut-out shapes.
"I've been using gold more frequently," she said, attributing that to her interest in the cultures of Central and South America, where native people buried their gold to keep it away from the invading Spaniards, and where it is only recently being unearthed.
"It's a development," said Craig Kaviar, a Louisville, Ky., metal artisan, of his use of gold on objects from tables to candelabra to fireplace tools. In the fireplace tools, the stand is designed to resemble a tree branch, and the two tools hanging on it have birds on the top as handles. In the middle of the tools are little nests, each with two gold-leafed eggs.
"I'm taking some bolder steps," he said. "It's not a dramatic departure, it's more of an evolution."
A winning edge
He sees the proliferation of opulence as artists' efforts to continue raising the quality of their work, especially for the highly competitive, juried shows such as the one in Baltimore.
Tom Hayward, an artist from Charlemont, Mass., who works in fur and leather, agreed that competition is driving up both quality and prices in the craft market. He has used gold insets in the yoke of a leather coat, with an effect almost like stained glass, and he also silk-screens tapestry-like designs in gold on black or red leather.
While he still makes mittens and hats that cost under $100, the cost of a coat can top $1,000. "I don't think people mind spending $1,200, $1,300 for something if it's special," he said.
"Gold's a sort of economic issue, isn't it?" said Mr. Kaviar, noting the metal's proven and perceived value. "Gold has a more ready market, in some ways."
The show itself is something of an economic force in Baltimore, and that may be the clearest indication of all that "crafts" have moved from hippiedom to stardom in the past two decades. Last year the ACC craft fair drew 33,000 retail visitors and 3,300 businesses, who together spent about $21 million. (Wholesale buyers must register to attend the show.)
According to Kathleen Ratcliffe, of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the craft fair is the largest locally attended annual show. The association estimates that last year's 40,000 or so visitors generated between $6 million and $7 million in revenue for the city.
The show is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. One-day admission is $7 per person, and a two-day pass is $12. Children under 12 are admitted free. For more information, call (410) 962-1122.