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Crafting a life together

The Baltimore Sun

Wilmington, Del. - The glue that holds George and Deann Verdier together is made up of wet potters' clay and whisper-thin shards of spun metal, of paintbrush bristles and dabs of artisanal honey.

For more than three decades, the Verdiers have worked side by side nurturing the Sugarloaf Craft Festivals that they founded in 1975 in Montgomery County. Today, the fairs attract 350,000 customers and generate about $20 million in sales annually. Shows are held each year in 17 cities in the Midwest and along the East Coast, including Timonium, where Sugarloaf stops this weekend.

The hundreds of artists and craftsmen who exhibit at Sugarloaf have become an extended family. Artists and organizers party together - the Verdiers recently threw a Roaring Twenties bash - and each year, there is a Halloween costume ball. The couple attend their artists' marriages, and, on sad occasions, their wakes.

As the couple strolled the aisles recently at the show's first-ever event at the Chase Center in Wilmington, an artist from Thailand who makes miniature clay flowers ran up to announce the birth of her first grandchild. A metal spinner from Turkey reminisced about a home-cooked meal his wife had prepared for the Verdiers in Istanbul. A jewelry exhibitor called out, "Hey, Mary Poppins!" his affectionate nickname for the bubbly Deann.

"George and I have the best job helping everybody to make a living doing what they love to do," Deann Verdier says. "I feel like everybody's mother. I get the biggest kick out of the stories I hear."

About 350 of the Verdiers' close friends - and the pottery, clothing, jewelry and sculptures they have created - will be in Timonium over the weekend, when Sugarloaf stops for three days at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

As befits a homegrown product, Sugarloaf reflects the personality of its founders.

Deann Verdier selects the exhibitors for the fair, based on slide presentations of their work. It's important to her that the items for sale be "good value" (that they be made of quality materials and be well executed) but also represent a range of prices.

High-income shoppers can buy a pair of show-stopping gold earrings priced at more than $1,000; their budget-conscious neighbors might pick up coasters costing $4 apiece that fuse together various hardwoods in a gorgeous array of colors.

Unlike most craft festivals, Sugarloaf has a section devoted to artisanal foods offered in bite-size portions, from soups (lobster bisque and chicken enchilada) to crackers to honey.

There's a children's area in which pint-sized shoppers can play dress-up and watch an interactive puppet show, and also a pianist who specializes in pop standards for adults.

A crowd-pleasing aspect of Sugarloaf is the artist exhibits. At Wilmington, John Akers recently demonstrated the craft of "metal spinning," in which copper discs seemingly become as moldable as butter.

As a crowd began to gather, Akers, who was born in Turkey but now lives in northern Virginia, attached a four-inch plate to a lathe and started the motor.

"Metal spinning originated in England in the 1800s," he says in his heavily accented English. "But the Turks perfected the technique."

As the disc gained speed and revolved on its axis, Akers picked up a metal prod. He balanced one end against his waist and lightly stroked the other prong against the disc. Seemingly of its own volition, the copper plate began to assume a classic bell shape.

Once he determined that his creation was the right size, Akers removed the bell from the lathe, filed down the rim and let the copper cool. Finally, he painted it red, white and blue, and hung it from a cord.

Just like that, he had made a new Christmas ornament.

Demonstrations such as this are part of Sugarloaf's charm - and may help explain why the festivals have remained remarkably resilient to downturns in the economy. Last weekend, in the midst of the worst financial crunch in decades, the Chase Center was full of shoppers. Several exhibitors commented spontaneously that their wares were finding buyers.

"We've been through three recessions in 30 years," George Verdier says. "Sugarloaf always has held up very well. People can come out for the day with their families, and they don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good time."

The couple grew up in the Washington suburbs and met while they were in high school. On their second date, George (tall, dark and handsome) asked Deann (petite, blond and outgoing) to go steady. They wed two years later.

"We've been together for 40 years," Deann says.

"Yes," George says, "the trial period is almost over."

He began his career as an engineer, and she was a substitute elementary school teacher, but both knew they wanted to find a career that would allow them to work together.

In 1975, the couple attended a craft festival in Harpers Ferry, W. Va. They had such a good time, they decided to put on a festival of their own on the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and call it "Sugarloaf" after a favorite hiking spot.

"The first year of the festival was 1976, and we had 10,000 paying attendees," George Verdier says. "The rest is history."

The Verdiers' different strengths complement one another. George handles the business side of the Gaithersburg-based company, called Sugarloaf Mountain Works, as well as the logistics of building individual shows and tearing them down.

"That's really an engineering challenge," he says.

Deann has the people skills and artistic background (she is an amateur potter and has dabbled in most genres) to select the exhibitors to fill the 300 to 500 slots available for each show and to serve as the artists' liaison.

Both add to the festivals' aura of warmth.

"They've created an environment that's very, very comfortable, almost family-like," says Michael Alexander, a New York-based stockbroker-turned-jeweler who has exhibited at Sugarloaf for the past 12 years. "I do a lot of shows, and that's not always true. That atmosphere sets Sugarloaf apart."

IF YOU GO

The Sugarloaf Craft Festival will be held at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road, Timonium. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. tomorrow, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $7 online or $8 at the door. Children younger than 12 are admitted free. Call 800-210-9900 or go to sugarloafcrafts.com.

ABOUT THE ORGANIZERS

Who: George Verdier, 59, and Deann Verdier, 57

Occupation: Founders and organizers of the Sugarloaf Craft Festivals, based in Gaithersburg

Birthplace: Bethesda and Silver Spring, respectively

Residence: Bethesda

Education: George graduated from the University of Maryland in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering; Deann graduated from the University of Maryland in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in early childhood education

Family: A son, Bob, 28, and daughter, Jacqueline, 25

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