In the six years since Milwaukee artist Faythe Levine first launched Art Vs. Craft, she's grown from an artist and designer making and selling her art wholesale to shops around the country and out of her Bay View boutique to something of an international art icon with filmmaking and book credits to boot.
As Levine's reach and influence has expanded so, too, has the world of craft and D.I.Y design culture. With dozens of magazines dedicated to the subject, and similar craft fairs having popped up all over the world, the face of the crafting community has changed substantially.
Right after returning from Sweden where she invited to talk Levine sat down with OnMilwaukee.com to talk about how Art vs. Craft has changed since it's inception and where craft has taken her in that time.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me about the first show.
Faythe Levine: The first show was in 2004 and it was like a fall, winter show. And the first three years we did two shows a year and as I got busier I narrowed it down to just once a year to the buying handmade for the holidays. It's always the Saturday after Thanksgiving and it's kind of giving people another option to not go to a mall to start their holiday shopping.
OMC: How has the fair moved around?
FL: We started out at Turner Ballroom before the renovation. So there was a woman working there who was really supportive of the idea and she basically made it happen. It was kind of crazy in there because it was still kind of wild and half built up. So it was there for two or three events. Then we moved it over to the MSOE campus since WMSE has been our sponsor since day one, and they had access to this open space that wasn't being used at the time. It was almost too big. Something that people always ask is 'Why don't you get a bigger venue? It's always so crowded.' We had a bigger space and it just didn't have that same energy as a space that is kind of cramped and people get really excited and pressured to buy something so someone else doesn't buy it before them. So that space was too open and kind of sterile, with fluorescent lights. Someone suggested the Scottish Rite center and we have been there ever since. It's been really great. They have been really supportive.
OMC: When did you start thinking about putting Art vs. Craft together? How did it all come about?
FL: In 2003 when I was designing full time under Flying Fish Design I participated in my first craft fair in Chicago, Renegade Craft Fair, which is now one of the largest kind of indie DIY shows in the country. They have shows all over in different cities. So I participated in their first show in Chicago and it was kind of a life changing experience to meet other designers in person and also interact with the customer face to face. It was just this really overwhelmingly positive experience that I wanted to bring to Milwaukee. So it was basically spawned directly from that experience and it took me about a year between participating in that first show and having my first show. I just blindly went into it. Finding the space was the biggest challenge.
OMC: Now there is more of a network for the crafting community. How did you connect with all the vendors at that first event?
FL: At the time I was pretty involved in online message boards for DIY crafting so I heavily solicited vendors online and I also did posters around town. So I actually did a lot of inviting people to apply to the show. And it wasn't an online application the first year. It was actually a little crazy. Everything was done with hard copies. It was wild. There were actually more vendors the first few shows and I kind of parred it down because we have less space now but also I kind of thought, bigger isn't necessarily better. If you parse it down and have just the cream of the crop of the people who apply those people will just end up making more money and the shoppers don't get as overwhelmed. I mean 100 vendors is a lot to ingest as a shopper. So we try and keep it around 70 selected vendors.
OMC: How has the community evolved that is buying this stuff and making this stuff since the first Art vs. Craft?
FL: I think a lot of the crafters have become more professional because there have been role models for them to look at; how to photograph their work, how to market it and package it and make it a sell-able item. So it's a lot less haphazard and it's a lot more professional but there is still an element of the emerging artist. I mean we're not looking for people who have been selling their work for 10 or 15 years. We are looking for innovative new work that is exciting.
But when people apply online I have to be able to see what they are making so photographing your work well is really like the number one thing to kind of keep in mind when applying to any online exhibit. So the professionalism of the vendors applying. I think the consumer themselves have a lot more awareness of the importance of buying locally, buying green and connecting with the person who is making your object. So I think that because of the trends in supporting small businesses and buying local has definitely paralleled with the success of Art vs. Craft.
OMC: What are some of the changes that you have undergone in your life since you started this?
FL: When I started Art vs. Craft I was a full time designer selling things that I was making by hand in my studio. I had about 30 people I was selling to wholesale around the world. I no longer do that at all. It's been three years since I have had any affiliation with making and selling my own work. My focus has kind of shifted to promoting other peoples work.
When I started shooting "Handmade Nation" in 2006 that was kind of the exact time for me to not have time to be working on it. My studio basically turned into my office. Although I am really excited. This year I am selling my handmade work at Hovercraft which I think is kind of exciting for me as an artist. Because I still consider myself a maker, not just a filmmaker and an author. So it's pushing me to actually make some small things.
OMC: You are also working on a new film and still traveling a lot to promote "Handmade Nation", tell me a little about that.
FL: Basically my work consists of locally it involves working at Sky High gallery and curating events and programming here and most of my freelance work is outside of Milwaukee. I am doing a lot of educational programming surrounding do-it-yourself craft and design and it involves a lot of travel. And I am co-directing a new movie about sign painters, it's called "Sign Painters: Stories From and American Trade," and Sam Macon and I are currently working on that. And I do a lot of freelance writing for a number of publications just depending on what they are looking for so it's kind of all over the place. I do some freelance curatorial work for museums that hire me on as a knowledgeable expert about a certain type of artist and maker.
OMC: What is the best thing that being involved with craft has done for you, or the coolest place it has taken you?
FL: Getting to go to Australia for two weeks. I just got back from Sweden where I was lecturing the Swedish Handcraft Council at the Modern Art Museum there. It was a pretty fantastic experience. We had the New York premiere of "Handmade Nation" at the Museum of Art and Design. I have worked with the Smithsonian at the Renwick Gallery. I am going to Alaska for the first time in January which I am looking forward to.
It is my last U.S. state I haven't been to. It's been pretty phenomenal the amount of exposure the film has gotten but also the amount of people I have been able to reach out to and kind of share this experience of what craft can mean to someone as far as being a kind of empowering creative outlet for any skill level.
OMC: Do you ever miss the simplicity of just making your own crafts?
FL: It depends, I don't miss filling wholesale orders and cutting and sewing 100 of the same thing over and over. That actually took away from my creative process quite a bit. But I do miss just having time. Like downtime to kind of explore my ideas and that's what I don't really have time to do at this point. But I do see filmmaking and curating and educating as an extension of making the things that I am making, because in the end it the agenda is all the same. But that hands on interaction where I get to pick colors and materials and watch something fail miserably or be wildly successful is definitely missing a little bit from the mix but there's time.
This year's Art vs. Craft is Saturday, Nov. 27, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center, 790 N. Van Buren St. Admission is $3 and the first 300 visitors get a free canvas tote bag.