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A creative look at Detroit

Ain't no puffy paint at a Detroit craft fair.

On Saturday, some 50 independent artists and alternative crafters will gather at the Majestic Theater near downtown. No, you are not bad-ass enough to attend one of their knitting circles. But you can buy the products they make.

The Detroit Urban Craft Fair is an annual event for the state's alt craft scene. Some 4,000 people attended last year's happening, organized by Handmade Detroit, a DIY craft collective for the area's independent makers.

More than 200 people applied to show their wares at the fair, so its popularity and success are worth noting.

Stephanie Tardy, Lish Dorset, Carey Gustafson, Bethany Nixon and Amy Cronkite organize the event. Tardy graciously agreed in the midst of planning said event to tell us more.

Tardy, a Michigan State University grad, creates books, paper goods and collage art through her business, The Phantom Limb.

Q: People in Detroit like to craft? What do they make, car cozies? Crochet gun holders?

Hmm, crochet gun holders … actually people in Detroit do tend to craft things about the city, but they speak to the intense pride here, not negative stereotypes. DetroitGT's positive slogan muscle car T-shirts, Glass Action's Michigan necklaces or City Bird's Detroit soaps are just few examples of that.

I tend to make stuff that is overly happy and colorful as a way of challenging what something made in Detroit looks like. On a broader level, makers in Detroit are constantly challenging that notion of identity though creation -- sometimes just simply by not making cars.

DIY, which is where the indeed craft we're talking about comes from, is really about creating the stuff that you wish existed. So, do crochet gun holders need to exist? Hmm, probably not -- unless it's in some tongue-in-cheek or politically motivated fashion. Do jobs need to exist? Yes. Is one of those avenues for creating jobs making crafts and selling them? Yes.

In Detroit, this notion of creating what you want takes on a bigger meaning. I mean, it's not just about knitting a customized hat, it's about what we want on every level, and craft just happens to be one avenue working toward that deeper desire. That's why music and art thrives here as well.

Q: How did Handmade Detroit get its start? Why hold a Craft Fair?

Handmade Detroit started through Carey Gustafson and Lish Dorset, two crafter buds, and myself deciding to start a Renegade-style craft fair in the city. Soon after crafters Bethany Nixon and Amy Cronkite joined and in 2005 we held the first Detroit Urban Craft Fair at the Majestic Theater in Midtown.

All of us had craft businesses and needed a place to sell our work. We were seeing all these people making similar work and struggling to get it out there too. A large-scale craft fair seemed like the biggest and most impactful way to reach people and start getting venues, shops, galleries and other events to start recognizing all of us.

The fair is now in its fourth year and though we've added many other events and projects to what we do in Handmade Detroit, it remains our biggest focus and largest event.

Q: Tell me what to buy at the Fair. What's the coolest and what's the craziest things available?

Everything! Buy much and often! It's as much about getting something unique, local and interesting as it is about possibly keeping a creator in the work they love. You're going to find skateboards, T-shirt headbands, vegan bath products, terrariums made in vintage kitchenware, bike hats, soaps that look like and mix tapes and paper puppets – where else will you find all that? I recommend poking through our vendor list to see what I'm talking about.

Q: Are you part of this "Creative Class" that is supposed to save Detroit?

Classic definition, sure. I work at an advertising agency during the day, in a handmade group and business at night. But I hate the “creative class” moniker. It reminds me of a comic I saw a while back. One guy is asking “How do we fix Detroit?” The other guy says, “Let's throw a conference to discuss it.”

That's spot on to me. Are we at a point where we're talking endlessly about the “creative class” and having absolutely nothing to back that up but equally endless conferences and the outlining of our problems? How much could be done by stopping the talk and getting to the work? Doing whatever you can first, doing it often, doing what interests you, doing it even if people tell you it's pointless, doing it wherever you see it's needed. And then that work really needs to be recognized and talked about as much as the definitions and ideas around the problems.

Q: What else you do you want people to know about Handmade Detroit, the fair or why you love this incredibly strange city?

Strange has such a negative connotation. If you left that at “incredible city” there is still room to talk about the people, the things they create and do, the ways they work together on a daily basis, despite the odds against them.

I hope that others will see Handmade Detroit as very small reflection of these incredible people – and I hope that they will come out to DUCF on Saturday to see their projects in action.

Thanks, Stephanie!

Here's some pictures from previous events.

Info on this year's gatherings:
Pre-DUCF Tweetup
Where you can mix and meet with the fair's vendors, sponsors, organizers and other local makers
6 p.m., Friday, Nov. 20
Majestic Café
Free admission and craft project

Detroit Urban Craft Fair
10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 21
Majestic Theater
Free admission

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