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Community and connection: Durham Craft Market gives opportunity to support local artists

Posted December 11, 2020 6:00 a.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2020 2:59 p.m. EST

— It's been said thousands of times this year -- "Support small business."

To Erika Martinez, when you support local art, "you're making somebody's dream come true."

Martinez is a committee member for the Durham Craft Market and owner of Happy Unicorn Studio. The market was founded in 2006 to "celebrate the uniqueness of craft while providing a local alternative to mass produced items."

Currently, the market has 45 juried members. To be accepted, artists must go through a selection process that is reviewed by the market's selection committee. Artists must live within a 50 mile radius of Durham city limits, must be the original producer of the items, and the art must show personal creativity.

"We want a balance of all different mediums that are available, so we want to balance between jewelry and pottery, woodworking, textiles," explained Martinez.

Over the past five years, Martinez said the market has boomed in the Durham community.

"The availability and the venues available to sell, but also the amount of talent that we have in our community that's coming forward and I think one maker inspires the other," she described.

But like so many other businesses in 2020, artists in the craft market have faced new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

Doreen Jakobs, the owner of Doora Ceramic's, typically does 17 shows during the holiday season to sell her art. This year, she was only able to do three shows.

"There's a seasonality to our work, which actually is really important to understanding how dire everything is right now. When things started closing down, I remember thinking 'I'm going to be OK for three months.' I did one show in March and everything closed for three months."

Jakobs' work focuses on storytelling using textiles with plants and clays. Her commissioned pieces often focus on joyous events, but this year there has been a switch.

"This year was very sad. I usually do a lot of weddings, and this year I did multiple funerals for people who died of COVID, people who died of other illnesses. Even in my work I had this shift from wedding celebrations and birth celebrations to mourning," she explained adding that it was very emotional for her because "family members entrusted these objects to me."

Jakobs was involved in creating a piece for a Durham 10-year-old who died of coronavirus in June.

"One of their family friends had asked me to create artwork for them as a memory and that was, at first, I was just totally broken down by the idea that happened. I was so emotionally involved in creating this shrine, basically," she described. "I feel like I've been working with the emotions of loss right now, much more than I usually do.”

Other artists, such as Martinez shifted their work to help others in the community.

Before the virus hit, Martinez used her craft to make handbags. Her designs came from her love of the item and also not being able to find exactly what she wanted out of a handbag at commercial stores.

She used her sewing skills to create a more functional purse that was lightweight and had additional pockets.

"I also want that bag to be fun, so I work with a lot of color, a lot of designs, everything from sloths and flamingos have been very popular for the last couple years," she described.

"I just wanted to make things that were fun, that make people stop and look at it like, 'Oh that's a cool bag' and then look inside and look at everything I have in here, like it's a Mary Poppins bag, but it doesn't weigh a ton. There were a lot of things that I needed as the customer and that's how I made my products," she added.

Martinez's focus has switched to creating face masks this year. She estimates that so far, she's created over 2,000 face masks.

"I remember on a Friday afternoon, a friend called and said, 'Do you know how to make a face mask?' I said 'No, but I'm about to learn.' From then, that's what I spend about 85% to 90% of my time doing," she recounted.

"I want to use the skills that I have to make a positive impact and so, if I have to step back and not make a handbags but make 20 masks -- I'll happily do that," Martinez said

Some artists, such as Kelly Walsh, the owner of Kelly Wove It, moved all sales online during the pandemic.

"I'm not doing any in-person markets, which has been interesting because it totally turns my focus to what can I do then in terms of selling online? I was able to partner with an apparel maker out of Raleigh, and I actually wove fabric for clothing that she could sell, and that was a really cool project," said Walsh.

Walsh describes herself a weaver, using a loom to make cloth.

"Weaving is definitely, especially hand-weaving, is a very involved process," she explained. "I mostly make scarves, but I also do a little bit of home goods like kitchen towels and throw blankets."

Walsh explained that shopping at small businesses, especially in a time of hardship for the country, is about connection and community.

"Buying local and supporting local people is actually really supporting your neighbors and your community. People are recognizing that is because when your world is small, you want to support it and uplift it," said Walsh.

While this year has been difficult for artists, events such as Durham Craft Market's Holiday Fair gives them a chance to sell their work in a safe environment.

"I'm so thankful to be part of a local vibrant market that I can at least still sell something. Even in a normal, traditional year having the craft market is great as an artist because you don't know if you're going to get into a super big show, or maybe the weather might be kind of bad. I know I can always go to the Durham craft market. It is my home base. If nothing else, I know I can go there and have a good day," said member Kris Remlinger, the owner of Miscellanee, which sells jewelry and photography.

The craft market sets up from April to November at Durham Central Park from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturdays. The market also has two big events: Small Business Saturday and the Holiday Fair, which will be held this upcoming Sunday.

"Since we've reopened the market, we've been taking COVID precautions so we can have both our vendors protected as well as our customers," explained Martinez.

Those precautions include spacing the booths farther apart, hand sanitizing stations at all vendors' booths, disinfecting the booths periodically and requiring face masks.

Martinez said the market's Small Business Saturday event was a success.

"We made a lot of changes, and we had to adhere to the COVID protocols, and we had a wonderful event. The community came out in droves just to support," she recounted. "Our vendors were incredibly happy. We got a lot of great customer feedback as to the precautions we took."

Vendors are now preparing for the holiday market on Sunday.

"It just means a lot to the Durham people that you get to see the same vendors and say, 'Oh, I know my person is going to like that. I know I can come back and I can get it.’ We're like a solid touch stone," said Remlinger.

Those who can't attend the event on Sunday are encouraged to visit the market's newly renovated website. Information and websites for all artists in the market are featured.

"Shopping with us for products -- you're supporting what we want to share with you. Most of [these] items are one-of-a-kind pieces. You're not going to find them somewhere else. There'll be personality in them," said Martinez.

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