Every first week of December, the many stands of the annual Arts and Crafts fair rearrange Worner Center. The three-day event allows students and community members to support artists as they shop for holiday gifts. Behind the fair, there is more significant collaboration, student participation, and community engagement than meets the eye, making this yearly wonder even more impressive.
The fair started several decades ago, initially selling work from a few students and downtown stores stocked with imported crafts from overseas. That changed significantly when arts and crafts teacher Jeanne Steiner took over coordinating the fair 30 years ago. A weaver herself, Steiner changed the criteria for participants in the fair to be handmade by the artist selling the goods.
The change has brought significant expansion in the recent decades, both in the selection of artists and the space itself. Non-student artisans who want to sell in the fair must match the criteria for handmade goods and submit an application containing five photos of their work. Once submitted, Jeanne and the other two craft artists along with a few students select the artists they think are best, appropriately show their work in their photographs, and cover a variety of types of craft.
This collaboration gives students a chance to see what selling one’s work is like, and get a taste for how they might go about putting their work up for sale. The selection process also gives a voice to students’ taste, and as students change with the years, the chosen artists will have fresh eyes on their work. “We have lively conversations,” Steiner said, about the decision-making process. “Everyone responds to work differently.”
Over the years the number of applications has grown to about 120. Steiner says that narrowing that number down to around 65 is difficult: “We rejected a lot of great artists.” While tough, the narrowing process keeps the goods offered at a high level, she explains, and maintaining a positive relationship with the community is a key goal for the fair. If the space had to expand much further, Bon Appétit and students might feel too displaced — and if every artist who wanted to could participate, the quality of the crafts would be sacrificed.
Once an outside artist is selected for the craft fair, they pay a fee ranging from $150 to $250 based on the size of the table they use. Students only pay about 10 percent of what they make, but the money from all of the artists goes to the arts and crafts program in downstairs Worner. The materials and tools in those facilities are open to students for adjuncts and classes, providing an important creative outlet on campus. Keeping the crafts available to students is a pricey venture, and without this annual craft fair, the program would not be as well equipped as it is now. “When I first got here, there was one big loom and three little ones,” Steiner said. “Now there are seventeen looms.”
Colorado College students made up 25 of the 85 artists this year, which is about typical, selling scarves, ceramics, and jewelry. Any person at Colorado College can sell at the fair as long as they make their craft by hand. In keeping with Steiner’s attention to students, this allows young artists to experience what selling work is like with very low stakes, right alongside experienced craftspeople.
Many students also attend each year, and generally look forward to the event. Students mingle with Colorado Springs families and other artisans over the three days of holiday shopping. Students can see friends’ work alongside lifelong craftspeople, and the result seems to be a community bond through holiday gift-giving.
Locally, the fair has become a staple holiday activity. Hundreds pass through Worner; advertisements run on KRCC-FM, in The Gazette and in The Independent; 10,000 postcards are also sent out to the college mailing list, spreading the word to a broad range of the community’s members, who come in droves at the beginning of each December. Beyond the positive relationship with locals, the school and the fair seem to have a mutually beneficial relationship. East Rastall and Worner are allotted to the sale, and Bon Appétit sells refreshments for shoppers.
Julie Sprinkle is one of the most popular vendors at the sale; her tatted snowflake Christmas ornaments are a student favorite.
“I’ve been doing this 15 years,” she said, as her fingers dart through thread, demonstrating her craft. “I learned when I was a freshman in high school from a teacher. She tatted and did calligraphy, and that’s the reason I do both now.”
For senior Taryn Wiens, an instructor for the Arts and Crafts program, selling her work is a unique and excellent opportunity to both connect to the community and learn for herself.
“I’ve done the fair for three years, and each year I get better at things you don’t really think about like pricing, display, explaining my work and processes, talking to customers, and having a good range of products,” she said. “Even though I don’t think I’ll become a professional craft-person, so many of these skills can be applied to almost anything I might end up doing, and just seeing all of these things I’ve made on the same table gives me a sense of accomplishment, a sort of confidence.”
“I love the students…and the environment,” Steiner said. One student, she said, was “so inspired he came in and threw more pots than he had all semester! A friend of his went home and folded snowflakes out of paper because she just needed to do something [crafty].”
The Colorado Springs community, students, and local artists alike are brought together and supported by this event. Students can learn by experience and craftspeople close to their art processes can share their work. Steiner adds, “Enthusiasm for the sale just warms my heart.”