Arts

This event will give you a whole new appreciation for holiday craft fairs

Come for the crafts, stay for the art. A Handmade Assembly runs to Nov. 23.

Come for the crafts, stay for the art. A Handmade Assembly runs to Nov. 23

Craft market The Heart & Pocket Revue is one of the featured events at this year's A Handmade Assembly. (www.handmadeassembly.com)

'Tis the season for crafts. Wherever there's a community hall, you'll find folks shopping for mittens and small-batch mustards this weekend — and Sackville, N.B., is no exception.

On Nov. 23, the Heart & Pocket Revue packs into the local Royal Canadian Legion. It's an annual craft fair, though through a scheduling quirk, it's happening later in the year than ever before. Finally, it'll tap into "the holiday craft market thing," says Emily Falvey, director/curator at the Owens Art Gallery and one of the organizers. "I think we're going to get a different audience" — and she's excited that's the case, especially if the market winds up doubling as a sort of (artisanal) Trojan Horse to the bigger event that spawned it.

That event? A Handmade Assembly, which runs Nov. 20-23 at various locations around Sackville. Since 2011, it's attracted artists from around the country — specifically those who tend to use the same techniques as the vendors at a typical maker's market. Think knitting and crocheting, rug-hooking, embroidery, book-binding — pretty much anything handmade, per the event name.

Larry Weyand. Babybel, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

Programming includes artist talks, exhibition openings and practical crafting workshops, all co-curated by the staff at Owens Art Gallery and Struts Gallery & Faucet Media Arts Centre — and everything is free and open to the public.

"It's a place to be with people who love making things, and to learn to make those things too," says Falvey. "And it's a place for people who practise craft to learn about how that might relate to contemporary art."

Trying to draw the line between what's art and what's craft is a whole other question. But according to Lucy MacDonald, A Handmade Assembly isn't about distinguishing between the two. Instead, the programming is about finding the places "where those two things come together."

MacDonald, the curator of education and community outreach at the Owens Art Gallery, has been part of the planning committee since the event began. Back then, she says organizers were noticing more and more local artists using "traditional making techniques." Says MacDonald: "It seemed to be in the air at the time, I guess you could say. It's still there."

Lucas Morneau. Tipsy Magoo, 2019. Instant film. (Courtesy of the artist)

"There are still those hierarchies within the visual arts, even though we like to think they've gone all away," says Falvey. "The old gender biases are still there." (Skills associated with domestic life a history of being dismissed as "women's work.") "I think there's still room to take down those preconceptions."

But for many artists travelling to Sackville for the event, using traditional crafts to express their ideas was 100 per cent natural. Larry Weyand and Lucas Morneau are both based in Newfoundland, and they both, coincidentally, started crafting as kids — with the help of their respective grandmothers.

"I think that everyone has their own definition of what art and what craft is," says Weyand. "And to me, and in the way I look at my work, they feel one and the same." Her solo exhibition, "Peeling the Sticker Off an Overripe Pear," opens at A Handmade Assembly on Nov. 22. "A lot of the themes that I deal with have to do with anxiety and stress and depression," she says. It was the same for this project, which evolved into a sort of family history.

Perhaps contrary to the dark subject matter, Weyand's work is literally soft and fuzzy. Rug-hooking is her technique of choice. The exhibition features plush, colourful carpets and super-sized woolen groceries.

Morneau, who grew up in Cornerbrook, might be better known as his drag alter ego, The Queer Mummer. Nov. 21, he'll even lead a crochet workshop in character. (If you miss it, make do with his YouTube tutorials.)

Everything in the Queer Mummer's wardrobe — masks, capes, thigh-high stockings, gowns — is crocheted by hand. The wooly look doesn't just reference the traditional DIY style of your standard, Newfoundland mummer. "The process is therapeutic," says Morneau. "That's one of the reasons why I gravitate toward it. I can just get lost in the process."

Weyand says the repetitive, or "contemplative," nature of crafting appealed to her, too.  "I do feel that there's something very strong that unites crafters, or craft-based art practitioners," she says.

Larry Weyand. Grandmaman, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

It's a shared experience that shouldn't be underestimated, she says. In her experience, craft techniques have helped her to better communicate her ideas with an audience — and that includes members of her own family. Not many people are out there creating fuzzy jars of Miracle Whip, but the experience of making things by hand is pretty universal.

"[Rug-hooking] is a craft that is in my family, so it was a really great way for us to speak about domestic labour and women's work," she says. "I don't think we could have had those conversations if I was not using that medium. If I was painting, it totally would not have been appropriate."

And on a purely superficial level, it's hard to deny the appeal of a huggable Babybel cheese — one of Weyand's more squeezable sculptures.

"I like to say that the soft, fluffy boundaries of craft just make it a really great medium for conversations to happen."

A Handmade Assembly. Nov. 20 to 23. Various venues, Sackville, N.B. www.handmadeassembly.com

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.