Festivals Folk ArtsOctober 12, 2010

I was in a terrific mood on Saturday morning as I drove to WheatonArts for their annual Festival of Fine Craft. It was another gift-from-the-weather-deity day – brilliantly blue sky, warm sun and moderate temperatures – and I was grooving along to some tunes from a CD that came with a recent issue of the British music magazine, Uncut.

Aside from just anticipating the day, I was also looking forward to discovering for myself what all the fuss was about at the Wheaton festival. Many friends who KNOW – either as buyers or from an artist’s point of view – told me that the WheatonArts Festival of Fine Craft sets a fairly high bar.

I arrived less than an hour after the 10 AM opening and already the first parking area was blocked off with a “lot full” sign. A steady stream of vehicles – reminiscent of the “Field of Dreams” traffic scenes – continued on to a secondary lot, which was also filling up fast. The word was definitely out about this event!

And I didn’t need to spend much time at WheatonArts before I realized that this was indeed special. In addition to the picturesque setting and the lively level of activity, there is the fine craft. The caliber of craftsmanship – and craftswomanship – was uniformly outstanding. The works were creative and imaginative. And the artists I talked to were interesting folks with a clear passion for what they were doing.

Like the fellow who weaves strips cut from rubber tires together with colored spacers to make attractive doormats. He learned this process and bought some of the necessary tools from a retired Dutchman who lived in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. Although the mat maker’s finished product is a heavy duty household item, he states, with obvious pride, that what he does is a form of folk art.

Or like the couple whose handcrafted bowls and other hardwood items are “stained” with ordinary food coloring and often decorated with symbols – Asian, Native American, for example – that are carefully burned onto the surface. Classes at the John Campbell Folk School in North Carolina encouraged this pair to pursue a more artful life. In our conversation, the woman smiled broadly and told me, “We’re doing what we love.”

Or the ceramic artist who achieves a fantastic finish on her creations with a multilevel process; so multilevel, in fact, that I was lost about halfway through her description of the intricate steps. “It’s not fast”, she laughed. And the designs that adorn her pieces are also complex. She draws, literally, in a sketchbook where her designs “go in one way and come out another”, and also figuratively from ancient cultures like the Islamic and Minoan for her ideas. “No design in original,” she says.

Or the man who sat at his lathe, using hefty chunks of red cedar to form – among other items – striking asymmetrically-shaped serving bowls with rustic edges, while the sweet-smelling wood curls collected at his feet.

Or the woman who made a multitude of magnet designs from copies of her artwork and framed magnet boards from original paintings and collages, perfectly blending function and beauty. She and I talked for awhile, and the conversation eventually turned to our children’s career paths and how challenging it can be for young people to choose from all the available options. “It was easy for me,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to be an artist.”

Live music provided a cheerful soundtrack from noon to 4 PM, a roving magician attracted a small crowd wherever he performed, and the food offerings ran the gamut from healthy (veggie sandwiches) to refreshing (fresh-squeezed lemonade) to wickedly diet-busting (the fried Oreos).

But, best of all was what the thing that put Wheaton on the map back in the day – the glass! During the day, there were several glassblowing demonstrations, and I was repeatedly mesmerized every time I saw a glowing blob of molten material turn into an exquisite piece of glassware. As a friend said when I told her I was going to WheatonArts, “wait until you see the glassblowers; watching them is like meditation”.

In preparation for my visit, I talked to Janet Peterson, the Marketing and Public Relations Director at Wheaton, and asked her to fill me in about the event. She mentioned the craft demonstrations, the artists and the activities, and then, with great enthusiasm, told me about blown glass pumpkins. I get it, I thought to myself. It’s Fall. This is a glass place. They have glass pumpkins. But, oh no… there was really no way for me to “get it” at all until I was standing in that pumpkin patch. The sight of the sunlight sparkling on that vast field of dazzling glass pumpkins was something to behold.

And apparently, everyone – face-painted children with their parents, fellas on their own, shoppers searching for the perfect Thanksgiving hostess gift – all had that same reaction. Each time I passed, the patch was full, with people leisurely wandering, picking up and examining one pumpkin after another. Surprisingly, I purchased only two, but I could easily have taken a wheelbarrow full of those beauties home with me.

WheatonArts is open 6 days a week, 10 to 5, thru December, and hosts many events and activities, including workshops and classes, exhibitions, a Halloween and Day of the Dead Ceremony, Customer Appreciation Week, and Holiday Studio Sales. The Museum and the shops are open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from January thru March.

Posted by Shen Shellenberger, JerseyArts.com’s Blogger-At-Large. Check out the rest of Shen’s pictures from the Festival here.

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About Author

Shen Shellenberger
Shen Shellenberger

Shen’s been a Jersey girl for most of her life, other than living for a three-year stretch in Portland, Oregon, and six magical months in Tokyo. Shen loves the arts in all of its various forms – from the beauty of a perfectly-placed base hit to the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll – and has successfully passed on this appreciation to her three grown children. Shen’s most recent jobs include WXPN (1993-2001) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003-present). Shen also has been a working freelancer for 25 years, and operated her own frame shop in Mt. Holly in the late-70s.