Despite all the hype about the holidays being a time of joy, they’re also a time of stress, thanks in part to the number of gifts we need to buy in a short time.
"Holiday shopping can be so oppressive," says Yourist Studio Gallery potter Cara Rosaen. "We all have this list, and it’s like, ‘Oh, God, what do I do?’"
But, she says, local holiday art fairs have increasingly offered folks a more pleasant, social alternative to frantically browsing Amazon for gift ideas.
"You get to talk to the people who made these beautiful handmade things. … It’s just such a different experience," Rosaen says. "Add to that the good food and drink and music that’s often there as part of the experience, and it’s just so much more life-giving. I think people love that."
This may be why local holiday art fairs have not only survived, but thrived, in recent years. One of the biggest, DIYpsi – which puts on one show in the summer, and an even bigger holiday one (with more than 90 vendors) in early December – must now turn away scores of artists angling for the chance to sell their work.
"[DIYpsi] gained some real traction pretty quickly," says DIYpsi cofounder and metal artist Cre Fuller. "The community’s always been accepting of artists and artist types in Ypsi and Ann Arbor. So it wasn’t a hard sell in terms of the public."
Of course, DIYpsi hasn’t been the only holiday art fair in town. Yourist has had an annual holiday art sale for about 20 years; the Ann Arbor Art Center (AAAC) has long offered its Holiday Art Shop; and Tiny Expo – born in 2010, the same year as DIYpsi – currently hosts about 45 crafters and artists at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library. But several additional smaller holiday art shows have sprung up in recent years, demonstrating that locals are increasingly hungry for alternatives to buying gifts at the mall and online.
There was one potential problem, though: they were all often scheduled at the same time.
"We noticed a while back that there were so many art shows during the second weekend of December," Rosaen says. "But instead of competing with each other, we thought, why don’t we make it this big weekend-long thing in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and market it that way?"
In 2016 Rosaen became a founder and lead organizer of the inaugural Winter Art Tour (WAT), which encouraged locals to visit not just one event, but a handful of different holiday art fairs over the course of three days. Fairgoers receive a "passport" (available online or at any of the participating fairs), which can be stamped at each event they visit. Those with at least four stamps are entered into a drawing to win a locally made piece of art. This makes WAT akin to an interactive game, and consequently, fairs that previously competed for patrons’ time and attention instead benefit from a broad collaboration.
"This is the second largest local art event outside of the Art Fair," says Rosaen. "There are more than 300 artists involved, and especially now, when there are fewer and fewer galleries to show in, and fewer local businesses that sell local artists’ work, it’s so important to give them this opportunity at this time of year."
Most of the nine local fairs who participated in last year's WAT reported a sales boost of 10 to 60 percent on Saturday, normally considered the busiest sales day of the weekend. Though WAT's impact is harder to gauge for the biggest fairs, the smaller ones can see the results far more clearly. Clay Work Studio’s Yiu Keung Lee, for example, cited a 50 percent increase over previous years – suggesting that the collaboration strengthens the artistic community.
Ten holiday art fairs will participate in this year's WAT on Dec. 8-10. In addition to DIYpsi, Yourist’s holiday sale, AAAC’s Holiday Art Shop, and Tiny Expo, the tour includes Art on Adare!, Baron Glassworks’ Holiday Glass Party (this year’s new addition), Clay Work Studio’s fourth annual holiday pottery sale, Front Porch Textiles, Kate Tremel and friends' 11th annual home show, and Ypsi Alloy Studios’ third annual holiday market and open house.
When planning (and fundraising) for a big event, the first time is often the hardest, and WAT was no exception.
"The first year, here we were, a bunch of artists with this newfangled idea," Rosaen says. "Trust takes a while to build. But this year has been so much better. Now everyone knows this is how it happens."
Plus, WAT organizers know that making it easy for participating fairs will ensure success.
"There wasn’t a whole lot we had to do," Fuller says. "I think I attended one meeting, but they had a good structure, and they kept it simple. … I’m sure there’s a lot of organization on their end, but for us, and for any other event participating, there was not an extreme amount of labor involved. … And that can be something that’s overlooked. Without someone putting something like this together, it wouldn’t happen. Everyone’s so busy."
Those who can’t attend WAT this year will still find other opportunities to buy handcrafted, locally made gifts. For instance, Ypsi’s Cultivate Coffee and Tap House recently hosted Handmade Holiday, featuring items produced by Cultivate’s woodworking group (with sales benefiting Ypsi’s Hope Clinic). On December 16, from 4-8 p.m., Cultivate’s Hops and Hats event will showcase items made by the venue’s resident knitting group, with all sales benefitting Ozone House. $1 from each sale of Short’s holiday beers during the event will also be donated, as will any items that don't sell at the event.
Cultivate general manager Bekah Wallace says the knitters form one of the most active groups at Cultivate. Twenty to 30 knitters participate weekly, and Wallace says they're "knitting all year round" to prepare hundreds of items for the holiday show.
"Some of the knitters dyed the fibers themselves," she says. "It’s like something you’d get in a fine goods shop. … But the heartbeat to me is that they’re gathering around the thing they love to do to invest in our community."
Although Cultivate won't be participating directly in WAT, it will be hosting DIYpsi's official afterparty on Dec. 9 from 7-10 p.m., featuring music by DJ Roman G. Martinez. Wallace says that, to her, holiday art fairs are about more than just a community space for people to buy and sell locally made gifts.
"No one says it, or likes to talk about it, but a lot of people are really lonely during the holiday season – which makes it all the more important to have the chance to be together in these public spaces, where there’s lots of good energy," she says.
Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.
All photos by Doug Coombe.