An annual craft fair takes Rittenhouse Square on Mother’s Day weekend

3 minute read
A few years ago, Susan bought Judith Wrend's sculpture, 'Fly By Night.'
A few years ago, Susan bought Judith Wrend's sculpture, 'Fly By Night.'

My husband and I go out for a fancy lunch on a sunny, warm spring Sunday. We score a table at the window and both face out — toward Rittenhouse Square, where a craft show is in residence. Immediately in front is a collection of statues too big to fit in our apartment. I am enthralled.

I keep muttering Calder, Calder, Calder. I know Alexander Calder is no longer alive and sculpting, but I also know that his influence has spread around the world. And these strong, powerful structures — mobiles! — move and play off his primary colors. When we finish the salads, we buy a table-top model, even though it’s not a Calder.

In 2012, I found the Pennsylvania Guild Fine Craft Fair by accident. Now it’s on my calendar.

A gift for Mom?

This year, on Mother’s Day weekend, white tents will occupy the entire perimeter of Rittenhouse Square, each one containing the creativity of one craftsperson. The 1,500 members of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen are professional creators and emerging artisans.

The vibrant, cheerful event celebrates the work of innovative craftspeople who transform functional items into masterpieces you cannot live without. Whatever your tastes, you will be able to find touchable baskets, clay, fiber, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, wood, and more. These pieces are one of a kind, not from assembly lines. The artists are the vendors, so you can ask any questions and receive accurate answers.

Not your usual bazaar

The average crafts bazaar offers the work of any seamstress who sews potholders or padded children’s books, any woodworker who cuts and stains bookends, any crafter with pliers who forges wire into earrings. That’s not what you’ll find on the square.

According to Nick Mohler, program director for the show, the show's Crafts Council seeks work that demonstrates “the skilled manipulation of raw materials. That sounds fancy, but what we are looking for is something that is transformative.”

He mentions using clay, not for art, but as a lamp. Felting used woolen clothing and fashioning hats. Converting found objects, like pitchforks and old barn siding, into contemporary chairs.

“Consider paper cutting,” says Mohler. “It’s a traditional art form. But our paper cutters apply a modern slant and produce entirely contemporary design.” Think Matisse and let your imagination run.

A stringent jury

Some juried shows base artist selection on sales potential, personal charisma, artists’ mailing lists, and other criteria unrelated to marbles, mugs, and rugs. Some shows, says Mohler, accept anyone who pays. Not here. In advance of each show, a jury evaluates thousands of slides of thousands of pieces according to three benchmarks: craftsmanship, design, and style. The scores determine acceptance. If the talent is less than brilliant, sometimes fewer booths appear. This year, all 147 available booths will display hand-of-the-maker excellence.

I have enough statues. This year I’m scouting blue scarves and a cross-body bag. And I must touch the keys made of alligator or crocodile that I spied on the website. If you go, know that most craftspeople love to hear compliments whether or not you buy.

The Pennsylvania Guild Fine Craft Fair is coming to Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, Walnut and 18th Streets, on Friday, May 9 from 11am-7pm; Saturday May 10 from 11am-7pm; and Sunday, May 11 from 11am-5pm. Admission is free. For more information, visit the show’s website. (To see more from artist Judith Wrend, whose sculpture is pictured above, click here.)

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