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A Traveling Handmade Market Puts Down Roots

Since their first market nearly two years ago, the Urban Folk Circuit has been an ambitious endeavor. Setting out as Chicago’s only year-round, traveling handmade market, the circuit has been committed to spreading handmade goods to a wider variety of Chicagoans and providing opportunities for local artisans. In a recent press release they state proudly, “We believe that handmaking is powerful; skills that enable many people to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. Handmaking is not merely a trend. It is a way of life and we are conscious of local artisans’ growing efforts to become indie business people… We are committed to supporting local business people, improving Chicago’s economy, and promoting the practice of ethical consumerism.”

In July they will further that commitment by taking up roots in their first permanent location at 3222 N. Clark Street. The 2,500 sq. ft. space will house a year-round juried handmade market and community workshop space. To learn more about the history of the Urban Folk Circuit and its future, I spoke with director and co-founder Kelli Wefenstette.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): How did the Urban Folk Circuit first get started? What was your initial inspiration?

Kelli Wefenstette (KW): The Urban Folk Circuit was initiated during the summer of 2010. Jessica Duff and I were introduced at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival and started chatting about the possibility of organizing our own show. We wanted to address the issues that were challenging to us as crafters: most craft fairs are in the summer, most are in the greater Wicker Park area, and most are really expensive [to participate in]. Our mission was to organize a monthly craft market that was low in cost, low in time commitment that would introduce the handmade movement to a broader range of Chicago neighborhoods, and would also provide artisans with the opportunity to gain an income year-round.

ZJ: What has been the most rewarding part of running the circuit? The most challenging?

KW: The most rewarding aspect of running the Urban Folk Circuit has been the relationships we’ve built with our artisans and community members. I’ve met a lot of incredible people that are doing really awesome things! Additionally, the excitement we share with our artisans when they find their niche in the Chicago craft community and begin blossoming makes it all worthwhile.

The most challenging aspect of organizing this craft fair is trying to host a wildly successful event every month while all of us manage full time jobs as well. We are fortunate that as we expand into our retail space, two of us will join the team full time.

A band performing at the Urban Folk Market. 2011. (image courtesy of Kelli Wefenstette)

ZJ: What do you hope to accomplish with the market’s brick and mortar location?

KW: Since our beginning, we have sought to partner and promote the variety of craft organizations in Chicago and hope that we are able to do so on a much larger scale.
Our craft community in Chicago differs from that of other cities in that there are tons of talented people and incredible initiatives happening in the craft world. It’s been difficult to navigate as a new crafter or for someone who is new to the city. Our primary goal in opening our retail shop and community workshop space is to offer ourselves as the center of crafting in Chicago, where indie artisans can sell their merchandise, but where they can also learn all the necessities of running a successful art or craft business.

ZJ: How do you feel the craft scene functions in comparison to the world of fine art?

KW: In my personal opinion, I would like to see crafters trained in ways similar to fine artists. I believe that Artists (capital A here) receive the feedback, encouragement, and training to take themselves seriously, market themselves as professionals, and engage in organizations that can help them do that. It’s been my experience that many crafters stumble into their craft unknowingly. It took years of me telling friends and family members, “Uh, I like … cut up old tee shirts and make tote bags out of them” before I began to take myself seriously and so did my larger network. In fact, the first feedback I ever received was from a roommate back in 2007 when I first began my business, “Ha! Like anyone ever pay $20 for that?” I feel like Artists are trained to have the professional mindset from the get go.

Additionally, I believe the most wonderful thing about handmade crafts is that they’re approachable. Buying a piece of fine art is an investment and not an easy decision whereas the cloth totes and handmade pillows and bars of soap I purchase regularly from my artisans has revolutionized the way I consume and can drive the larger public to purchase more ethically.

ZJ: How do you see the handmade movement developing in the future? Where would you like to see it go?

KW: The handmade movement continues to grow at an incredible rate. We started with 18 artisans in October 2010 and now communicate with over 350 regularly, if that is any indication. As the manufacturing industry of the United States continues to move overseas or utilize an unskilled labor force, I believe that handmakers will reestablish these jobs and assets in our communities. I would like to believe that as artists and crafters, we are slowing down this abandonment of handicraft and we are refocusing our city on quality made, independently made products produced by true small businesses.

ZJ: Lastly, if there’s anything else you’d like to add, feel free.

KW: We want every craftsperson in Chicago to stop into our shop and introduce themselves! Thank you for this opportunity!

To learn more about Urban Folk Circuit and its upcoming retail location, visit their website here.

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