It was a cold afternoon as I made the turn onto North Fifth Avenue. The streets were empty as I turned toward the large Ann Arbor Farmers Market enclosure. Despite the brisk October weather, the Sunday Artisan Market was fairly busy. Several artists lined the sidewalks under the overhang and a small group of customers were making their way up and down the aisles, stopping to talk to the artists or to try on something that caught their eye. Walking down the aisle, one could find a huge diversity of goods, everything from large pieces of wood furniture to tiny pieces of jewelry. Each of these items had an artist to go with them, ready and willing to share what they made and how they made it.
The market was founded in 1991 by a group of local artists with one major phrase in mind: “From our hands to yours.” Each piece of work sold at the market is handmade, and is usually sold by the person who made it.
Meghan Lee, the market’s manager, expanded on the market’s aims in an interview with the Michigan Daily.
“The goal of the market is to provide that space to bring art to the community,” Lee said. “Also certainly sell (the artists’) work … and to help new artists grow.”
One of the most striking elements of the market is the wide array of products sold there. Just walking down the aisle I saw photos, jewelry made from several different materials, soap, clothing, hats and wooden furniture.
“I think there’s a lot of amazing work here in totally different veins,” Lee said “You can get fantastic soap, made by local artisans, that are more affordable than if you were to get some specialty soap at some fancy store,” Lee said.
Though Lee indicated that the diversity of the wares often naturally equals itself out, she also said. Sometimes the market will put caps on the number of sellers within a certain category.
“Each Sunday market differs,” Lee said. “Some artists come annually, others hold a booth for a full year and some just come for a day.”
Indeed, the difference between my two visits to the market was noticeable. The second Sunday was a beautiful fall day and the market was noticeably busier. Many people milled around the artists lining the sides of the enclosure, sifting through the myriad of products that hadn’t appeared the week before.
The market also does a few events each year, the biggest one being when self-titled Urban Fairyologist Jonathan Wright comes to sell posters and lead a scavenger hunt throughout Kerrytown. The market also features demonstration days, where, as long as it’s safe, artists will show off how they make their products. Live musicians stop by as well; at my second visit, local artist Ed Dupas played.
“I think the music definitely adds atmosphere to the market, (providing) a nice background.” Lee said, of the music.
She added that the artists also support the musical presence when it’s there. “I’ll usually send around an envelope because artists will contribute, too, because it’s nice to have them here. You just want to make it a worthwhile opportunity for them, too. We appreciate (that) they’re adding to the market.”
No season is more important to the market than the holiday season, which is the time of year artists often feature small trinkets or pieces of art that can be given as small gifts.
Peter Smith, a woodworker who sells his carved furniture at the market, also noticed growth in his sales around the holiday season. “Towards the holiday, more and more people really are out looking for holiday gifts. A lot of the artisans have very unique products to offer,” he said
And just as the products sold are diverse, so are the stories of how the artists got to where they are now.
Teresa Kovalack, who has been going to the market for four years, makes crafts from repurposed items, such as birdhouses from teapots or garden decor from silverware. After she got pregnant, she started to make crafts after starting out as a painter. One of the aspects of her work that she emphasized is how each piece she makes is different from the other.
“I don’t think anybody should have two of the same thing because nobody’s alike. So, why make things alike?” Kovalack noted.
Mary Green Kerr is new to the market, having only been there for four weeks when we spoke. She makes products from fused glass, including jewelry and coasters that have pictures embedded in the middle.
“I lost five in my family in one year, including my dad. My husband says, why not get a little microwave kiln,” she said. “It gives me something to do. I’m actually a photographer. I got into glass as a side, and I’ve been messing around with it ever since.”
She continued to explain why she ended up selling her work at the market.
“We thought it would be easier because I sell on Etsy, where you can’t really get the feel of the glass,” she added. “Being a photographer, I can’t take product photos very well … I thought, ‘get it out where people would see it.’ (And) it’s been doing good.”
Some of the artists are retired workers, who picked up their pastime after leaving their jobs and were looking for something to do.
Smith, a retired teacher, started a woodworking company called Pleasant Lake Hardwood with a longtime friend who owns a wood lot.
“I went to him and said ‘Let’s use up some of the lumber we’ve sawed up for years, start a small business,’” Smith said. “We found that selling lumber is much harder than we thought, or at least that I thought. I thought we’d just do some value added. We’re both woodworkers, so we started selling these Leopold Benches at the market about four years ago.”
Ann Arbor resident Jean Walter has been going to the market for 10 years and was looking for something to do after retiring from a secretarial position at the University. So, she started knitting and selling her scarves and hats at the market. She has lived in Ann Arbor for many years.
She emphasized the thrill of seeing people try on her hats. As I interviewed her, a few people walked up to her booth, and Walter’s face lit up each time. Walter was happy to talk to the customers and say how good the hats looked on their heads.
Talking to the artists, one characteristic kept popping up: the sense of comradery and support that exists among the sellers. Several of them talked about how other artists in the market support them and how a community has formed among the artisans.
“Everybody’s so nice.” Kerr said. “The first day here, we didn’t know anything. Everybody’s coming over to us. (We) made a lot of friends. It’s a nice atmosphere.”
Kovalack spoke of how she felt inspired by the other artists in the market. “A lot of us will talk amongst ourselves, and visit each other and see our different art. It inspires you to have somebody say, ‘well that could be … ’ or ‘you might wanna … ’ (I enjoy) being around people that are like-minded and creative.”
She also told a story about how she helped an artist improve their product, saying, “I had said to the rock guy, he had made toilet paper holders out of his rocks. He takes a rock, he puts a rod-iron on it, and he makes it into a toilet paper holder … I said to him, have you thought about making it into a plant stand, and he’s like, ‘oh my god, that would be so cool. I’m gonna do that.’ ”
For many artists, the Ann Arbor location is key to the market’s success. A wide array of locals patronize the market, some of whom are people who come many weeks in a row.
“(The artists) have return customers that know where they are,” Lee said. “I’ll get a lot of inquiries here in the office like ‘Where’s so-and-so? I haven’t seen them. I thought they were gonna be here.’ ” Her response is usually, “Well, they’ll probably be here next week.”
“It might be a cliché to say, but Ann Arbor is a community that clearly supports local business efforts,” Smith said. “I can say with confidence that most of the artists are local business people. I think Ann Arbor supports local, they support art. Clearly it’s the type of town, because of the University and the population here, they’re clearly in support of art.”
However, the market’s population isn’t exclusively locals. Kovalak said that over half her sales are from tourists who are from out of town.
“I’ve had my teapot birdhouses go to New York, New Mexico, England, New Jersey, Indiana and the Chicago area. It’s neat to see my art travel. I like that, to know somebody from England has one of my birdhouses.”
Lee encouraged students to take advantage of the market as a way to put their name out there and make a little bit of money in the process.
“We’re always looking for new artists. Whether it’s students, (or) anyone (else) that makes things … I welcome them to go through the application process. There isn’t much risk. You can come and see how it goes. I think it’s a great place to get started.”
Lee put it best when she said, “The artists are the heart of the market.”
And, after spending time in the market, nothing could be more true. It’s the artists that make spending time in the market a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday. Listening to their pride and enthusiasm as they describe their process and talk about their pieces made for an entertaining couple of hours and brightened up an incredibly cold day.
The next big event for the Ann Arbor Farmers Market is their Holiday Open House, which takes place Nov. 15.