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Cheers to Chimneyville

Oct. 30, 2012
 

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Cheers to Chimneyville Crafts Festival: A 36-Year History

In our paradoxical age of conspicuous consumption and the yearning for simplicity, handcrafted items made by skilled artisans are both desired and appreciated now more than ever since the Industrial Revolution and the period of the designer William Morris (“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”). Handcrafted items were, at one time, utilitarian and made with found materials that were readily available - hand-carved dough bowls for making bread and pottery plates on which to serve it. Children’s toys made with corn shucks or scrap wood.

While many of today’s handicrafts are still utilitarian in nature, they are also works of art that are sought after and treasured. The Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, formed in 1973, is an organization of craftsmen interested in preserving and encouraging the highest standards in crafts. The guild had 30 members when it began with the help of Gov. Bill Waller and first lady Carroll Waller. In 1976, a group of guild members went to Philadelphia, Penn. for bicentennial celebrations, which included a festival featuring traditional and contemporary crafts as examples of Americana. That influenced the decision to hold a craft festival in Mississippi.

The first show was held in one of the cylindrical buildings at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds. Some Guild members also exhibited on the Freedom Train, when it came to Jackson in 1976. The next guild show was in October of that year, under two tents pitched along the Natchez Trace, south of Kosciusko. In December of that year, another guild show was held under a big tent on the North Lawn of the Old Capitol. It rained, and the tent leaked. It was then that the guild decided to move the show to the Mississippi Trade Mart.

The first Chimneyville Craft Festival was held November 18, 19 and 20, 1976 in an agriculture building at the fairgrounds. The following year, the event was moved into the trade mart. Steve Rigell chose the name after the nickname given to Jackson following the burning of town by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War. All that remained in the area was the chimneys of the houses.

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Over the years, Chimneyville has grown to be one of the premier craft shows in the region. Still held in the trade mart, the show is now held the first weekend in December each year, and the premier party has become one of the hottest tickets in town. After the trade mart flooded in the 1979 Pearl River flood, it was renovated in 1984, adding a third bay. It took about a decade for Chimneyville to expand from one bay to two, but today, the show utilizes all three bays.

Before Chimneyville, many of the craftsmen were largely isolated with their work. “They didn’t know what a crafts show looked like,” said Nancy White Perkins, executive director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. “They didn’t know much about each other, either, so the guild and the festival were a big deal. Even today, most of our exhibiting craftsmen derive a large portion of their annual income from sales at the festival.”

George Berry, a woodcarver from Pearl, is a charter member of the Craftsmen’s Guild and the only original member of the Guild who has never missed a single Chimneyville event. “Chimneyville is great - I love it! We were the first, and we are still the best show around.” Berry said that over the years, he’s witnessed the growth of the number of patrons who come to see the crafts and collect pieces. “There are people who add to their collection each year. I’ve noticed that the more people are exposed to handcrafted items, the more they appreciate and desire them.”

Berry said that the number of exhibitors has increased each year, and he enjoys that, as well. “The more craftsmen there are at the show, the more there is to see and learn. We all learn from each other.” The show has afforded Berry the opportunity to meet people he wouldn’t have met otherwise, and because of his affiliation with the guild, he has been places he said he probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. “Both the guild and Chimneyville have played a big role in my success as an craftsman.”

An active member of the Craftsmen’s Guild since 1978, Claudia Ka Cartee has served on the board of directors and as president of the guild. “I first participated in Chimneyville in 1978 and exhibited continuously for 29 years. I don’t know of any other experience that put me on the path to networking with other artists like Chimneyville did.”

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Cartee has a pottery studio and gallery seven miles east of Seminary, Miss. “I live in the woods, so I’m somewhat disconnected from other artists. Dan Overly (founder and first executive director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi) really put on a nice show. The venue was beautiful, and it gave me an opportunity to talk with other artists and to share information. That was essential to my success as a potter.”

For the first several years, the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi only juried in Mississippi artists and craftsmen. “That was fine,” said Cartee, “but when we started allowing craftsmen from other states to enter, that opened up even more dialog with artists across state lines. It was just more information we could all share with each other.”

Although Cartee no longer exhibits at Chimneyville, she still attends each year. “So many of the older folks are gone, but I love seeing the new members and seeing the new work. And who knows? I think about exhibiting at Chimneyville again someday, but on a smaller scale.”

In 1998, the Craftsmen’s Guild put together a publication to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Guild. In that publication, stained glass artist Andy Young said, “I know that the Chimneyville Craft Show in the beginning was a very important part of my marketing, because we would meet people at the craft show, and throughout the year we would get commissions and work that was a direct result of meeting those people.”

Chimneyville has many patrons who return year after year to buy pieces from their favorite artists. Madison resident and jewelry artist Jacqui Katool is a regular patron. “I do love it. The preview party is my favorite of all events. I look forward to it all year. It’s a wonderful place to go for inspiration and to do my Christmas shopping.”

For years, Katool has collected hand-woven shawls by fiber artist Vickie Vipperman and stained glass ornaments from Jerry and Paula Hymel. “I also have several blown glass pieces by Mark Sanders.” One year, Katool saw a necklace and earring set by Melinda Lamon. She bought the set, and then discovered it had been awarded best in show for a first-time exhibitor. “It is a beautiful lamp-work blown glass set that just spoke to me when I saw it.”

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Katool said that especially because she’s an artist, too, she appreciates the time, talent and effort required in creating a handcrafted item. Meeting the person who actually creates each piece is part of the appeal of a show like Chimneyville. “That makes it all the more special to me. I feel that I’m taking home the spirit of the artist with each piece I purchase.” Katool has met some artists at the event with whom she has kept in touch and from whom she has commissioned pieces throughout the year. “I’ve commissioned glass artist Elizabeth Robinson to make some of her birds for me, and I had Stephanie Dwyer make a special metal piece to put at my entryway. Those pieces are especially meaningful to me.”

The Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi has grown from a membership of 30 craftsmen - only two of the original 30 actually earned a living from craft - to more than 400 professional artisans from all across the Southeast. The craftsmen have a tremendous impact on Mississippi’s culture and are vital players in community planning and economic development. Guild craftsmen give workshops, free school demonstrations, teach and contribute to Mississippi’s strong cultural heritage, as well as enrich our state with the availability of fine craft.

To date, there are 155 exhibitors signed up to participate in this year’s Chimneyville Festival, and Perkins expects that most all of the 170 available booths will be filled. The preview party is scheduled for November 30 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The price is $50, and patrons will have a sneak peak and first-pick sales from the exhibitors, while enjoying heavy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. Festival hours are Saturday, December 1 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, December 2 from noon to 5 p.m.