In fact, when I stopped by crafter Kate Anderson's booth at the DIY Trunk Show last month in the Edgewater neighborhood, I was struck not by the sameness of what this Milwaukee-based artist does (calendars and greeting cards highlighting photographs of her annoyed-looking cat stuffed into terrific homemade monster costumes) but by how comfortable the cuteness and professionalness of her designs would appear in any retail shop.
"I guess I don't see the crafting community as that different from what happens in any department store," said Anderson, who crafts under the name Kate Funk. "It's a small art community and we all see each other's stuff and we all go through our seasons."
On the other hand, the dark side of arts and crafts, said Leigh Kelsey — who has been crafting around Chicago for a decade under the name Rhymes With Twee — is that everyone sees your stuff: "When I started going to shows, when craft shows were starting to get big, the sameness wasn't as overwhelming." She said there is a still a lot of originality, but with artists hesitant to spend the money and go through a long copyrighting process for every design and clever phrase they stitch into fabric, stealing is rampant: She told me about a back-and-forth she had with a California artist who had been selling things on Etsy that read "I'll be the B-side to your A-side," which was exactly the phrase Kelsey had been using on her own items. When she confronted the artist, she said she received a message asking if they could arrange a profit share.
"This gets frustrating," Kelsey said.
Said Michelle Dortch, a member of both the Chicago Craft Mafia (which organizes the DIY Trunk Show) and the Chicago Art Girls (which hosts a holiday pop-up shop at the Helium Gallery in Ravenswood Dec. 15 and 16): "It's probably like in any art form to some extent, but there is also probably way too much passive-aggressive niceness between crafters. Myself, I have turned into kind of hard girl lately, and I kind of like it."
Indeed, Juliano told me a frequent reason that artists don't make it into a Renegade show is "blatant copying — oh yeah, we see it a lot. Though, frankly, the minute things appear on Etsy, they tend to replicate." In general, she said, they're not concerned about too much of the same kind of thing showing up at a craft fair. "For the most part, things tend to balance out." Which strikes me as both naive and right on target: A study recently published in the Harvard Business Review of 41 innovation teams at a defense contractor found that a healthy level of conformity within a group of people tended to boost innovation across the board. (Ella Miron-Spektor, a professor of organizational psychology and one of the study's co-authors, told me in an email exchange that her findings likely do translate to arts — that less creative types are key to popularizing creative ideas.)
The bear, after all, can't become the next deer until people are sick of looking at the deer.
The whole thing reminds me of an often-told story about the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There are many variations of this story, but my favorite goes like this: While lecturing on astronomy, Russell was interrupted by an old woman in the back of the hall. Everything you've said is ridiculous, she shouted. Everyone knows the world is flat and supported on the back of a large elephant standing on the back of an even larger turtle.
Russell replied, OK, but then what is the turtle standing on?
"It's turtles all the way down!" the woman yelled.
That's how I have come to think of holiday craft fairs: a layer or two of genuine creativity, followed by many, many layers of redundancy. That metaphor would work for nearly any hot, bustling art form. Or maybe it's a stretch. Either way, I would like someone to stitch a tea towel or something that pays homage to that story. Let's get the ball rolling. Eventually we're all going to get sick of bears. Then it'll be turtles, all the way down.