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Crafts take center stage at upscale Baltimore show

Kathy Wegman’s decorated panther figurine boasts thousands of tiny beads and rhinestones that flash bright jewel tones of blue, green and gold.

The Iowa artist, in town this week for the 37th annual American Craft Council Show at the Baltimore Convention Center, hopes to sell the fancy cat for $4,000 — well more than its original, undecorated $5 price tag in a second-hand store.

“I take ordinary objects and bead and bling them up,” Wegman said. “I don’t have a name for it. Call it gluing beads on junk.”

Her work is among thousands of multi-faceted creations at the three-day retail show that opens Friday at 10 a.m. and is expected to attract thousands. The Baltimore show is the ACC’s largest of four each year, besting shows in Atlanta, San Francisco and St. Paul.

Experts say work like Wegman’s reflects a growing trend to buy original or organic wares.

“It’s all kind of a values proposition for people,” said Pamela Diamond, marketing director for the nonprofit American Craft Council, based in Minneapolis.

“Craft is going through a renaissance. The generation that started (crafting) was hippies, and you look at young people today, and as a result of the recession, they are saying, ‘what do I really value? I am conscious of the environment. Maybe I’m going to collect one piece at a time.’”

More than 1,200 buyers attended Wednesday — the first of two days of wholesaling, Diamond said. This means the show will easily break last year’s attendance of 1,100 buyers for the entire wholesale period, she said. Wholesalers are able to purchase the crafts for half the price of retail.

Wegman, a registered nurse when she is not wielding a glue gun, is also selling a pair of beaded running shoes ($2,400) and sea shells ($40 each) among other ordinary-turned-glitzy objects in her booth.

More than 650 contemporary craft artists will display in categories that include glass, metals, jewelry, fiber, upscale, local and a new bride-to-be category featuring unique wedding jewelry and gifts.

Michelle Shafer, a jewelry and metals artist from Chicago, makes mobiles that retail between $58 and $595 with her husband, Marvin, for their company, Q3 Art. She also makes spiral-shaped earrings that sell for between $28 and $35.

She said the ACC show in Baltimore allows them to display their work and take orders for the coming year.

Lately though, Shafer said, the business of selling original upscale crafts has left many artists struggling amid the recession.

“A lot of us are in transit and doing more retail,” she said, of a slight dip in orders from galleries for their work. “A lot of it is because the American craft gallery has disappeared.”

Other crafters proudly displayed their wares Wednesday: Fiber artist Danielle Gori-Montanelli featured a table of felt pins and necklaces, including a large necklace made of the word “Oy” that is to be worn “when you’re having a bad day.”

Libby Mijanovich, from Asheville, N.C., used recycled clothing to make wall hangings that were then quilted with a sewing machine and framed. They retail for $1,500 and more.

Roxy Ahlborn, of Sonoma, Calif., said her collection of colorful cotton wallet clutches, eyeglass cases and small purses illustrated by birds, butterflies and flowers, were inspired by the natural surroundings in her yard.

“My husband was a wildlife biologist,” she said. “And I like wearable art.”

Of her need to constantly create, she added: “My parents were artists and I remember painting in my high chair. It’s what I do.”