Starving artist is an image long gone Show helps artisans craft lucrative careers

March 03, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The image of an artisan 30 years ago was a hippie throwing pots or stringing love beads in a poorly heated SoHo garret.

But now, the lifestyle is lucrative enough that David Paul Bacharach was able to say goodbye forever to his career as a dentist to be a full-time metal smith.

"I've been doing this since I was about 13," Mr. Bacharach said. "This was what paid for dental school. I enjoyed dentistry, but I didn't have the feeling for it that I do for this."

Mr. Bacharach and about a thousand other artisans from all over the country will do about $20 million in business by tonight, when the five-day American Craft Council show closes at the Baltimore Convention Center. It is the largest of eight such shows nationwide by the council, drawing buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and smaller boutiques, as well as the general public.

Some of the artists who bring their handmade furniture, jewelry, ceramics and fabric art have left lucrative careers with no regrets and no loss of income. They make enough money to send their children to Cornell, Harvard and Princeton universities.

Mr. Bacharach typically goes to 10 to 14 shows a year, packing his work into the car much the way his father once sold garments to retailers. His great-grandfather peddled dry goods from a horse-drawn cart.

"I come from a long line of itinerant salesmen," Mr. Bacharach said, smiling. Except that Mr. Bacharach can sell a large woven metal basket for $3,500 or a decorative soup ladle for $175.

"If you went booth to booth and asked, 'What did you do before this?' you'd get people who were scientists, pathologists, an executive for Litton Industries, a Ph.D. in psychology," he said.

Bryan Mumford of Santa Barbara, Calif., has a business card that says "crackpot inventor," and he has, in a sense, reinvented himself twice.

"I dropped out of college in the late '60s and made musical instruments during the 1970s," he said. "I got distracted by personal computers and wrote and sold computer software all ** through the 1980s.

"And now, since all my software is obsolete, I'm finding ways to put technology into handmade crafts."

His wooden clocks feature lifelike bird chirps and sell for around $300. "I built a parabolic microphone and went out into the field and recorded live creatures, processed the sounds on a personal computer built a computer circuit that would re-create those sounds, and placed it in the [body] of a wooden clock," Mr. Mumford said.

When Mr. Bacharach was a teen-ager in Reservoir Hill, welding jazz-band figures in his basement, his parents encouraged him to have a career to fall back on.

"When I first started, all the shows there were, were in New England," he said. "Now, they're all over."

In the early 1970s, the American Craft Council started to establish shows to link artists with wholesale buyers.

"There was a big move to set up these shows so they could take orders and expand their livelihood, and so they wouldn't have to be on the road at a craft fair every other weekend," said JoAnn Brown, director of the council's marketing program, American Craft Enterprises.

Just one of the big ACC shows a year can bring an artist at least $5,000, Ms. Brown said, and usually much more.

"I do this as my one show a year," said Nell Devitt, who crafts clay in her farmhouse in rural Bloomfield, Ind. She spends $1,000 for the booth space in Baltimore and another $1,000 to rent a van and hotel room. But she takes orders that will keep her busy carving tiles until September.

The Baltimore show, now in its 20th year, is the largest because of timing, Ms. Brown said. It comes at a time when merchants' shelves are cleared of Christmas season merchandise, when they want to restock for spring and summer. It is juried -- 3,500 artists send in slides to apply, but only 1,000 are chosen.

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