She shaped the handmade trade Crafts: This tireless advocate breathed life into the crafts movement in Baltimore.

Catching up with Ginny Tomlinson

February 20, 1997|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

As she weaves through her store in the Rotunda, Ginny Tomlinson introduces the work of her artists as if she were presenting friends. This piece, for instance, is not merely a splendid coffee mug with purple, blue and yellow stars, it's a chance to meet artist Nina Long.

"Nina is one of the first potters I carried," she says fondly, marveling anew at the lightness of Nina's cup. "I have a mug just like this at home. It feels so good to hold that I'll take it out of the dishwasher and rinse it instead of getting a new one."

This week, during the giant ACC Crafts Fair at the Convention Center, Tomlinson will catch up with artists and check out trends she's helped advance as a juror for exhibitors in glass and ceramics.

Just about everyone in the business knows Ginny Tomlinson, the small woman with the gingery hair and lilting voice who helped create a market in Baltimore for finely crafted housewares and jewelry. Tomlinson is an entrepreneurial curiosity: She has managed to sell contemporary crafts for 25 years in a town that's more comfortable shopping at MJDesign.

The Tomlinson Craft Collection has the sensuality of a bazaar, of a place where the salespeople are artists themselves. It is rich with silk scarves and kaleidoscopes, mirrors, lamps and mobiles. There are art dolls and Russian toys. Ceramics and pottery. Blown glass, jewelry, hand-made boxes and rainbow-colored candles that never drip -- and still look pretty after they're used.

Ginny represents artists who labor over their work, loving it and cursing it in the process. Her store is a collection of personal expressions, a treasury of idiosyncrasies. It's all about taking things personally.

That's why Ginny likes it. She represents more than 1,000 artists and can tell you something about most of them. Today she is wearing a vest by Arizona artist Candiss Cole, a necklace by New Orleans artist Tom Mann, rings by upstate New Yorker Angela Conty and bracelets by Judith Young and Allen Edgar, a couple in New Mexico.

"Judith and Allen live near a tiny lake," she says. "And they always ask me to come out before 2 o'clock because he likes to go out fishing every day exactly at 2."

Buying at Tomlinson means catching a glimpse of an artist's life.

"If the crafts business is just purely a business to someone, it's a very hard business," says JoAnn Brown, director of the ACC Crafts Fairs. "Ginny has a wonderful rapport and reputation and has furthered a lot of people's careers. She gives the same kind of devotion to her artists as gallery owners on 57th Street [in New York]. She explains the work to people, helps them understand it."

When Tomlinson opened her first store in 1972, it was the dawning of the Age of the Mug, a time when "hand-made" meant you couldn't afford "store-bought."

Since then, macrame has matured into fiber art, earthenware bowls have become porcelain. Crafts people no longer pitch tents at crafts fairs; they trade messages at the concierge's desk at the Hyatt.

The evolution of Ginny's business has been something of an artistic process too. When she opened her first shop in the Rotunda -- a spot remembered for pioneering potter's wheel demonstrations -- she sold only on consignment. As the public understood more about crafts, she expanded. At one giddy point in the '80s, she presided over three stores: The Rotunda, Mount Vernon and Harborplace. Now she shuttles between the Rotunda and a store in Towson Commons.

She is infinitely wiser in Baltimore's Golden Rule of Retail: Parking, parking, parking. And she has grown to know her customers: Not your basic concha belt crowd, but not Country Home, either.

"Baltimore likes pretty standard shapes and colors," she says. "A lot of the homes are traditional rather than contemporary. I have contemporary tastes myself, so I don't go for the real flowery things. Most people here like their contemporary touches in vases or lamps -- but nothing way out."

Tomlinson grew up in Mount Clemens, Mich., a town north of Detroit, and has lived in Baltimore since the day before John Kennedy was inaugurated. She came to town with a college degree in business education, her former husband, art dealer Bill Tomlinson, and two sons who would keep her very busy for the next decade or so. Her first foray into the crafts world, in fact, was organizing a local fair in the gym of Ruxton Elementary School. She was as captivated by the artists she met -- Jerry Fox, Judy Bird, Bonnie Dunn and Mary Biron -- as by their work.

Although Ginny has gathered many artists from her travels around the country, she has always carried the work of Baltimore artists and always gambled on promising neophytes.

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