Crafting an experience

January 20, 2008|By Jeannine Stein | Jeannine Stein,Los Angeles Times

PORTLAND, ORE. / / I knew this was no ordinary trip when I got on the hotel shuttle at Portland International Airport. Two nicely dressed women about my age shared it with me, and for the first minute we sat in silence, like every other shuttle rider. Then one woman said, "So ... are you guys here for art camp?"

We were. We had flown in to attend Art & Soul, a six-day arts-and-crafts retreat at an Embassy Suites hotel near the airport. The retreat featured workshops in mixed-media collage, jewelry, book arts, painting, drawing, fiber and fabric crafts, and doll-making.

But more than just classes fueled our arty fire: The retreat also featured field trips to stores and art galleries, a vendor fair, a cocktail party and swaps, where you trade your work for someone else's.

For craftsy types like me, there might be no better vacation. The opportunity to do nothing for days but make things and be inspired by other people's work makes us weak in the knees. It's no wonder such retreats have become so popular, some nearly selling out within days of registration.

Their popularity has been fueled by a surge in the modern crafts movement. Crafting is a $31 billion industry, up from $23 billion in 2000, and 57 percent of households in the U.S. participate in crafts, reports the Craft & Hobby Association, a national trade organization. That renaissance is supported by glossy magazines, television shows, shops, countless books and, of course, the Internet.

Most retreats, such as Art & Soul, are held at hotels, but one, Artfest, takes place at a former Army barracks, where the funkiness of the accommodations adds to the appeal.

They are held across the U.S. and abroad, including Italy, Guatemala, Mexico, England, Spain, Greece and Indonesia. All offer the chance to soak up local culture and inspiration, shop and meet like-minded people, mostly women.

Each retreat is priced differently, but all-day classes at Art & Soul run about $135 each. Others offer a package deal of classes, lodging and meals that cost $500 to $1,200 and up.

I came to Portland for new bookbinding skills. After studying book arts for more than a decade, I had trouble finding advanced classes. For me, Art & Soul's main draw was the opportunity to take classes from Daniel Essig, one of the country's premier book artists.

But I soon discovered that making stuff wasn't the only thing this retreat had to offer. Just strolling through the lobby of the hotel was like mainlining inspiration. My eyes landed on an elaborately altered denim jacket, then a chunky necklace made of twigs, stamped brass and pearls. I asked someone for a piece of paper, and she hauled out a hand-painted notebook decorated with stamped designs that she had carved herself.

My classes began the day after I arrived. At 9 a.m., I settled into a seat in a large hotel conference room to learn the Greek stitch, a stunning open-spine binding that we mastered in about seven hours.

I sat next to Tamara Gerard, who, I quickly discovered, shared my passion for books. A couple of hours after we introduced ourselves, she leaned over and asked, "Do you want to swap?"

"Excuse me?" I shot back.

"Books. Do you want to swap books? Did you bring any you made?"

I had, thinking I would need them for a class. (I didn't.) And I had no intention of parting with them until she brought out a gorgeous pebbled leather book with a beaded spine and breathtaking, luminous hand-painted paper inside. She had made that too, and seeing it, I was only too happy to let go of mine.

It's the bane of artists and crafters that people often don't understand or appreciate what we do. I've spent hours working on a book only to earn the reaction: "Um ... that's nice." At the retreat, it was safe to talk about a binding or a photo-transfer technique without worrying that someone would think you were queen of the craft geeks.

During a break from my Painted Papyrus book class, where we made covers out of laminated strips of papyrus covered with milk paint, I discovered classes I wish I had taken -- fabric journals and colorful felted beads and magazine collages and jewelry made out of bits of tin cans.

As I headed back to my room at the end of a long day, I struck up a conversation with Dr. Lynda Crawford-Sheppard, a dermatologist from Bowie, who had attended a previous Art & Soul retreat in Virginia.

We ran into each other again that night on a shuttle that took us to Alberta Street, an arts and shopping district with funky stores, galleries, shops and restaurants. The shuttle dropped us at Collage on Alberta, an arts-and-

craft store filled with rubber stamps, paint, paper and embellishments.

After dropping bucks there, we walked to Bolt, a fabric store offering cotton prints, buttons, patterns and notions. Our last stop was Close Knit, a yarn shop where I found gorgeous sea-foam wool (I recently learned to crochet) and checked out antique buttons.

Crawford-Sheppard and I stopped for a quick dinner at Lagniappe, promising home-cooked Southern fare.

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