The Maker’s Hand offers interesting handcrafted creations

Sweet sound - Amherst Island luthier Ross Stuart handcrafts playable artistic ukeleles. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

Products often inspired for practical reasons

ADAM BRAMBURGER

STAFF WRITER

A fixture for 14 Novembers in Picton, The Maker’s Hand has become a destination in eastern Ontario for high-end craftsmanship that can seldom be found in just one place.

Many of the busiest vendors at the Prince Edward County Arts Council’s annual marketplace exist solely because their products grew out of a necessity for  their makers.

Just inside the door to the Rotary Hall, Meredith Combs was showing off a colourful array of handmade slippers and woollen pillows for her Muffle-Up! business. On Friday, her goods were selling. She was often finding herself speaking about her concepts to prospective buyers stopping to take a look.

Combs, a Vancouver native now living in Grafton, Ont. is a graduate of the Emily Carr

Muffle Up! – Meredith Combs shows off some baby booties she’s made from recycled clothing. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

University of Art and Design. Following school, she was working in an office but wanting to keep her creative talents sharp.

“I was working an office job, but always making stuff on the side. I made a pair of slippers and put a picture on Facebook. Everybody wanted the slippers,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is that entrepreneurial idea I can use to support my art work and it just took off from there.”

Combs said what makes her creations unique is she reuses leather and fur from old coats to make an eco-friendly product. She punches holds out of the old garments, glues fur together and crochets boots.

In the wintertime, the products sell quite well and Combs has also decided to wholesale in some stores. She also regularly attends shows like The Maker’s Hand — she heard about it at Toronto’s  famous One of a Kind Show and was intrigued by the proximity to home — and it allows her to focus on art when she’s not too busy meeting customer demands.

“I need to make stuff. I need to produce things. Every day I get to stay home and hang out with my cats,” she said. “This is exciting that I don’t have to have a regular job, but hopefully I’ll find time to do my painting. My painting has taken a back seat, but I’ll get back to it.”

Down the aisle, Paul Verrall has been enjoying his first time as a vendor at the show. Verrall qualifies as one of seven county artisans among the 39 displaying materials because he just moved to Picton from Montreal in January. He carving business started 10 years ago as he finished a career in graphic design. It started when his wife simply bought him a piece of soapstone.

“I looked at it for six months, I carved something, and haven’t stopped since,” he said.

Around Verrall sat a couple dozen animals of different shapes and colours that he’s made over the years. He said each piece of stone represents a new adventure for him and a chance to try something new.

“Depending on the piece of stone, I’ll see something in the stone and I’ll work from there. The Inuit believe the piece is in the stone already and you just have to bring it out. Often, I take progress photos of my work and you can often see from the rough stones where I ended up.”

Verrall initially started carving for pleasure, but like Combs, he said people took notice of his work and wanted to buy it. He doesn’t see their interest as an intrusion, but rather an invitation to do more.

“If someone buys a piece of stone, I’ll go out and buy more rock,” he said. “There’s been about 30 pieces I’ve sold over the years.”

The pieces are cut using saws, chisels, rasps, or dremel bits and sanded smooth. Depending on detail, Verrall said each item on display took between one and four weeks to complete.

Eventually, Verrall would like to have a studio of his own at his Washburn Street home — the realization of a dream he and his wife are fulfilling after moving to a community they’ve visited all their lives. For now, though, shows will have to do and The Maker’s Hand has been a good way to get exposure.

Friday during the day, he was already pleased with his decision to attend.

“If this is a quiet time, I’m really impressed,” he said. “People are checking things out and checking them out again. Some are wishing they could, but they don’t have a spot.  I love to meet the people and have a chat.”

Early on, Verrall had already sold a couple smaller pieces and said “the compliments are very flattering.”

Across the room, Ross Stuart drew attention to himself by strumming notes on a musical instrument. The ukelele he played wasn’t conventional. It’s metal body was a tin can. Once again, it was born of necessity.

“I got into it by learning to play a ukelele without any intention of building one. I had a carpentry business at the time and I wanted to move on to something different. One day on a camping trip, my wood ukelele fell apart in the rain,” the Amherst Island resident recalled.

He thought he could build something more durable. Three years and $5,000 of investment later, he built a soprano ukelele with using folded metal and welded steel.  It took another two to three years of modifications before Stuart decided he was ready to sell his product.  Tenor ukeleles — now his most popular seller — guitars, banjos, fiddles, and mandolins followed. Making instruments became Stuart’s vocation.

“The simpler they appear to be, the more research, development and blood, sweat, and tears literally has gone into them,” Stuart said, while still strumming.

While they have a unique look, Stuart said his instruments are designed for sound. With mathematics, the luthier has managed to ensure whole notes, sharps, and flats are accurate. He says he believes with metal strings and an all-metal body, his ukelele has a “vibrant, bright sound to it I don’t think is matched at any price point on the market.”

That sound is paramount for Stuart. While selling at a craft show might lead some to believe he’s seeking a market of people who might place an instrument on their wall to be admired, that type of use is actually discouraged.

“They are made to be played,” he said. “It’s for people who are interested in strings and sounds — different sounds — who aren’t into brand names or a type of instrument,t but rather the sound you can get out of playing them. My market is players.. The people I sell to invariably play them and admire them at the same time.”

Priced at $199 and up, Stuart’s instruments have attracted people ranging from age 4 to age 91.

Making instruments has become Stuart’s lifestyle and he spends time daily working in his 700-square-foot workshop.

“It’s a life. We don’t count the hours put into it. It’s a lifestyle. It’s what I do,” he said.

Despite his catchy sales pitch of playing the instrument, Stuart said he’s actually a shy guy who hates to perform. It took him six months to build up the confidence to learn to play in front of people because he knew he’d have to to sell.

“My product is not an impulse purchase. A lot of it is confidence. Are they going to work? Are they going to continue to work? If I was going to present this to a person who was picky about intonation and playability, would that person be satisfied?”

Stuart said it can take years for him to make a sale, but as his reputation spreads more people come. This was his second time at The Maker’s Hand and he said that confidence is growing. He added the market is a good one.

“This whole area, everyone is interested in folk music and they love what I do. I fit in,” he said.

The Maker’s Hand co-chair Karen Tiller was pleased with the eclectic range of items jurors accepted this year. She said the jury had another eight vendors on a waiting list they’d have been happy to accommodate. Judging by first impressions, she said the public also appreciates the talents the artisans bring each year.

“It’s been busy since before we opened this morning. We had a lineup,” she said. “I think people usually like to come early. As I found out, I should have bought the shirt I wanted yesterday. They were all gone at 11 Friday.”

Many of those guests, she said, come for the unexpected ideas the artisans offer at the show — and some really like the idea of reusing that creators like Combs and Stuart embodied. Another presenter made leather goods from automobile and airplane seat belts and seats, for example.

“People who come to this show are always looking for things that are unique, that are highly crafted, and that are different. If they see things that are ecologically friendly, that’s an added bonus.”

She said vendors like that enthusiasm and the legendary volunteer assistance the show has become known for.

Moving forward after her first year as an organizer, Tiller said the committee is interested in sending out a large list of invitations next year in hopes of finding a few new favourites to add to the mix. She’s also looking to broaden demographics.

“We have a lot of things women would be interested in, it would be nice to see more that men are interested in and maybe more for the children,” she said. “You just have to sometimes try inviting a whole different range of people. They all go through the jury process.”