While Bele Chere seems to grow more unwieldy with each passing year, local arts baron John Cram has taken care to keep the equally esteemed (and longer-running) Village Arts and Crafts Fair tailored to a more human scale.
“We really put on a quality show,” he says coolly. Now in its 26th year, the Village Art & Craft Fair was conceived by Cram when he realized that his New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village could not sustain the growing load of talent he wanted to display.
Cram’s goal all along has been to provide artists and craftspeople with an event that draws knowledgeable enthusiasts and earnest collectors (rather than more casual browsers).
“[Artists] do very well here,” notes Cram. “[The fair brings out] really serious buyers, rather than the ice-cream-cone lickers and stroller-pushers.”
In turn, the Fair’s highbrow reputation has attracted peerless artists and crafters. And though many exhibitors live in the area, that may have more to do with the dense population of artisans hereabouts than with any overt attempt to localize the event. Since the show’s inception, Cram’s overriding intent has been to present the highest-quality work available anywhere.
“People are invited who cut their teeth on arts and crafts,” he explains.
The large number of applicants clamoring for space has forced strict limits on the number of artists representing each medium, guaranteeing a festival of the highest order.
“It’s been well-balanced from year to year,” Cram observes. “For example, if we have five leatherworkers applying, we encourage two to do the show. There’s extensive competition.”
But it’s not just the artists and collectors who reap the rewards.
“It’s become an event that benefits Biltmore Village, and that was one of our focal points,” Cram notes. “The Village Art & Craft Fair does for Biltmore Village what [Bele Chere] does for downtown.”
The picturesque Cathedral of All Souls, on the village green, has hosted the show since the beginning — and made money providing arts-and-crafts enthusiasts with scrumptious food. “They’ve raised $12,000 for the community-outreach program,” Cram relates, adding, “That’s a blessing.”
This year’s show, sponsored by New Morning Gallery and Bellagio, will spotlight the work of more than 140 artists and craftspeople. As usual, functional beauty is the rule, whether you’re talking jewelry, hand-painted clothing, pottery or other handcrafted items. A third of this year’s artisans are new exhibitors — a reassuring testament to Cram’s ongoing vision — but it’s the old timers who can offer concrete insight into the fair’s evolution.
Local artist Elizabeth McAfee made her debut at the fair in its second year. She took some time off in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but has been a regular participant for the past 10 years. Her specialty, according to her brisk PR statement, is “notecards and shirts with fun animal prints.” But anyone who’s seen her colorful renditions of self-satisfied “tourist” cats gracing various Asheville landmarks — joyfully surreal creations that still somehow manage to seem credible — has got to respect this artist’s unique perspective.
“I’ve been at the show full-time since 1988, and obviously, the number of people has increased,” says McAfee. “But the biggest change has been in the energy level. It used to be quiet, and now there’s an electricity in the air. The first show was relaxed, people out for a stroll. Now, people from all over the Southeast are exhibited, and the crowd is packed like sardines.”
She mentions theVillage Art & Craft Fair’s by-now-famous logo, a lissome black cat that streaks across various exotic backgrounds (this year, it’s an elegant Egyptian night scene) — an advertising ploy that has done much to boost the event’s visibility.
“It draws all those people who like cats and makes an impact on people’s consciousness,” she says, adding, “Each year, the fair gets better and better; it’s a wonderful experience.”