GUILFORD, Conn. -- Consider the elves, working year-round, making toys and gifts for the holiday season. Skilled, disciplined, creative yet practical workers, with their handmade treasures all one-of-a-kind.
Or so goes the fantasy.For anyone gathering strength to do their own shopping this season, there is a way to find personalized gifts that suggest that elfish touch: the Trail of Connecticut Craft Centers' holiday exhibits and sales.
Elves have a sleigh to deliver their goods. Here in the real world, you will have to drive to one or more of the five centers in central and western Connecticut.
In New Haven, you find the one urban site: the Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street, which in the 1960s was designated by the city as an arts avenue. Today, according to executive director Susan Smith, the center stands near a community music school, a ballet school, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra offices, and a magnet high school for the arts.
The Guilford Handcraft Center is more typically located: on a scenic road, in a small town. This year, Guilford will show the works of about 350 artists, though not all at once, as items are rotated throughout the sale.
It is the implied -- and sometimes actual -- presence of the artisans that helps distinguish the craft center sale.
At the Creative Arts Workshop, three artists will appear in their own "trunk show" during a four-day weekend, according to Smith. The shows, which allow artists to display more of their works, will feature two fiber artisans, Robin Bergman of Concord and Amy Putansu of Thomaston, Maine, plus jeweler Andree Brown of New York.
At the Farmington Valley Arts Center in Avon, open studios on Nov. 28-29 and Dec. 6-7 will allow visitors to meet resident artisans and purchase their works. The link to the artisans -- that often sought-after personal connection -- is evident in the display of Christine Weil's jewelry at the Guilford center. Here, you can read how Weil "began selling jewelry at age 10" by hawking "handcrafted bead earrings to Chicago stores." She has graduated to carving in wax and fabricating in metal out of her Los Angeles studio, and charging $400 for a 7-inch sterling silver "nuggets" bracelet.
Other New England artists include potter Jean Silverman of Newmarket, N.H.; glassblower Michael Egan of Granville, Vt.; and Wilton, Conn., "basketry artist" Nancy Hayes.
In Guilford, most of the shoppers on a recent afternoon were women. Julienne Richardson, shop and gallery manager, noted that men are drawn to the wooden items: hinged boxes, a computer mouse pad, cutting boards, salad bowls and spoons, picture frames, clocks embedded in wood, mirrors, wine stoppers, letter openers, even a tooth-fairy box. There were also four Scandinavian sandwich boards for $36. They were barely big enough to hold a sandwich, but it is a safe bet no one else will be giving them.
The holiday season is evident in the store's 9-foot Christmas tree. This year it is made from wire mesh -- "hardware cloth," according to Richardson, who noted that last year's tree was a tier of paint cans. Ornaments -- mostly glass or polymer clay -- hang from the tree, along with a few Hanukkah items. Other products include women's clothing, wooden push toys, large and colorful candles, and placemats so brilliant, they might merit framing.
The artistic process is also recognized through the workshops and classes that all five centers offer. A Guilford workshop room presents a contrast to the don't-break-the-fragile-stuff aura of any gift emporium, as students working with mosaicist Richard Moss swing hammers onto plates and mugs, deconstructing them into pieces that will be remade into a tabletop, picture frame, or vase.Back in the shop, the biggest seller is jewelry, according to Richardson. Pat Driscoll and Pat Nuzzo each purchased a sterling silver necklace. Driscoll's was made of Venetian glass with 24-karat gold foil, while Nuzzo's had mother-of-pearl on one side and abalone on the other.
Driscoll, who describes herself as "kind of an artisty sort" (she does decoupage and teaches crafts to seniors), has been shopping at Guilford for five years and says she considers "about 75 percent of what is here as fine crafts." Her definition of fine crafts? "Something I couldn't make myself." It is that appreciation of the workmanship that adds value to the work. As Driscoll says of a fused glass ornament, "For some reason I'm taken with the fused glass, maybe because I couldn't do it."
Items that fall into the "I could do that" category are some glass plates decorated with images of fish, snowmen, or rabbits. Modestly priced gifts include a set of four fused-glass coasters for $34. Or spend more -- up to $249 -- for a colorful leather pocketbook. Other items are created out of glass, straw, stone, paper, metal, fiber, or food -- oils, sauces, even jars of spice mixes. Some crafts stand out as a marriage of form and function. A copper plate by Yvonne Arritt of McLean, Va., priced at $90, beautifully blends color and shape. Vases made from hollowed stone ($90 to $125) by Richard J. Miller of Dique Stone Products in Milanville, Pa., appear both sturdy and graceful, and lead you to wonder: How does he do that?
The answer, according to Miller: collect glacial boulders (mostly granite) from sand pits based on their shape, color, and texture; clean them up, round them off with a lathe, open the insides with a diamond coring machine, cut off the bottoms with a diamond chop saw, polish them with a revolving diamond lap head, and seal them with a color enhancer.Let's see an elf try that.
David Maloof is a freelance writer who lives in Belchertown.