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Twenty years ago, when she was entertaining ideas of working as a full-time artist, Deann Verdier was given some sobering news by Noel Clark, organizer of the nascent Frederick Craft Fair: Verdier’s pottery was simply not good enough to be exhibited on the Frederick fairgrounds, and she ought to find somewhere else to sell it. “He was rude and blew me off,” says Verdier, who for the moment at least decided to keep her day job as a private-school elementary teacher.
Verdier’s stoneware never did find its way to Frederick, which instantly became one of the East Coast’s most notable and well-attended craft fairs. But two decades later, the would-be artist is nonetheless poised to become perhaps the biggest player in contemporary crafts, the judge and jury of a nationwide string of fairs that would no doubt make even the recently deceased Clark envious.
On the heels of Clark’s snub two decades ago, Verdier and her husband, George, aBechtel Co. engineer who dabbled in leatherworking, scraped together $200 in hopes of staging a competing fair. But they faced formidable odds: As the Maryland representative of the American Crafts Council, Clark was an influential promoter who managed to lure 400 craftspeople (and 60,000 attendance-paying patrons) to his first Frederick show. In fact, the only thing bigger than the Frederick fair was the decade-old extravaganza in Rhinebeck, N.Y., which at the time was the premier venue for hawking top-flight handicrafts.
But for those who wanted to compete with Clark—and many tried—his standing in the arts community was hardly the biggest barrier. According to local artists, Clark was a money-hungry bully who didn’t play fair: He insisted on exclusivity, threatening, for example, to blackball craftsmen who showed their work at other fairs. “He tried to control the whole market,” recalls an area potter, who was banished from Clark’s show after he and a dozen colleagues began inviting clients into their studios for an annual tour and sale of their works. “He marched into my studio and said we were hurting his business. He threw us out of his show and sent me my slides back.”
Clark’s heavy-handedness effectively controlled the high end of the market, making it difficult for would-be entrepreneurs like the Verdiers to compete. But in the mid-’70s, every hippie who hadn’t wandered off to Vista or law school was carving wood, snapping pictures, throwing pots, or doing something with sheepskin that was alleged to be art, thereby providing another pool of eager vendors. So the Verdiers founded Sugarloaf Mountain Works, rented the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, and set out in search of artisans to display their works at the first Sugarloaf Crafts Festival.
It was a long, frustrating search. “Nobody heard of us. We weren’t involved with the American Crafts Council. It was hard to get attention. People didn’t take us seriously,” says Deann Verdier.
The couple eventually did round up 200 exhibitors for their maiden effort, which attracted 10,000 patrons. The idea was to fill the show entirely with serious crafts, rather than with country tchotchkes and church-bazaar schlock. In retrospect, the Verdiers believe they managed to make good on that pledge, although not everyone agrees.
“They capitalized on the dregs of the art world,” says a veteran local craftsman. “They started out with no aesthetic concept at all about what’s good or not good. We were all saying, “My God, look at the quality of the work they’re taking. It’s unbelievably bad.’ ”
This same critic acknowledges, however, that the quality of the show gradually improved over the years—particularly with the addition of some Clark castoffs. And like others in the local arts community, he gives the couple credit for beating back Clark’s supposed stranglehold and weathering the boom-and-bust cycles that left other promoters searching for new professions.
In fact, the Verdiers have thrived. Deann—who minored in art at the University of Maryland—quit teaching to run the Sugarloaf company full-time, and after the second fair, George left Bechtel to join her. This weekend’s show at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds—the 20th annual event—is just one of 12 Sugarloaf fairs in five states that, collectively, attract about 300,000 visitors annually. The Verdiers, who today look more like a GQ couple than a pair of mid-40s Mother Earth News hangers-on, seem to have refined the art of selling crafts, with a well-oiled PR and marketing effort that has made Sugarloaf the biggest—and apparently most lucrative—game in Washington and other towns. “A lot of our competitors are scared when we come in,” says George Verdier, “because we blow them out of the water.”
Now the couple plans on rolling out nationally. “I want to be the first to “brand’ contemporary crafts across the U.S.,” says George. “We’re at the stage where the real estate industry was before there was Century 21. Once we’re coast-to-coast, we’ll be able to do that.”
Clark also once tried to take his act to other cities, but he soon folded his tents. (Clark died two years ago of cancer, and his wife continues to produce the Frederick fair.) The Verdiers, however, have already made successful moves into New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and a map outlining expansion plans shows such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas.
As for Deann’s potter’s wheel, it sits unused in her basement studio. But that’s probably just as well, because she probably wouldn’t have made much of a living off clay anyway. In fact, even her relatives probably understood why Noel Clark snubbed her. “I knew I’d had enough,” she says, “when I went to my mother’s house one day and she was selling my pots in a yard sale.”