Shirley Gromen's images of Chesapeake birds.
"Fish Crow, Spotted Sandpiper and Kingfisher Tumblers" by Shirley Gromen. Photo courtesy of Shirley Gromen.

For nearly 40 years, the Smithsonian Women’s Committee has drawn artists from all over the country to showcase and sell their work at the prestigious Smithsonian Craft Show. Last March, when COVID-19 forced many facets of our lives online, the Smithsonian Craft Show was one of few craft fairs that successfully made the transition. More than a year later, many other craft shows and arts events have also adapted to online media. To differentiate its show, the Women’s Committee—a volunteer organization that fundraises for the institution—decided on a new focus for this year’s event: sustainability and climate change.

“We just got a new administration that is all of a sudden going to take climate change seriously,” Smithsonian Craft Show co-chair Twig Murray says. “We started thinking about how to not be daunted by the environment, but rather being inspired by it.” 

This year, the Smithsonian Craft Show is partnering with Honoring the Future, an organization that uses art to educate the public on climate change, to host the Smithsonian’s first-ever sustainability-focused show: Craft Optimism. The name, Murray explains, was inspired by the Smithsonian organization Earth Optimism, whose mission they wanted to embrace. 

Craft Optimism products will go on sale starting April 24, just two days after Earth Day;  sales end on May 1. The climate-conscious marketplace will feature about 100 artists whose products were either created in a manner that helps to address climate change or reflect the impacts of climate change in some way. Similar to past Smithsonian Craft Shows, a portion of the proceeds will fund Smithsonian grants for research, education, and conservation projects.

D.C.-based artist Jessica Beels, who makes bird sculptures out of recycled materials like maps and toilet paper wrappers, will exhibit her crafts at the show.

“I started making them and selling them because I was so interested in having a more accessible way of talking to people about sustainability and what they could do with their own stuff,” Beels explains. “I wanted to make something that looked like it was made out of recycling materials.”

“Iceland/Greenland Bird and Antipodes Bird” by Jessica Beels. Photo courtesy of Jessica Beels.

Beels emphasized that her medium is an important part of her art, as she wants people to see how items can be reused.

Maybe you can’t make the exact same forms I can, but you can look at what is in your world and what you’re choosing to discard and realize it could have one more life before it goes into whatever its endgame is,” Beels says.

Topaz Terry, another D.C.-based artist, is also interested in repurposing discarded material. The founder of BicycleTrash, Terry uses bicycle parts that wear out with normal use to create accessories and items for everyday use, such as belts, bottle openers, and bags. Like Beels, Terry hopes her work will facilitate conversations about giving discarded products new meanings.

“To me, the materials I use are incredibly valuable,” Terry says. “I think they are fabulous and I interact with a lot of people who just don’t see it that way. But the longer I’ve been doing this, the more people I encounter that share that ethic with me that this stuff is fabulous and we should be doing something with it. I’m hoping people get some of that.”

A BicycleTrash beer pannier by Topaz Terry. Photo by Obi Okolo.

Shirley Gromen is also featured in the show, but her crafts interpret the show’s theme differently. Gromen is a ceramicist and D.C. native, and her products depict scenes of the Chesapeake watershed to bring attention to the organisms that reside there.

“My work is pretty realistic, so I hope it will bring to them an awareness of different species and details of what makes them different,” Gromen says. “People, particularly in the D.C. area, don’t realize the variety of wildlife that is around here.”

However, the crafts aren’t the only sustainable things about this year’s show. 

“Doing an online craft show and sale has great efficiency,” Murray explains. “We haven’t printed one single thing. There are no catalogs. There are print ads, but we didn’t print them. It’s a very green way to have a craft show.”

Murray also pointed out that holding the show online increases accessibility. 

“Since everything is virtual, we were able to reach out to a bunch of artists who normally might not want to play with us because of where we’re located,” Murray explains. 

Gormen had similar sentiments, noting how the longer duration of the event provides more flexibility.

“The audience is expanded,” Gromen says. “It’s not just the people that have the time to go to a craft show for two or three days, but it’s up for a week and people from all over the country have the ability to go to these shows.”

Although the virtual format has its added benefits, some parts of the craft show were unable to be transferred online—namely, interactions with potential buyers. 

“The big challenge to a virtual show is that the artists rely on developing relationships and explaining “this is how I do it, and this is why it’s worth this money, and here’s my process,” Murray explains. 

“The only way to sell it is to talk about it,” Beels adds. “It’s the part I like the most, why they picked that one and things like that.”

While artists are unable to stand by their work, each product has its own description, pictures, and in some cases, a video. Potential buyers are also encouraged to contact the artists with questions—Beels noted she will be available that whole week to provide answers.

Murray also highlighted how the transition to online has shifted the prime audience of the show.

“It’s been a challenge to make the online shopping experience as robust as possible, because a lot of the people who would normally go to the craft show are not that comfortable with technology,” Murray explains. “It’s almost like a different market for a virtual craft show than the people walking through the door at the National Building Museum.”

Regardless, Murray is looking forward to the show and hopes that the audience—whoever they may be—will get something out of it.

“We want the general public to just be more aware of making small changes to help the climate, to help the situation, to support artists,”  Murray says. “If you buy something, you support the artists, the Smithsonian, and you support the message of climate change, and a positive approach to it.”