Three local artisans share their skills and secrets before heading to this week’s the Folk Festival
While so much is being made of the new and exciting musicians traveling from all over the world to play the Folk Festival, people forget that there are going to be artisans taking part in the festivities as well. We caught up with a few of the local ones to get a better insight into what they do, and what they offer, not only Folk Festival attendees, but Richmond year-round.
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While so much is being made of the new and exciting musicians traveling from all over the world to play the Folk Festival, people forget that there are going to be artisans taking part in the festivities as well. We caught up with a couple of local ones to get a better insight into what they do, and what they offer, not only Folk Festival attendees, but Richmond year-round.
The Soap Maker
To start my journey, I stopped by a local soap factory situated in the heart of the city. Row House Soaps is located in a cozy little house at 121 E. Main Street (right across from the back garden of the public library). As I stepped in, I was immediately enveloped in the scent of all the different herbs – honey, orange creamsicle, lavender, fruits, all mingling together. The walls were decorated with folk art, pressed flowers and needlework. Owner Michael Walsh (long hair tied back and wearing a cheerful tie-dyed shirt) greeted me and after offering me coffee, lead me around the shop to the soap-making area behind the counter.
“We’re an all-natural herbal soap factory — we make all-natural herbal soaps,” said Michael Walsh, explaining to me as he uncovered a square bin on his table that contained four types of soap that were in the process of being made. “Olive oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil, and pure spring water. Everything’s done right here. Made these yesterday.” If that’s not alluring enough for you, he has more.
“We’ve got Nag Champa, lavender oatmeal, oatmeal, milk and honey,” he continued, pointing to the other three square compartments in the bin. “Here, feel that,” he instructed, and sure enough, they were still warm.
“How high do you have to heat that when you’re making it?” I asked.
“About 250 degrees, then what you do is you bring them all back down to a specific temperature, about 130. Then you mix everything in. We’re getting ready for the Folk Festival, so I’m making stuff like crazy.”
“Do you sell a lot there?”
Michael let out a breath of amazement. “Well, last year we had about 250,000 people, it’s crazy and it’s wonderful, it’s one of Richmond’s finest festivals. We’re just privileged that we can go there.”
“What happens here,” he continues, “is today I’ll cut these and cut ‘em into slabs and then I’ll cut ‘em into bars then the bars will go onto the racks. They’ll stay on the racks for two to three weeks, which is just in time to be ready for the festival, and that’s why I’m making ‘em like crazy. Now, if all we did in here was soap then we’d be pretty boring,” he said, and led me around the shop to show me the array of other handmade products he and his Sharon wife sell. He handed me a green barnwood-like frame encasing a pressed four-leaf clover.
“What you’re holding is a hundred-to-a-hundred-and-fifty years old, it’s wood from the Victorians in Church Hill, and when they remodel or tear down or discard the old wood, we recycle it, turn them into four-leaf-clovers. Do you know what a four-leaf-clover stands for?”
“Luck?” I said.
“Faith, hope, love and luck,” he said and showed me the small note on the back of the frame.
Michael Walsh on supporting local businesses:
“The big message that we need to send out to people is the fact that we don’t need to create little shops, they’re here. We need to support them. There’s a lot of mom and pop shops, everything from restaurants to hardware stores to little soap factories like this. Support ‘em. That’s what America was built on. Shame on us.
I understand going to Wal-Mart to get the better deals but you know, you need us, you need the little mom and pop shops. Keep them afloat, keep them alive. One comment I hear and it drives me crazy: ‘I’ve driven by your shop for a year so I decided to stop.’ I’m gonna put a sign outside that says ‘How many times are you gonna drive by before you stop?'”
As Michael led me around the shop showing me the different art projects he and Sharon have taken on (rustic bird church houses, little hand-crafted mice hiding in small spots all over, the smell of lavender, oatmeal, and flowery soaps filling the room, little reindeer, and a collection of antique soaps and soap-molds including an old heavy Ivory soap mold) he noted, “When you take all of this recycled re-purposed…and you mix it all in with the soaps, I think it’s kind of a nice look. The shop is not your normal little shop. To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only soap factory in the city that I know of. I don’t know of any other anywhere where you can walk in and make stuff. We do soap-making classes!”
“How long has the shop been here?”
“We’ve been here for five years. I’m a Veteran, twenty-four years in the military. I started my career in Vietnam, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and I’ve done four trips over to the Middle East. I retired from the military and I went into the corporate world […] We made soap as a hobby from the time we were in the military and this recipe is over twenty years in the making. We would give it away to friends and family. After about twenty years of testing on people, mostly friends and family, we’ve come up with this recipe that I think is just fantastic.”
Michael and Sharon keep the door to the shop open whenever possible. It’s part of their advertising — the herbals scents waft to the street. “The sniffs are free, and with every purchase we give away a free brown paper bag. We’ve lost our minds! In a financial economy like this, we’ve lost our minds. The coffee’s always on and people come in, have a cup of coffee, tell me about their day. And that’s fine. And these have become friends. We never did want a store, we wanted a shop. And we didn’t want customers, we wanted friends. Over the last five years we’ve built up quite a collection of friends…trying to clean up Richmond.”
The Lure Maker
When I first saw that a fishing lure creator was one of the artisans being featured at the Richmond Folk Festival, I knew I had to add him to my list of people to talk to. Bill Grossman, the man behind the lures, has been featured before in the news, including Bassmaster magazine, Virginia Wildlife Magazine, Folk Art Collectibles, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. As a non-fisher, I have never dived into the depths of the fishing lure world, so when I called Bill up to chat, I was intrigued first and foremost about how he got lured into the world of fishing decoy creation.
“I was a little disillusioned with art,” Bill explained, who has a Masters degree in Fine Arts. “It wasn’t going anywhere. Then I saw some homemade lures, so I started to make fish decoys, which are similar to duck decoys.” They’re like small sculptures, very intricate and detailed, and truly miniature (and sometimes not-so-miniature as the pictures of his work attest on his website) works of art.
“How long have you been making them?”
“Fifteen years, it’s been nonstop ever since. I don’t even paint on flat surfaces anymore.” he exclaimed, laughing. “It’s doing something I love.”
Looking at Bill’s website, you can see the vast array of lures he’s created by hand. It’s a hodge-podge of various fish of all different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Noting the size of his craft collection, I asked, “Do you have any favorite fish or lures or pieces?”
“I make sturgeon decoys. I really like sturgeon, especially since it’s a Virginia fish. I like the prehistoric look with the angles and their features.”
“Who comprises your clientele? Are a lot of your clients fishers, or do some people collect them because they’re just cool?” I asked.
“A lot of people use them to fish with,” Bill said. “But [there are] a lot of people who are fish lure and decoy collectors. I really enjoy making them. They’re all painted by hand. Contemporary lure makers use an airbrush, but I make my own brushes. I trim my brushes so I can get special effects.”
“They’re all one of a kind. There’s a lot of depth — I use a lot of glaze work, a lot of transparent layers. They really have to be held to be appreciated. They do have hooks in them so people have to be careful.”
When asked how long it might take, on average, to create a medium-sized lure, he explained, “Probably about two to three hours. It’s too difficult to carve one at a time, so I make an assembly line. I’ll make ten to thirty at a time so I don’t just work on one. I don’t try to repeat the same paint job, I use different colors. I’ll finish a batch — I use a color, then more, so I have maybe fifteen to twenty on my desk so I have that many in various stages of completion.”
When I called Bill, he’d recently gotten back from a camping trip on which he was testing a batch of lures.
“They look too beautiful to fish with!” I protested.
“Oh I don’t lost many,” he assured me, explaining, “If they catch three or four, then I retire it and put it in a case. If it catches four fish, I know it works a lot of the time. I lose maybe one a year.”
The Violin Maker
Finally, there is Don Leister. His craft is a quite different from soap or fishing lures, and it cuts to the very heart of what the Folk Festival celebrates: the music. Leister is a master violinmaker, right in our city. In fact, not only does he have his violinmaking storefront, Don Leister Violin Shop, here in Richmond at 2803 Stonewall Avenue, Leister gave me a brief bio showing his VCU roots: “I’m a Painting and Printmaking graduate from VCU and have always loved craft in the arts. I started playing violin again as adult and was soon learning the craft. I made my first violin in 1989.”
“Do you have a particular violin that’s your favorite?” I asked. “Similarly, do you have favorite materials. I see on your site that you mention spruce and maple — as a total outsider to the violin-world, is there any particular reason for those types of wood?”
“It would be hard to choose a favorite violin,” said Don. “But if I did it would have been made in the town of Cremona, Italy around 1700.
My favorite wood is spruce from the Italian Alps and Boznian maple, both aged 10 years or so. The size, shape and sound of the violin-family instruments evolved using these woods so it is the standard wood of choice. The woods also look beautiful and complement the shape of the instrument.”
“I imagine,” I said, “a violinmaker as someone who matches the instrument to the player, likening it to sort of how a wand-maker might match the wand to the wizard– is this perception at all accurate?”
“Choosing an instrument is a very personal thing,” said Don. “The more I know a player the better I can suggest something but it is totally the player’s choice.”
You can see some pictures of Leister’s work on his website.
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Be sure to swing by to meet Row House Soaps and Swift Creek Lures: Art With a Hook when you go to the Folk Festival! You are going, right???
(UPDATE: The original article featured only the first two artisans mentioned. The author subsequently added the profile of Don Leister)
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