Leather hats & the first-wavers     28 September, 2006, 08:46 pm
Check out the leather hats worn by rock musicians Rick Wakeman (Yes) and Mike Love (Beach Boys) from the early 70s. These stylish hats were undoubtedly made by some first wave leather artists that were discovered by these musicians on their endless tours across the USA.

Carrying the musical metaphor forward, I maintain that the first wave artisans that entered the arts & craft show circuit in the 1960s played the role of Elvis in the history of our business. Like Elvis, who brought obscure blues songs to teenage America, first wavers didnít invent arts and crafts, but they introduced hand-made products into an entirely new population segment. Baby-boomers and anti-establishment types could find non-mass produced goods, made by people that looked just like them!

I was 17 when I walked through the 1965 edition of the Three River Arts Festival in Pittsburgh. Even though I was considered a fairly hip kid (I was in a high school rock band), I donít remember connecting with the arts or artisans there. The festival would have been only six years old that year, and its artists were weighted heavily towards academic types and weekend painters. The true first wavers were a year or two off.

Fast forward to 1968 and Iím at Penn State ready to have my first arts & crafts buying experience. I learn from my friend that thereís a guy who will make you a pair of hand-crafted sandals for only $25. The catch is that he didnít really have a store; he worked out of his van. You went the first day to see the samples, to have the initial fitting, and pay him. Then he came back to the same place the next day for a second fitting and then again for the third and final fitting.

My friend Barry Linder was a leatherworker who operated in this mode in the Boston area. He was at Woodstock, and he might have been to Penn State and made my sandals. Neither of us is sure and his record-keeping was lacking. Running a business out of a van and away from the official business community will do that to your customer contacts.

My remaining first wave artists were both leather workers. Chic Donofrio started selling hard leather bags in 1969 at county fairs in Connecticut. At the same time, Steven Batson was selling leather belts and a type of floppy hippie hat at Boston-area flea markets. Leather was a popular medium for the first wavers and it continues to this day, although the floppy hats have been mostly replaced by $200+ handbags.

Even as the first-wavers ruled the kingdom of crafts, the kingdom was pretty small. They were more like the young Elvis in Memphis, ready to break out onto the big stage. But the craft show stage was small because shows, as we know them, were small, infrequent, or non-existent in the 1960s. Sam Rizetta, who first exhibited his art in 1957, couldnít make a living on the arts & craft show circuit until the 1970s. I calculate the average starting year of the top ten arts and craft shows listed in Sunshine Artist magazine to be 1975. There were older shows, but the real show circuit did not begin until the 1970s. By that time, the first wave Elvises were ready to meet the Beatles from the second wave.

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