Craft fair pioneers offer 40 years of artistry

2022 is a celebratory year for the Denman Christmas Craft Fair—it’s the fair’s 40th anniversary! (If the math seems a bit wonky, that’s because of COVID; we couldn’t celebrate in 2021 and anyway there was no fair that year.)

This year’s fair will include a number of craft fair pioneers—artisans who were part of the very first fair in 1981. Read on to learn a bit about them and their experiences at the fair over the decades.

Sudasi Gardner is recognized as the Denman Craft Fair’s original founder.

“I’d moved to Denman from Hornby, which had always had a Christmas Craft Fair. I could see that on Denman we had a nice hall and we liked crafts. I thought, let’s do something. I asked people to participate and they all said yes. It was awfully simple. Advertising happened mostly by word of mouth,” she says.

The next year, Sudasi stepped back and others took over. Over the years, the fair developed into the major event it is now, with two halls featuring up to 80 artisans, two lunch venues, and a vibrant outdoor market area.

Gardner’s fair table offers a feast of colour, texture, scent, and beauty, featuring an incredibly diverse array of genres and items: paintings, tapestries, quilts, candles, bags, hats, socks, greeting cards, ceramic mugs and platters, blankets, mosaics, hand-spun yarn, slippers, sculpture, and more. Her themes reflect the beauty of nature, the sanctity of the home, and the power of spirituality.

Toymaker Christine O’Neill was 18 when she set up at the very first fair.

“It was just in one hall and was mostly just for Denman Islanders. And then it grew really quickly. But it still feels the same. It’s this timeless thing. It’s epic and longstanding and it’s so great we are doing it again! The fair is kind of how I mark time. It happens every year,” she says.

Kids in particular love Christine’s tiny needle-felted dolls, animals, and objects. Also, both kids and adults buy her needle felting kits, which have everything anyone needs to get started in that genre, including hand-dyed local wool.

Christine is one of many long-term Denman Craft Fair vendors who are part of a multi-generational lineage. Her mother, Phyllis Fabbi, was a vendor for many years and her children also vended.

“I remember my kids getting so stoked about it—gluing walnuts together, whatever they’d dreamed up that year,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of Denman kids start out really young at the fair and then grow up and be amazing artists.”

Ceramic artist Patti Willis was a young mother wearing an Indian bedspread skirt, with a baby on her hip, back when she vended at the first Craft Fair. Now she’s a grandmother with decades of ceramics experience.

Willis’ work is highly recognizable: delicate, often tiny, porcelain bowls, vases and other objects, hand- painted with natural motifs like sunflowers, irises, oak leaves, dragonflies, and moths. Recently, inspired by her grandchildren, she has been making tiny fairy homes—small rotunda with domed roofs, whimsical decorations, and tiny doors and windows, all in gentle pastel colours.

One thing she loves about the fair is the relationships with buyers. “I really honour the patrons who come to the fair year after year. Some who I met 40 years ago still come, some of them with walkers and canes. And there are also all the younger people, which is so gratifying.”

The Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair takes place Dec 3 & 4, 10:00 – 4:00 at the Community Hall and Activity Centre. Put it on your calendar and invite your friends!