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Group Efforts: a crafty way to build community

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In Marshall Preheim's ideal economy, there would be no Target, no Wal-Mart, no Gap--no purchases of products whose origins are unknown. "It's always seemed like something important was lost every time I spent money on something in a big store," he says. "I want to feel good about purchases I make--not just a few things from a craft store once a year but the thousands of items you buy over the course of a year."

DEPART-ment, a quarterly sale of handmade items hosted by Preheim at Open End Gallery, is his attempt to put a friendly face on material consumption. Preheim's been running the multipurpose gallery for three years--it's in the same space as Ideotech, the large-format printing company he owns with Kevin Schuhl. Ideotech pays the bills (by doing fine art enlargements for clients like the Art Institute and blueprints for architectural firms) and Open End's calendar is booked with art installations, record-release parties, fashion shows, and the occasional theme party, like last weekend's Barn Dance Apocalypse and next week's karaoke badminton tournament.

At the Renegade Craft Fair in Wicker Park last year, Preheim noticed that the vendors were stuck in their booths most of the time. Handling the money and keeping an eye on stock left them little time to interact with customers or each other. "I started thinking how cool it would be to give the crafters a chance to let go--to bring in, say, ten sweaters and tag them, then place them in a clothing department and be free to mingle," he says. "If there isn't a sweater in your particular size or color but you like the style, you should be able to contact them after the fair. They take your measurements, you can even find your own yarn, and you have what you want. This creates a year-round environment where people can take what they may think of as a hobby and actually support themselves with it."

Three months later Preheim staged the first DEPART-ment, inviting about 50 artists and crafters to participate. The sale mingled vendors' goods to create a lo-fi department store with a dozen areas dedicated to women's clothing, accessories, and baked goods. The three-day event grossed $9,000; Preheim and Schuhl took about 3 percent of that--a measly $287--to cover expenses.

"The thing with stores is that they mark up the product 100 percent and they're taking around 40 percent of the profit," says Sarah Bortt, who makes riveted black rubber handbags out of old tires and has her own line of soap and lip balm. "With DEPART-ment they've said they would take a max of 10 percent to cover the costs, and less if they can. So...the artist makes more money and the buyer pays a lower price."

Shawn Smith usually peddles his plush "Shawnimals" creatures over the Internet. "Part of wanting to participate in this did stem from walking into megastores and thinking, 'Where's this stuff coming from, who's making it, who's profiting from it, and, more importantly, who's not?'" he says. "But also, what's better than buying interesting handmade things from great people you wouldn't mind grabbing a beer with?"

Artists also save the $100 fee they'd typically pay for a table at a summer craft fair, and there's no minimum requirement on what they sell--if you've knitted one pair of leg warmers and want to sell them, that's fine by all.

To help crafters and customers stay in touch, a list of participating artists' phone numbers and Web addresses is on hand for shoppers to take home, and plans are in the works to launch a searchable database of artisans that can be accessed through the DEPART-ment Web site. This summer Preheim and a few artists are packing up the show and hitting the road to stage DEPART-ment weekends in Brooklyn, Olympia, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

More than 70 artists have signed on to sell everything from a $3.50 bar of lavender castile soap to $150 modular furniture at this weekend's DEPART-ment, which runs March 5 through 7 at Open End Gallery, 2000 W. Fulton, suite 310. Hours are Friday from 7 to 11 PM, Saturday and Sunday from 11 AM to 5 PM. Call 312-738-2140 or see www.depart-ment.com for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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