Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Artists and the price of things

Following the burst of creative energy I had last week, I decided that making hemp necklaces again would be fun and entertaining. I missed my old living room set-up in Murfreesboro, where I had two big drawers full of arts and crafts next to the TV to busy myself with when I was indoors. I wanted that again; drawers full of odd things to create little gifts for my friends with. I got a ball of hemp twine from the grocer’s, but was at a loss to find beads. Surely, I thought, in my neighborhood full of head shops and alternative establishments, I could find craft supplies.

I stopped first at 42 degrees, an art glass shop near the grocer’s. The front of this store is full of vases and ornaments and sculptures of hand-blown glass, beautiful things to see. The middle of the store contains supplies for glass artisans. The back of the store, in front of which a sign prohibiting anyone under 18, is full of head gear. The shop owner was happy I came in looking for beads, and showed me around the jewelry counter in the middle of the store. There in cases were hand-made bracelets, earrings, and pendants, many by local artists. On one end of the counter was a rack much like an abacus full of glass beads. The rods of each rack came off and I was shown the most beautiful beads on a piece of black velvet. Each one had its own pattern, and the smallest were about half an inch in diameter. The rods on the abacus set-up were numbered, and they belonged to local artists. The least expensive beads were $6.50, $12 a pair. I felt compelled to support this type of artwork and despite knowing better bought a few, which were each wrapped and put in a small box. But I couldn’t make whole necklaces out of these without going bankrupt, so I still needed beads.

Another store that I thought would sell beads didn’t but sent me on to a storefront down Euclid I’d never been into before. I thought the place next to where I go for used paperbacks was another head shop (my neighborhood now has 4 in 2 blocks), but instead the grimy storefront turned out to be full of cheap imported accessories, including one wall of nothing but beads for craft work. The store owner there told me she went to Indonesia herself to buy the beads, and would be returning there for more supplies soon. Strung on cords of grass or string about half a meter long and looped like necklaces were rough beads of glass, wood, bone, all different shades and colors. The ropes of beads were priced as a whole, but if you don’t want the whole rope the store owner would half it for you. The cheapest strands were around $6, the most expensive $32. Because I wanted variety, I got three half-strands of very plain glass beads and one half-strand of glass beads that had stripes in them. Patterns cost more than plain, and a lot of the pricing seemed rather arbitrary to me, probably based on popularity of pattern rather than quality of work.

While I was checking out, some copper bracelets and necklaces by the register caught my eye. I recognized the bracelets because I’d seen them being made just a few weekends before. A homeless man with a pair of pliers and a pile of copper wiring he’d ripped out of some old house had sat on the corner outside of Little 5 and had made the jewelry out of nothing, it seemed. Watching the homeless man with the thick copper wire had been a crowd of 20-somethings like me, transfixed. It was like watching someone make balloon animals. None of us knew copper wiring could do the things that man did with it, and so quickly! Someone had actually said “He should do parties!”

Some of these pieces were far more elaborate than the ones he made that night, but his work was unmistakable. I had to ask the shop owner. “Did you buy these from that homeless guy in the park?”

“Who, Copper John?”

“I don’t know his name. I saw him making bracelets a few weekends ago..”

“Yeah, that’s him. He’s in jail again right now. He’s a thief, watch out.”

“Is he just a crack addict, or what?”


“Well, that’s too bad.”

“He doesn’t think so. I buy whatever he makes but doesn’t sell in a night, and he gets his mail here.”

I took a close look at Copper John’s work, displayed on black velvet jewelry cushions in this grubby import shop. Loops and swirls and other things tightly bound together to form patterns any designer would envy – Copper John had made pieces that, if I hadn’t known they were the work of a crack addict on a street corner out of stolen wiring – might have commanded high prices in a store like 42 degrees. Copper John’s pieces ran from $12 to $24 retail. I think on the street corner he was asking 10 to 20. I suspect the shop owner pays much less, but then she probably buys many pieces at a time, besides keeping Copper John’s mail for him.

Despite the fact that I admire his work, I passed on the copper pieces. I thought about it though, as I walked home with a bag full of beads that had cost me just as much as the smaller box I’d gotten at the start of the day. As I put all the beads on the coffee table that afternoon to take a look before planning my craft work, I had to take a minute to think about their production. The beads from Indonesia were rough glass. As I pulled them off their stands, some were fused together and some had rough edges. Although color from batch to batch was uniform, the beads were cut at all different sizes, and to my dismay one lot had an inner diameter that varied widely. By contrast the beads from local artists sat smooth, beautiful, little works of art polished and sickenly expensive compared to their imported counterparts. I imagined my imported beads being made on some foreign beach as quickly as possible by women and children who had lots of burns from the process. I thought about my American beads being individually fussed over by some guy in a house near mine. I thought about Copper John on the street corner, and someone in an old rental unit wondering why their air conditioning didn’t work after a long winter, only to discover the wiring had been removed.

What is the fair price for handcrafts? These are shiny things that catch our eyes, but serve very little purpose. I never sell mine, but give them away. How is it so much less expensive for one store owner to fly halfway around the world for beads, and accessories when such a superior product is made locally? Sometimes I think that the more I know about art, the less I understand.

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