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A fair to remember

Material Science Prof. Bill Jesser has a secret life. By day, he explains to students why you can see through plastic but not metal. His colleagues know him as the "nano-particles guy." But few know about his 12-year enterprise in jewelry design with his wife Barbara.

"It's not something I go post on the bulletin board," Bill said. "Some colleagues have come by though, and seen me out of context."

This past weekend, the Jessers participated in the biannual Crozet Arts and Crafts Festival, profiting from the 80 degree October weather and a constant swell of customers.

While Bill specializes as the silversmith, soldering rings and pendants, Barbara prefers mounting natural gems of odd shapes solely with wire. Some of their favorite items this day are ornamented with pieces of amber they brought back from their trip to the Baltic Sea this summer.

"Just like you would paint a different picture every time, I design a different piece of jewelry every time," Bill said.

As members of the Gem and Mineral Club, the Jessers were introduced to their craft through training courses and now with acquired expertise go to about a dozen craft shows a year. Bill compared selling jewelry to throwing a party: If no one shows up, you're disappointed. More often though, the appreciation he receives from people about something he's designed is very satisfying.

Although the business started as a 50/50 project, Bill now gives his wife 90 percent of the credit.

"He works so I can do this," Barbara said, pointing to the boldly colored pieces of jewelry in front of her.

The Jessers returned this year for their sixth Crozet Arts and Crafts Festival, experiencing a piece of Charlottesville outside of the University. The festival ultimately serves as a fund raising project for the Claudius Crozet Park, the outdoor recreational facility where the fair is held. Besides local artisans, craftsmen from throughout the region showcased their handiwork last weekend.

Bruce Odell, a three-time champion at the Pottery Olympics, drew crowd after crowd to his display of crude clay, wild fire and raw color. Plucking a cooked pot from an oven that heats to 2000 degrees, Odell smothered the flaming craft in a barrel of sawdust. As the Louisiana-bred artist exposed portions of the pottery to the air, the surface turned brilliant pinks, coppers and blues.

"In a way, I'm painting with oxygen" Odell told the gathered crowd.

With a background in physics, Odell touted his knowledge of molecular structures as earth turned vessel. But beyond the spectacle, Odell said he feels people are drawn to his work for other reasons.

"Today with all the mass marketing and mass production, people want a relationship with other humans. In the year 10 million, my fingers will still be in this pot," Odell said as his sod-covered fingernails traced a ridge in the clay.

"With fire hotter than nuclear war, it [the pottery] lasts forever. You can't say that about an Apple computer," he added.

People swarmed to Crozet for the entertainment, for the food and for an autumn excursion as the leaves change color. But along the way, the wandering crowds stumbled over unique, handmade items of all kinds.

Fred Williamson searches roadways, logging sites and friends' woodpiles for interesting pieces of hardwood that he transforms into crude salad bowls, either functional or decorative. Williamson chainsaws the logs to a rough size and then "turns" them so thin that over time they warp rather than crack

"The beauty is in the wood," he said. "My goal is to bring out that beauty."

Williamson lives in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains and mainly sells his work through local galleries such as Vivian's on the Downtown Mall. Although he said he finds craft fairs exhausting, he comes to Crozet to see people's reaction to his work and find out what they're attracted to - something he can't get from gallery sales.

"It's very affirming when people buy what you've made," Williamson said. And as a fellow craftsman once told him, "There's no depression that sales won't cure."

Next door, his son Ryan busily fit fleece hats on eager customers, laughing at themselves and the novelty of his jester hats when they caught a glimpse in a mirror. Ryan is putting himself through school at Bates College in Maine on the money he makes from his fleece-wear business. Seventeen stores, including Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, carry his personalized fleece items.

Encouraged by his parents early on to make money on his own, Ryan turned to crafting like his father, beginning with potholders and grape-vine wreaths as a child. At 14, Ryan stitched a jester hat and paraded it to school. The next day, a fellow student offered him money for it, and by the end of his senior year, Ryan had sold 1,400 hats.

While the Crozet craft fair hosted mainly "country craft" items, Carolyn Glazener, accustomed to doing "higher-end shows," still came to Crozet to sell her woven blankets and pillows because she enjoys the interaction with customers.

"We treat this as a vacation," Carolyn's husband Ken said. "We get to travel the country and meet people from all over."

Compared to other shows, Carolyn observed that the customer type at Crozet "runs the gamut," from collectors with a lot of money to spend to people who merely came for the atmosphere.

Take Milt Wingfield, for example. Wingfield, who lives down by the flashing traffic light in Crozet, has been a regular customer at the fair since its beginnings. Before he moved back to his childhood home here, he worked in Atlanta, but would always return this time of year to celebrate a cluster of family birthdays.

"We'd make a trip of it," Wingfield said of attending the craft fair. "And if the leaves were right, we'd go hit Skyline Drive too."

Wingfield, wearing a white hat embroidered with his family name, said he especially enjoys the "excellent, unique wood items." He gets some early Christmas ideas from the exhibitors too.

"I always buy things I want for myself and then have to give them away," Wingfield winks from his 6-foot-5 frame.

Swinging in a hammock, a couple of booths over, 12-year-old Katie Scay from Nelson County guarded her new stained-glass piece. The vibrant floral design of cut glass will hang in her window, Scay said. And when she grows up, she wants to "make stuff" too.

Whether craftsmanship serves as a hobby or a lifestyle for these artisans, all preserve a tradition of creating unique goods with human hands. Together they trek across America, occasionally landing at the same fair.

"I enjoy the contact with other crafters," craftsman Fred Williamson said. "It's kind of a Bohemian life we have, traveling from place to place"

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