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Indiana artisans finding ways to showcase goods

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When Aaron Dickinson started his woodworking business, he focused on hand-crafting furniture for people's homes.

But that, the Hancock County man discovered, left behind a lot of leftover material. It was eying the scrap pile that led him to make his first cutting board, a project that changed the scope of his business entirely.

"I would make cutting boards out of the mountains of scrap and found there is, indeed, a very large market," he told the Daily Reporter of Greenfield.

Last weekend, Dickinson's hand-crafted wooden kitchenware was on display at the Indiana Artisan Marketplace, a two-day event at the Indiana State Fairgrounds that aims to celebrate the best in Hoosier art.

Former Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman created the Indiana Artisan organization in 2008 as part of an economic development initiative to strengthen local arts-based businesses.

The first few years were spent growing the program by recruiting artists to submit their work for consideration. To be designated an Indiana Artisan, artists must prove their work is handmade, and it has to be judged as exceptional in quality by a jury of artists.

Today, the not-for-profit organization boasts 268 artisans representing 59 Indiana counties.

Once the artisan base was significant, the organization planned its first marketplace, where artists gathered to display their wares, network with fellow vendors and show off their skills to potential customers.

Four years later, the marketplace has become a hub for artists to network and share their work with some 6,500 potential customers who attend the event.

Dickinson was one of 107 vendors who gathered to show off their talents and offer their work for sale at the fourth annual event.

Though Dickinson still makes a considerable amount of furniture, the majority of his business today comes from folks wanting items like those he sold over the weekend — hand-crafted cutting boards and utensils all made from Indiana hardwoods.

The time to craft each item depends on the detail required.

"Anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours," he said.

There's something nostalgic about holding a wooden cooking instrument, Dickinson's customers tell him.

The marketplace features two categories of art—foods and crafts—ensuring visitors a chance not only to see great work but to try samples from those whose art is edible.

"It is the highest-quality food and art in the state," director Eric Freeman said.

Aside from offering booths with items for sale, the marketplace also brought in artists this year who demonstrated how their masterpieces come about. Weavers, painters, chocolate-makers and more shared their secrets with visitors during live demonstrations.

Freeman said the Indiana Artisan mission is to provide exposure for artists who are always doing exceptional work in their own shops and studios. Helping the artists build their businesses, in turn, benefits local communities.

"Then, when they need more Hancock County help, the Greenfield economy benefits from this," Freeman cited by way of example.

Becoming a designated Indiana Artisan isn't easy, marketplace volunteer Ros Demaree said. The organization is reserved for the best of the best.

Fewer than 17 percent of those who submit their work make the cut, Demaree said.

And visitors to the marketplace certainly appreciated the quality.

Melanie Hegerfeld of Fishers made her way from booth to booth, trying samples and hunting down unique art items.

"It's fabulous," she said. "I mean, where can you sample things, look at great art and drink wine at the same time?"

When Suzanne Litteral attended the event in 2013, she set her sights on participating this year.

Litteral, owner of Litterally Divine Chocolates in Greenfield, submitted a sampling of her homemade candies and found out in February that her sweets fit the bill.

At the weekend event, Litteral said it was an honor to have received the Indiana Artisan designation.

"I think it's a feeling of prestige and knowing all my hard work has paid off," she said.

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