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Gourd muppets to swimming elephants: it's the Ann Arbor Art Fair

Every summer, the Ann Arbor Art Fair draws more than half a million people to town.

Tourists come to shop, eat, and see work by artists from around the country.

Meanwhile, gear up for the crowds, the traffic, and the craziest time of the summer.

For four days, downtown becomes a tent city: more than a thousand artists and what seems like just as many vendors.

It can get a little nuts for residents like Lisa Larson. 

“Well, my business closes down. I’m a psychotherapist, so it’s too hard for clients to get in and park. It’s not the greatest. I guess people are having fun, but personally I’m not,” she laughs.

Yet, other businesses love the art fair. Sarah Okuyama runs the Burnt Toast Inn.

“The businesses obviously crave it, need it, want it. I have artists who are staying this year from New York, California…I mean they come from all over.”

Organizers say the fair has an $80 million economic impact on the state. Meanwhile, artists have watched their sales slow during the recession.

But now they’re starting to see some come back, says artist Bradley Cross.

“So, last year was better than the year before, and I expect this year to be even better than the last year. But it came down so far, that it’s got a long way to go back up," he said.

You can hear his booth from about a block away when the wind comes up.

“We make bronze wind bells and brass wind chimes. This is the biggest show I’ll do in terms of dollars and sales. For most of the artists that you’ll see at this show, this is the granddaddy of all shows.”

Other artists take a philosophical approach to sales. Like craftsman Ken Arnold of Columbus, Ohio.

“If I sell, good! If I don’t sell, all my bills is paid and I still eat. And it’s a place to go, you get a lot of friends, you meet your friends and see ‘em. That’s your art fair," he said.

Arnold’s craft is marquetry: assembling wood veneers to make pictures. His pieces are delicate scenes from nature, like one of geese flying over a farm.

“That’s a piece of rosewood from Central America. Now up here, where it looks like the fields, that’s what you call sycamore. With the flecks in it, looks like weeds stuff like that in the field.”

Arnold has been coming to the fair for more than 20 years. But this is the first year in Ann Arbor for underwater photographer Chris Gug. His booth is already popular with the Iekel-Johnson family. Their daughter Jessie pulls them over: “Look, there’s an elephant swimming under the water!”

Gug is ready. “And you know what? All elephants love to swim, but as far as anyone knows, this is the only ocean-swimming elephant," he says. "This one walks right down the beach, and likes to go in the ocean. Pretty cool, huh? Ok, how about the shark right next to it, would you go swimming with that one?”

The answer is swift: “No!”

You can find every kind of art you could possibly want in Ann Arbor. From underwater photography to chain mail clothing to something local art fan Vickie Gross is calling “Fantastic gourd muppets made with different kinds of gourds. With feathers and bug eyes, and they’re hilarious. I love ‘em, because they have a lot of character, and you don’t see them anywhere else.”

And for Gross, that’s the whole point of art fair.

Sure, it’s controlled madness, but at the end of the day, she says it’s pretty simple. “People getting together in a small community and having a lot of fun and enjoying a lot of good art.”

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.