Tribute to a Vision

The Story of Circle Craft:  The Most Successful and Enduring Craft Co-operative in Canada

Originally written in 1990 by Thelma Ruck Keene

Remember twenty years ago?  - drop outs and love-ins and hippies, and young Americans coming to Canada in protest against a misbegotten war?  At the beginning of the Seventies one of those Americans, a young man called Gene Miller, came to Victoria.  His great interest was the performing arts, but all the arts were grist to his mill and they came together when he found a building with plenty of rentable space for theatre groups with a play to perform, or artists seeking a gallery, or craftspeople in need of a market square.  He called it Open Space.  It is here the Circle Craft story begins.

In 1972 a craft market was held at Open Space.  A young woman of Danish origin brought her clothing, block-printed with her own designs – kaftans, loose shirts, that kind of thing.  Her name was Yetta Lees.  She did well enough to take part in a second fair and pertinent to the Circle Craft story is that this experience triggered a personal revelation.  “It is very simple,” she says.  “I learned I was not as good a craftswoman as many of the exhibitors.  But I had something else they lacked; I was a better organizer.  They were handicapped by the lack of it, and the strong hippy influence didn’t help any.  So the fairs were only attracting people like themselves.  This meant they were simply selling their beautiful work to themselves and each other; but themselves and each other hadn’t much money, and to make matters worse the haphazard hippy atmosphere put off the affluent mainstream people they needed.”

Fibre Festival in Open Space.  She agreed, provided three rules were observed.  She says, “I was sure there was a future for crafts, but first of all the fairs had to be cleaned up, made places where mainstream people would feel comfortable.  I decided that entrants to the Festival must agree to 1) No dope of any kind; 2) no big dogs; 3) no breast feeding in public.”  I asked Yetta shy the big dog ban?  “Oh, they peed all over the weavings and everyone said it was groovy.”

At first there was a fuss about the rules.  Says Yetta, “I was older than many of the craftspeople and they thought I was an old fogey, but I managed to convince them I had a point and it was worth a try.  After all, I was living in a hippy commune myself so it wasn’t anything person.”  The rules were adopted – and the Festival was a resounding success; the mainstream were attracted, delighted, and spent money.  Yetta comments, “The changes worked.  The time was right.” 

In the early Seventies, the time was so right.  Mass production, for all its usefulness, had no personal signature and none of the freshness and variety of hand-made objects.  In Canada, Montreal’s Expo’67 had really put a fuse under Canadians, hitherto curiously unwilling to recognize that their culture has a unique human face, a special flavour all its own.  For so long the beauty and power of traditional native crafts had been trivialized into tourist souvenirs, and scant attention was given to the old craft skills brought by immigrants from other countries.  Quebec and the Maritimes had their folk crafts and that was about as far as interest in Canadian craft skills went – until Expo’67.  Suddenly Canadians woke up to the phenomenon that was Canada.  There was an explosion of events based on heritage themes and all kinds of old treasures were brought out for display – butter bowls and duck decoys, distinctive Pennsylvania Dutch pottery, a shower of beautiful quilts:  they stirred the senses and revived awareness that personal skills were precious.  It was a heady time for craftspeople. 

After the Fibre Festival, Yetta decided there was a future for crafts but knew it was not a simple matter of mounting fairs; complex problems were involved, beginning with the inescapable fact the majority of craftspeople were babes in arms as far as business went.  They needed to learn how to set prices, handle invoicing, advertise, package, display, and  - an important point – to perceive whether their products were saleable.  Furthermore there were many craftspeople in the outlying parts of BC who were in great need of help – everything from upgrading skills to marketing.  To undertake such a program required money, lots of money.  Yetta had already become a familiar figure in provincial government offices, nagging officials on troublesome subjects such as rebates for small manufactures (a category which did not include crafts).  As ideas evolved on what was needful to develop crafts as a source of income, Yetta began to lobby for government funds.

In the meantime news about the success of the Fibre Festival in Victoria had travelled to Vancouver.  Shortly after it ended Yetta received a call from a friend of a friend of a man called Chris Wootton.  He had taken over an old church in East Vancouver and felt it had potential as a cultural centre.  He was thinking of opening it in December with a Christmas market, had heard of Yetta and wondered if she would like to come over to Vancouver and take a look at the building.  Yetta says, ‘I went and looked and it was in really bad shape.  But it was a splendid space.  Chris asked me if I could do a fair there and I said, ‘Boy, could I do a fair here!”  And so she did.  A two-tier scheme for participants provided a section of juried crafts and another open to craftspeople on a ‘first come’ basis.  It was a vital part of Yetta’s philosophy that although it was important to show the best in order to raise the profile of crafts, it was equally important to give young, untried craftspeople a chance to benefit from exposure to the public.  “The fly-by-nights did not return,”  Yetta says, “and the serious ones profited by the experience and came back each year.”

Chris and Yetta sent out hand-written invitations to that first Christmas market in what was to become the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.  On the opening night they stood waiting side by side in the entrance lobby – would anyone come?  But the question evaporated as, dumbfounded, they watched five hundred people pour through the doors.  Yetta says, “Chris and I looked at one another.  He said, “Where the hell did they all come from?” and then we threw our arms round each other and laughed and hugged and cried, ‘We did it right!  We did it right!’ You see, we really had stumbled across a need.”

1973 ended on a note of high expectation.  Yetta was now lobbying government officials for funds from a current project called the Local Employment Assistance Program (LEAP).  In January 1974 Yetta had a final hearing with Canada Manpower.  She came out jubilant; a huge grant -- $500,000 – was to be paid to a new craft co-operative (as yet nameless) over a period of three-and-a-half years.  The project was called ‘The BC Textile Centre’ and the program devised by Yetta and the embryo co-op members, aimed to educate craftspeople so they could make a living from their work.  “This was what mattered,”  Yetta says.  “Standards, artistic growth and all of the that were, for me, a means to an end: saleability was the first consideration.”  Within two years sales were happening, and even making profits for the co-operative as well -–awkward profits, as it turned out.

But that was in the future.  First it was imperative to decide on a name for the co-op.  But what name?  Nobody could agree.  Finally the time came to open an account for the still nameless project.  Yetta and Sue Stephen, one of the founding coop members, set off for the bank, tossing names around, but arrived undecided.  They stood together jotting down suggestions until Yetta said, “Maybe we should do something totally insane.”  What?  “Oh, think of a name based on geometric shapes or something.”  They doodled on a bank pad and Yetta said, “I’ve always liked circles.”  Which is how, early in 1976, on the spur of the moment and quite undemocratically, Circle Craft Cooperative came into existence.

At the outset Circle Craft had an office in Open Space, but when Gene Miller decided to renovate his building the office was moved to Yetta’s house.  Soon it was necessary to find room to expand the resource centre as well as develop space for workshops and shows.  It was agreed that some of the grant money should be used for a down payment on a building on Kingston Street.  It had at one time provided stabling for fire horses, one room was a bowling alley, it was a mess – but the old wood floors were beautiful.  Everyone pitched in and soon there were rooms for displays, workshops, shows and fairs as well as for administration and the resource centre.  However, the program was not confined to Victoria.

It was central to Yetta’s vision that he dearth of support for craftspeople in outlying areas of the province must be rectified.  Over a period of some two years she went on frequent tours to encourage groups to form cooperatives, arranging workshops to meet whatever need was voiced – often to improve skills, but no less often to deal with simple, vital needs like how to apply for a tax number, and always, of course, how to put on a craft fair.  Nor were the workshops confined to craftspeople; others came, local businesspeople in need of advice, hopefuls who wanted to start the kind of business that makes a small community liveable.  Soon the centre in Victoria began producing information leaflets which proved so useful that the Ministry of Industry and Development printed copies so they could be freely distributed.  Central to the LEAP program was women’s need to be self-supporting; money was therefore earmarked for six-month subsistence grants for which craftswomen could apply to allow time to refine skills, research markets – whatever preparation was necessary to start their own business.  Throughout this period of intense education Yetta insisted on the benefits of working together; if craftspeople ran their own markets they would keep administration to a minimum and thus improve their mark-ups.  It was a crash course in basic business practice.  And it paid off.

The trouble was it paid off so well.  Membership rose to around 700 and with the fees and profits from fairs in Kingston Street the co-operative was no longer a non-profit organization.  “Governments play weird games to overcome their bureaucratic hang-ups” Yetta notes tersely.  But something had to be done to rectify the tiresome fact that success was profitable.  The solution was to create a companion non-profit Circle Craft Society to carry on the educational work.

1976 was Circle Craft’s zenith.  The Habitat Conference on human settlements was due to open in Vancouver in May.  Yetta saw this would be a wonderful opportunity to show the public the new face of crafts.  At this time the old CPR station was unused; Yetta approached the owners, Marathon Realty, and they agreed to let circle Craft take over the space, rent-free.  It was a big, bare space; Herculean effort was required to transform it as well as get the show organized.  But it was done.  In the building were displays and demonstrations of work by juried craftspeople, also an office and a store: outside on the Plaza non-juried craftspeople were free to set up a booth and try their luck.  And with luck it might have been a real success.  But no one could control the weather, and no one could change the fact that Gastown was an out-of-the-way location.  Without doubt the Habitat venture raised the profile of crafts, and it broke even – but it also broke Circle Crafts’ headlong progress.  There were precious little money left in the kitty and the grant money was all spent: rising dismay opened up fissures and conflicts and differing views on future directions.  Circle Craft confronted turmoil.  It was the first of two major crises, both of which could have put paid to the whole, hopeful project.

Talking to people involved in the story from the start a frequent, rather rueful comment about this period is “I wonder why we all got so upset!”  Yet it’s not surprising.  Fired by an ideal, a group of enthusiastic people worked hard and all seemed set fair.  But change is the price of success; for Victoria the most painful change was the Habitat venture established a new centre of activity for the co-operative – Vancouver, and a new emphasis on sales.  For the pioneers in Victoria sales had been a by-product from the Society’s work to educate ad service craftspeople; a co-op store had never been on the cards.  But the end of the LEAP grant posed a bleak question – could Circle Craft and the Society survive?  A store at least meant craftspeople would continue to have an outlet for sales.  Marathon Realty clinched the arguments by allowing the Vancouver group to retain, rent free, the office and retail space in the CPR station.  There’s always more than one way to solve a problem; but the store did answer, even though there was a long way down to go before the upturn came.  The conflicts, the rumours, the accusations, the bitter feelings – anyone familiar with the rocky road pursued by volunteer organizations knows the scenario only too well.  And when, in 1977, Yetta Lees withdrew, it was as if the sky had fallen in.

For five years Yetta had been resolutely there, dynamic, colourful, headstrong, a leader.  How could she leave?  But Yetta says, “Whatever anybody else thought, my reasons were perfectly clear.  I had to leave so circle Craft could grow up.  It didn’t matter how much I tried to delegate, how much I urged people to ‘do it yourselves’, as long as I was around every move would have my brand, my finger on it.”  She has a point, and the tactic worked.  With Yetta gone, Victoria and Vancouver, simmering with grievances, had to act or go under.

The Vancouver branch of Circle Craft remained in the CPR station until 1979.  It was a hard time; without the continued success of the Christmas markets, now an annual ritual at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the venture might have sunk beyond recall.  From the start the Board was enmeshed in mounting debts, due in part to attempting to support the Victoria co-op and Circle Craft Society in the Kingston Street building.  It was an impossible task.  The building was finally sold, some debts were paid, and, in the hope that a more prominent location would improve sales, a move was made in ’79 to a small store in Gastown.  It wasn’t a great location and the space was cramped, but it was chap.  Here the whole project staggered on for the next four years.  As one member said drily, “Creat8ive financing was the buzzword, but there was more creation than finance.”  By the end of 1983 Circle Craft was virtually bankrupt.

Even so, the vision wasn’t bankrupt, nor the valiant insistence that Circle Craft wasn’t dead by a long chalk.  In May, 1984, Jan Summerton resigned as executive director, though she remained as a consultant until August when she left for  study in England.  Into the breach stepped a management committee – Arthur Allen, Stella Chapman, Gail Ford, Liz Kowalczyk, Jill McGoun, Paul Yard – and the staff offered to continue without pay until better times.  There’s a drum roll needed here: Circle Craft members went through a dark wood and to their lasting credit came out, a bit tattered, but with colours flying.  Here’s what happened.

First, the Gastown store was closed and the stock moved to Paul Yard’s candle manufactory.  Then Arthur Allen and Minieke Mees (a weaver and co-op member) stormed the citadel of the Granville Island Trust.  They sought the use of a part of the empty net loft building to hold a summer craft fair – and they got it, only temporarily, but they got it.  Now the net loft is a classy space; then it was a bare, echoing, undeveloped shell.  But it was space and the rent was nominal.  There was an upsurge of hope.  Members rallied. Invention and hard work made the space inviting, and the crafts sold well at the summer fair.

The next move was to get an extension so the Christmas Market could be held right there in the net loft.  They won an extension, but there were problems about the future, Granville Trust assured the committee that, of course, Circle Craft was welcome on the Island, but surely it would be more appropriate to remain a modest little gift store and after Christmas a move should be considered to a smaller, more suitable space?  A very small space indeed was offered.  It was resolutely refused.  Arthur observes shortly, “We felt it was an intrusion to tell us what sort of business we should have.”

And then, before Christmas, chance upset the deadlock – the Federal government fell.  New people in the government meant new appointees to CMHC (to which the Trust is responsible) and there were soon new policies blowing in the wind.  It was as if a fairy godmother had waved a wand and presto! The wind changed and set fair.  Circle Craft’s tenancy was secured and the present premises were earmarked for the co-op when the net loft was remodelled.  That December Hugh McClelland and Adrian Ross worked miracles to transform the gaunt space for the Christmas market.  It had been a rough ride, but now the co-operative had a future.

It’s worth remembering that in spite of all the nerve-wracking uncertainties Circle Craft was never a dead duck.  Even back in the critical ‘80’s shows were set up with inspired ingenuity in the crowded little Gastown store.  “CLASSIC CO-OP COUP” reads a 1982 Sun headline on a show of clothing.  For greater scope the larger space of Robson Square was also used: a 1981 Sun article praises “Quality contemporary wood designs” in an exceptional show called CELEBRATION OF WOOD.  One of the last was MAKERS’ SHOWCASE – an attempt to attract wholesalers.  Unfortunately it fell flat; but that does not detract from the soundness of Jan Summerton’s belief that craftspeople should try wholesaling their work.  In the Fall of ’82 she persuaded the co-op to gamble on the expense of taking a booth at the national gift show in Toronto.  Careering towards bankruptcy this move could be called folly: in fact it was foresight.  Now, in 1990, the Edmonton as well as the Toronto gift shows not only get an eyeful of BC crafts but each show nets between $60-70,000 in combined sales for the participants – all because Jan persisted and members had the guts to support her.  Another stalwart of this period deserves a special bow:  Paul Yard, but soberly juggling scarce finances, steadily, little by little, made a inroad on paying of the fearsome debts facing Circle Craft in 1984.  One final acknowledgement to Jan Summerton: all through this period she insisted that however beleaguered the co-op might be the quality of crafts in the store must be maintained.  All of this adds up to a singular courage – carrying on despite the nagging thought, “Is this an exercise in futility?”

The rest of the Circle Craft story is almost humdrum – except for two challenging gambles.  First a joint Committee of two people from Circle Craft and two from the Crafts Association of BC took a retail space at the Expo ’86 site.  Nothing on that scale had been tried before so it was a scary decision for the co-op (it passed by one vote), but Gail Ford secured a favourable agreement, Jo Darts (a Circle Craft member) was hired to manage the project – and the gamble proved a gold mine.  Jo should be high on the co-op’s roll of honour Anyone who visited that attractive store will remember that it seemed never to be empty.  When Expo closed, boht groups went laughing all the way to the bank, each enriched by more than $50,000.

The Expo profits were a shot in the arm; at last Circle Craft could consolidate and dare to innovate.  The result?  The present flourishing operation in the remodelled net loft, with a staff which doesn’t have to whistle for the next pay check, and a first-class manageress, Helena Wennerstrom, who has brought order and good humour to her task.  A selection committee of four craftspeople and myself, described kindly as a generalist, sift through an average of twenty submissions every month.  This is a fallible process but clear criteria govern our choices and a new committee is appointed every two years:  at the least this ensures a change of bias.  The store itself has gradually acquired a distinctive flavour and recently Tracey Hearst has transformed the displays (which can make or break a store).  A new display dimension – the gallery – is not a casual addition.  Exceptional work now has room to be seen to best advantage and demonstrate the emptiness of that vague phrase, “arts and crafts.”  Crafts are not separate from art; craftspeople are simply artists in their own field.  Long ago Yetta admitted that “standards and artistic growth and all that were, for me, a means to an end: saleability was my first consideration.”  Saleability is always important; but now craftsmanship and artistic growth are very relevant.  The gallery is proof that Circle Craft has come of age.

And the Christmas market?  Profits from the Expo gamble made possible the second gamble – moving the Christmas market to the high profile location of Canada Place.  In fact, before that landmark was even built, Jan Summerton got the promise of this space – brave move, despite looming bankruptcy.  The market has grown too big for the magical ambience of the old Vancouver Each church, but the ritual has continued for seventeen unbroken years. A money-maker under the management of Paul Yard, new craftspeople are gradually attracted to the market, the quality of crafts gradually improves, and every year that sales grow.

Make no mistake about it, money-making need not be crass.  Circle Craft board now manages a business for co-op members whose sales amount to well over half million dollars yearly.  Liberated from the spectre of collapse there are hints of a gradual return to the early ideal of service craftspeople beyond the field of marketing.  In the September newsletter, for instance, Helena invites craftspeople to spent 20minutes at staff meetings " to talk about their medium and products”.  It’s boring to go into a store where the staff are uninterested and uninformed, and boring for the staff too.  The same newsletter notes that the Board has set up a yearly Education Scholarship Fund of $1,000 to help members pay fees for workshops or tuition courses and a competition titled TABLE OF HONOUR is announced (organized on the personal initiative of arts consultant Merla Beckerman):  it is open to ceramic and glass artists in BC to create dinnerware and goblets for Government House in Victoria.

New approaches, new opportunities, new stimuli – the old dreams and the new structure promise to come full circle: perhaps the name of ‘Circle Craft’ was more than a chance folly.  It is time, and Christmas is a good time, to pay tribute to all the people, some forgotten, many still active members, whose determination turned the vision of a craft co-operative into a solid reality.  And a special tribute to the woman who began it all, Yetta Lees, who insisted that working together was essential, who obstinately gave the idea shape and in the process gave it life.  Visionaries are often remarkably uncomfortable people to have around:  but long may they flourish to kick our backsides and prod us into new pathways, for success is a journey, not a destination.

Thelma Ruck Keene

Vancouver, October 10, 1990