When Ellen Stringer worked at the very first Les Artisans Arts and Crafts Fair, an event her mother helped organize in 1976, she never thought she would one day be the event coordinator or that she would be making and selling her wares at the event with her father.
The Les Artisans Arts and Crafts Fair began in the late ‘70s as a spin-off of a popular arts and crafts booth at Maternity BVM Church, hosted by the ladies of the St. Anne Sodality, at their annual card party. Several of those ladies started Les Artisans as a fundraiser for the newly-formed Bourbonnais Grove Historical Society.
The BGHS formed in 1976 to preserve and promote Bourbonnais history and French-Canadian heritage and operates the George R. Letourneau Home Museum and Adrien M. Richard Heritage Preserve.
Stringer’s mother, Mary Ann Kirsch, helped start the first artisans show that same year. At the first show Stringer was also present – not selling or making wares but as part of her eighth grade class serving lunch that day.
Today, the Les Artisans Arts and Crafts Fair, the iconic holiday shopping events featuring artists and fine crafters, is the major fundraiser for the BGHS.
Stringer of Fiber Arts by Ellen is the event coordinator. She and her father, Dan Kirsch who makes stained glass, sell their wares at the Les Artisans Arts and Crafts Fair as well as other shows throughout the region.
In the beginning
Stringer spent most of her early adulthood working as a nurse locally and in Chicago, where she met her husband, Larry. She stopped working when they had three small children at home, Rhiannon, Aidan and Joey. Both of the couple’s sons are autistic.
“When I stopped working, I couldn’t just sit around and watch television. I always have to have something in my hands,” said Stringer.
At the time she stopped working, Vana White came out with an afghan pattern book. Stringer began crocheting and made afghans for everyone in her family that year.
“I still have that book ... and it’s falling apart,” said Stringer, who has since made everything in that book. “It became ‘what do you make now’ and it evolved from there.”
Today, she makes crocheted blankets, scarves, fingerless gloves, hats, cup cozies, dishcloths, pumpkins and Christmas ornaments, just to name a few.
But her love of making things began at an early age. And she comes from a long line of knitters, quilters and painters on her mother’s side of the family.
When Stringer was 8-years-old, her mother decided she should knit scarves for her sisters as Christmas presents.
She took a class and learned basic stitches and how to read patterns. And while Stringer prefers crocheting, the knitting classes gave her the fundamentals.
“It’s very stress relieving,” Stringer said. “If I’m away from it (crocheting) for a day or two, I have to get back to it. It makes me feel better.”
And while working, Stringer is watching, or rather listening to, PBS documentaries on the history of wars as well as Dark Shadows and Star Trek.
Just ask her anything about the history of the Civil War or World War I or about the USS Enterprise – She’s sure to know the answer.
It’s all in the family
Dan Kirsch, Stringer’s father, retired as an electronics instructor at Kankakee Community College in 2000. He intended on spending time during retirement fixing radios and other electronics of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Instead, his children bought him an eight-week class learning to make stained glass. That year, he made stained glass windows as Christmas presents and he hasn’t stopped since.
He started making stained glass pieces of quilt block patterns.
“Mary Ann made quilts and there are thousands of patterns,” Kirsch said. “I just started doing more and more after that.”
But Kirsch doesn’t consider himselft an artist, rather a good technician.
“Making stained glass is a skill,” he said. “Anyone can learn to do it.”
He starts with a pattern to put the glass pieces on and a pattern to cut the pieces. Each piece is hand cut, grinded and shaped to fit the pattern. Each piece is then wrapped in copper foil, pinned together and soldered before adding the final patina.
“Cutting and soldering is a skill. But the more you do, the better you get at it,” said Kirsch, who noted that it takes anywhere from five to eight hours to complete one piece. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge.
“It’s always been fun. It’s still is fun. I still make things that I like.”
But, he is also aware of what the public is looking to buy such as the Chicago Cubs W and the Grinch stained glass pieces he makes and sells a lot of.
“It’s just nice to have people like your stuff,” Kirsch said.
The first Les Artisans Arts and Crafts Show was held in 1976 at Maternity BVM Church in Bourbonnais. Throughout the years, the Les Artisans show has been held at different locations and led by different event organizers.
When the show took break for a few years, it was Stringer who was instrumental in bringing it back. She attended a BGHS board meeting in 2015 and in July the following year, Les Artisans made a return.
“Craft shows have evolved and we had to evolve too,” Stringer said.
Les Artisans Arts and Crafts Fair has a nearly 40-year history of bringing artists and fine crafters together with shoppers looking for unique, handmade items.
This iconic seasonal event is held every July 4th and the first Saturday in December.
This year’s event takes place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Kankakee County Fairgrounds Exposition building, 213 W. 4000S Road, Kankakee.
There will be a vast assortment of pottery, wall art, fiber arts, woodcrafts, seasonal decor, upcycled and recycled vintage, paper crafts, soaps, honey, baked goods, stained glass, handwoven rugs, and so much more. Lunch items will be provided by Turtle Acres with candy from Sweet Connections.
Admission and parking are free