Behind the Scenes of an Oregon Country Fair Artisan

Visitors to the Oregon Country Fair may be unaware of the true behind-the-scenes work and effort artisans invest into their craft, which from an outsider’s perspective may otherwise seem like a dream job.

The 42nd Oregon Country Fair just finished its third and final day, leaving vendors to search for their next gig or, in some cases, live off the money made until the following year’s fair.

For the fair’s duration, the weather remained sunny with mild temperatures which artisan Cindy Manzanita felt very fortunate about. Rainy weather or scorching hot days can have a negative impact on the amount of money a seller may make in the short amount of time the fair runs. With the time invested in producing enough of their wares to sell to the thousands of visitors the fair attracts, having fewer potential customers can easily reflect fewer potential sales.

For artists who want a spot among the hundreds of booths in the forested fairgrounds there is an application and acceptance process to go through to be allowed to set up at the fair; and inevitably there is much competition. And that is only if there are open spots available that the fair could allow in a new vendor.

One vendor who has managed to stake out a relatively permanent spot in the fair over the past seven years is James Allen Curtis.

Photo Credit: Damien Bradley

At a wooden table at the entrance to the booth, Curtis works on a piece of a future mandolin, carving away at the wood in a circular motion- shaping it. There is a small crowd almost constantly gathered in front of the work table. Here they have the opportunity to learn a bit about the amount of labor involved along the road to the finished product.

Photo Credit: Damien Bradley

Curtis is a luthier, which is the title for someone who builds stringed instruments. He has been making mandolins for 16 years and says he still continues to learn new parts about his craft. When he was 12 he became interested in playing the mandolin, having a fondness for the small, portable size of the instrument. He paid $300 for his first one, which was a very large amount of money to him. He happened to come across a luthier at a music festival and it was then, Curtis recalled, that he realized he could make mandolins himself.

So after working nearly constantly for three months Curtis had his first handmade mandolin. After concluding that it worked, a mentor told him that if someone bought it, he would have himself a job. When he realized that he could sell his instruments, he suddenly had a career.

He has since made a total of 135 stringed instruments, including mandolins, guitars, ukuleles and more. There are several of each displayed around the artist’s booth. Each piece is different, he said, I don’t have any kind of standard model that I follow. The types of wood he works with include mahogany, spruce, koa and Spanish cedar. Some of these are very dense and hard to lathe and must be milled down to save time and prevent injury. The constant work can cause repeat stress syndrome in his arms, he said, and he wants to avoid it where he can.

Curtis invites those interested to view a time-lapse video on his website that shows a visual of the process of making a ukulele. The amount of time can be easier conceived by watching over the course of three minutes, what Curtis described in the narrative as “a behind the scenes look at what actually goes into making a musical instrument by hand,” here he explained that the video “basically boils down four days into three minutes.”

But despite all the work, Curtis said that he has had years where he has sold several instruments and others where he hasn’t sold any at all.


About Stacey M. Hollis

Living at the edge of southern Costa Rica's rich Golfo Dulce working with non-profit Osa Birds: Research and Conservation. With a background in environmental journalism, avian field biology, bird guiding and ecotourism, my aim is to share my passion for birds and spread the word about the importance of wildlife conservation.
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