With her girl-next-door appearance, bubbly-but-erudite conversation and commitment to Springdale, Amber Perrodin is the very model of a hometown girl.
Consider, if you will, the evidence: Perrodin, artist and co-founder of The Little Craft Show, lives a mere block away from Springdale's once-dying, now-nascent downtown area, in the home in which she grew up. She worked for a time for the Downtown Springdale Alliance, helping to boost the allure of Emma Avenue with events like the Outdoor Street Dinner and Christmas on the Creeks. She brought her mega-popular craft show to downtown Springdale for the express purpose of exposing a new audience to the area. And she started Team Springdale -- completely voluntarily -- as a means to publicize and build up happenings in the downtown area through her Instagram posts.
"What's great about Amber is that she seems to have endless ideas about how to make Springdale a better place to be, and she actually makes those ideas happen," says Monica Diodati, managing director of The Little Craft Show. "One example is the community garage sale she organized, in what seemed like a matter of days, to not only give residents in Springdale a platform to sell their items but also to raise money for a new public mural downtown. She also opens up her studio to other creatives and events in the area to help cultivate the artist community in Springdale and Northwest Arkansas as a whole."
"Her passion to bring events to downtown Springdale has had a tremendous effect on the revitalization efforts that are under way," notes Springdale Planning Department director Patsy Christie. "In her role as the program coordinator for the [Downtown Springdale Alliance], she was a vital part in conceptualizing events for downtown."
"I have deep roots here," says Perrodin, a fourth-generation Springdale native. "It's a love story with this city."
Art And Love And Art
It's a love story that has featured the marriage of Perrodin's art with her beloved hometown.
Perrodin's proclivity for creativity started young but slowly. She drew as a child, she says, and had a lot of coloring books. She also loved making "weird things" out of material she pulled out of the recycling bin. But it was when she took her first art class in junior high that her artistic talent really started to flourish.
"We made baskets and learned to shade our drawings, those sort of things," she remembers. "It ignited something in me, and there was no turning back. And the people that art class attracted me -- I remember looking around and thinking, 'These are my people! This is where I belong! Where have you all been?' That was my first true awakening. And I took those different mediums, and I ran with it."
High school brought a mentor into her life. Springdale High School art teacher Karla Caraway, says Perrodin, helped nurture her blooming interest in art into a full-blown garden.
"She really took me under her wing and saw my potential in a way that I didn't even recognize. She was good at saying, 'Here are the supplies; run with it.' I got really spoiled by her for three years of high school. She gave me the confidence to say 'I can go to college and do this.'"
And Perrodin did exactly that: She headed off to the University of Arkansas, where she reconnected with her former high school classmate and now-husband Jonathan and earned her bachelor of arts with an emphasis in print-making.
"Professor John Newman was very similar to Mrs. Carraway," Perrodin says. "He walked me through the processes and then said, 'Run with it.' I had the opportunity to flex my artistic skills without a lot of people lurking over my shoulders. I feel like I was able to blossom with that."
She had dreams of making a living as a studio artist, but, thinking it was a pipe dream, she intended to hedge her bets by majoring in art education. Perrodin says it was her husband who helped give her the courage to eschew an emergency exit plan.
"When we were dating, he saw my potential, and this is why I fell in love with him. He saw there was something there, and he said, 'Don't just go and teach. You should be a studio artist. If you decide to teach later, you can always go back and get your certificate.' So I trusted him, and I jumped in and said, 'You know, you're right. I really can do that." His encouragement shook me out of that idea of a survival mode that I needed to be in in order to be an artist."
But it wasn't easy. Jonathan finished school in 2008, Amber in 2010 -- smack dab in the middle of a recession. Trying to find work was brutally frustrating.
"It was embarrassing -- we couldn't find anything," says Perrodin. "We were applying to so many things and would get those snail-mail letters back, saying, 'Thank you for applying; you were not chosen.' We had this big stack of them. It was scary. We had two kids. Jonathan was applying for janitorial positions with a degree, and we could not find anything."
Perrodin eventually took an administrative position with the University of Arkansas that was far from ideal. Her work hours were 1 p.m. until 9 p.m., leaving Jonathan, who was a stay-at-home-dad at that point, with the bulk of the child-rearing duties. But the duo slowly started working their way toward making a living with their art. With Jonathan's encouragement, Perrodin had started selling her art work in coffee shops during college. To save money on canvases, Jonathan learned how to make them himself. He turned out to have quite a talent at it.
"We had no money, so we would drive around to construction sites that had discarded lumber, and we would get good two-by-fours," she says. "He didn't know how to do woodworking, but he taught himself. He would strip them down and build a frame and stretch a canvas over it. In the beginning, we started using his mom's old fabric stash that she had had for years. We would sew the pieces together and stretch them over the frames, and I would just embrace the parts where there were seams, you know, just say, 'That's part of the art.' All of the people I was going to school with were like, 'Where are you getting all of these big canvasses from?' So he got kind of a side hustle making canvasses -- he got really good at it. He is meticulous -- his joints are perfect. And that was sort of the start of Perrodin Art Supply.
"We got creative and literally boot strapped our way through the recession."
Art For Community's Sake
Perrodin Art Supply would become the couple's first successful foray into "making opportunities" by doing what they loved. Jonathan's canvasses became more and more popular, and, eventually, the couple started an online store where they sold his canvasses, along with Perrodin's letterpress cards and posters and her fine art. And right around this time, their second creative project was born.
"I had a lot of friends around me who were artists, and we decided to put together a small craft fair that we would advertise and just try to blow it out of the water and make some cash for Christmas," she says of the December 2011 origin of The Little Craft Fair. "Natalie Freeman and I locked arms and started it. Jonathan knows how to make websites, so he made us a website. I do a little graphic design, and we just threw it out to the universe, and it worked."
Freeman and Perrodin had found a small church to house their inaugural event, and they created banners and large wooden signs to publicize it. Almost immediately, the space was too small for the crowd they drew.
"We had almost 700 people," says Perrodin, who still seems awed by the immediate success. "And we were in a small, 1,100-square-foot church. It was amazing. The energy, the people -- it was packed. People stayed all day, just buying things."
The positive feedback from fellow artists was instantaneous and overwhelming. Perrodin says they started receiving emails, asking about the next event. She secured social media accounts in the name of The Little Craft Show and those, too, found a quick and robust following.
"What we kept hearing was that [vendors] loved how we were so community-minded and intentional," she says. "We really seemed to care about the vendors. So we sort of took that and ran with it. We were giving our vendors free lunch, goodie bags and trying to make them feel so pampered and loved, so that, even if they didn't have a good day in terms of sales, they still felt loved and part of a larger community. I think that planted a seed."
When the second Little Craft Show was even more successful -- taking up half of the Fayetteville Town Center -- the Perrodins began to see that they might have something that could run for years and serve as a successful sales venue for both local and national artists alike. A Little Craft Show ethos started to evolve.
Despite a glut of applications that grew in number for each consecutive event, Perrodin was careful to limit the number of vendors -- and the type of merchandise they offered -- in order to make sure sales would remain strong for everyone. She also made sure that the focus was on the shopping.
"Jonathan and I have really tried to keep the craft show as a shopping experience," she explains. "We've guarded it to not become a festival or a music event. A lot of people say, 'Why don't you have live music?' But I sort of have a theory that people would come just for the live music and not shop. We've really tried to protect our vendors by making it so the only thing you have to do here is shop. There's nothing else for you to do, other than go and meet the artists, talk to them and maybe buy a thing or two."
"So many 'craft shows' today are booth after booth of mass-produced goods," says friend Susan Young, outreach coordinator at Springdale's Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. "They have no soul. Not so with The Little Craft Show. There, Amber and Jonathan choose to showcase real people with a real joy for making and selling their wares. It's a celebration of the creative spirit."
"I think The Little Craft Show is special in its authenticity, which shows through in every event they host and in the supportive following that they've cultivated," says Diodati.
By the third year of the event, lines formed outside the event doors hours before opening. Perrodin started to look for ways she could contribute to the larger art community as a whole by helping to shine a spotlight on area artists and their work.
"Through my years of art school, I made great friends with a lot of talented people, and made long-standing relationships with teachers and professors," she says. "I thought, 'I would love for us to incorporate not just the crafting community, but also the fine arts community as a craft show.' It's often hard to blur those lines, but, for me, that became an integral part of what The Little Craft Show is. I really love to elevate the handmade elements of things, whether it's crafting or whether it's fine art. So our attempt to sort of further blur that line for people was to add in art installations from well-known artists."
So far, The Little Craft Show has hosted art installations by noted artists like Jason Jones and Craig Colorusso. Perrodin has also collaborated with the University of Arkansas fine arts department to offer art students a chance to create and exhibit their work.
With Perrodin's seemingly bottomless barrel of ideas, The Little Craft Show continues to evolve, recently featuring the Handmade Supper Club that started last year.
"We held a beautiful dinner party at Magnolia Gardens featuring local chef Case Dighero," says Perrodin. "Attendees were serenaded by a jazz vocalist from Texas under a gazebo with twinkle lights while their entire place setting was handmade -- from the wooden plate, the ceramic tumbler, a hand-poured soy candle, and an indigo-dyed cotton napkin. Everyone got to take their place setting home after the meal. This was another attempt to elevate the artisan and craft economy by offering a fine craft experience beyond the standard 'mom and pop' craft fair scene."
Paying It Forward
After a brief respite in 2016, the Perrodins and The Little Craft Show continue to expand. With the addition of Diodati as managing director, the couple do not shoulder the entirety of the responsibility on their own, and this year, added a social media marketing position. The event can be found in Fayetteville, Springdale and Bentonville now, and last year they successfully transferred their Northwest Arkansas vibe to Little Rock. Perrodin says there's another expansion afoot, to a new city that they'll be announcing soon.
Meanwhile, she has never taken her eye off the ball of her personal mission of promoting Springdale. In 2015, she started the Instagram account "Team Springdale" and took to roaming the streets, looking for new ventures and old favorites to feature on her account.
"I like a good challenge, and it just came to me -- "What if we started a thing called 'Team Springdale'?" she remembers. "Everybody's on the team. And we start showing everyone what's happening down here. Because part of the conversation we were hearing was, 'If only Springdale had a coffee shop,' or whatever, 'then it would be better.' And I was like, 'People are saying that we need things, and we have them!' My reaction was to sort of defend my territory a little bit -- 'It's here!'"
Her efforts were a perfect example of what one civic-minded person can do when she puts her mind to it. Perrodin's Instagram account would eventually garner over 7,000 followers and helped launch downtown events like the Springdale Taco Tour. Her Springdale cheerleading made her a natural for a position at the Downtown Springdale Alliance, where she served for two years.
"My daddy, his name was Rick Winters, he was a darn good storyteller," Perrodin says. "He would tell the most wonderful stories about downtown Springdale. I would sit at his feet as a kid listening to these stories, and so I would get defensive when people would say, 'Springdale is just Chickendale.' We're much more than that. All we're trying to do is shift the narrative a little bit."
"Amber has been a leader in this most recent -- and most successful, in my opinion -- effort to breathe new life into downtown Springdale, especially through her work with Team Springdale and the Downtown Springdale Alliance," says Young. "She's a tireless advocate for celebrating Springdale's diversity -- she understands that the arts are a powerful, meaningful way to build community."
The Perrodins' nontraditional work schedule means they can spend time with their daughters, Raine and Ezmah , that they might not be able to spend if they had typical 9 to 5 jobs. Both of them try to stay involved in school activities -- for example, she's the goal keeper for her oldest daughter's volleyball team. But perhaps the most valuable side effect of figuring out how to make a living doing what they love is that they're passing that passion on to their daughters.
"I'm trying to show them that they can be artists and be entrepreneurs, and they can succeed," says Perrodin. "My oldest is very artistic, and my youngest is a mega entrepreneur -- she's constantly trying to figure out how to hustle a dollar. She and her best friend sold at the Community Yard Sale we had last summer. They made some slime and put it in little containers and she convinced Jonathan to spend $20 to buy candy at Sam's. She said, 'Whatever I make, I'll pay you back." I think they made $60 that day with slime and candy -- they wanted to buy matching outfits for school.
"Both of them have grown up in the culture of The Little Craft Show -- it's all we talk about at our house. So they see what's possible. This whole nontraditional life that we're living -- we're not part of any corporate system, but we're trying to play nice with all parties and stay involved with our city and whatever else we can support. I like to sort of teach them by leading -- showing them that there's a way that we can do this."
And Perrodin has surely proven that she has found that way. The Little Craft Show continues to grow, but that hasn't stopped Perrodin from finding other outlets for her creativity. She and a like-minded group of artist friends have started the Creative Social Retreat, an opportunity for artists of all stripes to gather, create and sit in on workshops delivered by working artists. This spring, they'll take the retreat to Aspen, Colo.
"I never take my life for granted," she says. "I use the word 'spoiled' a lot. I see that I am living quite an exceptional life. I feel like I've sort of pivoted myself in such a way to be able to create that pipe dream that I thought I couldn't do, by engaging the community in a number of different ways. I feel like the community work I do -- this sort of rallying people -- and my art tickle the same muscle for me.
"I really, firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all ships. There's enough for everyone -- we don't need to guard anything. We're all doing our own thing in such a unique way."
Through Others’ Eyes
“She’s creative, always ready to explore a new way of doing things. She’s a glass-half-full person. She’s kind and accepting. But what strikes me most about Amber is that she has a genuinely good heart.” — Susan Young
“Amber is a very talented lady with a great passion for her work and making downtown Springdale a better place. She takes ownership of a project and works tirelessly to ensure its success. She is very patient and works well with people of all ages and has a special ability to work with kids, encouraging their creative abilities.” — Patsy Christie
“I admire how Amber has created a life (and a whole community ecosystem, really) that works for herself as an artist instead of giving up or making concessions. Her art is genuine, and grounded, like everything else she does, and has a true identity that echoes nature and is rooted in place.” — Monica Diodati
Don Bennett - Fayetteville
NAN Profiles on 03/03/2019
The story was updated to correct Karla Caraway's name.
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