Sky Spehar gets the same questions over and over at his booth at Portland Saturday Market— and he loves it. Does he make the jewelry at Sky Design himself? By hand? Does he make a living?
Yes, yes and yes. The tangles of shiny brass, copper and sterling silver rings, bracelets, earrings, barrettes and hair sticks displayed at his stall have been a staple at the market every weekend, without fail, for the past 20 years. He makes each item by hand at his Northwest Portland home studio, about 100 pieces per week. Watch for a moment and you’ll see how shoppers dip their fingers in and sift the softly clinking metal, then look around for a mirror.
Spehar started at the market in 1998. His dad, also a metalsmith, has sold wares at the market since 1975, a year after the market first opened. Remarkably, two vendors are still there from the very beginning, June 1974 — Spoonman Creations (who makes jewelry and novelty items with spoons), and Al Dechter Leatherworks (belts, wallets and sandals).
Like many at the market, these makers were in the craft business long before the term became fashionable as a reaction to consumer culture in America, dominated by imported, machine-made goods. Over the decades, the market has had many homes in downtown Portland: an open lot at Second and Front avenues; underneath the Burnside Bridge in what is now the University of Oregon parking lot; an expansion to Ankeny Park; then across Front Avenue to Tom McCall Waterfront Park — its current home, with its fountains and music area with a scenic river view.
Engaging the senses
In 2018, the market celebrates its 45th anniversary (watch for special events June 23-24). It’s grown into a vibrant hub for 252 booths (run by 350 vendors, who don’t all show up at once). Shoppers can nibble their way through 21 different food vendors— from pizza and teriyaki to Nepalese, Uruguayan and Mexican fare. It’s a veritable wonderland for shoppers — aisles upon aisles of handmade everything, from photography, sculpture, painting and woodwork, to toys, furniture, pet products and clothing. If you buy tie-dye, you can be sure the hand that swipes your card also knotted the soaking fabric.
There’s a lot of art and craft in Portland. But at the market, each item must be at least 51 percent made by the market member, and sold by them. (This distinguishes it from the Skidmore Import Market across Southwest First Avenue, which sells mostly imported goods.)
Spehar, the jewelry designer, sees a lot more visitors to Portland than five years ago, from more places around the world. “They’re here for the experience,” he says. “An all hand-crafted market, this big? That is unique.” Some of the crafters have big corner spaces where crowds congregate; others are booths that people can walk into, like a tiny gallery.
For shoppers, the scents at the market change from hand-made soap to pierogi to lavender, depending where you walk. Cyclists whizz by on the esplanade and music from buskers masks the traffic white noise. Shoppers seem in no hurry, slowed by the constant delights of a witty slogan, a smart illustration or some well-cut cloth.
Finding joy and meaning in craft
Carla Kaminski has sold goods at the market for nearly three decades — 19 of those years selling catnip toys with her husband under their business, The Spoiled Cat. The couple also wholesales their toys to boutique pet stores and the Oregon Humane Society, but it’s the Saturday Market people that give her job joy and meaning. “When it’s rainy and miserable, our customers still come down” to visit, Kaminski says. “If the product has worn out over time, they say, ‘These are the ones my cat loves, so I had to come down here.’”
Kaminski loves the freedom of working for herself and selling direct to the public. She started making her popular 24-inch cat body pillow as a joke, but people bought it in earnest. There’s another called the Carrot of Joy and Happiness. While it is still a marketplace, the vendors work as a team, bringing food to share and watching each other’s booths. “There’s such sharing and kindness,” she says. “We’re all artists over salespeople.”
Kaminski even has a Saturday Market love story. She met her husband, Robert Heldreth, at the home of another vendor. “I walked into Dawn’s place and said ‘Honey I’m home,’ as a joke.” Their daughter, Raven Rose, was born soon after — while they were on their way to the market 22 years ago. Raven Rose made her first appearance at the market at six days old.
When you go: The market is free to the public, open Saturday and Sunday from March through Christmas Eve. Visitors will want to allow at least two hours to visit. It’s just off the MAX Red and Blue lines (Skidmore Station), with Trimet buses another great option (lines 12, 19 and 20 stop at the Burnside Bridge). Parking is available in downtown pay lots, about two blocks away, with validation available for purchases of $25 or more (also score a free TriMet ticket home or $2 toward SmartPark). If you want to use bike sharing, there’s a BIKETOWN stop at Southwest Naito and Ankeny streets. Pets are allowed on leash. The market hosts free kids’ activities such as puppet shows, science fairs, juggling school and more creative arts on the first Sunday of each month between July and October.