BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — This year’s Saratoga County Fair in Ballston Spa, N.Y., had thousands of blue ribbon winners in contests ranging from baked goods to cattle shows.
However, some of the 173-year-old event’s main heroes are the “Ladies of the Lewis Building” where fine arts, home arts and flowers are exhibited.
It’s also where women demonstrated skills such as wearing, spinning and quilt-making to thousands of visitors during this year’s fair, held from July 22-27.
“There are so many lost arts,” said volunteer Diane Epting, of Charlton, N.Y. “We’re trying to keep them alive. This is one way to bring them back and teach kids old ways.”
She was joined by other women who did roving and spinning with wool.
“Then I weave it,” said Epting, who worked on a rigid heddle loom, during her eighth year at the fair.
The fair encourages children and youth to participate as exhibitors by giving free admission passes to those who enter two examples or artwork, photography, or things they’ve knitted, sewn or crocheted.
“It helps them to be creative, to do things hands-on, and be less connected to the TV and VCR,” Epting said.
The strategy apparently worked for 8-year-old Allana Swensen, of Stillwater, N.Y., who made a beautiful multi-colored quilt that won best of show in the junior division. It’s one of the first things people saw upon entering the Lewis Building, and was hung right in front of another handsome quilt made by her grandmother.
At the other end of the pavilion, members of the Woodbutchers Wood Carving Club demonstrated their art form.
“It’s relaxing,” wood carver Claudia Brownell said.
“And it’s a lot of fun,” carver Carol Ayers added.
The woodcarving group has members ranging in age from 55 to 93 and meets from 9-11:30 a.m. each Tuesday at the nearby Milton Town Center.
“All you need is an interest,” Ayers said. “You’ll learn as you go.”
“Everybody helps everybody,” Brownell said.
A short distance away, renowned illustrator Jody Wheeler, a Ballston Spa native, showed kids the finer points of making their own sketches and drawings in the Lewis Building where fine arts exhibits are on display. She has produced illustrations for dozens of children’s books during her career.
As a young girl, Wheeler visited the fair every year and enjoyed midway rides and getting an up-close look at all the animals on hand. Today she’s a children’s book illustrator with more than 70 published works to her credit.
Wheeler, who works in New York City, took time out from her busy schedule to show kids the finer points of making their own sketches and drawings during a Lewis Building presentation.
“I love their energy level and enthusiasm, and they really concentrate,” she said. “They’re adorable.”
She also finds inspiration for her work from the fair’s lively atmosphere.
“The hardest part is choosing colors,” she said. “It’s a lot more stress than you’d think because you want it to be perfect.”
When working on a book, her illustrations are just one part of a multi-step process.
“The biggest challenge really is the deadlines,” she said. “Once I’m done, a dozen other departments come into play.”
The list includes editorial, production, sales and marketing.
“There’s so many people involved,” Wheeler said. “It’s monumental.”
At the Lewis Building, she helped a number of young children come up with their own creative illustrations, perhaps inspiring career possibilities they’d never dreamed of before.
In addition to publishing, Wheeler’s illustrations and designs have also been used for paper products, coloring books, greeting cards and Avon items.
Several artisans at the Lewis Building gave presentations including potter Jim Best, of Galway, N.Y., who belongs to the Strolling Village Artisans, a cooperative that maintains a working location in Ballston Spa.
“It’s a place to sell our work that’s more affordable than galleries,” he said.
However, the fair gives him a chance to share things with an audience that he might not otherwise meet, including kids to whom he taught the skills of working with clay.
“This requires a considerable upper body strength,” Best said. “It’s using muscles we don’t use every day. It also takes hand-and-eye coordination and it takes practice to be able to throw clay.”
Best said the fair setting fills an important educational role, too.
“Art in general is essential to being a human being,” he said. “It’s an important part of life. Everything is designed as a piece of art in one way or another. Even machinery is a piece of art. Too often, science and art get separated.”
After listening to Best talk, visitors left with a whole new appreciation and whole new way of looking at the large farm tractors on display, a short distance away on the fairgrounds.
He makes many items, from mugs and bowls to incense burners.
“Some of it’s functional, some of it’s decorative ceramics,” Best said.
It’s all part of what makes the fair such an interesting place to go each year. Thankfully, this dedicated group makes sure everyone at the fair is exposed to skills that might not be part of their everyday way of life.
“I enjoy the whole thing,” Wheeler said.