By ROBERTA GEDERT | BLADE STAFF WRITER
For abstract artist Julie Draeger, enjoyment is in the eye of the beholder.
“It’s more fun to let people use their imagination and see things in my work. It’s so exciting to hear them tell me what they see,” said the retired local art teacher, who’s looking forward to learning what attendees see in her pieces at this weekend’s 2018 Ann Arbor Art Fair.
About 50 of her large-scale abstract paintings will be on display and for sale at one of the largest outdoor juried art fairs in the nation, one that has drawn visitors to Ann Arbor for just shy of 60 years. This weekend organizers expect about a half million people to visit the 30-block stretch that has morphed from four different fairs over the years, but is now touted as one event.
The fair offers a mix of fine art and fine craft, showcasing booth after booth of jewelry, glass, sculpture, paintings, metal pieces, mixed media, and wood-carved objects created by the hands of more than 1,000 artists. More than two dozen Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan artists have been juried into one of the four fairs.
Draeger was accepted into this year’s original street art fair, which started in 1960 in the area south of the University of Michigan, when downtown merchants were looking for something to boost business after students left for the summer months, art fair spokesman Karen Delhey said.
“The original mission, which was economic development of the downtown area, has succeeded, and art fair is the city of Ann Arbor’s second (most visible entity) in name recognition; the university is first,” she said.
The success of the first fair drove the creation of a second one, the State Street Fair, located northwest of the original event. A third faction, the Summer Art Fair, was started by the Guild of Artists and Artisans near the university as a place for students and staff to set up and sell art, Delhey said.
The Guild of Artists and Artisans is a nonprofit, membership association of independent artists founded in 1970 in Ann Arbor.
They were three in number until the early 2000s, when the original fair moved north closer to campus. Wanting to continue the fair’s successes, a merchant association revived the fourth fair in the spot the original fair left vacant.
Although the four artist or merchant non-profits that run each fair collaborate frequently, they jury their sections separately, she said.
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The idea of four fairs lining the Ann Arbor streets sounds more daunting than it is, and organizers work to make it as easy for visitors as they can through signs, a free shuttle service among all areas, and an information-packed website that Delhey recommends guests peruse before visiting. This year, they have added letter codes to each booth to help people more easily pinpoint where they are, she said.
“The fair is pretty fluid. Walking through, it’s kind of hard to tell sometimes (that there are four separate entities),” Delhey said.
Economically, the fair brought about $12 million in new dollars into the city in 2015. Artists collectively made about $80 million that year, Delhey said.
“Part of the success is the city itself. It’s such a great town and it’s kind of grown up around the art fair. There are great restaurants, so many things to do here, it’s just a cool place to come,” she said. “We couldn’t ask for a better landscape for the show. It all takes place on the city streets, around the university, and I think that helps as well.”
Draeger, 70, who taught art at Toledo Public Schools and the Toledo Museum of Art, is a prolific painter, working quickly to produce large-scale pieces in the warehouse studio on Ottawa Street that she shares with a half-dozen other artists. She has never liked sticking to one subject or medium over the years, and started experimenting with abstract art after she retired.
Draeger starts a piece with a technique called automatic drawing, a more aggressive form of scribbling in which you let the chalk or other drawing tool take over on the canvas. She likens her approach to “going in like a fencer.”
“The fun thing about non-objective art is, as you go on (with the piece), you start to respond to your work. It’s almost like the painting tells you what to do next,” she said.
Sometimes Draeger sees images in her work. Other times, she sees form, line, color, texture. Pinks, blues, greens, yellows flow from the canvas. Forms are both transparent and opaque.
Her goal for the Ann Arbor show is clearly to sell her work, but also to promote herself as an emerging abstract artist.
“I would like to discover what people respond to the most,” she said.