In and around New Orleans, holiday art markets offer crafts and community

Dodie Powers was busy stacking up potholders, trying not to lose track of the count.

“Let’s see. I have three of one kind and three of another, so that means I get one free,” she said, citing the policy at Tracy Thomson’s booth at the Palmer Park Arts Market. “I need to pick one for me.”

Emblazoned with the names of New Orleans neighborhoods and made of colorful cloth, the pot holders do more than their fair share to help create the cheerful atmosphere at the event. Elsewhere on site, kids work off energy on the playground, food vendors strive to sate the demand for meat pies and fish tacos, and people picnic in the grass.

“I came today for the French Truck coffee,” said Powers of the specialty coffee vendor. “But I was having so much fun that I stayed and looked around.”

The post-Thanksgiving Palmer Park market event was a kick-off of sorts to the art market holiday shopping season, a phenomenon completely foreign to the malls of Black Friday and the e-commerce of Cyber Monday. Over the next few weeks between now and Christmas, neighborhood markets will offer 24 days and nights of shopping opportunities across the New Orleans area.

There are markets in neighborhoods throughout the city, across Lake Pontchartrain, and on the west bank of the Mississippi River. They showcase handmade works by hundreds of local and regional artists, drawing crowds who enjoy not only the offerings and the opportunity to chat with the artists, but the atmosphere of the markets themselves.

Although the sunshine and trees at Palmer Park were a draw for many, especially families with children, others may prefer a different market feel altogether. For them, the urban ambience of the Freret Street Market uptown, the OCH Art Market in Central City, the Frenchmen Street Market in Faubourg Marigny, or the Piety Street Market in Bywater may appeal.

Situated under a canopy of inviting white lights next to the Spotted Cat, the nighttime Frenchmen Art Market attracts eclectic crowds on their way to or from the many music clubs and restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood. According to the founder, Kate Gaar, the enterprise began as a pop-up market during Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest but became so popular that it was established as a recurring event.

“We usually have about 20 to 30 artists and max out at 35 because we don’t want it to get too crowded,” Gaar said. “Ours is a great market for artists who don’t want to get up at the crack of dawn to do set-up for a daytime market. There are throngs of people down here every night, so we have a built-in audience. The businesses like us because we’re a draw, but we don’t compete — we don’t have music or sell food and drinks.”

Many of the vendors at the Frenchmen Market make smaller items that will sell immediately but occasionally bring along larger pieces.

“A few of our artists have sold large paintings that way — they just had them in their booth and the buyer noticed,” she said.

Meanwhile, downriver at the Piety Street Market at the Old Ironworks in Bywater, the scene is different altogether. Part flea market, part crafts market, the market fills both the building and the outside area with 40 vendors offering a mix of handmade items, vintage objects, costumes, jewelry and collectibles.

In the center of town, the market on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, outside and inside Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, features a mix of handmade items (about 25 percent by Central City residents) and has played a role in the revitalization of Central City’s commercial corridor. Café Reconcile will be dishing its signature food at the OCHoliday Market.

For a change of scenery, the Gretna Art Walk offers a stroll under the mature oaks of Huey P. Long Avenue and coincides with the Farmer’s Market, expanding the variety of items available for purchase. In a more rural environment, the Covington Art Market at the Covington Trailhead makes it possible for runners, cyclists, and walkers along the Tammany Trace to wind up their activities and take home purchases in addition to sore muscles.

Not all of the holiday arts markets are recurring weekend events. Two of those on the menu for today — Le Marché des Fêtes at the Pitot House and the art market at the Hermann-Grima House — are pop-ups: one-day affairs held on site at historic house museums, offering singular environments for holiday shopping.

Back at the Palmer Park Arts Market, Sharon Betpouey and WDSU’s Margaret Orr stood outside of Keith Villere’s laFISHart booth, admiring his colorful metal fish sculptures and contemplating their next move.

“This is how I like to shop for holiday gifts but the truth is that I buy a lot for me, too,” Betpouey said. “There’s almost no more room left in either of our houses because of all the things we’ve bought for ourselves when we were supposed to be shopping for someone else.”

Villere, a former mayor of Covington, said that friends deluge him with pieces of the rusty metal and weathered boards he uses to create gar, sturgeon, bowfin tuna, speckled trout, snakes and other species. For the holiday season, Villere has produced scaled-down versions of his works to make ornaments and magnets. But don’t get the idea that Villere is an accomplished fisherman.

“He’s terrible,” said his wife, Carol Miles. “My father would be turning over in his grave if he new I married a man who couldn’t fish.”

At Tracy Thomson’s booth, Dodie Powers finally settled on a brightly-colored pot holder as her “buy six, get one free” reward.

“Don’t tell anyone what the other ones say because they are gifts for my friends,” Powers said. “I want them to be surprised.”