Becky Johnson (L) and Kayla Lorette. Detail of a photo by Dusty Parr.
“I’ve definitely taken the touring structure of a performer and applied it to crafting—and what I do as a touring crafter and blogger is pretty unique.”
We’re talking via Skype with Toronto improviser and crafter Becky Johnson, across the ocean and quite a few time zones away: at the time of our conversation, she’s in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in the middle of a European tour with fellow comedian Kayla Lorette, with whom she performs as the improv duo The Sufferettes. But despite the excitement of traveling the continent and performing for audiences in five different countries, at the moment, Johnson is focused on her “other” career; from the road, she’s fundraising and prepping for an extensive summer tour of North America’s craft fairs and events, with the intention of blogging extensively once again about her experiences.
About six years ago, Johnson, looking to supplement her income while on the road as a comedian, began to turn her hobby of knitting, crocheting, and button-making (which she’d begun doing for local bands in Toronto) into a part-time business, the Sweetie Pie Press. She started out making her goods from home in Toronto, and processing orders online, but the business really started taking off when she began to do so on the road. “During the day, when I wasn’t performing, I was visiting stores, showing them my work, and taking orders—it got to the point where I was making more money on tour as a crafter than as a performer.” In 2006, she hit the road in her station wagon, visiting craft fairs instead of comedy festivals, and stayed on it for six straight months, touring throughout the United States and Canada.
“There was a lot of good timing involved,” Johnson reflects on her decision to turn pro and begin traveling the craft circuit. “A lot of new craft fairs were popping up, and Faythe Levine’s Handmade Nation was documenting a lot of them.” (Johnson appears briefly in the documentary, which was eventually released as a full length feature.) “Etsy was starting to do very well, too, and this network of people, events, and bloggers was staring to flourish.”
Inspired by the fairs she saw in her travels, Johnson launched a fair of her own, City of Craft, which has become one of the most anticipated annual events for crafters in Toronto each winter. “It’s a commercial opportunity for crafters, but more than that, it’s building a community, and trying to break down the barriers between art and craft,” explains Shannon Gerard, an illustrator and crafter, who also teaches at OCADU, and helps Johnson in organizing the fair. “City of Craft emphasizes local artisans, but it’s also this high concept cross-pollination of art, design, and craft.”
Johnson also began blogging about her experiences in 2008 on her Sweetie Pie Press blog, and her extensive experiences have helped other local crafters reach out to find stores and galleries out of province and in the States and that are receptive to the work they do. “She’s left this trail on her blog of interesting galleries and retailers, craft fairs and stores,” says Gerard, who’s taken her own fledgling steps to touring her work to fairs in Chicago and Detroit.
Johnson was planning her most elaborate and well documented tour yet for this upcoming summer, including “a 2011 tour ‘zine—part document of the tour, part resource book—as complete as my experience touring could make it,” when an essential component of her tour failed: her ancient station wagon Boris’s engine became inoperable and unrepairable. Undaunted, Johnson launched a Kickstarter campaign to get Sweetie Pie Press back on the road. Of course, since she and her friends are adept at making all sorts of creative things, there are extensive prizes and goods up for grabs to donors, including “low-emission” online packages, and for high bidders the chance to have Johnson set up an installation at a location of their choosing.
Getting back to her current comedy tour, Johnson says, “The response has been great—audiences ask for encores here, which is so rare in improv in North America. Kayla and I decided to tour with no format whatsoever; instead of touring a set show, we decide what we’re going to present for each performance based on our local experiences, and that’s something audiences are telling us they haven’t seen here.”
Gerard doesn’t profess to be an expert on comedy, but she sees parallels in what Johnson is doing both on stage and in her craft career. “Becky’s comedy is really conceptual—provisional, really, in that she gets up and makes stuff up with whatever the audience gives her.” Speaking about the Sweetie Pie Press blog, Gerard says, “her blog is almost like a performance; in writing it and going out to document her experiences, she takes risks on behalf of a lot of people—which is what she does as an improviser.”
The Sweetie Pie Press Summer Tour 2011 Kickstarter campaign ends Wednesday, April 27, and as of publication is just a few hundred dollars shy of its benchmark; Vancouver company Got Craft? pledged $1,000 of matching donations relatively early in the campaign, and Johnson’s been spending much of her traveling time online, working with other artists to put together new and interesting packages for donors to bid on. The Sufferettes’ tour ended on April 20 in Berlin, and Lorette has already returned to Canada, but Johnson is staying behind for a few weeks. While she doesn’t have any current plans to tour Europe as a crafter, old habits die hard. “There’s apparently this new knitting store here in Ljubljana, which I’m going to check out; I’m kind of compulsive about it. Of course, there’ll be something on the Sweetie Pie Press blog. And our last show in Berlin is at the Etsy lab”—another example of the blending of two different worlds that Johnson does wherever she goes.