In the basement of their pin-neat home in Silver Spring, Janice and Jim Chica work at their craft, side by side. She throws pots on a potter's wheel; he prefers wrestling with slabs of gray clay that they buy a ton at a time from California. And they take turns mixing the stains for their colorful pottery.
The Chicas are among what some describe as a growing number of craft artists in the metropolitan area.
"The market for traditional crafts is solid as a rock," said Harvey Sadow, a ceramicist who is president of the Maryland Craft Council. In addition, he said, contemporary art created out of such materials as clay and glass are gaining popularity.
The Baltimore Winter Market, sponsored each February by the American Crafts Council, "generates millons of dollars in revenues, and that's only one of hundreds of shows" in the area, Sadow said.
How many crafters are there here?
Thousands, Sadow estimates, many of them members of small groups that specialize in a single medium such as fiber, glass, ceramics, metal or wood.
While Noel Clark, the head of National Crafts Ltd. -- who has been putting together shows in Maryland for 11 years -- reports that there has been a steady drop in enrollment in college crafts programs, Lloyd Herman, who directs Washington's Renwick Gallery, sees a rise in popularity of such courses taught at the Smithsonian.
"There's a lot of buying power here," Herman said, adding that he knows several people who have gone from being hobbyists to being professional craft artists.
Peg Stone, director of the Prince George's Arts Council, also believes that the ranks of potters, glass sculpturers, painters, dancers and musicians are increasing. The council, which helps fund groups of artists locally, continues to add names to its roster, she said.
Stone points to the recent opening of The Castle in Hyattsville and Harmony Hall in Fort Washington, where local artists, dancers and musicians are featured, as a sign of a growing interest in the arts in Prince George's County.
"I love seeing people doing what they like to do," she said.
Business acumen is often needed to augment artist talent, however, she said. It is advantageous for artisans to band together to help promote and market themselves, mostly by increasing their participation in craft shows, she said.
"I think it's unfair to expect them to have to speak both languages" -- that of art and business, she said.
Crafts people often do have to speak the language of business, however, if they want to pay the rent.
Marlene Kowalski, 35, said she knew she was filling a vacuum when she set up her flower-preserving shop in Clinton. At a desk wedged between a microwave oven and metal shelving full of dried flowers, Kowalski painstakingly reconstructs wedding bouquets and funeral arrangements, leaf by leaf and petal by petal.
Kowalski, who calls the shop inside her home, "Forever Yours," said she is probably the only commercial flower preserver the area. "I've had people come down from as far as Baltimore and Frederick," she said.
Kowalski begins her process by photographing the bouquet, and then takes it apart and buries each flower in silica gel, a sand-like substance that draws out moisture. After the flowers are dried, in a few days or a few weeks, "the colors turn about a shade darker; white turns to a cream," Kowalski said.
With the snapshot to guide her, Kowalski glues the arrangement back together, then puts the bouquet in glass domes or wooden frames that she makes at the table saw in her back yard. The finished project ranges in price from $25 to $120.
Her business brings in about $10,000 annually, she said.
Janice and Jim Chica, like Kowalsi former graphic artists, decided several years ago that making pottery at home was more satisfying.
Many of their items feature intricate, hand-etched rural scenes or cut-out floral patterns. After the cups, pots, plates and letter holders are decorated, they are baked for up to 12 hours in a kiln in the Chicas' garage.
Janice Chica began the business about eight years ago, and her husband quit his graphic artist job about four years ago. He said they earn about half of what they made previously, but have managed to live quite simply.
The Chicas produce nearly 3,000 pieces a year, much of which is sold at shows. They are now preparing for the Takoma Park Folk Festival show in September.
After Kay Hoyle's children were nearly grown, she began to look for a way to get out of the house, she said. Two years ago she and her sister Dixie Holt and their mother, Lilah Skinner, decided to open a handcraft and antique store on Laurel's Main Street.
The Main Street Corner Shop features dolls and carved wooden items, lace wall hangings, woven blankets and potpourri. The back rooms are rented to antiques dealers.
On the weekends, the sisters, sometimes accompanied by family members, comb the countryside and fairgrounds as far away as West Virginia for new items to stock in their shop, making their way through dusty, fly-infested barns in search of finds. "I may go for weeks without coming up with anything good that can't be copied from a book," Hoyle said.
Without a doubt, she said, "the hottest thing in my shop are the door-stop grannies," $25-to-$50 bleach-bottle dolls made by two sisters who live in the county, she said.
A few blocks from Laurel shop lives Charles Woltz, for whom a crafts career is a dream deferred. Woltz, 66, is a retired Westinghouse Corp. glass technologist who now spends his days in a back yard shed blowing and tooling molten glass into human figures, candelabras and serving pieces.
"I've never seen anyone try to do a replica of the human figure in detail" in glass, Woltz said, showing off the muscles on one of his 10-inch pieces.
Each figure can take days to make, he said, as he pointed the orange flame from a torch at a glass tube that melted like salt water taffy. Sometimes he "blasts" the figures with aluminum oxide to give a popular, frosted, art-deco look.
But the pieces, priced at $100 or more, do not sell well, he said, because "I can't afford good PR." Meanwhile, he and his wife live on Social Security payments -- and his dream that one day his glass creations catch on.