Rudy Hopkins looks up at the parting rain clouds with the wonder of a child watching a balloon disappear. Leaning against the damp railing outside his shop, a glass of white wine in one hand, he gestures grandly toward the October afternoon's emerging sunshine as a middle-aged couple strolls up the ramp in precautionary raincoats. Hopkins meets them with a delighted chuckle. "Life treats us well," he says. The couple nods and disappears through the strips of screen covering the doorway into Crafts People's pottery building. Inside, Mary Elwyn, Hopkins's partner of 30 years, waits to greet them. She asks if they'd like a glass of lemonade, wine, or coffee to enjoy while they explore the crowded room. Near a wood stove are heavy earthen bowls and mugs stacked on a shelf. Small ornaments and oil burners hang from the rafters around the cash register. Tall, freestanding shelves hold brightly glazed, elegant vases, blown-glass sculptures, and small ceramic figurines. One feels as though it would take years to give each piece its due attention; and as the families and couples head back out into the soggy afternoon, they're reminded by Hopkins that there is more to see.
"We want people to feel like they are visiting our home, [and can] relax and take their time," Hopkins says of his shop, which sells the work of over 500 artisans, half of whom are from the Hudson Valley. Crafts People occupies four buildings nestled into 25 acres bordering the Ashokan Reservoir in West Hurley. Originally a bungalow camp owned by Hopkins's grandmother, the property also includes greenhouses, studios, Hopkins and Elwyn's residence, and a flooded quarry where Hopkins breeds koi fish. The gravel paths between the buildings are lined with potted plants for sale, and retro lawn chairs and tables dot the surrounding yard, encouraging visitors to picnic.
Crafts People's handpicked selection represents a variety of styles and a wide price range. "If you go into a gallery that has 30 pieces placed beautifully, it's nice to look at, but you won't necessarily find a bowl for your Aunt Ida," Hopkins jokes, in reference to his shop's overwhelming selection. In the jewelry building, cases of gold and silver necklaces, rings, and earrings are left open so that visitors may try them on. Elwyn's exquisitely detailed metalwork, which sits in a case on the far side of the shop, includes delicate chains, earrings, and unusual flatware. Shelves in the middle of the room hold finely crafted wooden chess sets, turned-wood bowls, and stained-glass panes. In the property's two smaller buildings, visitors can find wrought-iron sconces, handmade candles, paper, and clothing, and a small selection of imported crafts. When asked about inventory or revenue, Hopkins shakes his head, his eyes earnest as he professes that he does not—nor does he care to— measure his success in such terms. He is unable to offer more than a guess as to how many pieces he has in the shop at any given time, though the number is easily five figures.
A former English teacher, Hopkins ran a children's arts-and-crafts summer camp on the property, ultimately closing it in the early '70s due to the demands of single parenthood. Having discovered an aptitude for ceramics, he began selling his own work from the porch of his home. After he met Elwyn, then a promising apprentice with a Tinker Street jeweler, at a trade show, she began selling her jewelry at his burgeoning shop. "She became our resident jeweler," Hopkins laughs affectionately, quickly adding, "in more ways than one!"By the mid '80s Hopkins and Elwyn's entire house had become their shop. Over coffee at the couple's worn kitchen table, Elwyn remembers when "[they] would have to remove pieces from the diningroom table to have dinner." In addition to their own children, the couple began taking in homeless teenagers in a program they called Our School. It was with the help of the teens that Hopkins gutted and renovated two of the property's buildings, allowing the shop to move out of the house in 1986. Deeming their work with kids of the utmost importance, the altruistic couple continued fostering until only recently; finally accepting the wear of such difficult work, they are now content to focus their energy on their 10 grandchildren and Lola, their Doberman pinscher.
Hopkins sees the terms "art" and "craft" as interchangeable, adamantly rejecting any premise which argues that a piece's value as art is limited by its function. The Arts and Crafts movement started at the turn of the 20th century as a response to industrialization; at that time, many found a need to return to handcrafted wares to counterbalance the negative societal effects of mass production. Hopkins sees crafts as still being necessary today as a way to connect people to people, and people to things. "You want to drink out of your favorite coffee mug every day. And you can't explain why. The mug answers something that's personal and intimate."
Raised in Ulster Park, Hopkins recalls growing up in a community where his mother's name was equity enough to get him a loan from the local bank. He speaks with reverence of a time when it was considered rude not to be in constant contact with your neighbors.
Hopkins has integrated his early-bred appreciation for solidarity into Crafts People, treating its six employees and its customers and artisans as a community. "He's exemplary in his morals," Josh Solomon, a glassblower, says about the owner. "As much as he's a businessman, he's trying to help local artists." An apprentice with Rhinebeck-based glassblower Barry Entner, Solomon sells his blown-glass sculptures on consignment at Crafts People. He speaks frankly about the dark nature of the world of art business. "So many galleries won't even look at your work if you don't have an established name," he says. Solomon remembers bringing his first box of work to Crafts People, where he was met with enthusiasm and encouragement from Hopkins and Elwyn. Since then, he has sold his most valuable (and, according to him, weirdest) piece through the shop.
"[Solomon] is still startled, I think, when he sells a piece, because although he knows his work has integrity...he's so mesmerized that somebody can purchase it, and chooses to," Hopkins says. As accomplished artisans themselves, Hopkins and Elwyn understand the gratification and reinforcement that comes from seeing a stranger connect to one's work, especially in the cases of young artists. They also appreciate the struggle that many novice artisans face to achieve the acknowledgment and financial recompense that most require. In addition to the judgment, criticism, and rejection that must be endured in marketing one's craft, there are many practical disadvantages. Craft shows are frequently held outdoors, leaving artisans subject to foul weather, keeping potential buyers away and putting delicate work at risk. "At one show, a young potter was setting up his booth when a big gust of wind blew through. Instantly, all of his work, everything he'd brought, was broken, gone," Hopkins sadly recalls. Though they still attend shows and appreciate galleries, Hopkins and Elwyn see the need for an alternative market, one which is particularly kind to new artists. "[Hopkins and Elwyn] really want to help you," Solomon attests. "They are genuine people."
Crafts People is, for Hopkins, proof that a creative life can be successful. Just as he would teach the teenagers who shared his home that something as simple as a vase of flowers in their room could lift their spirits—remind them that they deserve to live in a nice room, in a nice world—Hopkins helps people to decorate their lives with things that inspire them to create and connect. "A world filled with creative people is not going to be a violent world." (845) 331-3859; www.craftspeople.us
Mary Elwyn and Rudy Hopkins, owners of Crafts People
A selection of handmade earrings at Crafts People, a massive artists' emporium in West Hurley.