In her life as an artist, Renee Roeder Earley has worn many hats. She studied painting and sculpture, sewed for a fashion line and made costumes in New York, and has worked on projects for the Madison Children’s Museum.
As a milliner at her local business Hats-O-Fancy, she’s also made many hats, from buckets to boaters to tams. She sells about 350 a year.
This week, as she drives to Washington, D.C. for the prestigious annual Smithsonian Craft Show, her car is brimming with more than 100 hats. Added to that stock are a couple hundred handmade felt flower pins and a few necklaces.
Roeder Earley, 53, was one of two Madison artists chosen to exhibit at the show, a juried event featuring jewelry, furniture, ceramics, glass and more. Roeder Earley’s work is classified as wearables; fellow Madison artist Leah Evans (whom I'll profile later this week) will exhibit in the decorative fiber category. The show runs from Thursday through Sunday in the National Building Museum.
The Smithsonian Craft Show is the pinnacle of Roeder Earley’s two decades on the art fair circuit. The show — which includes at least one MacArthur "genius" grant winner, basket-maker Mary Jackson of South Carolina — draws collectors, interior designers, political dignitaries and art-loving members of the public. This year’s special guest is Martha Stewart.
“It is so competitive,” said Roeder Earley, who runs Hats-O-Fancy out of a small, shared studio on East Main Street. “People try for years to get into it.”
Roeder Earley, who has exhibited locally at the Art Fair on the Square and the Holiday Art Fair, is known in Madison for creating hats with fun fabrics and colors in all shapes and sizes. Some are sculptural in nature; all showcase her knack for detail and are impeccably finished.
Among the hats she’ll display — and ideally, sell — in D.C. are fascinators (decorative headpieces) embellished with handmade felt flowers, and several that pop like firecrackers with fuchsia and multi-colored strips of fabric. Striped, brimmed hats with rickrack-trimmed bands and colorful crushers are making the cross-country trip as is her new line of sophisticated, wide-brimmed linen hats adorned with cloth leaves and flowers.
Ideas for her designs come from nature, art, architecture and fashion. She keeps small notebooks with her, filling them with sketches for new hats.
“The art in hat making is to find a balance between fun and practicality,” she writes in her artist statement for the Smithsonian, “sometimes tipping the scale more one way than the other, ever keeping in mind … wearability.”
“I get a little spark from something, sketch it, make it, and another spark will come to me. It just keeps going,” she said. “One idea leads to another.
"When I add color, it's no different than painting to me."
The fancier, one-of-a-kind hats “encourage me to push myself. More detail is worth it in the end,” she said. “Maybe (customers) don’t buy it, but they get inspired to buy something.”
Prices at the show range from $50 to several hundred dollars for the more time-intensive hats with intricate details, including a fascinator which fades from gray to black flowers from the crown to the brim in an ombre-style look. It was inspired by a Dior dress.
The audience in Washington, D.C. is one that appreciates fine crafts, paying a $15 admission to attend the show ($20 for two-day pass). Yet there can be a bit of a stigma for artists who make their living primarily through craft shows, Roeder Earley said. They aren’t as highly regarded as artists who show in galleries.
Still, attitudes toward supporting artists have evolved since she started on the art fair scene, she said.
While she will occasionally hear, “‘Oh wow, I could get a cheaper hat at Target, now people say, ‘I feel good about buying something here,’” Roeder Earley said. “They’re more willing to spend a little more.”
And people are broadening their definition of what they can wear on their heads. With the one-of-a-kind fascinators, “People are looking more for frivolous hats and not just sun shade,” she said.
Roeder Earley is also using the trip to D.C. to market her work to a local VIP.
She sent U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Madison a letter and one of her handmade pins embroidered with some of Baldwin’s grandmother’s embroidery thread.
That’s right: the senator’s grandmother’s thread. Roeder Earley bought the thread — a glossy, shiny cotton — at Baldwin’s grandmother’s estate sale years ago and saved it.
“I made a special color (pin) that will look really good on her red blazer,” the artist said.
It isn’t the first woman in politics she’s contacted. Observing first lady Michelle Obama’s penchant for pins, Roeder Earley made her a pin last year and sent it off to the White House. She received a letter of thanks back. (“It was signed. It wasn’t just a stamp.”)
While in D.C., Roeder Earley is also looking forward to seeing the sights. Her husband, Kevin, and children, Olive and Dexter, are also making the trip.
They will likely stop to see the star-spangled banner at the National Museum of American History — perhaps the most famous piece of fabric art in the country.