I never expected my annual sojourn to the Florida State Fair would lead me to a new appreciation of those hand-made items my wife has cherished for years.
Forgive me, but I'm the guy who could live in a van down by the river, as long as the van came with ESPN. To me, decorating is what you do to a cake.
Not my wife. Her fascination with home décor makes her rave about artificial plants from IKEA and watch every episode of every show on HGTV.
So, somewhere between the pretzel from the Amish-inspired Peachy's and the gyro we always devour, she dragged me into the Special Events Center to peruse works of art that might brighten our family room.
Only the promise of a future red velvet funnel cake stopped me from kicking and screaming.
Then I saw it. An unassuming guy named Dan Stephens stood in front of a wall of vinyl albums that had been reworked into silhouetted images of the stars who recorded them. My eyes grew wide. Seeing Michael Jackson's 1982 Thriller album embedded with a profile of the King of Pop captured my imagination.
Stephens offered dozens of cool-looking albums that had been turned into keepsake memorabilia. I had seen thousands of records with the iconic RCA Victor dog label, but never one framed by Julie Andrews' shadow, carrying her bag and guitar case from The Sound of Music.
Suddenly, the thought of making over one of our bedrooms into a man cave with some of these albums had me wishing I had paid more attention to Chip and Joanna. I asked Stephens if he had anything of Prince and boom, he pulled out a re-creation of the legendary 1984 Purple Rain album I had to buy.
Honey, you got some extra dollars.
Stephens, who grew up in Northern Kentucky, explained he first gained an interest in peddling crafts when his mother began turning Betsy Ross Light Bread and Elmer's Glue into Christmas Tree ornaments. He still has the first Christmas tree his mother made.
With the help of partner Roger Madden, he elevated his wares to include his "Vintage Vinyl Record Art."
Stephens is just one of the artisans who will extend their Florida stay by setting up shop at the Florida Strawberry Festival, which opens Thursday and runs through March 10.
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As I amped up my appreciation, I discovered, like Stephens, many of the vendors have family stories woven into their works.
Bob Dinwoodie's father, Stan, learned how to craft cooper wall-hangings from an artist in Sarasota back in the '70s. For a year, he took weekly lessons until he could produce three-foot maple trees made of copper. With two lawn chairs and a card table, he started selling his own works at the old Gulf Gate Mall and it turned into quite the business.
Now Bob carries on with Dinwoodie Metal Sculptors, having developed the skillset from his dad. With wife Sheila, they sell wall hangings, fountains and other pretty pieces than can help your home shine.
Ken Patrizzi guides a family business that turns philosophical sayings into works that can enhance a kitchen or family room. His Simply Silhouettes can take a statement like, "A Golfer Lives Here With The Best Score of His Life" and convert it into a piece that looks like wrought iron but is actually made of birchwood.
And Sandy Howard can tell you how her husband Justin, a former welder working on a Georgia ranch, started turning horse shoes into contemporary sculptures that make people marvel. Last year, he went through 18,000 horseshoes to unlock his imaginative designs.
Stephens, Dinwoodie, Patrizzi and the Howards all will be at the Strawberry Festival along with dozens of other vendors. You'll still go to get something slathered in strawberries – I love the strawberry pizza – but stroll off the main path, free your mind and give those folks a chance.
The stories they tell will warm your heart as much as the crafts they sell.
That's all I'm saying.