Still going strong: Eugene's colorful Saturday Market started nearly 50 years ago

One of the unique aspects of Eugene’s Saturday Market is that artisans must actually work their own booth, providing a sense of authenticity for shoppers.

Courtesy photo
One of the unique aspects of Eugene’s Saturday Market is that artisans must actually work their own booth, providing a sense of authenticity for shoppers.

Every Saturday since 1970, rain or shine, vendors have set up booths to sell their wares in downtown Eugene.

Little did Lotte Streisinger, founder of The Saturday Market, know that 48 years later her idea would have such staying power. It’s now the oldest weekly open-air crafts festival in the United States.

Lotte and her husband George, both now deceased, left a mark on Eugene in a number of ways.

Lotte’s family escaped Nazi Germany when she was just a young toddler. She met George when they were both students at Cornell University, eventually marrying and bringing their two children to the University of Oregon, where George helped found the Institute of Molecular Biology. Streisinger Hall is named in his honor.

Lotte was an accomplished potter, and while in Eugene she fondly recalled the town square markets of her childhood in Munich. She also appreciated the open-air markets she experienced on a trip to a Peruvian village.

In an interview with the Register-Guard in 2014, Lotte recalled her 1968 trip to a world crafts conference in this way, “That was just when Eugene was undergoing urban renewal and I thought, that’s something that we need in Eugene. In this Peruvian village, it was on a large grassy area, and there was a lot of trading going on and music, and it was just a very nice experience.”

Lotte organized 29 vendors for the first Saturday Market on May 9, 1970. True to Oregon, it rained.

But that wasn’t enough to deter this fledgling group of vendors, which has grown from its original short list to more than 600 vendors, with anywhere from 200 to 300 vendors setting up each week.

There are other “Saturday Markets” throughout Oregon, but to use the name, markets must adhere to one principal: The person in the booth is the person who made the craft.

“It’s a handcrafter’s market,” says Kirsten Bolton of Eugene’s Saturday Market, “so everything you buy is handmade by a local. You get to interact with the artist and make a real human connection.”

There’s sometimes a perception that the Saturday Market is a “hippie” fair and the only crafts are tie-dyes, candles and such. “There’s a much wider variety of art there than that now,” Bolton says.

Many people enjoy shopping the market for one-of-a-kind gifts that you are unlikely to find anywhere else. Expect to wander the booths and find traditional fine art, sculpture and pottery, clothing and skin care.

You’ll find the “untraditional” items as well – one vendor creates pictures by affixing dead flies to canvas. (To see examples of this, go online and look up the art of Sharden Killmore.)

“You can find jewelry, leather goods, woodwork, photography … pretty much every form of art you can possibly imagine,” Bolton says.

On Saturdays, the Lane County Farmers Market vendors sell locally-grown produce, plant starts, flowers and prepared food set up just across the street.

Other draws include a large food court and free, live music for those who want to just enjoy the ambiance and entertainment.

In November and December, a Holiday Market sets up indoors at the Lane County Fairgrounds, providing local food and gifts for the holidays.

Kristine Levin, 71, dyes yarn and sells knitted crochet hats and beadwork. She has also made percussion instruments using beads on the outside of hard-shell gourds.

“The thing I like about the Saturday Market is getting feedback from your customers,” Levin says.

It can be difficult, though, she says, because sometimes shoppers are critical and may not be aware that the crafter is standing right there.

Others try to get away with shoplifting.

But the one-on-one connection of being able to meet “the maker,” ask them questions and leave with a memory of having met the person who made your new objet d’art is valuable and irreplaceable.

To Levin, being part of the community in this way has been a big part of her life, and it allowed her to take what was a hobby and turn it into a source of income.

“It’s definitely a community and I think Eugene is really fortunate to have it because it allows a lot of people to do something with their time, do something with their hobbies and augment their income,” she says.

Levin says older folks should get out and visit the market, in part because the handmade nature of the crafts will remind them of many of the things they had while growing up.

“They’ll remember a time before everything was mass-produced,” she says. “They will remember markets, church markets, school markets. They’ll appreciate the woodworking and all of the many things here that are made by hand.”

Joy Kay-Kirk has been with the market since 1988. She started Joy’s Morning Star Studio when she lived six miles out of town in her late 20s with two young children.

For many years, Kay-Kirk had a face painting booth on the corner of 8th Avenue and East Park Street.

“I had a line that would start sometimes before 10 a.m. and I was sometimes painting until after 5 in the evening,” she says. “I learned I needed to stay, rain or shine, because my customers would drive by and if I wasn’t there they wouldn’t stop.”

In 2003, Kay-Kirk started adding beadwork to her art.

“I call them spirit portals,” she says. “I start with a seashell. I look for its focal point and I paint a seascape. I frame it with beads, matching the colors in the shell and the painting to make a kind of 3-D effect. When the sun shines through the shells you get a whole other vision than just looking at the beads and the shells by themselves. It’s a transformational gift from the spirit for the heart. I just let the art flow from my fingers.”

To Kay-Kirk, the arts are an important part of humanity and it’s important to keep them alive. The market provided a way for her to connect with a larger community of likeminded people.

“It is a place where that budding artist can learn from us old timers on how to set up a booth,” she says. “I’m glad I’m part of it,” she says. “It’s home for me.”

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