Tomeka Hall-Cheatham is the interim executive director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. She began work at the guild as an administrative assistant in March 1996, became business manager and director of membership and then, interim executive director. Because of her experience in many capacities at the guild, she knows almost every member of the guild and is an advocate for their work.
Hall-Cheatham earned two associate degrees at Hinds Community College and then a Bachelor of Business Administration and a master’s in business management from Belhaven University.
How old is the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi?
“It dates to 1973 when Mississippi Gov. Bill Waller set into motion what would result in the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. Dan Overly, a graduate of Delta State University and a craftsman himself, became the guild’s first executive director. He served until 1995 and was active with the organization until his death in 2009.”
Chimneyville Arts Festival is a Jackson holiday tradition. How old is it? When is it scheduled this year?
“This is the guild’s 46th year for the show. It is scheduled Dec. 2-4 at the William Lowe (Bill) Waller Sr. Craft Center at 950 Rice Road in Ridgeland.
“The festival opens with our preview party from 6-9 p.m. on Dec. 2 and continues on Dec. 3 and Dec. 4 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. It’s $30 per person to attend the preview party, which will feature some of our craftsmen demonstrating inside their booths and include cocktails, appetizers and music. A ticket to the preview party will get you into the festival all three days. On Dec. 3 and 4, tickets to the festival are $10 per person per day with admission free for children under 12.”
Why is the Waller Craft Center the location of Chimneyville Arts Festival instead of the Mississippi Trade Mart, where it was held for many years?
“It will be our second year to have Chimneyville Arts Festival at the Waller Craft Center. COVID-19 brought us to a time where we needed to sit back, look at our finances and consider what we could do better as a nonprofit to support our mission and our members.
“In 2019, which is the last year we had the festival at the trade mart, it cost $7,200 to rent the building and another $15,000 to set the show up. Plus, we had to pay for event insurance, security for all three days to keep everyone safe, decorations so it would look nice and food for the preview party. Security would run about $3,000 at least and food for the preview party would cost at least $6,000. The trade mart is new now and it would cost more to have the festival there. Looking at it now, we should have been at our own venue for the last nine years.
“In order to have a good show at the trade mart, you have to have a minimum of about 150 craftsmen participate to fill the space. Many of our craftsmen are aging, and it’s hard on them to carry in and set up everything they need at the trade mart. Some have gotten to the point where they just can’t do that. What many people don’t understand is that our show is different from many other craft shows at the trade mart. We are a member-based organization and can’t open our show to people outside of our organization. That’s not who we are.
“In 2019, it cost a craftsman $385 to have a basic booth at Chimneyville Arts Festival at the trade mart. The craftsmen who live out of the Jackson area also had pay for food and lodging. They would need to make $1,000 a day to be there, to pay their expenses and make some money. COVID was tough on our craftsmen because a lot of shows were not held and that cut into their revenue.”
How many craftsmen do you expect to participate in Chimneyville Arts Festival this year?
“We will have over 40 of our craftsmen here. We will have a tent attached to our building and make sure that our craftsmen are spaced out, so it is a safe show.
“Additional craftsmen will be represented in the 3,600 square foot gallery at the Waller Craft Center. The guild members who have had a conflict with their schedule and are unable to be at the festival have brought in items to fill the gallery and it is packed.”
Are there any other features of the festival?
“Art departments from about 10 schools in the metro area will participate in our Young Artisans of the Future and it will showcase the works of students.”
How has the global coronavirus pandemic affected the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi?
“Our foot traffic dropped off at the craft center, but we are beginning to see it pick up as more people begin to travel and get out again. We went from having three full-time workers and four part-time workers to having two full-time employees, myself, and Sheri Cox, director of operations.
“We reduced the hours the craft center is open. It was open six days a week for eight hours and is now open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.”
How many members of the craftsmen’s guild are there?
“The guild has 354 members with 300 of them being active. Members produce handmade works in fiber, glass, wood, mixed media, ceramics or clay, jewelry and metal. There are members from 17 states, with the majority being from Mississippi.”
How old is the Waller Craft Center?
“Since 2007, the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi has had its own venue, the Waller Craft Center. The guild used to be located on the grounds of the Agriculture Museum and in a log cabin on the Natchez Trace. We lobbied for this building and the Legislature approved a 20,000-square-foot building. The Legislature thought enough of us and what we bring to the state to fund the craft center and we are grateful for the help of the city of Ridgeland, Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee and the state of Mississippi.
“The guild leases the craft center for $1 a year and pays for the maintenance of the building. Maintenance and utilities cost at least $5,700 a month. During the 2021 session, the Legislature approved a one-time funding of $100,000 to help with the maintenance costs.
“We rent the craft center as a venue for weddings and all occasions to help pay for maintenance of the building. We also have office space that can be rented for conferences.”
How does a craftsman become a member of the guild?
“A craftsman has to go through the jury process to become a member. That takes place in March and August. Nine members of the guild compose the standards committee that juries the work and makes certain it is of original design, on a professional level or has the potential to grow on a potential level and is done by hand.
“A potential member submits three actual pieces of work and five color photos plus an artist’s statement and a resume. There is a $30 jury fee. The standards committee will send a letter saying if someone is accepted or not.
“The committee will work with a craftsman whose work may not be up to the guild’s standards and assigns a mentor to help so that eventually the individual can become a member.”
What do you appreciate about crafts?
“It’s all one of a kind. Everything is different. I don’t care how many mugs a craftsman creates, every one of them will be different.”
What do you like about your job?
“Out of my 25 plus years at the guild, I’ve met a lot of craftsmen. I look on all of them as members of my family. I’ve gotten to know them and their stories. Every day, I sit back and think, ‘What can I do to help my craftsmen and to make the guild better?’ My work is rewarding.”