Arts & CultureCampus & City

Royal Bison Art and Craft Fair: Then and now

As Royal Bison Arts and Craft Fair is closing its doors after 12 years, founders and current organizers discuss where it started and where it's gone.

Edmonton has a reputation of being a city with big cultural impact. From our festivals to our music, our city’s arts and culture scene knows no bounds. Here, people know their art has a place to thrive.

Royal Bison Art and Craft Fair has contributed to this, existing as a staple of Edmonton’s maker community. Over it’s 15-year-history, Royal Bison managed to be something that other crafts fair weren’t — a place where creators can break away from normativity, and buyers can purchase really weird art.

Founded in 2007 by Raymond Biesinger, Royal Bison came into existence at a time where the perception of crafting was changing.

“I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but it was very much a part of an American Renaissance in independent craft fairs … that started in the early 2000s.”

Royal Bison’s current organizer Vikki Wiercinski called this the handmade revolution — where makers could design and make products themselves. Crafting and design was changing, and makers needed a place to let their creativity fly.

From the start, Royal Bison had competitors, like the Butterdome Craft Sale, which is more traditional and homogenous, Biesinger said. Even then, Royal Bison was different. Biesinger wanted the fair to be a place where people could show their art, without worrying whether or not it would sell. To do this, table and entrance fees were kept low.

“That meant that people could bring their experiments and their strangeness into the room, instead of bringing what they do sell,” Biesinger said. “I wanted [Royal Bison] to be the venue that people would feel comfortable taking their project out of the closet and into the real world and a diverse, eclectic environment.”

As a result, Royal Bison was experimental for its sellers. Even more than that, it was successful — the audience was strong and excited to purchase the eccentric goods that were being sold.

Biesinger moves, and Wiercinski takes his place

In 2009, Biesinger was moving to Montreal and had to leave Royal Bison behind. But, he knew how much the fair meant to people, and how important it was that it continue on in his absence.

“I subscribed to this campsite mentality of leave a place better than you found it,” Biesinger said.

“Royal Bison was clearly something people appreciated. I was moving, and I wanted to make sure that it could continue.”

So, he passed the torch to three other local artists: Jeanie Andronyk, Josh Holinaty, and Wiercinski.

Biesinger said he anticipated that it was unlikely all three would continue organizing the fair forever — odds were that any of the three would “decide that they need to move or do something different.”

By leaving Royal Bison to three people instead of just one, Biesinger knew there would still be some level of continuity. Over time, Holinaty and Andronyk both moved away — Wiercinski was the only one left.

“There would at least be one really competent person who would be able to continue it for the long run. That person turned out to be Vikki.”

“I’m the last one standing,” Wiercinski said. “Everybody else moved on to other things, and this became the community project that I worked on in Edmonton over the last decade.”

To Wiercinski, the most important thing about Royal Bison is its authenticity and honesty. Royal Bison has always been a community project first, not a commercial craft fair.

“We’ve done it for the community,” Wiercinski said. “Independent designers want to see success with their projects and products, right? And they found that through the years at Royal Bison.”

Royal Bison is a “happy little ecosystem,” lead organizer says

Wiercinski said that people have ideas for projects, they just need somewhere to present those ideas to an audience. She said that for the past 15 years, Royal Bison has been a “happy little ecosystem” for independent designers to show off their work.

In today’s climate, it can be really hard to find a niche for your art, and to even sell it in the first place. But, if you can get into a place like Royal Bison, you actually have a shot.

“No art sells these days, unless it’s at something like [Royal Bison]” Biesinger said. “It’s just an incubator of creative things.”

Biesinger said that many sellers actually had their start at Royal Bison, which was true for Wiercinski, whose Mezzaluna Studio came out of the fair.

“Royal Bison just showcased a lot of designers in Edmonton and their rad new projects throughout the years,” Wiercinski said.

Markets like these are their own little communities, where sellers can meet one another, share resources, and experiment with their art. Without fairs like Royal Bison, your work isn’t as fulfilling, Wiercinski said.

“Royal Bison itself is retiring and I’m stepping away,” Wiercinski says

Like all good things, Royal Bison is coming to an end after 15 years. After this season, the fair will close its doors.

Since he left, Biesinger has been back a number of times. Returning to Royal Bison was “just like old times,” especially since the organizers gave him his old table again. Biesinger said he’s impressed with where it ended up, and what Wiercinski was able to accomplish.

“I definitely wouldn’t have had the time to do what she did. And now, she doesn’t have enough time to do it anymore, either.”

Over the years, a lot about the fair has changed. Still held in the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre, Biesinger’s impact on Royal Bison, and Edmonton, continues to this day. Wiercinski said that the art and design community in Edmonton owes him for starting Royal Bison in the first place, but more so for letting the community “steward it through the years.”

Even though this is the end for Royal Bison, this isn’t the market’s final form. Wiercinski is passing down the market so a new generation of artists can make something new, just like she did 12 years ago. For her, it’s time to focus on her own work and studio.

“The community that I’ve left the framework of the Royal Bison with will continue,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to seeing what new and fresh ideas come into the new fair.”

“Royal Bison itself is retiring and I’m stepping away.”

Royal Bison is open December 1 – 3 for fans to get their last taste of the iconic market.

Katie Teeling

Katie Teeling was the 2023-24 Editor-in-Chief and the 2022-23 Opinion Editor at The Gateway. She’s in her fifth year, studying anthropology and history. She is obsessed with all things horror, Adam Driver, and Lord of the Rings. When she isn’t crying in Tory about human evolution, Katie can be found drinking iced capps and reading romance novels.

Related Articles

Back to top button