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Cranky Yellow owner makes quirk, not cash point of independent art business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 25, 2008 - David Wolk spends his days on Cherokee Street with severed doll heads, pink-haired alligators and a messy desk.

The owner and founder of the almost 1-year-old, Cranky Yellow Publishing, Wolk started his business as much to indulge his creative fancies as to promote the work of unusual artists, musicians and writers. Wolk organized this summer's Crammed Organisms Plush show, featuring hundreds of funky stuff animals.

A tall, thin young man with brown hair hanging over black-frame glasses, the 21-year-old Wolk looked thoughtful when he was asked to describe himself in three words.

"Childlike, workaholic, creative-activist," he answered. "I've always been all over the place."

Wolk moved to St. Louis in early 2006, after growing up in Ste. Genevieve. As a child, Wolk was much like he is now -- "doing everything," according to his sister Amber Wolk. "He was just a riot growing up," Amber Wolk said. "He was always creative, always doing things."

At 21 years old, David hasn't changed from the mud-pie creator of his youth. "What you see now is pretty much him," said Amber Wolk.

David Wolk always enjoyed creating, whether it was mud pies or a swing that flew 10 feet in the air. In high school, David was interested in drama and visual arts. He once made a giant sculpture of colored yarn and found objects, including a barbecue grill and roller skates -- and then had his senior pictures taken in front of it.

Still Ste. Genevieve, a town of roughly 4,500, did not have the kinds of creative outlets a young David Wolk was seeking. "There definitely weren't a lot of creative people to get together with," David Wolk said.

After graduating, Wolk worked at a poster company, learning about publishing and working with artists. Through his work with the poster company, Wolk came to realize he wanted to work with artists in a more collaborative way than he saw at work. He disliked the way artists were treated, he said.

"Cranky Yellow is not about the bottom line," he said.

According to Amber Wolk, the idea for the shop and art business came as no surprise. "Even in high school, he wanted his own store," said Amber Wolk. "When he said he wanted to do it, it was just natural."

The name "Cranky Yellow" was born in a home-economics class Wolk took in high school. It was taught by a teacher who favored the color yellow, he said. One day, a recipe the class was making went awry and the teacher was not happy -- and the contradiction between the happy color and the irate teacher stuck.

"Thus, the name was born," David Wolk said. "People will be in the store and they'll always ask me about the name and I'll say it's a long story."

Wolk opened Cranky Yellow's Cherokee storefront in November 2007. Since then, the company has held regular shows and has continued to stock items ranging from hand-screened T-shirts to independently published books and eccentric plush items. The shop will hold a saint-inspired show shortly and a "gigantic show" a la Crammed Organisms in January. Wolk works with seven other people and the number of artists' work shown in the shop continues to grow.

"The stranger it is, the better," Wolk explained.

In the little spare time he has, Wolk paints and is an avid film watcher. He lives with a "morbidly obese" calico cat, Dinah, and entertains friends.

"I can do two impressions spot on," he explained, laughing. "A goat and Kermit the Frog."

'Strange folk' to gather in O'Fallon

Something strange is taking over the Community Park in O'Fallon, Ill., this weekend. The third annual Strange Folk Festival, an alternative craft show and festival, features everything from an alpaca petting zoo to barbecue. The festival expects upward of 5,000 attendees.

The show brings in 120 national artists and bands, such as Firedog and Lauren Lee, over two days. On Saturday, the first 100 people who buy items can get a reusable shopping bag. Several vendors will also have interactive displays demonstrating, among other skills, recycling materials into crafts.

Local businesses, such as Cranky Yellow Publishing and national names like Sublime Stitching, are co-sponsoring the show.

Autumn Wiggins, "the strange girl in charge," helped organize the festival. She had worked on previous festivals in O'Fallon but none ever quite took hold.

Strange Folk's organizers noticed a trend of taking new approaches to traditional crafts -- like making funky stuffed animals and making things out of reusable materials. They worked up the concept for the alternative craft show based on similar shows around the country.

"Everything there is kind of retro-modern, affordable," Wiggins explained. "It's totally different from what you expect at a craft show. A craft show doesn't mean apple baskets and teddy bears."

Amelia Flood is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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