PALMER — The Alaska State Fair returned from their one-year hiatus with a flourish, to the delight of Alaskans all over. Monday was first responder day at the fair, honoring the men and women who serve as police, firefighters and EMS. Thousands of cars packed the parking lots, soaked and muddy from the wet fair weather that poured down on Palmer all weekend.
For Leah Blair, 2021 was her introduction to the Alaska State Fair. With a booth on the Red Spur trail, Blair got to meet hundreds of prospective customers and discover what could become of three weeks displaying her art to fairgoers.
“I’ve been an artist for a long time but this is my like the cumulation of my Alaska body of work, so it’s kind of like me launching this brand, this like new chapter in my life and it’s just been really amazing connecting with people in the community being able to get the feedback,” said Blair. “I’m here because I am really excited about exposing my work to the world and getting their reactions and seeing what people are really feeling drawn towards or not, so it’s been really useful for my personal practice knowing what people like and don’t like so it’s been like, really really good for me.”
Blair is a fiber artist who takes inspiration from the Last Frontier, using found objects such as antlers and bones to create necklaces, earrings, keychains, and other home decor. Blair’s locally sourced fur and other animal remains become wearable or hangable home objects. Having never been to the fair prior to setting up her booth this fall, Blair says that she is certain to return.
“The weirder the better. The Alaskan people have been surprising me with, the stuff I find very strange they’re into and the stuff that I really put my heart and soul into, like people feel that and they connect with it and it’s been really amazing the support I’ve gotten from people and the big and strange pieces are the ones that go so I love it,” said Blair.
Blair does not have a physical location for her store, but provides her pieces on a website. Despite the torrential downpour of rain over the weekend, Blair kept busy with fairgoers stopping by her booth.
“I think nothing can stop Alaskans, it’s pretty great. Rain or shine they are out here and I think it’s a really great way to just be around other people and meet new people. I’ve made so many amazing contacts local and people from afar and I think it’s been a really amazing resource in helping me enter into this world,” said Blair.
Alaska State Fair vendor veterans Aube and Dune Strickland have been selling their Whombatz foam swords for 15 years, starting in 2006 when Aube was 11 and Dune was 14. Since then, the Whombatz sold at the fair have transformed from handmade duct tape foam swords to an injection molded, mass manufactured product.
“We’ve gotten a little bit more evolved in our manufacturing methods over the years, but I guess the principle has stayed the same,” said Dune Strickland. “The reason we got into the fair and wanted to sell them was because we wanted to bring a sword to people you could actually sword fight with and that idea has stayed the same.”
The Stricklands and a classmate of Dune’s began their Alaska State Fair endeavors in 2006 by spending an entire summer making the duct tape foam swords that quickly became a smash hit among children walking the fairgrounds. The Stricklands now sell nine separate Whombatz products including a Kingdom Hearts themed key axe as well as shields and other soft swords.
“We’ve grown up. In 15 years, the styles have changed. Every kid that walks by no matter how big they are has a smartphone, but one thing that hasn’t changed is kids get sword fighting right away. You stick a sword in their hand and they know what to do with it,” said Dune Strickland. “The whole idea with Whombatz is that you can sword fight with them and we want you to sword fight with them. We want you to pick it up and to hit your sibling and to hit your friend with it.”
The Stricklands pre-ordered their supplies for the 2020 fair six months in advance, but were disheartened to learn that the 2020 Alaska State Fair was canceled due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic that continues today. While the newer products are less strenuous to produce, the Stricklands still sold a small quantity of the original duct tape swords during this year’s fair. While they are found in select places outside of the fair, the main retail location for Whombatz has been the Alaska State Fair for 15 years. The Whombatz website also features a “Warrior Corner” with directions for gameplay and rules for safe use.
“We were ready for the fair last year and of course it didn’t’ happen and so it made this year’s preparations for the fair that much easier, but at the same time it was really sad to miss out on seeing everybody, some families and folks that we’ve been seeing year after year for going on 15 years now in one way or another. Some of our first customers have kids now and they’re bringing their kids by to buy our stuff and so you miss it when you don’t have it,” said Dune Strickland.
Over the years, the Stricklands have written down quotes from customers on the framing of their booth.
“Thank you for giving me the tools to abuse my younger sibling,” said one customer. “You’re a part of my childhood,” said another.