Texas-sized talent

Texas-sized talent

Local residents win ribbons at State Fair

By Sonia Duggan

For Texans, the iconic State Fair of Texas is synonymous with fall, football, corny dogs, midway rides, live music and much more. But for anyone interested in creative arts, the State Fair offers a unique opportunity — and has for over 120 years — to showcase Texans’ skills in more than 1,100 different categories in 15 different departments from fine art to food.

Judging for all creative arts entries took place throughout August, and first, second, third place, and Honorable Mention ribbons were awarded to the top entries in each class of every department weeks before the fair opened on September 22 this year. 

Although entrants hail from across the state — and even a few from other states — Collin County is home to many individuals who placed for their winning entries. Here are the stories of four women who crafted, stitched and photographed their way to ribbons in the 2021 State Fair of Texas contest.

Creating, crafting every day

Day in and day out, 71-year-old Mary Dambacher can be found working in solitude on some type of craft in her a tiny 3-room cottage in Wylie. On Mondays she gets social and hosts her sister Donna Leskovac and friend Rosemary Minzghor for coffee and crafts. 

Dambacher said she began crafting for fun in February 2020 and kept going once the pandemic hit and all Wylie Senior Center activities ceased. 

“I was so excited creating and keeping busy,” she said. “I just needed something to do.”

Then, weeks before Big Tex took his honorary spot wearing his signature jeans and red shirt —and a mask last year — Dambacher made her way to Fair Park to drop off her submissions. It was her first time to enter the contest and it was the State Fair’s first time in history to adopt a virtual format.

Originally from Michigan, Dambacher moved to Texas in 2016 to be closer to her sister before her kidney transplant three years ago. This year, the artist was sidelined for eight months with a mysterious illness. She says she stayed home crafting for the most part until doctors diagnosed her condition. 

Much like last year, all her time amounted to multiple entries in multiple categories. She submitted 21 entries and placed in seven categories receiving second in Miscellaneous Craft Sculpture, third place in the Decorated Gourd category, third place in Painted Glass and two Honorable Mentions.

The artist said she wasn’t sure which Miscellaneous Craft Sculpture entry won because she had entered so many. As for her gourd entry, Dambacher described it as “whimsical” because it featured a frog on lily pads holding an umbrella with his tongue sticking out trying to catch a lady bug. Her painted wine glass winner featured a snow family having a snowball fight.

Dambacher won two Honorable Mentions for her Glue-a-Shoe submissions. This category includes seven different sub-categories of shoes to decorate. In Dambacher’s case, she submitted a slip-on shoe entry and one for the “any type of shoe” category which, for her, was a pair of ice skates.

Her winnings and submissions this year were quite a departure from 2020 when she won eight first place ribbons for designer craftsman in the Recycled category, two for scale models in the Scratch Built category, four for Holiday Corner, including table and mantel décor, and one for The Great Pumpkin Challenge – Halloween theme.

Dambacher, however, said she is not disappointed that she did not win any blue ribbons year. 

“I just had so much fun, especially with COVID and with me being sick, I had the time to do stuff and I started right away.”

Although she has a dedicated craft space to create and store (most) of her projects, Dambacher plans to sell last year’s winners at the Wylie Craft Fair in December to make room for new projects. 

In September, a recovering Dambacher, her sister and Minzghor spent a day shopping dollar stores, craft stores and thrift stores for items she needed to create her 2022 State Fair projects. 

“I just got done inventorying all my stuff and I filled a notebook,” she said. “I always have a lot of things going around in my mind. I write them down, so I don’t forget.” 

Crafting the pain away

Sleep is often elusive for Janice Lohr of Nevada due to the pain she endures from the lingering effects of Lyme Disease. Her solution? Stay up all night doing crafts.

“One of the ways that I can take my mind off of hurting is staying up and crafting because then I focus on crafting instead of just lying there hurting,” she said. 

The creativity fueled by her pain resulted in many wins for 35-year-old Lohr in her second year of entering the Creative Arts competition.

While her symptoms have somewhat lessened over time, hand tremors sometimes make it harder to craft, “especially when you’re trying to paint a straight line,” she said.

The tenacious crafter entered 14 categories and placed in 10 this year, taking home four blue ribbons, three second place wins, two third place wins and an Honorable Mention. 

One of Lohr’s first place wins was in the Egg Art State Fair Theme category. She used an ostrich egg she got from the nonprofit petting zoo for kids with disabilities where she works. Lohr says if she sees that the animals, which are exotics, shed something such as feathers or quills, she’ll pick them up and then put them in a box to save for crafting projects.

“I got the egg from Home for Angels Petting Zoo in Caddo Mills,” she said. “I welded two horse shoes together for the stand, cut out the Texas symbol and painted the inside of the egg then glued crystals in the shape of the Texas flag and painted aquarium gravel gold to give a nugget look.” 

Another first place win in Designer Craftsman Folk Art was awarded for a tomahawk.

“I am Chickasaw so I used an old jawbone from one of our hunts and sharpened it for the ax part and painted a Native American symbol,” she said. “I took the bark off a stick outside and stained it, found some old leather scraps and tooled them and added a painted feather and African Crested porcupine quills.”

Lohr raises quail on the 10 acres where she resides with her husband and middle school age children, so eggs are a natural, recurring component in her designs. In one instance she placed first in the Designer Craftsman Recycled/ Found Items category. 

“I raise quail, so I hollowed out over 200 eggs and glued them,” she said. “I used a turkey egg and drilled out the shape painted the inside and added a 3-D effect. The feathers are from all the different birds I raise.”

The crafter’s fourth first place win, a Shoe Box Patriotic Parade Float, plays a recording of the military marching band’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” 

Lohr said she airbrushed toy planes to look like the Blue Angels and found some rocks and painted them gold and melted Army men to hold the flag resembling the moment the six men raised the flag on Iwo Jima.

Aside from the Creative Arts competition, this will be Lohr’s third year to enter the cooking competition. The artist and cook says her family, “thinks it’s so cool and they love it when I cook because then they get to taste test everything.”

The cooking competition starts in September and continues each day of the fair in the kitchen area of the Creative Arts Building, the same general area where Lohr’s winning entries will be displayed.

To prepare for this event, Lohr says she’ll assemble all her ingredients and other necessary items and put them in heated or cooling bags. She said she leaves two hours before the fair opens and sits in the same spot each time so she can be the first one to “load her stuff in where it needs to go and get it presented the way it needs to be.”

Last year, she took home a first place in the canning competition for her pickled quail eggs and this year, Lohr will be ambitiously cooking up submissions in seven categories; Honey, Chocolate, Bread, Pies, Speedy Dishes, Farm-to-Fork and Candy.

Lohr said one of the competitions she entered is something she’s never done before. 

In fact, it has a key ingredient used in many of her winning projects…quail. 

“It’s like a savory-type dish and I’m actually going to do quail jerk baked with honey and pecan.”

Follow Lohr’s cooking competition progress by attending the State Fair or visit bigtex.com.

Through the lens

Although photographer Melissa Mitchell has been looking through a camera lens seriously for only about five years, she’s produced winning results as early as 2017 when she first entered the Creative Arts contest in three photography categories as a novice photographer.

“I ended up winning like an Honorable Mention in Floral Black and White,” she said. “And then my second year entering, I won first in Abstract.”

Although the hairstylist, part-time college student and mom of a middle school student said she has always had an interest in photography and used simple point and shoot cameras, she credits her husband for gifting her a quality camera for Christmas five years ago.

“That really kicked started my love of photography even more,” she said.

 Mitchell, a Princeton resident, said she took a hiatus from competition in 2019 and 2020, but this year she entered six photos into the contest. She received two first-place and one third-place ribbon in Abstract Color, Black and White and Scenery categories. 

Abstract, says Mitchell, is one of her favorite types of photography because you can take a photo anywhere of an “everyday normal item and show it to the world in a way that maybe they don’t see it.” She’s captured images at Trade Days in McKinney or by simply going into a shop, she said, and photographing different textures and items “that kind of catch my eye.”

Mitchell’s abstract win this year is an image in color of a reflection of trees on water.

Another first place win was in the Black and White Rural scenery category. Her submission of a home on the bayou is eerie, yet stunning at the same time. Mitchell’s third place win is a black and white waterscape of trees in the water at Lake Lavon captured on day with heavy fog.

Mitchell said she was extremely excited about the wins but said that she wasn’t expecting them “because she had second-guessed her entries after she got them back from the printer.” 

“I can tell you I probably did a little squeal and jumped up and down a few times,” she said after receiving the email about placing for her entries. “I had my own little celebration.”

The photographer said she has always had a creative streak and would often try crochet, painting or cross-stitch but, “now she has found a medium that speaks to her.” She is currently in the process of uploading some of her abstract images to a website that features custom prints fabrics. 

There is no set amount of time or skill needed for anyone considering entering a creative arts contest. Mitchell said, she knows it can be nerve-racking but “you just have to put yourself out there.” 

Stitching through retirement

Princeton resident Cynthia Hanson, 65, has been putting the skills she learned as a surgical technician assistant to use in her retirement years  as she continues to stitch her way to ribbon after ribbon at the State Fair each year.

Hanson won three first-place ribbons, two second-place ribbons and four honorable mention ribbons for her 2021 submissions in multiple categories; Needlepoint – single item, Crewel-picture, Counted Cross-Stitch – picture and Needlework and Sewing – Apron. 

Her attention to detail and ample time provide the perfect environment for a crafter like Hanson. In total, she entered 17 pieces in the Creative Arts contest this year and won nine ribbons. 

One blue ribbon-winning framed piece is a series of Mardi Gras masks which highlights her hand beading skills. 

“I did it all in little 11.0 beads,” she said. “If you’ve ever seen a really tiny suture or really tiny beads, that’s what I did — it’s all in beads.”

Hanson thinks it’s the precision beadwork that attracted the judges to her entry because she said they go through everything that is in the stitching categories with a magnifying glass and they make sure that you’ve crossed everything, and “everything is perfect.” 

“So, it’s really a blessing to win,” she said. “I really do feel blessed.”

Her 6’ x 6’ beaded pumpkin wreath crafted from a kit was a new style for Hanson to try. “That was my first year to put something in that category too — and I won a blue ribbon on that one.”

Her third blue ribbon was for a wolf crafted in yarn on a plastic canvas. 

“The whole design was an abstract wolf,” Hanson said. “It wasn’t like a gray and white wolf. It was blues, yellows, greens and reds. Every color of the rainbow in there. It was really cool.”

 Hanson first began entering the Creative Arts contests in 1997 when one of her hospital co-workers dared her to submit an entry. She entered a piece in the ceramic category, something her co-worker was unaware that she did, and won a blue ribbon for a turkey. Hanson said after that she was “hooked” and has entered every year since that first win although her co-worker never spoke to her or took her calls again. 

The crafter had to retire in 2012 after working in the field for 28 ½ years because she developed a latex allergy and broke out in a systemic rash all over her entire body. There was no way to get away from it, said Hanson, and she was told she couldn’t “scrub in anymore.”

“It just broke my heart, she said. “And then the very next year my daughter passed away from cancer. So, it was a really hard time for me around 2012, 2013.”

She credits the creative arts for helping her through those tough times.

“The stitching and all — I really got into it back then,” she said. “It’s pretty much what I do all day now after I do my chores around the house and all that.” 

The retiree loves crafting and has pretty much done it her whole life since teaching herself cross-stitch and embroidery when she was about 12 years old. 

“I was by myself all the time,” she said. “I wanted something to do.” 

Hanson is not afraid of a challenge and often watches videos on how to improve and learn new techniques.

“Every year, I try to put something in a new category to see how the judging is and how I would do,” Hanson said. “This year, it was beading and I won first place.”

All ribbon winning entries will be showcased inside the Creative Arts building at Fair Park in Dallas until October 17 when the fair officially closes.

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