Oak Park Women’s Exchange marks the big 4-0

When her mother developed Alzheimer’s disease, Deanne Alexander didn’t want to sit idly by. So when the doctor mentioned that blueberries help prevent Alzheimer’s, she did what anyone in her situation would do. She started making blueberry soap.

Alexander decided to sell the blueberry soaps and donate the proceeds to Alzheimer’s research. And she knew the perfect place to sell handmade some — the Oak Park Women’s Exchange, a non-profit artisan co-op where artists sell their artisanal crafts while benefiting intellectually, socially, creatively and financially.

OPWE recently commemorated its fortieth anniversary with an open house, which featured the premier of a documentary detailing the history of the exchange.

“The celebration was a really wonderful tribute to the women’s exchange,” said Diane Symonanis, co-chair of OPWE’s finance committee. “It was also a thank you to the community for their support and a reminder that we’re still here and always looking for new artists and customers.”

Founded in 1974, OPWE sells a wide variety of handmade items, including pottery, soaps, jewelry, stained glass, doll clothes, quilts, purses, cards, watercolors and more. All items are locally made and top quality. “We have an incredible group of women who do gorgeous work, and our prices are beneficial to both artists and customers,” said Alexander.

In addition to selling artisanal works, the OPWE holds an Annual Dolls Tea Party in the fall and a Holiday Art & Craft Fair in November. During this year’s tea party, to be held September 20, children can do crafts, enjoy baked goods and enter to win raffle prizes, including an American Girl doll.

Each member of the exchange works eight hours a month in the shop, which offers a higher percentage of earnings compared to most other retailers. In addition, members encourage one another. “We’re really supportive of our members and spark each other’s creativity,” Alexander said.

The OPWE is always looking for new artists. “Prospective members are asked to bring in samples of their work to be juried,” said Symonanis, who has been involved with the exchange for 14 years. “We have an eclectic group with members ranging from high school students to octogenarians.

“Being part of the exchange offers a creative atmosphere and gives you the opportunity to meet a wide variety of talented people,” she added. Men are also welcome to become members. Currently, the group has 50 members, three of whom are men.

One of Symonanis’ favorite aspects of the exchange is the fact that a number of members use skills passed down through the generations. “Many of us have learned skills from our mothers and grandmothers,” she said. “The exchange allows members to respect and remember those who taught us.”

According to Alexander, the main reason why the OPWE’s products are special comes down to passion. “I don’t think there is a single artist in our shop who is not passionate about what they do,” she says. “We also appreciate our customers. They’re very dedicated to the shop and support us whenever they can.”

To see the work of Oak Park’s talented artisans or to inquire about becoming a member, stop by the OPWE boutique located at 839 S. Oak Park Ave. And be sure to check out Alexander’s handmade soaps. To learn more about the OPWE and view the documentary, visit their website at www.opwe.org.

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