Smithsonian Craft Show 2014




April 10-13, 2014 National Building Museum Washington, D.C

In a world hurrying to get someplace fast every day and hour, a desire for respite seems insistent but unfulfillable. The tide of life sweeps us along, whether it is the demands of one’s job or the many expectations society heaps on us. However, each spring there is a space where time can stand still, and it is to be found in the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian Craft Show is a very special four-day annual pop-up for the leisurely exploration of what the careful investments of human creative energy bring to our lives, and to reflect on the paramount importance of time in enabling creativity. The time it takes to make an object, be it glass vessel, wooden chair, clay pot, woven basket, silken dress, or silver necklace, includes not only the hours or sometimes days taken to create a piece, but also years of investigation, training and practice spent learning the techniques used in making it. Each was a journey that required many steps and an education of triumphs and mistakes.

Take the life-path of Isabelle Posillico, a Danish-American artist hailing from California who started her career running a construction company, having a degree in architectural interior design. However, with the downturn in the economy, she took a jewelry and metalsmithing class and fell in love with the process of direct hands-on experience. “Within this medium of jewelry, I could design and create in a short period something that I could hold in my hands,” states Posillico.

For the jeweler, family life and contact with wearable art from a young age had primed the wonder of craft. “Being Danish, I grew up with good solid design surrounding me. I had real gold and silver jewelry pieces passed down in the family, and even though they were old pieces, they were beautifully designed. At fourteen I was given a silver Cetus link bracelet designed by Bjorn Weckstrom for Lapponia with the most amazing hidden clasp, a piece of sculpture,” she relates. What was important for building her fascination was her ability to relate to craft directly, in her immediate environment. “My mother wore jewelry collected from Egypt, Sri Lanka and Africa as well as classic Danish jewelry, very elegant,” Posillico remembers. Her mother had another influence on the artist. “She instilled that you weren’t dressed until you put your jewelry on.”

That jewelry, which Posillico now creates herself, is a tactile, visual experience. As an example take one of her rings: the gold coil of the ring had to be bent into its circle, the pearl and gemstones required setting, and the winding orbits of gold that make the whole piece seem like a whirling galaxy had to be formed by hand and tool. Her rings bear studying when you visit her booth. The sight before your eyes—its placement of colors and contrast by gemstone, pearl and metal, its shape and form, and the images it conjures within your mind and imagination—did not happen randomly; they were consciously interpreted. And that took time—twenty-two years in Posillico’s case.  


Craft is also an activity which furthers human development. Although an artist can sell her or his work, ultimately it is being made for its own sake. Robert Briscoe, a ceramist, describes the magic such a task engenders in him. “Back then as well as now I felt that ceramics was a path towards being a whole person,” he explains. “For the first time I saw a daily life that was full, and fulfilling. I am not a spiritual person but this life as a potter has been everything in that realm for me. It has connected me to the world. You are all at once handmaker, a designer, a chemist, a brick layer, a manager, an accountant, and possibly an artist. You get to explore with your brain as well as your body. The thing I enjoy the most is developing an idea that is growing towards robustness and then completing it and finding a new one. The other thing I find fascinating is the studio filling up with pots to the bursting point and looking up one morning and not remembering making them—as if they just magically appeared and multiplied.”  

Briscoe cuts to the heart of the matter when he discusses why craft is important. “Craft is like all art, another method to develop language. Someone once told me the work of an artist is not self-expression but self-improvement. This made me think about this life: I always feel I am a better human when I am making pots. So I think craft is about people teaching themselves how to expand their minds and teaching themselves skills of the hand in a world that seems to be running in the opposite direction. Craft is real, made from real things. Craft is also accessible to a larger part of our culture. I have always thought the traditional visual artforms have a direct line to the brain of the viewer, while craft’s path to that same place goes first through the body. Craft connects us to the physical world—shadows are created, things have mass and textures one can feel.”  

Returning to the example of Posillico’s ring—Finger it—Examine its tactile qualities. Now let the understanding flood within that what is being held is not a digital image on a computer nor some flashy special-effects on the big screen, but something solid, something substantial, which required effort to create. It did not come into the world spontaneously out of nowhere, and it was not an act of chance. If we forget how to make things with our own hands, we will be subject to an existence devoid of our input. It is not necessarily that in the computer age, creative acts cannot be accomplished; digital art, rapid prototyping, 3D printing all have their own aspects of craft to them. But those processes, too, require human knowledge and skill to accomplish and they are not to be taken for granted.  

The diversity of craft is infinite, and through its variety we are able to recognize what calls to us and differentiates us. There is an intrinsic aesthetic appreciation within every person, and somewhere within the vast menagerie called craft, there is some medium that will speak to you whether it be ceramics, basketry, glass, jewelry, clothing, wood, paper, or even the eclectic category called mixed media.  

Once you find one object of craft to admire and appreciate, in due time there will be another, and another. Because the same qualities that beguiled or expressed truth to you will be found, even if in different form or technique, made by another artist, or belonging to another medium. What you are responding to, I will hazard a guess, is the careful attention to detail and the endless urge to find new ways of creating that an artist brings to a piece.  

Glass craftsman Wesley Fleming recalls his first encounter with his beloved material of choice. “I was living in Berkeley, California, and bought a glass bead from a lampworker vending his beads on Telegraph Avenue. I was so intrigued by the colors, design and depth achieved in such a small object and I really wanted to learn how to do this. The transformation of glass from brittle to molten and pliable mesmerizes me, filling me with wonder despite having worked with it for more than twelve years now.”  

With those twelve years of experience, Fleming now renders the insect world into his glass creations as fragile, lithe and entrancing sculptures. Larger than life, he nevertheless faithfully reproduces the feeling of a living being in his glasswork, from leaf-cutter ants scaling a silicate-derived branch to damselflies mating on a cattail.  

These miniature reproductions are only impressive to the mind that can comprehend the human effort required in creating them. To those who believe it was made in thirty minutes or pumped out from a machine, the feeling of wonder subsides dramatically to dismissal. In a world where much of the objects in our lives are produced in a factory, this perspective is understandable even if regrettable.

Detailed creations can be made from everyday materials that we are inclined to dismiss, and that transformation, from, say, willow bark to basket, is miraculous. Jennifer Heller Zurick found this out in her path towards becoming a masterful basketweaver. “A chance encounter with a felled willow tree and the possibilities its bark presented was my introduction to exploration in basketry,” she reminisces. “I had been experimenting with textile weaving, so was inclined to attempt weaving the bark, and baskets seemed the most applicable use for it. The natural, warm color and organic character of natural fibers attract me as does the vessel form.”  

It is the tactile, sensuous quality of the material which makes the basketry process so real, so personal to Zurick. Being able to touch the willow bark fibers with one’s hands and understand the immediate, physical existence of her craft is important, and Zurick’s pleasure is in seeing other people gravitate to that same attribute. “Taking a beautiful, raw fiber and creating a fulfilling woven form is very satisfying, as is creating work that other people are drawn to,” she pleasantly opines. Additionally, there is a historical human element, as a fixture of the home and the hearth, that makes containers like baskets and ceramics resonate within our DNA. “There is just something very cozy and comforting about natural fiber baskets that adds warmth and domesticity to our homes and connects us to the past.”  

Aaron Macsai relates the quintessential experience of being a craftsperson, whatever the medium. “Craft implies handmade objects, but that is a rather empty definition to me. When I hear craft, I have to split my response. The somewhat irritating description is what everyone thinks they can do, once they go out and buy some interesting visual raw materials. It is a pleasurable personal process of creating things with your hands. Crafts can be a hobby, or it can be a lifetime achievement.  

“I have spent my entire adult life dedicated to the passion I have for creating small precious objects, usually jewelry. I like knowing how things work and how they are created. I love the feeling of fine tools in my hands. There is a nervous thrill and excitement as I anticipate using a new tool, and a comforting pleasure in holding a well-broken-in old one. In my field of jewelry, cherished tools are often much older than me, and I will pass them down when I am gone. Tools are an essential part of the process and are second only to hands, however, they are just as personal.  


“I have worked in my field since I was a freshman in high school. My first jewelry teacher was Enrico Fermi’s daughter, Nella Weiner. This was in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago high school. The jewelry studio was my sanctuary and she let me loose to explore. I could actually play with fire, and use the torch to melt metal. That was pretty cool for a thirteen-year-old boy. That was many decades ago, way before worries about liability. Art school was next and then the blessing of connecting with Professor Brent Kington at Southern Illinois University. He was my mentor, as well as the graduate studio filled with extremely talented adult metalsmiths. I was the shop boy and I soaked up knowledge like a sponge. I learned everything from blacksmithing and forge-welding steel and iron, to hollowware, tool and die, welding, foundry work, knifemaking, cold-joining techniques, and inlaying gold into steel. It was a wonderful place to be in the late 1970s if you loved learning all there is to know about working metal. All of this was long before CAD and 3D printing. Learning techniques of metalsmithing required, above all else, patience.”  

Robert K. Liu, Ornament’s Coeditor, has been crafting bamboo torques by using heatbending techniques for over five years now. As he finished a yellow banana-boat pendant for his newest piece, he distills the issue of the handmade down to its essence. “Everyone thinks that just because they have an idea, they can do it. But that’s the thing with making physical objects with your hands; there’s a big difference between having the idea in your mind and having it become a reality.”  

Ultimately too, these objects can stir up emotions as well. Danielle Gori-Montanelli’s felt creations are absurd and sublime in their levity, from her multicolored, neon, flower and frond bedecked hat to her pre-sliced fruit confections of pears, apples and radishes. She describes the emotion that making raises in herself, as well as her customers. “The main emotion that is conjured up for me in my work is joy. When people approach my stand when I am exhibiting, they often comment how joyful, playful and colorful my work is. Customers tell me that they receive many smiles from strangers when wearing my work. I love that and how little things can bring big happiness. That is the most important thing to me.”  

Craft’s greatest beauty is its ability to offer humanity an alternative path. We are able to bring into the world new forms, shapes and ideas. It gives us an endless pursuit towards perfection. It allows us to customize our existence, whether through our bodies, with what we wear, or our homes, with what we furnish. There is only one other endless pursuit which humankind seems eager to purvey, and that is war and destruction. Though that pastime may enrich some beyond their wildest dreams, it impoverishes the rest of us morally, emotionally and spiritually. Art and craft, for the time they take to make, also do not use up much space. So it would take several eons of craftmaking to fill our world and cause environmental disturbances, which is just as well. Simply put, for an activity to perpetuate life, craft is just the cure.  





Patrick R. Benesh-Liu
Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor for Ornament Magazine and has written articles on museum exhibitions, contemporary jewelers and clothing makers, and craft shows. In this issue he gives an exposé on the Savannah College of Art & Design, a multi-national institution with its main campus based in its eponymous town. He describes how in the modern age, humanity despite its struggles is finally equipped to pursue its own dreams and desires, and relates how SCAD works to support a person’s interest in reinventing themselves as an artist and craftsperson. He also compiles the latest jewelry and clothing related events from around the world in Ornament’s news section.




This article in its entirety appears only in the print magazine.

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