Celebrating the handmade, the thirty-eighth annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show meets November 6-9, 2014 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center since 1993, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show draws craft artists from across the United States, with a particularly large contingent from the northeast this year. According to Nancy O’Meara, the show’s director and manager, for the 2014 edition, organizers received one thousand “strong applications” for one hundred ninety-five openings.
The panel of five jurors had their work cut out for them; as Elisabeth Agro, associate curator for craft and decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, put it in an interview, she was obliged to bring her “A” game to the selection process. She and her fellow jurors looked for up-and-coming artists who, in her words, “are pushing the boundaries of their medium or practice.” This year’s roster includes fifty-one first timers along with a cross-section of veteran artists, many of whom are expanding their repertoire and refreshing their approach to materials.
New Orleans fiber artist Starr Hagenbring has been to the show four times. Emailing while on a hike in Zion National Park, she noted how she has been trying to go “even more one of a kind” in her work—“My own sanity as an artist is what is at stake here,” she writes. The images and graphics on her clothing—leaves, stripes, curlicues, skulls—are handpainted with lush, topical paints. She does the decorative stitching free form, with machine, “to give the illusion of ‘sketching’ on top of the collaged painted surfaces.”
Fellow fiber artist Renee Harris from Cincinnati, Ohio, includes already completed pieces among her offerings at the show, but always strives to add fresh work in the mix because, she states, “I feel if I am not interested in the process, my work will not be interesting to others.”
This time around Harris is showing a new body of work that reflects her interest in addressing the plight of vanishing species, including birds (2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). She has recently changed materials and techniques to better define her narrative work, now incorporating graphite drawings and hand embroidery.
Animals are also a feature of jeweler Linda Kindler-Priest’s work; birds, fish, insects, a rhino, and a rabbit are part of her menagerie. The Bedford, Massachusetts, artist usually sculpts the form directly into fourteen karat gold via the ancient technique of repoussé. She then combines it with minerals, crystals and precious stones—an abstract addition that results in a striking ensemble of elements. The color, pattern, surfaces, and textures of each stone, says Kindler-Priest, “complete the statement in each of my sculptures.”
Henrietta, New York, resident Liaung-Chung Yen also practices a sculptural approach in his ornaments. He thinks of his jewelry as “small expressions of art, desire and wit, documenting the time and emotion in which I live.” Employing linear elements and hollow construction, he repeats similar forms in order to create a sense of rhythm in space. As he notes in a statement for the show, his wire forms and structures require “countless tiny solder points, creating strength and durability in what appears to be a fragile and delicate art jewelry piece.”
Metal artist David Bacharach from Cockeysville, Maryland, does not prepare for individual shows; “I can’t work that way,” he says, adding, “I create my work and exhibit what I have been able to create.” Bacharach begins his pieces with quick sketches made in a field notebook or on the back of an envelope (he has even employed a piece of scrap plywood to record the outlines of a form with duct tape). He accumulates memories of a landscape, trees and leaves and makes numerous studies of birds or mammals. These images are transferred to velum and then stacked atop each other as if they were photographic negatives. The resulting “accumulated” sketch is then “developed” into a single “amalgamated” final drawing.
“The purpose of this exercise,” Bacharach states, “is to freeze a moment in time and recreate that moment as if observing a point in space from multiple angles, in multiple planes.” After the accumulated materials have been allowed to “ferment” in his studio, they are translated into metal. At Philadelphia he will be exhibiting new sculptures and wall works based on recent research and field studies of ravens, crows and owls.
Ceramics artist Bennett Bean from Blairstown, New Jersey, considers the show “a device” for resolving issues he is dealing with in each of his separate but related projects across a range of mediums. He will be showing pit-fired, painted and gilded earthenware pieces as well as some new “kitchen gods,” porcelain figures meant to preside over one’s cooking space.
A number of artists look upon the show as an opportunity to build their clientele, attract new collectors and maybe land a commission. “As a designer/maker of furniture,” notes Michael Puryear of Shokan, New York, in the Catskills, “I bring examples of my work that I feel will inspire potential clients to commission me to produce a piece for them.”
Puryear, who is an associate professor at SUNY-Purchase, will be offering a sampling of his work, including a barrow chair, tables and a playful setting for a game of chess: a chessboard affixed to a bench which is equipped with vintage farm tractor seats for the players. His reductive pieces often feature curved elements, which are achieved through a bent lamination process, and contrasting woods—part of his mission to imbue his work with shibui, the Japanese term for simple elegance.
In his James Renwick Alliance Distinguished Lecture delivered last year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Puryear noted that three things come into play when making furniture: the concept, the material and the process. The designer needs all three in order to make memorable and useful furniture.
Mixed media artist Cathy Rose, who is in the process of opening a gallery in the French Quarter in New Orleans, has been participating in the Philadelphia show for almost twenty years. One of the perks of her long-time connection: gaining an appreciation of the city, both its history and the people who come to the show.
It takes Rose about two months of “pretty intense” studio time to create the work for display. She usually produces several larger pieces and between thirty and forty smaller ones to fill out the space and provide replacements for work that is sold in the course of the four-day exhibit. Influenced by primitive and outsider art, she creates haunting figurative sculpture that features female forms in various poses and sometimes riding a horse or other conveyance. Her work is narrative and, she notes, reflects her personal story.
Rose begins each piece in porcelain, forming the figure without the use of casts or molds. The “Artist’s Confessions” section of her website features a series of photographs of her studio taken by fellow mixed media artist Betsy Youngquist that show the pieces in progress: a tray full of porcelain heads, a clutch of half figures in small carts. This is Geppetto’s shop in Pinocchio, but with a very contemporary twist.
For his very first appearance at the Philadelphia show, Bounkhong Signavong, a national of Laos who lives in Secaucus, New Jersey, will be showing an assortment of textiles, including wall hangings, shawls and scarves, along with one-of-a-kind fashion items—jackets, shirts, dresses. All items have been handwoven on a traditional loom, naturally dyed and individually tailored. The spirit of his work, Signavong says, is influenced by the teachings of Buddhism.
Ridgefield, Connecticut, basketmaker Kari Lonning employs social media leading up to the show. She often posts process photographs to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook “so that people who see them can understand what goes into making my work.” Her posts include tags to the craft show. For the 2014 show Lonning has been working on a group of smaller, bright “hairy” textured pieces as well as a series of larger-scale complex baskets, all of them made with rattan reed that has been dyed with commercial, colorfast dyes “for depth of color and longevity.”
Lonning counts on this show for sales. “By selling my work,” she explains, “I am able to pay for the dog and cat food and living a life where I can spend my days playing with color and weaving baskets.” She praises the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show for their efforts to attract new people each year, noting that this outreach is one of the most important aspects of running a show.
Philadelphia Museum curator and craft show juror Agro notes that in reviewing this year’s submissions she found a “striking proliferation” of work across all media that could be categorized as “minimal but blended with a twang of the industrial.” The Czech-born glass artist Alexander Fekete, who now lives in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, displays something of that “twang” in his aerodynamic glass sculptures that have been blown, cut, carved, sandblasted, and spot polished.
This year’s show features a number of duo artists, including Mary Hughes and Caro-Gray Bosca from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Describing their work as “ancient yet contemporary,” the duo draws on classic training in jewelrymaking and blacksmithing to create their ornaments. Paul Monfredo and Nancy McCormick from Seal Harbor, Maine, likewise turn to the past for inspiration. They specialize in mirrors that incorporate imagery drawn from the natural world, illuminated manuscripts, art history and architecture.
There is also sense of the marvelous, as if the jurors had a special eye for the unusual. Mike Libby’s mechanically enhanced insects might be found in a cabinet of curiosities; Thomas Mann’s techno-romantic talismanic ornaments feature found objects arranged in collage designs; and Biba Schutz’s complex adornments play on the idea of inside-outside space, places to hide “and their shadows.”
Show manager O’Meara is particularly excited about the University Program, which was launched in 2010, calling the program “an investment in the future of contemporary craft.” This year, work by students from four institutions will be featured: Kutztown University, Savannah College of Art and Design and Philadelphia’s own Moore College of Art and Design and University of the Arts. She notes that the featured students and recent alumni staff the booths, thereby “gaining the experience of participating in our show.”
Proceeds benefit the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a variety of programs and projects. Among them, notes O’Meara, are acquisition of craft objects and support of exhibitions and educational programs, including Form in Art, a studio art program for the blind and visually handicapped.
Hagenbring, Bean and several other presenters express pleasure in the “sophisticated” level of the visitors and the overall professional quality of the show. Nearly all the artists contacted noted the benefits of interaction with prospective collectors. Fiber artist Hagenbring might sum it up for all of the participating artists when she says, “Thank you, Philly, for being there.” She considers it one of the last craft shows that “actually will bring in a customer who is looking for something that is created by an American craftsperson.”
In an interview last year with the American Craft Council about his new book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, fellow juror Peter Korn stated, “What matters about making is that it is a form of being creatively engaged in the world that seems to really be a key to finding meaning and fulfillment in one’s life.” That sentiment comes through in the statements and the work of the artists showing in Philadelphia this year: engaged, meaningful and fulfilling.