April 14 – 17
National Building Museum Washington, D.C.
The craft world is dealing with a generational shift that has all the inexorability of time itself. A new crop of craft artists, encouraged in their artistic pursuits by their peers and the camaraderie of community offered by the Internet, are creating a new craft movement, one that is decentralized and widespread. More than that, it offers a different avenue for young artists, who can exhibit and market their work among themselves and their age group rather than proceeding into the more established professional arenas.
Inevitably as this new movement grows, however, the best of these artists will want to progress. With this growing population, the traditional craft shows face difficult choices. In most cases, long-time craft artists continue to improve in their work; thus, carrying out a complete turnover of exhibitors loses a large pool of talent. However, there are unmistakable gems among the up and coming, and the introduction of new artists helps keep the line-up fresh. The two main choices for craft shows are specialization and balance; to either focus strongly on an established audience or to stir the pot. Neither of these need to be exclusive choices; treading a middle ground might be the better answer.
In 2011, the Smithsonian Craft Show is approaching this issue for the first time. Most craft shows have a section for emerging artists, but in recognition of the volume of craft artists out there, nearly half of this year’s one hundred twenty exhibitors for the Smithsonian Craft Show are new. Most still have five or more years of exhibiting experience. While many of them are younger artists, some are those who have been trying to enter for years.
This certainly changes the show’s dynamic and feel. The most apparent difference is the utilization of alternative materials, and the novel approaches to the medium. Kaoru Izushi’s knitted fashion is a trailblazer for the potential of this new generation; sensuous, hip, with shapes and draping reminiscent of traditional East Asian cultures, all rendered in natural fibers run through the knitting machine. Her work is currently unimitable, not by quality of craft nor rarity of material, but rather its originality, clever inspiration from traditional elements, strength of design, and functionality. Though Japanese, Izushi seems to have taken influences from Korean dress. Her jackets resemble chogori, small Korean coats that for women only extend to the armpits, and are tied across the front by a bow.
As far as her acceptance, Izushi is overwhelmed. She is no stranger to craft shows: “Including small local shows, I’ve been showing more than fifteen years,” Izushi explains. However, this is the first time she has been admitted to the Smithsonian. “I am very excited about it. My dream has come true,” Izushi says.
The jewelry of Mayra Orama Muñiz and Erica Millner is another welcome stirring of the pot. Their geometric, architectural work seems like it would be made with metal, but in fact utilizes a combination of precious metal and wood. Their bracelets have sculptural elements, such as a three-part bangle that features each of the three curving arches interlocking into a single smooth piece that has a sense of rotational power. Their geode-like necklace has a satisfying heft of shape, with each wooden “bead,” matte charcoal black, populated by dots of silver to break up monotony. The use of wood stems from their first craft fairs in Puerto Rico, where they began their career. “There were many ‘rules’ about making crafts that reflected the historical crafts of the island. Artisans were accepted to craft fairs based on their use of traditional materials. We started using seeds from palm trees and vines to create our jewelry. Many people were doing the same thing so we started using exotic woods that were readily available. We would go to the local wood mill and select the pieces that would otherwise be burned or discarded. The wood was so unbelievably beautiful that we were inspired to use its grain, tone and color to create sculptural jewelry.”
Muñiz and Millner have been doing art fairs for years in Jayuya, Puerto Rico. Having begun their jewelry careers in 1998, they attended roughly fifty art fairs every year in a wide range of locales, from the Museum of Art in San Juan to “a dusty field in Moca.” As with Kaoru Izushi, Muñiz and Millner show that there is a sizeable pool of artists who have plenty of experience in shows yet only now have gained the opportunity to attend a higher venue, about which they are similarly enthusiastic. “We are very grateful and excited,” Millner says. For Millner and Muñiz, the Smithsonian Craft Show gave them an excuse to experiment with their work and push the edge of their artistic envelope.
Glass artists Jeremy Newman and Allison Ciancibelli create luminescent sculptures that resemble colorful chimaeric beach stones, the rare treasures of the mundane. Taking their inspiration from the local landscape of their home in North Central Washington, Newman and Ciancibelli’s artist statement points out, “It is in these lowlands that we find our voice, exploring the intersection of the native landscape and the influence of man in transforming that landscape.” The frosted glass sculptures, often mounted on rusted metal planks or pieces of wood, certainly evoke that poignant sensation of woodpost fences, rusty barbed wire, and the hills and fields of Washington. “We have been working with blown glass for fourteen years and showing it nationally for the past ten years,” Newman says. “As young emerging artists we are excited to be able to show our work to such a sophisticated clientele.”
Chandra Stubbs is a mixed-media artist who is also joining the Smithsonian show for the first time, although she has presented her work in other craft shows as many other new arrivals have. Stubbs’s work is built upon her ceramics training, but takes a completely different direction due to her interest in fabric. Merino wool felt is the medium for a bold palette of colors. Making the ceramic-enshrined equivalent of a wall hanging, the pieces Stubbs makes are bright and vibrant. Her work is like an orderly Jackson Pollock, where the paint splashes are instead layers of dyed felt, set into conscribed ceramic circles rather than blotting themselves across a canvas.
For Stubbs, Smithsonian has been a goal post to reach for years. “Smithsonian Craft Show, it kind of says it all. I’m not going to lie, I was ecstatic that I got in and have been trying to reach this point in showing my art since day one,” Stubbs explains. “I have applied for the past five years, and even when I saw the acceptance letter I still could not believe it. There comes a certain validation with being selected to present work in such a prestigious show. And with this validation comes a new sense of spirit and creativity.”
Stubbs has a particularly cogent perspective on the multi-disciplinary craft that is appearing more and more at craft shows like the Smithsonian. “I have been doing shows since 2001, but feel I have really caught my stride the past three years after I left behind my label as a ceramic artist and have embraced the world of mixed-media. I have never liked labels, and as far as the future of cross-disciplines in the world of craft I think we are going to see a lot more. Artists and craftsmen I talk with are doing the same, and I think it is a natural progression.”
While these new arrivals are stimulating for their own sake, it is something that should be considered in addition to those established artists who still make up half the Smithsonian’s exhibitors, and continue to create outstanding work. John Iversen, veteran metalsmith and exhibitor at the Smithsonian Craft Show, is an elegant example. Iversen’s work is that sublime convergence between aesthetic and technique. His leaf motifs, an iconic facet of his portfolio, stand out in white silver as if they were petrified. Veins and filaments are gloriously rendered. And Iversen has continued to explore new directions in his work.
Similarly, the jewelry of Ken Loeber and Dona Look shows the maturation that requires significant time and effort to achieve. Loeber and Look’s work has focused on textural qualities, but more recently Ken Loeber has begun a series playing with the concept of shadow, foreground and background. Coral branches, accentuated by a gold leaf or a single pearl, backed with a dark, sterling silver silhouette, become a poignant three-dimensional structure.
Loeber and Look’s admission to the Smithsonian again this year is well deserved. Dona Look received a United States Artist Fellowship grant in 2010 which was very helpful in giving a creative boost to the artists. Look explains, “It encouraged both me and Ken to focus on doing our best work and gave us the opportunity to experiment on new ideas with less financial stress.”
Rod Creegan and Ignatius Givens are veteran milliners whose braided fiber hats play significantly with shape. Truly sculptural pieces, the stiff nature of fiber weaving with straw or raffia allows very complicated forms to be produced. While the iconic farmer’s straw hat may be made from the same material, Creegan and Givens illustrate just how far the boundaries can be pushed: a mountain of leaves surmounted by a small beehive becomes a cone-like cap, while something like a multi-tiered fedora with thick braiding experiments with a standard shape to produce something unusual and stylish. That most of their work exists in a mono-colored oeuvre of straw-yellow presents a type of incongruity—that of innovative form paired with a traditional folk medium.
This is the simple truth which not only Iversen, Creegan, Givens, Loeber and Look, but many other established artists prove: that there is no expiration date on good craft. This demonstrates the value and necessity of finding ways to encourage the presence of both groups, the established and the emerging. Going too far in one direction or another, at the very least, reduces the diversity of the craft work.
In a description of their work, Newman and Ciancibelli write, “Blackbirds flocking to a lone cottonwood tree, a full September moon signaling the harvest, straw bales left to rot in a farmer’s field, an abandoned fence line of weathered posts. These simple, abstract images present to the viewer a single moment in time, but a more elaborate storyline lies in the periphery. The narrative tells of the cycles and the seasons that inform and direct our daily lives.” Newman and Ciancibelli’s statement about their art is a good metaphor for the current craft world at large. The seasons are changing; unlike the relatively small pool of dedicated craftspeople who have made up the community for decades, the near future will see an explosion in population.
The Smithsonian Women’s Committee has made a big step this year in trying to address these concerns. How future shows will go is an interesting question; will half of the show continue to be first-time exhibitors? What will happen to those who exhibited this year? Who, out of the quite extensive pool of skilled craft artisans, will be picked for that other half? The Smithsonian’s decisions will determine the future nature of the show. This depends on what the goal will be. Is it now a showcase for new talent?
While this may seem to be a simple answer, it is important to understand that for emerging and established craft artists alike, a show like the Smithsonian represents a major and vital source of income. The livelihood of a craft artist is difficult whether they are just starting out or have been in the field for decades, and the influx of new artists into Smithsonian necessarily displaces many of these incredible artists.
The likeliest answer is the happy medium; a place to bring in new artists into the circuit, while slowly accruing its own stable of excellent artisans from those who have and continue to pass through. Even as American art education receives severe cutbacks, there are legions of young artists out there; it is clear that the pool of talented craftspeople in the near future will be larger than it is today. One way or another, these artists will need a door into the show circuit, and the craft shows will need this talent to remain connected to a new generation of craft buyers. Perhaps the new incarnation of the Smithsonian will serve as this vital gateway.
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