FEATURE
jewelry-at-smithsonian-craft-show
SHARON DONOVAN
Smithsonian Craft
Show 2012


Thirtieth Anniversary

 

 

 


The Smithsonian Craft Show is a smorgasbord of sights, backed by the soothing susurration of conversation in a cavernous space. As one of the leading craft shows in the United States, the Smithsonian has been undergoing a metamorphosis that reflects overarching transitions in the larger craft world. In 2011, the craft show made a substantial modification in its line-up, jurying in almost sixty new artists.

This year, the Smithsonian extends that trend, with forty-four first time exhibitors out of a total of one hundred twenty-one. Each artist must be selected by a panel of three jurors, this year consisting of Lloyd Herman, Jo Lauria and David Revere McFadden. The reasoning behind the jurors’ decision to include so many new exhibitors is the importance of creating a more vital and dynamic environment in which to showcase craft. This decision marks the Smithsonian’s recognition of the vast pool of American craft artists out there, and its efforts to find a sweet spot of accommodating that demographic, without resorting to a total turnover that would have an impact on the show’s feel and quality. A challenge, to be sure.

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MICHAEL ROMANIK

This decision marks the Smithsonian’s recognition of the vast pool of American craft artists out there, and its efforts to find a sweet spot of accommodating that demographic, without resorting to a total turnover that would have an impact on the show’s feel and quality. A challenge, to be sure. Although 2011 was the year of change, 2012 hastens us to act, to respond to our world which has remained turbulent. The shifts made in 2011 have now begun to bear fruit, but many see that in our current world we cannot remain idle, as seemed possible in years past. Life is no longer something to be accepted passively, for the changes to our country and to our earth demand we reject our somnolence.

It is for that reason perhaps that the Smithsonian, despite its enduring iteration as a staple of the craft world, remains a hopeful vehicle for change. It is the mechanism of presentation of some of humanity’s best qualities, and an example of a different mode of making a living that thrives on creative construction, rather than the treadmill of the service industry that comprises much of modern employment. According to current statistics, service jobs comprise seventy-six percent of American employment, up ten percent from 1986. In 1950, forty-five percent of nonagricultural laborers were employed in the service sector, while sixty-five percent were producers, cited from statistics by the AFL-CIO. That difference was even more dramatic before World War II.

As with last year, the results of this adjustment to the craft show’s artist pool present an interesting mélange. Some fields have benefited by these changes, while others have suffered from reduced representation. By bringing in an assortment of skilled and practiced craftspeople, the beauty of this year’s jewelry remains unabated. The new inclusions to the jewelry category, although mainly veterans of the craft circuit, are in themselves strong additions.

Michael Romanik works with cloisonné enameling to bring his songbirds to vivid life. Enamel serves wonderfully to produce bright and diverse colors, and Romanik has juxtaposed this with either silver or gold to impart a coolness or warmth for effect. Each brooch is a small bird, whether a sparrow, chickadee or other miniature avian, perched upon a branch embellished with judicious use of gemstones. Whether at rest or inquisitively positioned, Romanik’s birds have a vivacious quality, as if they were the flesh and blood birds themselves.

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JEONG JU LEE

Korean jeweler Bongsang Cho is a third-year graduate student of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Although he has previously exhibited in craft shows, as part of SCAD’s program, this is his first time as an independent presence. Cho’s fascination with technology to surmount previously impassable barriers in jewelry techniques is a commonality of his generation. His current series utilizes laser welding to bypass the problem of combining traditional soldering and enameling. The result is an unfolding geometry of sultry brooches, accented by the rich expression of color available from enamel. The deviation from his prior series, delicate wire flowers that expand outwards as opening blossoms, illustrates his diverse aesthetic.

Stefanis Alexandres is another new exhibitor, whose work combines titanium, gold, silver, and copper to produce subtly patinated jewelry, where parts of rings slough away, as if replicating corrosion or the raw ore of the metal itself. Achieved all by hand, without molds, Alexandres drills and shapes the metal, afterwards using extreme temperatures to fuse the titanium. Embellishment in the form of anodization or semiprecious stones adds hints of color and variation.

The silver jewelry of Sharon Donovan stands out due to the unusual geometry and sharp lines of her bracelets, earrings and brooches. Invoking a modernist vibe, the clarity of the sterling silver is well represented by bold and clean composition. Lightly accentuated by swirling designs rendered in gold, the main visual feast is provided by Donovan’s use of fiber techniques as the centerpoint for her pieces. Like jewelry artist Valerie Hector, Donovan strings glass seed beads, which are incorporated into her jewelry. In metallic hues or mimicking the gemstones Donovan occasionally sets into her work, they provide an eyecatching counterpoint.

The wearable art section is smaller than in prior years; nevertheless, there remain several worthy inclusions. Cecilia Frittelli and Richard Lockwood are one of those grand artistic couples whose interplay yields that robust aesthetic available to those who can call on their closest companion for ideas and critiques. With two artists, work can never be exactly identical, as each has their own input into the process that ensures a slight variation with each piece.

Frittelli and Lockwood’s garments are also notable for being some of the only menswear available. Though most art to wear has been for women, male clothing makers like Kane and Sells are a much appreciated niche in the market, and Frittelli and Lockwood know how to make stylish fashion for men. With that certain flair calling up reminiscences of well-tailored English tweed, yet infused with an urbane modernity and a broad palette of textiles, these two artists succeed in transposing the traditional into the contemporary. Their rather romantic approach mixes well for both women and men.

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ARLENE WOHL

Arlene Wohl is another clothing artist who utilizes weaving of yarns in her work. For her, weaving is the means to scintillating expressions of color, and the play of mood and emotion through hue. Her jackets possess a sumptuousness available to the woven form, a dynamic that differs from pieced silk, which often has a more ephemeral nature. Like Frittelli and Lockwood, these clothes feel more robust; comfortably snug is the descriptor.

Michelle Murray and Susan Burden’s handpleated silk garments bring a different approach to wearable art than is often seen from silkwear. They work in three dimensions, as some of the most notorious fashion designers did, escalating the shape of the dress away from the human body. This exploration of the malleability of the human form has intrigued fashionistas past and present, as it challenges and redefines how we think of our own bodies.

Murray and Burden’s own exploration is embellished by dichroic hues that shimmer across the surface, which is richly textured by the pleating process. Like many fiber artists interested in the rich representation of color on silk, Murray and Burden use shibori techniques. However, their interpretation yields clothing with almost a sci-fi air, a futurism that is created from the combination of the metallic colors and the wild, unusual forms and shapes.

The Smithsonian’s approach to its selection process is again illustrated through its ceramics category. Besides Fong Choo and Cliff Lee, well-beloved regulars of the show, almost half of the department features new work. Several of these, such as K Osvog and Joseph Gower of GDG Studios, are geometric compositions, with the latter marketing low environmental impact. Eco-consciousness is an advertising tool in this day and age, as well as a moral position more artists are taking as a synthesis between their aesthetic desire and personal values. Sometimes it is only the former that is considered, which fortuitously assists the latter; jeweler Connie Ulrich, with her use of found objects and rusted materials, may not have decided to recycle castaways as an environmental decision, but the result is the same.

Decorative fiber is always an oddity; carpet or sculpture, bedsheet or wall hanging, those who work this discipline have both severe limitations, and extensive room for experimentation. The most striking of this year’s participants in the category is Luanne Rimel of St. Louis, Missouri. Her most recent series, Figures, has a timeless feel, as its subject is marble sculptures and iconography, monastic and dignified. These images are rendered into dish towels via handstitching and modern technology that is photorealistic. Although her representational work is perhaps easier to relate to than more abstract pieces, her method of using printing to put down the image, then handquilting the picture, means the piece is more than simply a two-dimensional flat image. The stitching means the piece has texture, depth, which makes the image leap out to the viewer. Her use of cotton flour-sacks for some of her pieces is another example of reusing materials.

Each artist in the Smithsonian reminds us of the beauty we are capable of making. From Romanik’s emanations of avian nature to Frittelli and Lockwood’s chic transfigurations of the traditional, to the ceramic arts of Cliff Lee and Fong Choo, the basketry of Christina Adcock, Kari Lonning and Debora Muhl. Giving a half-dozen examples is an under-representation, for one can find beauty in all the work seen at the craft show.

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CHRISTINA GOODMAN

We live in a world where we engage with most of our environment, and even other people, in a detached and surrogate manner. Even those of us who are lovers of art and craft, and who have relationships with craft artists, seldom make the connection that the beautiful work before us was produced by human hands that are the same as ours; if nonetheless guided by years of experience and knowledge. The connection we fail to make is that we are capable of creating that very same beauty, if we had the time to learn, and the will to do so. Every human, is just as capable of creating art as another.

One of Bongsang Cho’s classmates at the Savannah College is an example of how one can change life paths in such a way. Hsiang-Ting Yen is a Taiwanese jeweler who studied international business at National Dong Hwa University. Through chance, she took a metalsmithing class that led her to the United States to study jewelry. While there are certainly those who enjoy business as their livelihood, Yen was enthralled by the artistic life, which is not especially promoted in East Asia. From potential businesswoman to jeweler, Yen’s transformation is illustrative. While her talent has allowed her to make craft her occupation, it is also a reminder that we need not be restricted to the rigid barriers society often seems to construct around us.

This is not to argue that anyone could pick up a torch and create this level of work, it is to present the argument that anyone can attempt to do so, and it is our mindset, and the economy which has been built during the last several decades, which is the wall that prevents such an outcome. The former is a mental battle; perhaps just as difficult as any physical one, but to call it futile is to lack any belief in our ability to change. Furthermore, from trying to try, try again, eventually any person will be able to create art they can be proud of. Time is the only true currency, and will the only requirement, so long as one is not intent on becoming a goldsmith.

Learning to create art, in fact, just being able to do something with your hands, is empowering. It builds confidence. Most of us have lived lives where we know that material things are purchased from others; that we could be the creators of them seems like an ephemeral dream. Yet we can do so—not only in art, but in trades such as carpentry, construction, mechanical repair, and engineering. One need not be limited to the inorganic: farming, cooking and gardening are also aspects of creation. In doing so, one can produce that which formerly came enveloped in plastic containers, found upon shelves in a store or supermarket. Even more magically, one can find, constructed from or nursed by one’s own hands and tools, something which did not before exist. In its own humble and miniature fashion, it is like giving birth. The artists of the Smithsonian go further than that; they create wondrous reality-altering entities, ideas and concepts given physical form. While it may take years to approach that level of ability, the very existence of these artists shows its possibility.

From the craft show, we also see a model for a world where creation is the economy. Though the world as it currently exists, particularly in the United States, is based on service, craft shows are an example of how, with a venue, artists can find a way to translate their creative spirit into a way of making a living. Though the Smithsonian and other top tier craft shows exist to demonstrate the cream of the crop, shows like the Renegade Craft Fairs, presenting a multitude of younger craftspeople from arenas like Etsy, are the same idea, a marketplace for art and craft.

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LUANNE RIMEL

By keeping in mind that anyone can create art, even if the road may be difficult, what would it be like to imagine a world where many people make their living by it? It’s not so hard to do. Art and craft, in the vast majority of cases, take very few raw materials. Jewelry can be made from paper and wood as easily as it is made from gold and silver. Ceramics simply take a bit of earth. Clothing can be and often is made from renewable materials, and little cost to the environment especially if the plant and animal fibers are sustainable. Unlike the mass production goods that continue to strip more and more of our land, with excess waste, art and craft are a more thoughtful and considered use of material.

The current service society is made for inefficiency, dryness, cut costs and dreary living. Corporations, despite their shiny branding, are not made to provide life-fulfilling jobs and employment, or truly quality products. They are machines, created to churn out replicas to be consumed without thought, and those who work in them are expected to be obedient cogs in the wheel. Indeed, the words service economy says it all; we are all expected to serve, to wait upon another’s pleasure, instead of being creators, producers in our own right, finding inner fulfillment from ourselves, and outer fulfillment from nature, companionship, and things created with care and attention.

The Smithsonian is a glimpse of this other world, a world not only of possibility but actuality. As you walk among the aisles of booths, keep in mind that every artist, the creator of the treasures before your eyes, is a human being like yourself. While respecting their dedication to this life path which brought them to this point of expertise, the time spent, as valuable as gold, do not neglect to see the possibility of the maker within yourself. We may not all be born to be jewelers, or woodworkers, or ceramicists, but we can be writers, handymen and women, painters, illustrators, graphic designers, singers, dancers. What we wish to create may require some time to learn, but these artists began somewhere, just as you may do. When purchasing their work, keep in mind that you are supporting someone who has had the bravery, the soul, and as they may themselves attest, yes, perhaps a little luck, to make creation their passion. If we could slowly shift from buying products which are simply consumed and discarded, from using our money to employ others to do work for us, and learned some measure of self-sufficiency, a new world is created and sustainable.

This year, the Smithsonian Craft Show celebrates its thirtieth anniversary in conjunction with another. It is the one hundredth anniversary of the cherry tree blossoms in Washington, D.C. Somehow it seems fitting that these two events share such a joyous occasion—both are bearers of beauty and messengers of a new cycle of life.

 

 

 

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