Smithsonian Craft Show 2013




“One time John Iversen and I were discussing this exact question and I loved his response: ‘This piece took forty years to make.’ Making work is a lifelong process. The more work you make the more technically advanced you become and the more complex the designs can become.”

The Smithsonian Craft Show returns for another year to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., as its handsome locus. One of the preeminent craft shows of the country, it is a most suitable pageant of the arts; as springtime visits the city, the appearance of handmade beauty seems to aptly coincide. A counterpart to the blooming of flowers outside the Museum, inside the hall jewelry, clothing, ceramic, wood, and glass burst forth representing some of the best artisans of the United States. Paper art, furniture, decorative fiber, metals, and mixed media round out the branches of craft for collecting.

Whether impeccable forms of traditional work, or new innovations, these are the product of a single person’s (or sometimes two) creative efforts. Please stop: take a moment and consider. If you truly think about an object picked up at the Smithsonian Craft Show, and how it came to be in your hands, I guarantee it will increase your appreciation. Even without knowing the techniques, the finished works can be imagined as the raw materials they once were; and in the case of Joe Graham’s hand-carved chairs, logs and trunks of wood.

By exploring the process of how these objects of craft were imagined and completed, and how artists regard what they do in order to bring their pieces from nothing to fruition, we come nearer to understanding the ever mysterious importance of creation. The design process is the planning phase and of the mind. It is about making the blueprint which allows the piece to come into being. In Patricia Madeja’s Ferris Wheel Bracelet, the item was designed from the start to include spinning elements. Madeja first designed and constructed the model for the wheels, then created the frames that would allow each wheel to spin freely and form the bracelet’s structure. Each frame was hinged together, and the piece was finished by a hidden clasp. “I love working at my bench,” Madeja expresses. “Many people say my work is crazy and technically complex. I respond by saying ‘making my work is what keeps me sane.’” When describing her favorite aspect of craft, she explains, “The process that begins with a spark of a concept, and then the challenge of solving the engineering to make that idea work is the most rewarding to me.”


She is emphatic on defining the craft process as a continuum rather than a one-off, isolated event. Everything is connected, from the time jewelry is first made to decades after when one is experienced and skillful. “One time John Iversen and I were discussing this exact question and I loved his response: ‘This piece took forty years to make.’ Making work is a lifelong process. The more work you make the more technically advanced you become and the more complex the designs can become,” Madeja says.

What about the physical aspects of the process? In contrast to the design aspect of creating, one could call this the production process. For clothing, this can entail the actual construction of the cloth. Juanita Girardin quilts together fabrics of different fibers to create the textiles she uses in her clothing. Elaborating, Girardin says, “By quilting together layers of different fabrics, I am essentially ‘building’ a new fabric. Most recently I use a Japanese-made rustic cotton with Chinese-made silk.”  

Illuminating the alchemy of her fabric further, Girardin explains, “By quilting I am able to utilize the shrink properties of disparate fabrics to create a depth of surface. Also, the repetitive lines of the process add dimension and subtle patterned interest.” By this, Girardin means that the she can combine the different levels of stretchiness in each fabric to create a new texture. The quilting itself adds sewing lines along the fabric, which further enrich its surface. We may not even think of the origins of fiber, but for Girardin, the cloth is paramount, and she is deeply involved in its creation. “I usually quilt together two or three layers of cloth,” Girardin continues, “I try to juxtapose different surface qualities, matte and shine for instance, and also, different colors block areas within the same piece.” 

Luanne Rimel’s decorative fiber utilizes digital technology to add her proprietary element. Printing out photographs onto re-purposed flour sack dish towels, Rimel then provides the handmade aspect by quilting the entire surface of the towel. The artist remarks, “I have been a maker all of my life. I enjoy the process of creating with cloth and combining contemporary technology, the digital printer, with the age-old art of hand quilting.” Rimel observes that, “The meditative activity of stitching is a quiet and contemplative process that, to me, references the marking of time and is very centering.”


In describing the progression of her work, Rimel details, “In steps, first I have to travel to find the statues to photograph, from Savannah to New Orleans, Venice and throughout St. Louis.” These statues will be the images printed upon her towels. “Then I work with the photographs on the computer, framing, selecting and sizing. The cloth is then prepared to go through the wide format printer and the images are digitally printed on the cloth in sections. The sections are pieced together, layered and finally the hand-quilting can begin. The quilting is the most time consuming but often one of my favorite parts. I can accomplish quilting between four and eight square inches in an hour. My smallest pieces are ten by ten inches (one hundred square inches) and my largest, so far, is forty-eight by twenty-four, representing many hours of quilting.” 

The shibori clothing of Michael Kane is based around the desire to individualize the wearer. “I believe that each of us is unique and so should our wardrobe be as well,” Kane explains. “In the fifties we were easily consumed by mass production and it took away much of our uniqueness and we are now personally striving to be individuals again. Many do that through their garments because that is often our display of individuality. Craft clothing allows us to speak individually. I want anyone who wants to stand out and be an individual to be able to do so and my work reflects that choice.” 

Kane uses two main shibori techniques to dye his pieces, arashi and itajime. One involves wrapping the cloth around a pole, scrunching it and tying it tight, then submerging it in dye. The tied and scrunched areas eschew the dye, leaving white space. In itajime, the cloth is sandwiched between two boards, leaving only the sides exposed to the dye. Both of these methods create different patterns in Kane’s work. 

Hatmaker Renee Roeder-Early describes her process as exploring every judicial variation between two extremes, from the silly to the sublime. It begins with a sketch. “From my sketches I make a pattern, which always takes some tweaking until I get the shape I envision. This part of hatmaking I think of as engineering the hat,” Roeder-Early states. “I love this process, it is probably the most difficult and can be frustrating but when it finally works it’s like magic.” It is after this phase that color and fabric are determined. She will then cut apart and sew pieces of fabric or felt together into the hat’s form, embellishing with pieces of textile and trim. She prefers to use her own handmade trims in her hats.


In her description of the creation process, glass artist Carrie Gustafson emphatically states, “You just show up! For me the peace I receive from just being in my studio is incomparable; and how my studio work is going has a profound affect on my mood.” Reflecting more, Gustafson says, “For the most part making things is like breathing for me—it’s a part of my being. Like an inhale and an exhale—our eyes are inhaling our surroundings, or I should say what we choose to surround ourselves with—and as we breathe life into new pieces with our exhales. There is an organic rhythm to the creative process—not a distinction between work and weekend—it’s an integral part of my everyday.” 

The production of Gustafson’s glass sculptures takes weeks to complete. “I work closely with gaffers—professional glassblowers—to make my work,” she begins. The artist stresses the importance of her collaborator, Pablo Soto. “I spend time preparing drawings and choosing colors and then it’s really in his hands. Most gaffers will say that they are just facilitators, but I strongly disagree. Once the pipe is in the hands of a gaffer and there is glass on the end of it—it’s truly his touch, his eye and his spirit which will transform that hot molten glass into what will become my canvas.” The glass piece Soto creates will be coldworked by Gustafson, stenciled, then sandblasted. The intricate designs that cover its surface are her contribution: a luminous interplay between opacity and translucence. 

The formation of Michael Mikula’s glacial industrial sculptures starts with the making of the molds for his glass components. He begins by laying the groundwork with simple sketches for the molds, then proceeding to make the molds from graphite. Days are spent cutting and composing the molds. Because the molds are reverse of what the actual pattern will be in the glass, Mikula constantly has to consider how a protrusion he creates will make a corresponding indentation. He builds excitement in his pieces by adding numerous textural components, vignettes of his visual story. Lastly, he creates the glass components.


“I make a ‘family’ of related blanks in a pre-selected color palette, and once cooled begin the process of disassembling them with a gnarly old brick saw,” the artist describes. “Pushing the glass into this saw is sort of like putting my head into the mouth of a lion. It is dangerous—but exciting to see the details emerge.” Now the stage is set for the sculpture’s culmination. An armature of anodized steel and aluminum will be a frame for the piece. “I will spread these roughly cut fragments onto a large table and begin finding interesting relationships between them as I compose the final tableau. Each of the cut surfaces are highly polished before their assembly into the finished piece.” Mikula involves cross-disciplinary training in the making of his art; his calligraphy background informs his use of negative space within his sculptures. 

Lucrezia Bieler also makes use of negative space in the sublime simplicity of her papercuttings. She uses a single sheet of black paper, put against a white background, to make her mandala-like pictures. This use of black and white contrast is in the tradition of European papercutting that Bieler follows. Bieler comments that, “I am intrigued to create something really beautiful from a simple sheet of plain paper. It is like turning paper into gold.” She provides a comparison to woodcutting or sculpting, saying that similarly her work takes a “blank resource” and creates the final piece by cutting away extraneous material. “Precision is important and creating a complex scissor cutting demands full concentration,” she apprises. “Some find the creation of a cutting as very laborious but for me papercutting is meditative.”  

The creative space is a distinct frame of mind for many artists. Judy Stone, a metal artist who creates nonfunctional ornamental bowls, considers it vital to her equipoise. “I am a person who needs my studio time to bring order to my life,” she emphasizes. “When I am there and really working creativity flows through me. My work fails if I try to control it or over-intellectualize it.” The wisdom that comes from that flow is subtle, and not derived from the abstract realm of thought. “If I honor that the work is coming from the cumulative knowledge I have gained about my craft as well as from the sum total of all my experiences, then I can let the juices flow.” Stone describes her experience in the creative space. “My critical self intrudes at various stages in the process of working on any given piece. Sometimes I need to set work aside in order to problem solve if something isn’t working for me,” she continues. Sometimes that variable is color. Other times, shape or form. Whatever it is, Stone finds that by trusting herself, and with time, she is usually able to surmount the creative obstacle and complete the piece.


“It takes me two months to complete five pieces from start to finish,” the artist explains. “The time is broken down into three phases: metalwork, enameling, finishing. The enameling takes the most time because I usually can only prepare the piece for firing one side in a twenty-four-hour period and there are ten to fifteen firings minimum in each piece.” 

Janel Jacobson spells out the genesis for her carvings from wisps of inspiration that delight her imagination. Nature’s forms, seen in the woods, the fields, found as leaves and pebbles, are fertile ground for deriving a new idea. She describes a piece: “With Leaf and Moth, I found a leaf that enchanted me. I sketched it from three sides, trying to become familiar with the nuances of its form, light and shadow, and how the various features related to one another.” These steps can be seen as something like absorbing visual data from the object to create the mental prototype for the piece. She decides boxwood would be the most suitable material to use. Jacobson continues to spell out, step by step, her design process, contemplatively and thoughtfully. “The moth was added to the design for a different point of interest and as a soft contrast to the rigid, directional aspects of the curled, dried leaf. Added to the surface of the leaf are suggestions of an additional influence on the life of the leaf with small holes or blemishes.”  

As she proceeds to the technical process, Jacobson sinks into a labyrinth of details. “Once the boxwood was rough-cut to approximate size, a general outline was sketched from different angles. I then began removal of waste wood, using a micro-motor tool. This is a roughing out activity that lasts for hours.” Jacobson will continue to rough out the basic form using a variety of tools; files, small gouges and a range of self-made scrapers constitute her toolbox. Her description of her process then begins to blur the technical and the creative. “I worked around and around and around the piece, bringing the form further along as a whole,” she relates, “except for the moth, which remained uncarved. When the form resonates a sense of being right, the structure of the veins and concavities that evoke a shriveled, dried leaf is excavated. Knife-edged scrapers and rounded scrapers are used for this, along with small gouges and hooked scrapers, always working with the grain of the wood—whatever works to remove the wood with clean, smooth shavings is the tool of each moment.”


Joe Graham, while also a woodworker, is involved in a quite different set of processes with wood. He is a furniture maker, a sculptor of lithe chairs illustrating the polished luster of the wood’s raw colors. He makes his own interpretation of Windsors, a chair design dating back to the 1600s. “I begin with the seat, which anchors a Windsor,” Graham relates. “The seat of this piece is Bubinga, an African wood which came to me through Rocky Mehta of West Penn Hardwoods. The seat is adzed deeply for comfort, smoothed with an inshave (a curved drawknife), a travisher (a curved spokeshave), cabinet scraper, and a random orbit sander.” His litany of tools shows how even one part of the overall piece can receive extensive attention. An adze is like a curved hoe, used to chip off wood into a relatively smooth surface. 

The wood originally is cut from a specific part of the tree. “The legs are split from the base of the tree where the trunk curves out and into the roots,” Graham describes. “In a wind, this is where the tree is most stressed and therefore the strongest.” After collecting the different parts of the chair, Graham steam bends the wood. “An aluminum-lined wooden box sits atop an open drum which sits atop a wood fire fueled by the scraps from splitting process,” he elaborates. “Thirty minutes in the steam, then bent onto a form to be dried for days or months depending on the piece.”  No amount of space or time can sufficiently explain or fully picture the crafting process and its fascinating diversity and just how complex, intricate, or time-consuming it can be to create a masterful work. That is appropriate, because every sculpture, bracelet or dress that has been produced for the Smithsonian Craft Show is a real and physical object. As a picture is worth a thousand words, one should agree that a three-dimensional object of art must be worth even more. So look with new or refreshed eyes and appreciate what can be seen each year, for over thirty decades at the Smithsonian’s National Building Mueum, and how every object required a human’s touch to come alive.







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

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