Craft in America and Its New Direction

Craft in America and Its New Direction

40 Under 40: Craft Futures at the Renwick Gallery

Smithsonian American Art Museum

July 20th, 2012- February 3rd, 2013

by Sarah Jorgensen

When asked if they are craftsmen, artists often pause. One artist, Paul Myoda, at Project 4 Gallery recently said that this is a loaded question, as “craft” has been deemed a dirty word that devalues the work in the marketplace. Marking the fortieth anniversary of Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, the impressive (and at times dazzling) 40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibition takes on the challenge of redefining “craft” – what it is and what it can be. This challenge is substantial, because at its essence craft is about an intimate connection between the maker and the material, as opposed to items made without that connection. (To most people that would mean hand-made as opposed to factory-made, but some contend that there are instances where factory made can be craft too.)  It has thus taken on a wide range of meanings. American Craft in the twentieth century  has gone through a series of developments resulting in a contemporary craft movement that takes from those developments and goes beyond them to talk about political, environmental and social issues.

Matt Moulthrop, “Untitled”, 2008, red maple, image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Twentieth century craft in America went through varied movements that often existed simultaneously – from cottage industries of making craft objects for utility to communities of craftspeople training each other. In the last few decades of the twentieth century, many in craft sought to align their work more with objects of art than objects of utility. There has been an idealistic, and at times utopic, aspect to craft throughout the twentieth century in America. There is a sense that making things by hand engenders a more thoughtful way of living and connects to a time before industrialization. Communities of crafts people in Wyoming, North Carolina and Washington state have sprung up to teach ceramics, furniture and textile making and glass. These communities offer supportive environments to learn the trades and mediums. Today, new directions in craft are developing. People are combining all these traditional elements of craft while experimenting with new materials and taking on subjects such as politics, social change, history and the environment.

Vivian Beer, “”, 2008, steel, automotive paint, image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

We live in a different consumer society than the centuries previous when which most items were handmade or crafted at home. We live in a post romantic, post Industrial Revolution world.  More and more, most of our furniture comes ready-made  At the same time, craft making has been taken up by new generations attending to different interests such as values, community and aesthetics. The first modern definition of craft – utility objects and furniture made by hand – had its roots in the arts and craft movement of the early twentieth century. Craft workshops were formed in part as a response to industrialization and later to the Great Depression. Companies such as Motawi and tile and craft communities such as Penland (supported by New Deal policies) were a part of this trend.  In that sense, craft and craftsmanship was, and to many it still is, considered an extension of manufacturing.  In 1945, craft in America began to expand. Academic programs developed around specific media such as ceramics. The GI bill allowed a generation of veterans to go to school and be trained as craftspeople. Craft colleges sprang up around the country. At that time, people began to develop skills and play with aesthetics, producing a groundswell of innovation in design and production of craft objects. Thus began the studio craft movement. Over the next fifty years many people trained in craft began to distinguish themselves as artists, as opposed to craftspeople.

The studio craft movement’s second wave came in the seventies as craft communities began to flourish. These communities in schools in various parts of the country began to produce star artists. At this time there was more of a marked shift to the individual from the community and craft became about making objects that could be contemplated and put on the pedestals as opposed to being simply objects of utility. Artists trained in crafts did not want to be associated with the burgeoning, and decidedly middle-brow, do-it-yourself crafts tchotchkes of the sixties. Colleges dropped their craft departments. The College of Arts and Craft dropped craft from its name. Some artists moved away from calling their work craft simply because it affected their sales price. One art historian has commented there was a flourishing of craft fairs where sometimes “artists would charge fifty times more for one ceramic vessel than the guy next door who made salad bowls.” Tapestries and quilts became more about artwork and less about usefulness.

Jennifer Crupi “Ornamental Hands: Figure One (worn)”, 2010, sterling silver, acrylic, ink-jet print on vellum, image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Some of the things that defined craft in the twentieth century continue to exist today, whether they can be craft communities creating ceramic bowls and glass vases, or the studio craftsperson who seeks to create objects of art. Craft as it was understood in the twentieth century is flourishing in the twenty first century with such things as craft fairs (such as Makers Faire and SOFA),, and, arguably, the slow food movement. But there are new trends and innovations in craft that both build on and break away from the previous periods in craft.

Sabrina Gschwandtner, “Hula Hoop”, 2010, 16 mm film, polyamide thread
Mia Pearlman, ONE, 2012, image courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum

New directions in craft post-2001 draw from the history and technical advancements made in craft in the twentieth century. There are still those who stress community and collaboration in the craft process, and there are also craftspeople who seek to express themselves artistically as individuals. While craftspeople still work with the traditional materials of glass, metal, fiber, wood and clay, they are also experimenting with other materials such as plastic and velum. The most marked development is that craftspeople in America are taking on political, social, historical, environmental and economic topics as well as aesthetics.

The exploration of materials and subject matter that craftspeople have been taking on since 2001 is on full display in the Renwick’s exhibition. Before acquiring objects for this exhibition, the Renwick’s narrow collection was limited to works from the studio craft movement from the seventies on: finely crafted ceramic urns, wood furniture, jewelry and blown glass vases. This exhibition expands on the Renwick’s collection to explore a new definition of craft as reflected in the work of younger artists. And the Renwick’s new chief Curator, Nicholas Bell, challenges the viewer to expand his/her notion of what and where craft can be. In this show, Bell demolishes the notion of contemporary craft as being solely craft fair fare or objects one might see decorating a hotel lobby (such as glass works by Dale Chihuly in Las Vegas).  According to Bell, the exhibit demonstrates that there was a break from the studio craft movement (of which most of the Renwick’s collection is comprised) that happened as a result of a “climate [that was] conducive to change” after 9/11. The pieces in the exhibition were made after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and reflect the valuing of the handmade in an age of conflict and unease. They reflect a nuanced political perspective.

Stephanie Liner, “Momentos of a Doomed Construct”, 2012, plywood, foam, Dacron, cotton, adhesive, live model, image courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The trend towards self-expression in craft, however, could be a natural development from the “craft as art” ethos of the studio craft movement. The difference is in what the maker is attending to. Work in the exhibition show both traditional characteristics of the studio craft movement and new directions that craft is taking into social commentary.  For example, Uhuru’s chaise lounge made from reclaimed wood of Coney Island Boardwalk as well as a growing emphasis on sustainability in craft today while Olek’s camouflage commentary on war goes is mostly a political expression. This exhibition shows that, unlike the studio craft movement that focused mostly on aesthetics, craftspeople of today are grappling with a world in flux.  A recent article in the New York Times that defines craft as an extension of manufacturing rather than an artsy pastime claims that craftsmanship, in the hands-on sense, is in decline. For example, shop classes in high schools are being cut and people buy ready ready-made items such as pre cut, glued flooring at Home  Depot instead of crafting them themselves. According to the article, mastering tools and working with one’s hands are receding as American cultural values.  If the practical aspect is dying out craft is still evolving as a form of political and aesthetic expression; this would suggest the studio movement is becoming ever more dominant.

40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibits twenty-first century craft in traditional media, ceramics and jewelry, but also in fields such as industrial design, sculpture and installation art. All artists in the exhibition were born after 1972. For the artists in the show, craft is not simply an aesthetic movement; there is an undercurrent in craft of making the world a better place. Rather than being defined by a traditional process or material, new craft takes on ideas of sustainable manufacturing, mathematics, and ways of living differently. It is not solely about aesthetics, it’s about grasping the full picture and taking stalk of modern life and responding in a way that is not “safe.” Although the result is products that look different and attend to ideas that diverge far from the studio craft movement, there is still a sense that these objects are simultaneously art and craft.

Gabriel Craig, “Pro Bono Jeweler”, 2008-2010, image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The artists in the exhibition mine several diverse topics. Some of the themes in the exhibit are explorations of community manufacturing, the human body, art history and gender. These are evident in the jewelry on display in the museum.  “Pro bono jeweler” Gabriel Craig sets up shop on the streets of his hometown Detroit and creates jewelry on the spot for passersby.  By making his work free and creating it in public spaces in poorer neighborhoods, he takes on the idea of jewelry as an adornment only available to people with enough disposable income. Jennifer Crupi’s metal hand apertures put the hand in positions that harken stiff and unnatural stances of female subjects in historical art. They bring to the fore the artifice that has gone into images of femininity.

Gender is explored throughout the exhibit in several other ways.  Stephanie Liner’s installation, Momentos of a Doomed Construct(2012), shows a woman seated in an oval carriage made of colonial looking fabric. Liner claims that it is a comment on many things ranging from furniture and textile making in her home state of North Carolina to gender identity and architecture. Sabrina Gschwandtners luminous quilts, made from student films from the 50’s through the 90’s (from the library at the Fashion Institute of Technology), explore the female body, feminist labor and textile history. In Hula Hoop (2010), a geometric piece place on a light box and made of different colored film negatives, images of bodies zoom in and out, and look to be spinning around a pin.

There is a variety of sculpture represented in 40 Under 40: Craft Futures.The swirling cut and India ink painted forms of Mia Pearlman’s site-specific installation, Untitled(2012) have an expressionistic quality.  The layered paper falls in layers creating play with shadow and negative space.  There is a sense that they are underwater. Pearlman says that she created this piece based on a 17th century screen of Matsushima, the site of the 2011 tsunami. Some of the swirling shapes evoke the fastness of a tsunami, while others conjure stalactites that take tens of thousands of years to form. She wanted it to be a dichotomy: denseness descending coming down and light and luminous emerging. She says she is reflecting on life and being dwarfed by forces beyond our control.

Body, sound, electricity and textiles come together Christy Matson’s Sonic Structure Sonic Structure II (2010). It is a single channel interactive sound piece made from copper and hand jacquard woven cotton.  The copper weft of the piece broadcast two identical frequencies above the human auditory range. When one places their hand on the piece their capitance (the body’s natural ability to hold electrical charge) causes the frequencies to overlap and create audible sound.

Erik and Martin Demaine, “Green Balance”, 2011, Mi-Teintes watercolor paper, image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Eric and Martin Demaines’ Green Balance (2008) is a mathematically based origami piece that lyrically curves and folds. Made from bonded tientes watercolor paper, Demaines’ sculptures recall and expand upon the purity of Bauhaus forms.

Furniture on display at the Renwick shows how makers are employing new tools such as computer in engineering or creating furniture designs and are taking on themes such as sustainability, such as Uhuru’s reclamation of Coney Island wood. Vivian Beer, a furniture designer from New England changes her material and methodology depending on the project. She claims that attention to surface is just as important as the visual silhouette of the design. The chair in exhibition I SLITHER WALK FLY  (2008) is almost a meditation on abstraction.  Beer suggests “mostly what it is abstracting is movement itself as reflected in the title.  You’re in a seat that has a set of tail feathers that are unfurling slithering walking and flying away from you.”

Community is specifically addressed In L.J. Robert’s knitted tapestry. The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Three Towns of Breukelen, Boswyck, and Midwout during the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era (2011) is a depiction to the thriving queer artistic community in Brooklyn. A map of the queer collective houses (where artists, dancers, writers and musicians live) it also is homage to the AIDS crisis, when so many members of the gay community of Manhattan died. She says she is both referencing collectives like Grand Fury which created the pink triangle logo and the “Silence = Death” posters, and showing that there is a new artistic queer community thriving in Brooklyn.

Two other themes prevalent in the show are labor and migration. Theaster Gates’ piece seeks to draw attention to the history of Chinese immigration to the South.  For Mississippi Pavilion (2011) Gates created a shotgun shack, a form of vernacular architecture from Mississippi. Inside he placed Chinoiserie platters that he collaborated with a Chinese ceramicist to make.

Joseph Foster Ellis, “China Tree”, 2012, porcelain sauce pots, string, LED lights, mirror, image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In the second room of the exhibition hangs a column of illuminated Chinese pots, China Tree (2012), an installation by the artist Joseph Foster Ellis.  Ellis has spent the past seven years working in China developing relationships with Chinese craftsmen who work in cottage industries. There he says that a factory could be in a home (apparently one can buy a “made in China” sticker at any outdoor market).  He said he met the people whom he collaborated with by going into home factories where people were making small vessels for soy sauce and vinegar. Together they spent months with him sanding, polishing and reforming these pots into pristine white ornaments that hang in a cascade formation. He claims that his intention was to transform the relationship that these people had with the products that they had been making. The result, he says, is a Chinese answer to a Christmas tree.


Olek, “Knitting is for Pus****”, 2005-2011, mixed media, 100% acrylic yarn, image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Many craftspeople address war as a part of culture that cannot be avoided. Cat Mazza knits video stills of scenes from war. Dave Cole’s installation the Evolution of the Knitting Needle through Modern Warfare (2000-2005) shows the importance of and evolution of craft, and in this case, the knitting needle, in modern warfare.  Suggesting that war is an indivisible part of contemporary life, Olek crochets an entire room in camouflage entitled Knitting is for Pus****(2005-2011).

The work created after 9/11 often reflects the anxiety of not knowing what comes next. Unconsciously, there is a focus on the values of the forties: Themes of war, economy, and relationships.  There is a sense that people have begun  thinking that they are not getting what they want out of life and have started to make art that is about use, sustainability, community and social value. As for craftsmanship itself, it has been a receding value in American culture (except for immigrant culture). It has, however become a valued skill in the art world. Like all the art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, each generation takes from the generation before and makes something new. But these trends can be simultaneous: more traditional studio craft is still being produced while at the same time new innovations in craft are also developing. Craft is based on ideas that are grounded in ideas of community and reconnection to process. It is still about making and doing things well.  The Renwick show tells us that new craft, however, is going beyond the emphasis on aesthetics of the studio craft movement to address difficulties in a changing world.