Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show 2016
Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, Pennsylvania Convention Center, November 10 - 13, 2016. Visit pmacraftshow.org for more information.
Each November, Philadelphia becomes the epicenter of the nation’s craft world for four exhilarating days known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, as hundreds of artists and thousands of enthusiastic and discerning viewers flock to the city to immerse themselves in the best that American craft has to offer.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the PMA Craft Show, and it promises to be a landmark exhibit. From more than a thousand applicants, the five jurors have selected one hundred ninety-five artists from thirty-four states. On display will be work representing every major craft medium, including baskets, jewelry (precious and semiprecious), metal, glass, fiber (wearable and decorative), leather, wood, furniture, paper, ceramics, and mixed-media creations. A separate category for “Emerging Artists” helps relative newcomers bring their work to a wider audience. Similarly, the special “Craft-U” section allows students and recent alumni from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, the Moore College of Art and Design, Kutztown University, and Savannah College of Art and Design to display and sell their work at one of the country’s premier venues for fine crafts.
The Craft Show is organized and presented each year by the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a major fundraising event for the institution. Last year’s show generated around $845,000, and since the first show in 1977 more than $11.7 million in proceeds have been raised to fund every aspect of the museum’s mission, including education, acquisitions, exhibitions, programs, and renovations. As the first retail craft show to be organized by volunteers for the benefit of a nonprofit organization, the PMA Craft Show has become a highly successful model for others to follow. In the process, it has also done much to promote contemporary American craft.
Regular attendees will find many familiar faces in this year’s line-up, including ceramicists Cliff Lee and Bennett Bean; jewelrymakers Namu Cho, Rebecca Myers, and Steven Ford and David Forlano; fiber artists Elyse Allen, Andrea Handy, and Ping Wu (winner of last year’s Ornament Award for Excellence in Art to Wear); basketmakers Christine and Michael Adcock; and mixed-media artists Roberta and David Williamson, who will be participating in their thirty-fifth PMA Craft Show!
The show’s organizers, however, are proud to point out that more than a quarter of this year’s entrants are first-time exhibitors, a testament to the rising generation of skilled artisans. “This year we will have fifty new artists,” said Gwen Goodwill Bianchi, chair of the 2016 Craft Show. “It’s very exciting to have so much new work as we celebrate the show’s fortieth anniversary! That keeps contemporary craft fresh and moving forward.” Bianchi has been a member of the Craft Show Committee for ten years, and a member of the Women’s Committee for the past eight years, but this is her first time chairing the show. “The biggest surprise has been how the younger, tech-savvy generation continues to embrace the relevance and importance of handmade work,” she said.
Juror Glenn Adamson, a respected author, curator and theorist of contemporary art and former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, was similarly encouraged about the future of craft in America. “I was surprised by the high quality of entrants in the ‘Emerging Artists’ category,” he told me. “Though craft is, as they say, ‘long to learn,’ there were many artists who had clearly hit the ground running and had a lot of mastery already.” Adamson notes that while technology has had an impact on these younger artists, its mark is seen more in the aesthetics of the works than in the processes employed in making them. “Certainly you can see the influence of digital technology here and there, not so much in the techniques used (which remain mainly traditional) but in the style of imagery.”
Fellow juror Laura Mays, an Irish-born furniture designer and maker now living in California where she directs the Fine Woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, also noted the (perhaps ironic) influence of digital technologies on the aesthetics of handcrafted art. She sees “a move away from polychromatic patternmaking and exuberant surface, towards a clean-lined, materials-driven, neutral palette, very similar to a design-led approach. Maybe it’s the Apple influence—small radius corners, materials left unadorned though polished, visually tidy.” While acknowledging that “the entrants wish to be selected to show their work for sale,” she adds: “It really struck home that human beings are very driven towards the manipulation of material and to learn and exhibit manual and mental skill... I had a very palpable sense that the energy and commitment that the craftspeople put in is not commercially driven.”
Among the ten “Emerging Artists” selected for this year’s show is jewelrymaker Aleksandra Vali. Now based in Geneva, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, Vali was trained as a sculptor and ceramicist in Russia and exhibited widely in her native country and abroad. After moving to the United States, she shifted her focus to metalsmithing and jewelry. “My work with clay has definitely affected my current works,” she said. “For me, metal provides a unique opportunity to create unusual, stylish pieces with fine details and very sharp and clear lines and shapes, something I was unable to do in ceramics.”
Vali’s training as a sculptor is evident in the Calendar from Atlantis/Bells series. These conical constructions of oxidized silver, each about four inches high, feature pitted and grooved surfaces to which the artist adds rune-like symbols and other motifs in electroplated twenty-four karat gold. As the title implies, the overall effect is one of an exquisitely preserved archaeological artifact recovered from an ancient civilization. (Vali notes that although each “bell” contains a clapper and is thus technically functional, they are not necessarily designed to produce a pleasing sound.) Her fascination with the material culture of the past also drives the Measures of Value collection, sleekly modern pendants whose designs incorporate antique elements, including Chinese coins, watchmakers’ tools and mini-calipers, in a clever play on the overlapping objective and subjective meanings that accrue to “value.”
Other “Emerging Artists” this year include ceramicist Melodie Grace of Nashville, Tennessee, who, according to the artist’s statement, combines “wheel-thrown, handcarved and etched elements with both traditional and naked raku” to create pots whose textures often evoke natural materials such as pine cones. The surfaces of many of her vessels feature sharply defined images of trees, blossoms, leaves, and birds whose colors are created exclusively by smoke during the firing process.
Glass artist Robert Coby of Cleveland, Ohio, similarly evokes landscape in his handblown and carved vessels. His Topography series, for example, features egg-shaped vessels of molten glass in various hues, into whose surfaces the artist etches intricate patterns of concentric lines resembling the elevation markings on topographical maps. Coby then carves away portions, creating crevasse-like openings bounded by serrated crystalline edges, beneath which lie the exposed luminous interior surfaces. One could easily imagine each vessel as a globe-egg that incubated some fantastical creature, which has now hatched and left behind its multicolored shell for us to admire.
Another artist who evokes the fantastic in his work is first-time exhibitor David Winigrad of Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, who specializes in the wind-activated kinetic sculptures known as “whirligigs.” Winigrad earned a BFA in two-dimensional design from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and spent three decades working in advertising. His mother, Etta Winigrad, is a world-renowned ceramic sculptor, but David told me that he came to kinetic sculpture “almost by happenstance” when he got some woodworking tools from his brother and began experimenting.
“I was first drawn to traditional folk-art whirligigs by virtue of their very unlikeliness as objects of art,” he said. “Whirligigs, in essence, are machines.” As such, they share much in common with their more practical cousins such as combustion engines and electric motors, including the crankshafts, cams, pistons, and rotors that translate energy into motion. In this case, however, the driving force is wind, adding an element of chance to the machine’s performance. “It’s the mercurial nature of wind that makes the whirligig so captivating,” said Winigrad. “Like a marionette, they will suddenly come to life, spin madly, and then, just as suddenly, come to rest.”
Winigrad’s inspiration for each whirligig “almost always comes from the wood. I gravitate to burls specifically, the deformed growths found on various species of trees... Each burl has a unique grain pattern and often contains voids, bark, spiky caps, and live edges.” These irregular features allow him “to contrast the eccentricities of the burl with the precise geometries I impose on the overall shape.” Along with the wooden elements, which range from ebony, maple, cherry, and walnut to osage orange and wild almond, he incorporates jade, stones, bone, feathers, crystals, coral, fossils, and other materials into these truly mixed-media creations.
“My creative impetus is to amaze and delight the viewer through the variety of rotational movement and the beauty inherent in the materials,” explained Winigrad. “I also encourage people to interact with the whirligig through touch. In an incomprehensibly complex hi-tech world, viewers are able to fully understand how each whirligig works and enjoy the simple pleasure that comes with that realization.”
Participating in his second PMA Craft Show is Eben Blaney of Edgecomb, Maine, who has been making custom furniture for twenty years in the studio he built for himself in this small coastal town. Blaney, whose father was a boat-builder in nearby Boothbay Harbor, “resisted being a woodworker, anything to do with wood, for a long time,” he related to me during a studio visit in late August. After attending Hofstra University and the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art), he went through a “soul-searching time” during which he “rolled around a lot.” This he did in a very literal way—by riding a bike all the way across the country. Eventually Blaney both found his way back home and embraced woodworking as his medium. The bike now hangs from the ceiling of the workshop, a reminder of his earlier nomadic life. He and his wife, a massage therapist, have their living quarters below the workshop, and she has a separate studio for her business nearby.
Blaney’s first PMA Craft Show outing, in 2014, was “my best show ever, it was incredibly heartening,” he told me. He was particularly impressed by the “caliber of everybody else there,” but also by the sophistication of the viewers. “Philadelphia is a really well-educated population, in terms of furniture. They know what they’re looking for.” The city does indeed have a long historical connection to fine furniture-making, stretching from Colonial times through to more modern figures such as Wharton Esherick (1887–1970), a key inspiration for the resurgence of the craft following World War II. Echoes of Esherick’s aesthetic sensibility can be seen in many of Blaney’s elegant pieces, which combine the crisp geometries of mid-century modern design with a deep respect for the organic qualities of the materials.
An example is his Cormorant, a tall, slim hall table fashioned from walnut and ebonized tiger maple. “This felt very bird-like to me from the beginning,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite pieces because I was able to make it thinner than what you’re used to seeing.” On the in-progress version he showed me in the studio, the smooth, black surface of the elliptical tabletop was interrupted by the irregular edges of a knothole, a reminder of its origin in nature. Like many of Blaney’s pieces, the Cormorant also features exposed mortise-and-tenon joints. “I like to have some evidence that it was done by hand,” he said.
Nature has always been a primary inspiration for jewelrymaker Rebecca Myers of Baltimore, whose work features forms derived from seedpods, branches, flowers, and bees, among other motifs. “Most recently I’ve been working on an animal print collection of jewelry,” she told me in early September. “It’s made with layers of metals pierced to achieve the leopard and zebra patterns.”
Myers has done the PMA Craft Show “a handful of times” during her twenty-plus years as a jewelry designer and maker. “It’s always been a beautiful show and one of the most difficult to jury into,” she said. For Myers, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and attended Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, it is also something of a homecoming. “I have clients, family, teachers, and friends that I love visiting with at the show. Philadelphia is also such a great art and craft city. The public art is terrific. There’s a high interest due to the abundance of local art schools and museums.”
Like many of the participants, Myers finds hope for the future in an event that brings so many people together around the notion of putting beauty and creativity at the center of our everyday lives. “I think shows like the PMA Craft Show are cultural touchstones,” she said. “It’s so important to continue to educate a new generation of students and possible future collectors about incorporating art and craft into their lives. It’s very doable. To be an art collector you don’t need to go to a Sotheby’s auction. You can start at a show like PMA.”
David Updike is an editor and writer living in Philadelphia. A regular contributor to Ornament, he most recently reviewed the “Immortal Beauty” exhibition of garments and textiles from Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. In this issue, he previews the 2016 Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, and found in the process encouraging evidence for the continued relevance of fine, handcrafted objects in our increasingly digitized world. Updike has, in addition, contributed articles on jewelry artists Rebecca Myers, Namu Cho and Michael Manthey in past issues.