Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show 2017
The craft world does not define itself through a particular medium but through the connection between the hand, the heart and the mind. For those in craft, it is vital to receive satisfaction from its pursuit and to appreciate, even revere, the materials, tools and techniques that give rise to finished work. The stimulus, the drive to create, is based on exploration of the unknown and what can be revealed from each singular search. A direct response to the desire for making life more meaningful, it is for an artist an anchor to the ever-surging flow of existence, perhaps most especially in troubling and chaotic times. The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, now in its forty-first year, is an important conduit where the best in craft is once more reaffirmed and validated by the uniquely talented artists who showcase their works. Here, the handmade in thirteen different media can be seen, appreciated and taken home to live again within one’s own personal experience.
The craft categories—basketry, ceramics, emerging artist, fiber decorative, fiber wearable, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, and wood—are represented by almost two hundred experienced and talented American artists selected through a rigorous, annual jurying process based on originality, innovation and technical expertise in a medium. To support them is to encourage and promote the value and importance of art by hand as it is passed on, nourishing the planet with the limitless possibilities of human creativity, linking us over the millennia from generation to generation.
Long a major player in the contemporary jewelry movement, New Orleans-based Thomas Mann established his “Techno Romantic” branding in the 1970s as a means of both merging and diverging the material world with that of the human spirit. With a fondness for the found object, and the propinquity it can bring to jewelry, he was freed to improvise his constructions and to make compositions in unlikely and surprising juxtapositions. He eschews precious metals and gemstones, and his jewelry ingredients have been drawn from surplus stores and supply houses, from electronic instruments and costume jewelry parts, whatever might catch his eye. His preferred metals are aluminum, brass, copper, nickel, silver, and stainless steel; and he utilizes acrylic, fiberglass, micarta, and nylon, often carving them.
Mann’s jewelry has been influenced by his peers in the close community of fellow artisans, but is also inspired by other assemblists and collagists—Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Braque, whose visual similarities are redefined into personal adornment. There is a great deal of humor and irony to be found, but, make no mistake, pay close attention to Mann’s craftsmanship; it is the platform from which his idiosyncratic voice carries a very personal and wondrous message. His jewelry lacks the existential angst of some other metalsmiths and embraces the more positive aspects of being human, echoing a purity and naturalness that come to mind when we think of Adam and Eve before their and consequently our fall. His evocative tributes to our hearts and hands show a tenderness and belief in the ultimate power and goodness of the human spirit.
The malleability of ceramics, among its more notable characteristic to alter, change and modify, makes the medium an especially fascinating one to explore. Ceramist Lisa Belsky is on a personal quest to test clay to its fullest capabilities. Belsky, a Philadelphia transplant to Columbus, Ohio, received her MFA from Ohio State University and stayed to set down personal and professional roots. These roots have taken hold and grown under Belsky’s artistic hand, maturing in her distinctive, sculptural ceramic forms.
For Belsky working with clay is also intertwined with her appreciation of fiber, especially knitting and crocheting. The threads of these practices are tied to her love of family; and her emotional connection to them stems from her childhood, watching her female relatives knit and crochet, passing the craft from one to another, and then following in their footsteps herself.
Her pieces begin as handknit or crocheted fabric that are then manipulated, shaped and dipped into porcelain slip; the firing process burns away the material leaving the ceramic. What remains are basket-like vessels, leaving an abstracted sense of its inspiration, yet singular, no longer connected to its former fibrous state. “I view this body of work,” she says, “as a metaphor for embracing change while preserving memories.” As with many artisans, the result is a success when it elicits a deeper appreciation for the handmade object and the internal motivation that brought it forth.
Stephen Zeh, from Temple, Maine, plies his craft from the subtle tones born of the brown ash tree, following the traditions of Maine Woodsmen, Shakers and Native Americans. His finely woven baskets are made for use, whether to carry apples from the fall season, eggs from the hen or storing yarn for wintertime knitting. The brown ash has to be carefully selected for the right grain and flexibility to start the process for the hand scraping, other methods and tool use that takes place. A drawknife, shaving horse, ax, froe, and hornbeam maul will shape and release the wood’s natural sheen that over the years will grow a lustrous patina lasting into the future.
Zeh also makes sweetgrass trays that turn a blond straw color over time and perfume the air with its natural scent. Also part of the repertoire are tea, cracker, bread, muffin, Italian breadstick, and French bread baskets, each with their own unique shape. Working with his partner and wife jewelry designer Tamberlaine, Zeh also designs exquisite diminutive jewelry; pendants inspired by the oak acorn, vegetable and fruit basket shapes, handwoven in eighteen and twenty-two karat gold. Their delicate forms, discrete visually, are so beautifully executed that they catch and arrest the admiring eye.
Meg Little, from Newport, Rhode Island, says it is up to you: walk on her one-of-a-kind rugs or hang them on the wall as an art object. Little specializes in hand-tufting, a process of punching strands of wool with an electric tufting gun into a backing stretched on a frame that she works, from the rear, in an upright position so that she can reach across the canvas into its design more easily. Her extraordinary color palette, sophisticated and elegant, is based on an expressive amalgam of geometrical shapes: triangles, squares, lines, circles.
Little is a proponent of more is more, mixing colors that can go up to twenty-five different combinations in the tufter. All the yarn is commercially spun and dyed for the carpet industry and she uses two and three ply wools made for carpets and rugs. She says hand-tufting is an industrial process and she follows its guidelines in making her work, but the design and embellishment is due to her own creative sensibility.
Her passion for hand-tufted rugs dates from 1984 when she moved to Cornwall, England, after earning her Master’s Degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. During the six years she lived in Cornwall, she met Grace Eckhert, a tapestry weaver who was beginning to experiment with the process, and introduced Little to the medium. Life was never the same and the designing and production of hand-tufted rugs became Little’s craft. She succeeds in making something extraordinary from the ordinary—that of the art of walking on rugs.
New York City-based Mina Norton was originally trained as a painter in her native Iran and studied commercial textile design in England before moving to the United States. From a family of doctors and lawyers, Norton was expected to proceed into one of these professions, but she had other ideas and moved instead in the direction of the arts. It is here that she has received her fulfillment and satisfaction, earning, in over thirty years of dedication and hard work, a widely-appreciated reputation. Her coats and jackets accomplish the feat of being both dramatic and refined. With her exacting nature, Norton fashions garments that are carefully and precisely structured. In her studio, they are hand-loomed with high quality merino wool, dyed and felted by hand. Improvisation occupies an important position in her vision, and she trusts her instincts when she introduces touches of color against an understated palette of grays and black.
Refining and re-defining, the clothing reaches a level of rich minimalism, in addition to a classicism transcending this modern age, but also most certainly acknowledging it. Her work is an infusion of world cultures, Iran, to be sure, but also Africa and India. It is not only the design but the comfort and wearability of her apparel that are exceedingly important to the success of a piece. Norton is determined to ensure that her clients receive a lifetime of beauty and practicality.
In a career that has led from teaching art to creating her own clothing and accessories, Andrea Geer, from Rochester, New York, does what it takes to achieve consistent results within her creative control. But it is experimentation with texture, form, color, and movement that ultimately propels her love of the process; she says, “As I learn more about my craft, my ideas evolve. I am most interested in how fabric moves around the body and how architectural form can be created using yarn.”
A combination of informed skills and physical tools, some unusual to clothing, are the manifestations of her pushing the standard, recognized boundaries of designing knitted garments for the female form. The goal is to enhance the body and to imbue the fabric and its ultimate shape with a seeming spontaneity and playfulness. While some of her clothing is hand-loomed on vintage punch card knitting machines and sewing machines, she also uses paintbrushes, digital styluses and Photoshop. For Geer, it is all about finding what will best express an idea she is formulating.
The visual impact is a strong element in Geer’s work and it presents a commanding, vibrant presence. She received both a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and a Master of Fine Arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Perhaps due to the influence of both degrees in graphic design and painting, her designs reside in a more abstracted yet highly structured realm. As an additional flourish, she handmakes her buttons and pin closures, further customizing her mostly one-of-a-kind clothing, with a bit of limited production.
Do not ask furniture artisan Bradford Smith whether he works in familiar styles, like Shaker or Arts and Crafts, because he will tell you that in the over thirty years he has been designing, the driving force has been to develop his own voice and not to be “pigeonholed” by any traditional style, or contemporary variations for that matter. His comfort level is to be found in combining the old with the new, intertwining craftsmanship and practicality with aesthetic expression.
From Worcester, Pennsylvania, Smith was raised on a farm where he helped his family by fixing and building things on the land. After high school graduation, for four years he worked in area woodworking shops and in them learned the basics of woodworking. And, he says, a strong work ethic. He went off to the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen and graduated with a BFA in woodworking and furniture design. That same year, 1980, he started Bradford Woodworking with his wife Sandy, who also graduated from the school.
A special touch of Smith’s is his use of recycled and salvaged lumber and old farm equipment in his furnishings which encompass a full range of beds, benches, bookcases, cabinets, tables, stools, whatever will enhance the domestic environment in a distinctive way. He will use ax handles for chair legs, taking advantage of their S-curve and knobby foot. Pitchforks, he describes, “make ideal supports for chair backs and have some spring when you lean back.” With their generally farm-related themes, the pieces attract with an authentic rustic charm and warm presence.
Nick Leonoff’s glass works are luminescent and magical as they respond beautifully to light, a platform varying from opaque to translucent in a dazzling array of colors and gradations. In 2011 he established his glass studio in Brooklyn, New York. But a range of experiences have led him from his native California, where he was first introduced to the medium by apprenticing to renowned stained glass artist Alan Masaoka on the Monterey Peninsula, with whom his passion for glass began, to the east coast where he attended the Corning Museum of Glass and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. His fervor for glass began with Masaoka as mentor and deepened over the years as he has worked with other notable artists like Kait Rhoads, Greg Dietrich, Davide Salvadore, and Martin Janecky.
Leonoff has been attracted to glassblowing since the day his first gather of glass emerged from the furnace and he experienced the breathtaking change of a molten form transition into a solid state. He specializes in Swedish overlay techniques to create layers of colored glass in the walls and on the surface of his glass forms. After annealing and cooling, he carves the pieces with diamond wheels to remove layers of glass, exposing colors within. This is where he designs and creates the patterns and textures that distinguish his work—the focus of his artistic concentration.
Jeweler Tara Locklear finds her materials in the everyday, from concrete shards to skateboard fragments, reinforcing the particularly contemporary concept that jewelry can be made from anything, not just from the realm of precious metals and gemstones. A student of noted jeweler experimentalist Robert Ebendorf, she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Metal Design from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and continues to reside in North Carolina, making Raleigh her hub. Not long ago, considered to be part of the category called Emerging Artist, Locklear has quickly established an active presence in the show, gallery and museum worlds. Her exhibition and workshop schedule, aside from the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, includes the American Craft Council shows, Smithsonian Craft2Wear, and galleries J. Cotter Gallery in Vail, Colorado, and the former Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco, as well as instructor at the Brooklyn Metal Works and Society of Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. Already in her relatively young career, Locklear is so well considered that her jewelry is now part of Racine Art Museum’s permanent collection.
With a sharp visionary sense of the unusual, Locklear explores the nature of beauty beyond the primary purpose of her materials, refashioning them into unexpected statements. She peels away, for example, the personal, autobiographical references an old skateboard might have meant to its skater and uses its wood to make a necklace. The same is true of hand-plucked cement found on roadways, detritus to most, trod on by the unknown, innumerable passings of people and traffic, but translated into a ring and clever kind of jewel. These seemingly insignificant substances are not only cost effective for Locklear to refashion, but by specifically choosing them for her bold and imaginative jewelry, she still values their original intent and also raised them to a new level of definition and meaning.
Some passions begin early in life and Michael Shuler’s goes back to that of a six year old, when he discovered that wood held his curious attention. That youthful focus never wavered as he progressed through his teenage years, figuring out how something, like a family heirloom chair had been built, then exploring, learning, making. The Santa Cruz, California, artist has maintained his studio since 1973 and since that time earned a highly respected reputation in wood turning.
With his record for superb craftsmanship dating to the 1980s, his resume is fulsome, including, to name a few, excellence in wood awards from the Smithsonian Craft Show, American Craft Exposition, Washington Craft Show. His works are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the White House Collection of American Crafts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Arts and Design, and Yale University Art Gallery. This year marks Shuler’s sixth appearance as an exhibitor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.
Creating lathe-turned vessels have become his life’s work. His “segmented” vessels are exactingly cut from exotic hardwoods, like zebrawood, pink ivorywood, birdseye maple, gabon ebony. The result is an amazing patterning of colors and grain native to the wood itself, with perhaps up to five thousand segments of wood utilized in a large bowl and two thousand pieces in smaller ones. His second body of work, also drawn from nature’s bounty, “organicas”, is drawn from pinecones, Banksia protea, thistles, and artichokes. In both types of vessels he reveals an awe-inspiring beauty originating in the natural world; and, in the hands of this wood master, manifested by the power of imagination and infinite possibilities emanating from the human spirit.
See Our Participating Artists at the Show
Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the United States in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. As her travels take her throughout the United States, there are many places which are dear to her heart, one in particular being the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show that provides a venue for beautiful handmade art every November. Her delving into the work and philosophy of the craftspeople who exhibit is another testament to the creativity of the spirit.