Each autumn as the days turn crisp freshened by the new season on the East Coast, one of the nation’s most treasured craft shows debuts in Philadelphia with thousands of attendees flooding Hall F inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Nearing four decades of presenting contemporary craft to both neophyte and connoisseur, the show is one of the primary fundraisers for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Purchases from the nearly two hundred exhibitors, whether a lustrous ceramic vessel by Cliff Lee, a breathtaking brooch by Judith Kinghorn or elegant handpainted garments by Kay Riley, not only help support the artist directly but also benefit the museum. Since its inception in 1977, the Women’s Committee who sponsors the show has contributed almost eleven million dollars to the museum in the form of educational programs, exhibitions and acquisitions for its permanent collection.
The show is a panoramic example of the healthy, ever blossoming state of craft in America today and of artist contributions to the cultural innovations of this country. Artists prize the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, valuing not only its standards, quality and excellent reputation but for its encouragement and steady nurturance of contemporary craft in the United States.
In May of this year five jurors met to determine who of a thousand entrants would be admitted into the plentiful fourteen categories as defined by the committee—basketry, ceramics, emerging, fiber decorative, fiber wearable, furniture, glass, jewelry/precious, jewelry/semiprecious, metal, mixed media, paper, and wood. The one hundred ninety-five artists for 2015 were selected by invited jurors Lola Brooks, metalsmith; Sam Harvey, Co-Owner of the Harvey Meadows Gallery; Ronald Labaco, the Marcia Docter Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design; Don Miller, associate professor of The University of the Arts; and Tina Oldknow, senior curator of the Corning Museum of Glass. Work was judged according to an agreed upon assessment of the artist’s originality and innovation in a medium; the prominence of personal expression and creativity; by technical expertise and consistency of quality; and being of one-of-a kind or limited edition pieces in order to qualify.
One of the artists to this year’s show is Amy Nguyen. An award-winning textile artist, Nguyen has perfected her use of shibori in beautifully flowing silk organza coats and kimonos, ever graceful and always sensual. Her work rises to seemingly spiritual levels—an abstracted form of reverence and tribute to the world within us and to that which exists beyond. She is one who perhaps could not create without such a serene recognition, perhaps acceptance, of the indeterminate forces that drive us all. Otherwise her handwork would visibly lack the deliberative care and prayerful attitude brought to her cloth. Additionally, Nguyen’s painting of fiber is demonstratively compelling, another testament to her mastery. The dedication she brings to expressing her craft and the difficult bar set and met with each piece defines her as among the very best in the field.
One of fourteen in the furniture category, James Pearce takes another path to functionality. Part of a fourth generation woodworking family, Pearce continues to explore the nature of wood through his inventive designs, while relying on traditional hand tools to aid their emergence in his custom fabrications. Fascinated by their grain, color and texture, he chooses not to stain his pieces to alter their natural state, preferring a wood’s natural warmth and color. Pearce’s wood is milled locally where he lives in Illinois, and he also uses local hardwood, like walnut, maple, cherry, and hickory. Alert to the advantage of propinquity, he sometimes gathers wood from trees that have been downed by storms in area fields. Pearce goes even further by making his own varnishes and applying a clear coat finish, a mixture of oil and varnish, to sustain the durability of a work and to bring out its particular glow.
Mary Jaeger’s rich repertoire of techniques do not reveal their diversity in her finished garments. Jaeger dyes, stitches, prints, pieces, shrinks, deconstructs—whatever it takes to arrive at what she envisions. It is critical to Jaeger that her textiles maintain their unique quality. Many of her coats employ quilting as part of the process. Jaeger has an inspired instinct for how the layering of cloth makes for warmth and comfort in wearing, and also how in its arrangement through interesting patterns and various textures there arises from within the garment a wholistic aesthetic and sophisticated sense of composing for the human form. She is in addition guided by a fluid sense of the possibilities of shaping and how color appears throughout a piece—that they can take many directions, not just the usual conventional path.
Ceramist Thomas Harris lives on twenty wooded acres near Bloomington, Indiana, but it is in Bloomington itself where he keeps his studio and there uses wheelthrowing, handbuilding and slip casting to make his fascinating functional and nonfunctional works. Harris was educated in Arizona, receiving a bachelor of fine arts at Northern Arizona University and a master’s degree from the University of Arizona. Deconstructivist in ideation, his bowls, cups and teapots are brilliantly colored exercises in surface decoration—painterly splashes of bold in-your-face blues, yellows, greens, oranges. Harris says that he “looks for the unique in utilitarian forms, often misshaping the form after having thrown it.” Set off by a luminescent glow or polish, they appear to be some type of primeval, mysterious fruit or groves of extravagant wildflowers unfolding in the heat of the mid-day sun.
Another ceramist was born in Taiwan to a family that encouraged his artistic inclinations, and credits his Rhode Island School of Design education to introducing the possibilities of working in clay. “Clay is a very forgiving medium,” says Dwo Wen Chen. “For an undisciplined artist such as myself, it suits me perfectly. I can translate almost anything within my imagination using my hands and clay.” Chen has remained in Providence where he operates Three Wheel Studio, a gallery and studio showing his work and that of others. “I have become more comfortable in calling myself a studio potter,” says the artist. “It started one day when I opened my kiln and found an almost perfect little tea bowl with just the right glaze. To a potter, that was a perfect day.”
Honors, awards, grants, solo and group exhibitions, private and public collections, an author to boot (The Art of Basketry)—Kari Lonning’s resume is a prolific document of this successful working artist over a lifetime, in her instance dating to the early 1970s. Lonning weaves her baskets with natural rattan reed that is dyed by her with commercial, colorfast textile dyes to reach the depth of color so critical to their presentation (and to maintain their long life). Lonning is known for her “hairy” technique, a complex weaving process, where short pieces of reed are woven into the walls of the basket. They astonish the eye with their graphic complexity. She also favors spiral and vertical patterns in her designs and their distinctive coloration varies from bold to subtle. Her influences date from college days: she minored in textiles with a major in ceramics, and basketry, she says, became “the natural union of the two.” A favorite relaxation for Lonning, and a time of important inspiration for later creations, is to work in her Connecticut garden, usually assisted by her canine companion, an Old English Sheepdog named Emma.
San Francisco artist Petra Class makes stunning jewelry in high karat golds and luscious gemstones—tourmalines, aquamarines, natural diamonds, lapis, sapphires, and more. Originally classically trained as a goldsmith in Germany, her techniques and aesthetics have been honed over her productive career. While the work employs methods and techniques she was taught, her jewelry is anything but formal and traditionally inspired. Rather it is emotive, jazzy, idiosyncratic, totally contemporary. The stone-set circles, squares, ovals, and rectangles appear to be improvisational collaged arrangements, but are in fact carefully designed for a unified effect. Class also brings bezel-setting to an impeccable new level and it brings as much to the overall composition as the beautiful stones.
Karen McCreary’s jewelry is a sensitive juxtaposition of color, transparency, light, mood, and illusion suffusing throughout her pendants, bangles and earrings. McCreary primarily uses transparent acrylic which she carves by hand and then layers with colored lacquer and twenty-two karat gold leaf. Her designs are influenced by a deep interest in science and technology and a passion for science fiction. In an earlier Ornament feature (Vol. 29, No. 3), McCreary related how much she strives to make jewelry that is “a reflection of me and the time I live in but has a timeless quality. I try to have a certain amount of balance between designs I can imagine and pieces that can actually be worn and comfortable on the body. For me that’s the reason to make jewelry.”
Another completely alternative way of harnessing light is practiced by Sherwood, Wisconsin, artist Scott Amrhein. His slumped, kiln-formed glass vessels are extraordinary examples demonstrating how the reflective surfaces of glass are unique to the experience by which they are engaged: for example, time of day, whether morning or evening; seasonality, summer or winter; light source, natural or fluorescent. No two pieces of Amrhein’s are exactly alike but they all visually communicate a quietude and transcendence that is almost religious. Amrhein places his forms on pedestals, such as wood, copper and concrete, for support and to further emphasize their singular shape, but they also serve to draw one into the pieces, focusing the observer’s attention on his expert use of color, pattern and texture.
Pennsylvania native Annina King lives in Huntingdon Valley, near Philadelphia where the craft show takes place, and where she received a master’s degree in fashion design from Philly’s Drexel University in 2005. In 2013 she opened Granaté Prêt, an artisanal clothing line also located in the city. King utilizes all kinds of materials: silk, wool, leather, linen, cotton, as well as some synthetic fibers. Her collections, based on a philosophy of making clothing for women that is graceful and feminine, evinces a personal confidence born through the unique quality of her designs. Drawing from the past as well as imagining the future, her sources include history, costume, illustration, and literature. “Structural Organic is a term I often think of,” King says, “as I strive to capture the spirit and forms in nature: leaf veins, branches and especially trees.” She integrates hand embellishment, intricate seaming, vintage techniques, and quirky hardware in her separates, coats, dresses, and tunics. Soft to the touch layers of hand-dyed silk chiffon, a long-romantic legacy of fashion, might be shocked into a startling modernistic lift with a visibly exposed zipper. Part of a welcome new generation of wearable artists, King’s explorations are refreshing re-interpretations of how it is possible to decorate ourselves.
During times like ours artists and their works help point the way to a more ennobling worldview of creation. It is helpful to remember the legacy passed on by artists of other times and places, and how contemporary makers challenge the status quo and memes of the day by their innovations and inspirations, just as their forbearers put forth. The handmade object is inextricably linked through the critical interrelationship of its form (through the way in which something is made) to its meaning (the purpose for which it is made), and from which an aesthetic arises. Craft transmits itself directly and immediately with timeless, inherent simplicity—the handmade object is beautiful not despite its usefulness but because of it.
Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s resident expert on contemporary wearable art. She gives her personal view on what is taking place in the current issue in Postscript on page 64. Benesh also writes about the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, one of her favorite craft events, where each year Ornament sponsors and selects the Award for Excellence in Art-to-Wear. She includes a report on the Saul Bell Design Award for 2015. The competition never fails to serve up a rich potpourri of decorative and functional objects, from the classically inspired to the avant garde.