The Smithsonian Craft Show, now in its thirty-fifth year, is in a league by itself. With stringent standards for artistry, creativity and technical expertise, the four-day event presents one hundred and twenty artists from thirty-four states at the handsome National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian’s show celebrates a far-reaching vision of craft as art that unites heritage, continuity and change, looking back to the cultural wellsprings of our oldest and most cherished traditions in America. When our immigrant ancestors arrived on these shores, they brought the skills of their hands, and the folkways of the countries they came from. Craft created a country: if you needed a basket to carry produce, somebody had to make one. These handmade, utilitarian things became our heirlooms, a way of belonging to family and community and the past. But they were never really humble: fine workmanship has always been prized. The Smithsonian Craft Show takes pride in that history and its inheritors, the artisans today who find new inspiration in wood, leather, glass, grasses, cloth, ceramics, and metal. Some of them studied in classrooms or trained as apprentices in workshops; some learned from their father or grandmother; some are self-taught. All of them use their hands.
If you see pewter, you are liable to think colonial America. Her favorite comment that pewtersmith Rebecca Hungerford hears is “I always thought pewter was gray and clunky. You’ve really changed my mind.” Hungerford, from Michigan, is a shining example of an artist who bridges old and new in craft. After earning a fine-arts degree from Miami University, she studied pewtersmithing in New Brunswick, Canada, with a teacher who trained in England and taught her how to make her own molds. She has handmade classic pewter bowls, mugs, plates, and candlesticks ever since.
She still sounds amazed at the “huge leap” she took, around 1995, to contemporary design. She hankered after using her fine-arts training: “There’s great joy in creating something new that’s original and personal.” Hungerford describes how her contemporary work “reflects a feminine hand; it’s more fluid and sensual. Sometimes I acid-etch or color with Prismacolor pencils, paints and foil, then burnish for a translucent surface. I love pewter’s warm color, its softness and great tactile quality, and its affordability.” A whimsical appeal makes her pewter look lighthearted: tinted goblets seem to sway on their stems to a private samba rhythm.
Ceramics breathe of house and home, of the life-affirming communion of eating together. First-time exhibitor Adam Paulek’s spare, engaging ceramics are functional art: plates, mugs, teapots, serving pieces. He describes his ceramics as a canvas, on which he assembles enigmatic narratives from photographic images. During a recent artist-in-residency, in Denmark, he switched to porcelain clays, creating pools of limpid white, blue celadon and a pale yellow for more background clarity.
The Iowa-born studio artist trained as an apprentice potter in Asheville, North Carolina, and earned an M.F.A. at the University of Tennessee in 2003. He lives in Virginia, where he teaches ceramics and design at Longwood University. Wherever he goes, he takes his digital camera to record anything that catches his attention. Later he revisits his photographs, looking at forms. He strips out everything surrounding an object—for example, a bare twig—or may zero in on part of it. Once he makes the images “through the process of laser transfer decals, in either sepia tones or color, I move them around and apply them, like a collage.” Paulek lets things unfold; he tells his students that “It’s not the ideas that differentiate you; it’s your curiosity, your engagement. It’s how you pay attention.” His photo-realist images arrest your eye; their juxtaposition draws you in. Maybe they tell a story, maybe not; it depends on your interpretation. But tossing those possibilities around is entrancing.
Of all the hand tools in human history, nothing has come laden with more status than the knife. Across cultures, across centuries, it is one of humanity’s most prized possessions. Zachary Jonas, a member of the respected American Bladesmith Society, is an eloquent and knowledgeable spokesman for the art and practice of his craft. His knives are beautiful to behold, handforged from high-carbon steel, and relentlessly fabricated to fit like a dream in your hand. Essential to a state-of-the-art knife, Jonas says, is “its balance. A handforged knife actually has a thicker blade than a factory-made one, but it feels lighter because it’s balanced, which means you’re not fighting it while you’re trying to use it.”
A native of Massachusetts, Jonas graduated from Connecticut College in 2005. He found his calling in an evening class in bladesmithing at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. An apprenticeship takes years. “The heat and forging are only about ten to twenty percent of making a blade,” Jonas explains. “Most of it is grinding, filing, shaping, and polishing, polishing, polishing.” Unique to Jonas’s knives is his revival of Damascus steel. An ancient art originating in Middle Eastern metallurgy, Damascus is an intricately patterned, forged steel, in which each blade’s pattern is distinctive to both the skill and techniques of the individual artist.
Jonas is equally passionate about his handcrafted wooden handles, selecting the colors and orienting the wood grain to complement the blade. This is where function defines beauty; there cannot exist anything more satisfying, for anyone who uses their hands, than to wield a perfect knife.
Colorado-born Ben Strear, making his debut at the Smithsonian Craft Show, handcarves shallow-relief wood vessels and sculptures that feel almost alive in the play of light and shadow across their patterned surfaces. It took him some time to follow his passion for carving. Strear graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006 with a degree in furniture design, and then spent close to a decade in New York, working in high-end commercial millwork, art fabrication and complex 3D modeling. A move to North Carolina let him set up a home workshop as a studio artist. He is attracted to organic, repetitive forms: the whorls of a mollusk shell, or the feathers carved in a bird’s wing from an Assyrian stone bas-relief.
Strear turns his pieces on a lathe to create contours suggesting vegetal growth; almost, he says, they resemble “petrified fruits.” He employs domestic hardwoods and traditional handtools, then lightly wire-brushes a piece at the end to bring out the fine grain. “If the wood characteristics are not so pretty, I’ll cover them with milk paint for a matte surface,” Strear says. “The main theme is that everything is monochromatic, in shades of white, gray or black, to show the layers of pattern.” Before he touches a tool, Strear rigorously draws out every detail on paper, “to see the aesthetic I want.” His carving reflects a boundless appreciation for the warmth and innate beauty of wood.
Go back three hundred years—a long time ago, in America—when the ancestors of MacArthur Foundation award-winning artist Mary Jackson arrived on slave ships. Their descendants made their home in the marshes of coastal South Carolina, where Jackson grew up and learned as a child to make her legendary sweetgrass baskets, weaving them with virtually the identical techniques found today in West Africa. “There’s a similarity in the coiling and the stitching pattern,” Jackson explained in the PBS documentary Craft in America. For Jackson, respecting an unbroken tradition is as important as the craft itself: “For my ancestors, it was evidence of where they came from,” she explains. In more than forty years of basketmaking, she has always been conscious of “how proud they would feel to see it’s been passed down.”
During a ten-year interlude working in New York, Jackson became deeply interested in contemporary art and ideas. When she returned to basketry, she emerged as an innovator, with breakthrough ideas like “sweeping handles and flat shapes with [a spray of unbound] grasses flowing from it,” that caused a sensation. She adapted old forms, like extending in the edges of a rice-winnowing “fanner” basket to make a more enclosed, shallow shape displaying intricate designs woven from bulrushes and long-leaf pine needles. A basket can look deceptively simple. “You need strong hands,” Jackson says, to keep the tension while lacing together the pliable sweetgrass with strips of tough palmetto leaves native to South Carolina. Her impeccable construction and finely woven detail reveal an unsurpassed mastery of her medium, and her inventive forms, no matter how sculptural, still remember they are baskets.
What you are really seeing, when you look at a piece of Linda Kindler Priest’s jewelry, is a storyscape. The minutely sculpted wildlife and flowers, in fourteen karat gold repoussé, are caught in motion: the bullfinch, its tail tilted to fly away; the polar bear, in mid-stride; the swaying lily. Each small animal, bird, insect, fish, or bloom finds its natural home in the gemstone or mineral framed below it, inferring a context and meaning: ice, air, water, the green earth. A delicate pearl, tucked at an angle by a pelican, represents a small egg; the scatter of green sapphires cresting the aquamarine crystal beneath the pelican evokes the sea, sparkling in daylight. “I wanted a contrast to the gold metal,” Priest says. “The gemstones add more emotion; they allow more color and expression.” The poetic economy of her compositions lets you gaze into the depths of each stone, suggesting more to the story: a veining of pink agate becomes plant roots. Her brooches are made in pairs, as a top and bottom that can be worn together or separately.
A meditation on inner strength runs through her work, in the materials she uses, in her demanding techniques, and in the life force of the world around us. Priest, from Massachusetts, trained as an artist at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, where she also teaches. Maybe it is Yankee self-reliance that led her to take up the arduous process of repoussé, which dates back thousands of years and takes almost as long to do; at its best its finesse and execution makes you intensely aware of the artist’s hand. Priest reworks the metal “so many times that there’s a softness to it. And I must anneal it at least twenty to fifty times. There’s only me, my tools—an extension of my hand—and the metal. You’re apt to get a bit more of me than you would with other processes.” In essence, Priest has revitalized a formal, old-world technique with superb results.
“I don’t like gold that’s too shiny,” says jewelry artist Judith Kaufman. “I like it to look organic and ancient.” Kaufman, enticed by gold into a mutual seduction over twenty years ago, works with a palette of fourteen karat rose gold, eighteen karat green gold, and a twenty two karat gold that she uses interchangeably to create luminous, painterly effects. “You can pour your creative energy into something when you love and respect the material,” she explains. Over decades of handmaking jewelry, the artist has come to trust the same visceral affinity when choosing gems or stones; “They speak to me,” she says. Aesthetically, there is an intangible consciousness of imperfection. “I like to see the hand in a piece,” she says, referring to her techniques; almost invisible irregularities “give a piece soul.”
Kaufman took jewelrymaking lessons as a teenager and has lived and worked in her Connecticut hometown all her life. Her jewelry has evolved over her career, but still harbors an unpredictable quality; there are no traces of any school or style except what she gleans, subliminally, from nature. On her daily walks she may see a detail that percolates in that mysterious place where inspiration dwells, like the sight of some cognac-colored pine needles drifted together at the edge of a pond. Once at her studio bench, she gathers components, waiting for colors and forms to converge. “You have to show up for yourself,” Kaufman says, “I’m particular, and it may take all day.” Her jewelry evokes the random beauty and logic of nature. Asymmetry is her visual keystone: a balance between too much and just enough, like the gusts of bubbles skidding across a broad cuff. Kaufman explores the idea of something “trapped by nature;” for instance, in a new brooch, two halves of rutilated quartz enclose wind-tossed gold leaves and diamond berries. “It’s leaves and needles,” she says, “their X-shapes talk to each other.” Kaufman’s jewelry is both lyrical and majestic; Hillary Clinton owns one of her necklaces, which seems appropriate for someone who has moved on the world stage.
Marian “Mau” Schoettle’s instantly compelling wearable art references the twentieth century on multiple levels: urban streets; work uniforms; the space age; abstract art; shipping and advertising; the mobility of modern life. She calls her coats and jackets “post industrial folk wear. I’m interested in working with materials and images from the world we live in now.” Her material is Tyvek®, a featherweight, durable synthetic plastic as common as paper in our culture: in FedEx mailing envelopes; to wrap houses under construction; and in the orange cover-alls worn by prisoners working along state highways. Commercial-grade Tyvek comes in stiff sheets, which Schoettle washes to make more pliable; in time it becomes softer (she does not use a grade of Tyvek made for clothing).
Originally from Pennsylvania, Schoettle lived in Europe before moving to New York’s Hudson Valley. Though she has made and sewn clothes all her life, her interests in conceptual art and photography led her into design. She describes the stencil lettering, half-erased numbers, and word fragments that she draws with surplus hardware and paint as “culture-jamming. Every typeface has further cultural information.” Sometimes she includes photo-transfer images of distorted buildings. The artist deliberately defies composition, letting anarchy rule a layout. “I’m influenced by Dada,” she explains. Her visual language exploits distinctively conflicting ideas: protective versus perishable, for instance, in a new two-tone brown Tyvek that plays with the notion of paper. A sense of irreverence opens up engagement: one customer on her way to Egypt wrote a travelogue about her trip on the inside of one of Schoettle’s coats.
Beloved New York Times street-fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said his favorite decade was the sixties. The era’s anthem of freedom of expression lives on in the exhilarating confections of New Orleans-based designer Starr Hagenbring, whose kaleidoscopically colorful luxe-silk coatdresses and jackets manifest an air of contagious revelry and joie-de-vivre. Her wearable art, painstakingly embellished with handpainted lace, handpainted imagery, free-form machine stitching, piecing and layering, is lush and cumulative, making not so much a statement as a pirouette.
“Martha Stewart taught us to glitter a pumpkin,” Hagenbring says. “I like to make people feel happy wearing something beautiful. In my family, it was a real event to get dressed up and go out.” Raised in Illinois, Hagenbring graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in theater design, and had her own boutique in New York’s SoHo, while developing the dramatic blaze of stained-glass colors integral to her designs. “People respond to color, especially to shades in the orange/magenta/red range, which complement every skin tone.” The opulence of her work belies her restraint, for example in applying gold. “Gold implies splendor, rather than glitz,” Hagenbring explains. “For the best teachers, look at the Egyptians or the Byzantines. Don’t look at Las Vegas.”
Her couture tailoring defines a feminine shape; hints at a waistline suggest a sexier attitude than shrink-wrapped knitwear that leaves nothing to the imagination. A jacket may have up to nine gores; “Gores don’t cut off your waist from your hips; they keep a long line.” Everything is fully lined, and sleeves are opened to allow more movement. At the same time Hagenbring injects a bit of provocation: a painted series of religious symbols, or recently, over-scaled dung beetles. “I like to take the misunderstood and invite people to really look at it and see its beauty,” the artist says. Her clothing exults in living life to the hilt.
When a jazz ensemble musician came to Rob and Barbara Mathews for a pair of awesome shoes with a retro vibe to wear performing, the Mathews obliged, crafting stellar red-and-ivory leather brogues. A third-generation shoemaker, Rob Mathews met his wife, Barbara, as students at Middlebury College. They established a custom shoemaking business in New Hampshire while also restoring an eighteenth-century farmstead. “Small shoemaking shops dotted the New England countryside in earlier times,” Barbara Mathews says. “We’ve found bits of antique shoes and shoe tools in the old buildings on our property. We feel like we’re working in the spirit of New England shoemakers, often with their old tools right in our hands.” The Mathews team up on design and construction, bringing science—Rob Mathews’ certification in pedorthics—as well as art to their craft.
Custom shoemaking is a collaboration; it involves your wishes and your feet in measurements and fitting, cushioning preferences, and picking colors and style. The Mathews act as interpreters and consultants as well as artisans, often forming lifelong bonds with their clients. “We love showing the possibilities to make something individual and expressive,” says Barbara, which are epic considering the variety of ethically sourced leathers from around the world that they have available. Their shoes are handsewn and all leather-lined. “People are always surprised at how light the shoes are at first,” Barbara explains. “Custom shoes are made to feel like you’re going barefoot.” Probably nothing seems as personal or as memorable as a pair of bespoke shoes; visitors to Monticello speak of Thomas Jefferson’s tall riding boots as one of their favorite sights.
It takes time to create timelessness. “Creating by hand involves a lot of problem solving, prioritizing and organizing. It isn’t serendipity: it’s very thoughtful and meticulous work,” as Rebecca Hungerford puts it. The handmade connects us: in the age of the internet and mass-production, it speaks to something as indefinable as a sense of human touch. Linda Kindler Priest recalls an old table she saw in an antiques store. “It was handfinished,” she remembers; “it glowed.” Adam Paulek reflects that the handmade is “comforting, because it makes you part of a continuum.” Making something by hand is the essence of our humanity, Starr Hagenbring believes: “Creativity is the spice of life. You get a wonderful thrill from finishing a piece, or a room, or a dish of food, and it’s turned out fantastically. That thrill—it’s better than anything.”
Smithsonian Craft Show. National Building Museum
Preview Night April 26. April 27 – 30, 2017
Leslie Clark is a freelance writer and editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Around town here you see a bumper sticker that reads Art Saves Lives,” Clark comments. “In these horrendous times, it felt life-saving to speak with some of the incredible artisans at the 2017 Smithsonian Craft Show. Not only were they generous and thoughtful talking about their work, but also they helped remind me of brighter vistas, of what is possible when people put their hearts and minds to what they care about. A big thank you to each and every one, and to Ornament magazine.”