The first craft fair I ever encountered was in the early 1970s in Laguna Beach, a sun-kissed pearl of a beach town an hour or so south of Los Angeles. I was a suburban teenager brought to the fair by an aunt with a taste for art. I remember wandering wide-eyed through an outdoor maze of booths and tables displaying stoneware bowls and teapots, silver jewelry, botanical photographs, wood carvings, leather belts and bags, and a thousand other objects that I realized were not the same things available at the department and discount stores where my parents shopped. I was mesmerized, and I got the point. Everything on display had been handmade, probably by the person selling it.
This seemed to me audacious, even a little subversive. Children make things with their hands. But the idea of adults in the mid-twentieth century choosing to make mugs and bracelets and blankets by hand was completely out of my sphere of understanding. Yet what I saw was compelling. Everything struck me as authentic and beautiful. After much deliberation, I bought a twenty-two dollar stoneware bowl made by a woman with a long black braid. The bowl was perhaps nine inches across and glazed in overlapping washes of azure and yellow. To my unformed aesthetic it was elegant and artistic. It became the centerpiece on whatever passed for my kitchen table for the next fifteen years as I moved from dorm rooms to starter apartments. I arranged fruit in it, and used it to serve food to guests. Though modest, it was a one-of-a-kind object that lent beauty and grace to any place I called home.
The upcoming Smithsonian Craft Show 2016 will be, as it always is, a celebration of just that transformative power of craft. Held at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., April 21-24, the show includes one hundred and twenty-one craftspeople from around the United States. The annual show, first held in 1983, is one of the finest craft shows in the nation. For artists chosen to participate, it is a validation of their skill and creativity. This year eleven hundred craftspeople applied. The three distinguished jurors were charged with selecting artists who represent the best in their fields, whether the artists are mature masters or young innovators.
At a time when it is easier than ever to acquire inexpensive, mass-produced clothing, jewelry, decorative and utilitarian household objets, the idea of making unique items from wood, clay, metal, fibers, glass, and other venerable craft materials can seem quaint. Manufacturers try hard to imitate real craft, though their machines can never really pull it off. No machine could ever imitate Lisa Sorrell’s skill and creativity at bootmaking. Sorrell, of Guthrie, Oklahoma, makes custom cowboy boots that no doubt will someday be in museums. She makes every bit of each boot from the colorful decorative designs on the shafts to the soles and heels. Like many artisans, she seems to have been born with gifted hands. She was making doll clothes at age twelve, and by fifteen was sewing professionally, making clothing for women in her church and prom dresses for high school girls.
“I find great satisfaction in creating functional objects,” says Sorrell. “Cowboy bootmaking appealed to me more than making clothing, because bootmaking is so physical and extremely complex. Every step in the process is a challenge, either physically or mentally.” She adds that she is “committed to the craft of cowboy bootmaking because I see myself as a link in a chain. Cowboy boots are a uniquely American craft, but it’s a craft that’s in grave danger of being lost. It has been passed along orally from bootmaker to apprentice. As I learned to make cowboy boots, I realized that I had a responsibility to learn the craft well and to pass it along to future generations.” Besides teaching and speaking on bootmaking, she produces instructional videos and is publishing a book.
If you know anything at all about the world of contemporary jewelry, Roberta and David Williamson need no introduction. The Ohio artists are among the most acclaimed jewelrymakers in the country, and their work is in the collections of major museums. In 2009 they were featured in the PBS series Craft in America. The Williamsons’ jewelry mixes a reverence for the natural world with poetic connections to home, garden and family. Crafted from found objects and antique images fabricated into sterling silver, their jewelry can conjure dreamy images of Emily Dickinson amidst the flora and fauna in her garden.
Julie Shaw has been making and selling jewelry for most of her life. She grew up in Detroit and as a twelve-year-old had a job helping in the gift shop of the Cranbrook Institute of Science. She learned to polish the semiprecious stones sold there and was struck by their beauty. Soon she was making pendants out of rocks attached to chains. Remarkably, she talked the manager of her local dime store into offering her rock jewelry for sale. Later, in art colleges in Detroit and London, she studied painting and ceramics, and in her twenties supported herself selling paintings and beaded earrings at art fairs. When people started asking her to make wedding rings, she took a quick community center course in soldering and honed her skills on the job. In the thirty some years since then she has created production and one-of-a-kind jewelry, often based on her lifelong love of rocks and precious stones.
Shaw’s latest work is in enamel, which she learned to make a few years ago from her friend Barbara Minor, an enamelist and jewelrymaker. Shaw’s jewelry has an organic look that suggests the natural world. Yet her palette is brilliant and exuberant, as if she were looking at natural forms through a rainbow-tinted lens. “One reason I love the enamel is because I get to use color, and it takes me back to my days as a painter.”
K. Riley is another artisan who mixes formidable design and craft talents to create wearable art. Her jackets and coats are made of fabric she decorates with linoleum block prints of her own design. After decorating the cloth, she constructs the jackets. The sophisticated black, white and gray of her current collection suggests the graceful shape of traditional Japanese kimonos. The prints are inspired by botany and insects. Like many professional craftspeople, Riley started young. “I always loved making things,” Riley says. “My mother was a very talented dressmaker, I learned to sew from her. When I was a teenager I combined my love of sewing with my interest in printing and painting textiles. I’ve found joy in that same work all my life. I maintain a small studio with my sister as my assistant. I continue to make all the work myself, that’s where I find the joy.”
Riley is not daunted by competition from manufacturers. “Having more mass-produced things in the world makes it even more necessary for us to continue making well-considered, finely crafted items. The Arts and Craft Movement began in response to mass manufacturing. Everything from Etsy and the DIY movement to “slow foods” and “farm to table” has come from the need of people to find meaning in the products they use.”
Suzye Ogawa also knows something about mixing materials and techniques not often found in tandem. Her father owned a dental laboratory in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo when she was young, and she learned to cast metal in her father’s lab. She went on to a career as a public school speech pathologist, but in retirement returned to her interest in craft. Ogawa took a few basketmaking classes and “it was immediately clear that I wanted to combine lost wax castings with natural basketry materials and techniques. This work has evolved and now dominates and drives my creative spirit.”
My Laguna Beach bowl certainly had meaning in my life. I came from a family that set the table with the fancy dinnerware—which was grandmother’s porcelain from England—only for guests or holidays. The idea that everyday utilitarian things should be beautiful and well designed was completely foreign to me. In those days I would not have known what to make of Boyd Sugiki and Lisa Zerkowitz’s stream-lined, handblown glass goblets, martini glasses, vases, bowls, and cake plates. They make sorbet-colored glassware that nods to the modernist Italian and Scandinavian art glass of the mid-twentieth century. It is sleek, but gloriously cheerful. The couple met at the Rhode Island School of Design and established their studio and business in Seattle. They also make nonfunctional glass sculpture. One of their goals, they say, is “to produce beautiful handmade objects that people can live with each day and enjoy fully.”
If Matt Repsher’s ceramics had been for sale at the Laguna craft fair forty-some years ago, I would have been intrigued. Repsher’s work is formal, structural and finished in muted, matte colors. He calls his current pieces “weed pots” because they are wide-bodied, narrow-necked ceramic vessels that could hold a single stem, a rose or a weed. That single stem would be without water, however. Like some of his other current forms the weed pots look composed of architectural elements that create the essential bones of a pot, rather than a fully fleshed out vessel. The pots are a contrast in the solidity of the clay and the adjacent open spaces. Repsher traces his fascination with ceramics to his father, who earned a master’s degree in ceramic art but later became a homebuilder. Repsher, soon to be based in Santa Fe, grew up surrounded by his dad’s ceramics, and says that his own work reflects an inherited interest in architecture and form.
Sandra and Wence Martinez’s nearly thirty-year collaboration in art and in life is a fairy tale of what can happen when like-minded creative spirits join forces. Sandra was a young painter from Wisconsin whose small, abstract painting was carried to Oaxaca by a friend. The friend knew weavers in Oaxaca, and one of them, a young master weaver named Wence, translated the painting into a large weaving. When Sandra saw the weaving she was impressed. The rest is history. They arranged to meet, they fell in love, they married, and since 1994 the couple has maintained a workshop in Jacksonport, Wisconsin. Wence, who came from a Oaxacan family of master weavers, still translates Sandra’s artwork, which has references to plants, tribal art and myth, into weavings and tapestries made of hand-dyed, hand-spun wool. The Martinezes’ work is completely contemporary, yet grounded in tradition.
Contemporary craft has roots in traditional techniques, but it is by no means stuck in the past. Innovative craftmakers are using new technologies to expand the traditional craft idiom. Take Sara Drower, an Illinois printmaker and visual artist who started drawing and painting on fabric. She used those fabrics to make one-of-a-kind clothing for a while, then moved to quilts and wall hangings. Her latest work involves taking digital photos of urban scenes, transferring those images onto fabric via ink-jet printing, then quilting and beading the fabric. Her new works are small quilts, about a foot square. “I am fascinated by the quality of a photo that makes people look at it and want to know more about it,” says Drower. “So far, I have worked in a small format which requires a close look. I find that people are attracted to look at the images so I need to explain both the process and the thinking behind the work—all of which makes me try to understand what the creative process involves for both the viewer and the maker.”
My blue and yellow craft fair bowl was lost years ago during a cross-country move. But in the decades since I have tried to fill my life with handmade objects that reflect the creativity and skill of the artisans who make them—artisans such as the top talent assembled for the Smithsonian Craft Show.
For more information on the Smithsonian Craft Show visit www.smithsoniancraftshow.org.
Robin Updike is an arts writer and a longtime observer of the craft scene. Her preview of the Smithsonian Craft Show gave her the chance to interview some of the top-notch artisans selected for the show. Without exception, she was not only impressed with their work, but with their lifetime commitment to their craft and their ongoing efforts to fine-tune their skills. For instance, Julie Shaw began her life in art as a painter, then became a jewelrymaker whose work was in such demand that she started a production line and hired assistants. Well into middle age, Shaw decided to learn enameling, which she now uses to make gloriously colored jewelry. “I find that the best craftmakers are always looking for new ways to express themselves, regardless of the challenges involved,” says Updike. “It is inspiring.”