IN THE VANGUARD,
When the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts opened its doors in Montville, Maine, in 1950, it was something of a makeshift operation. A group of devoted craftspeople, led by the charismatic Francis Merritt and supported by a generous patron, Mary Beasom Bishop, set up the school on the slopes of Haystack Mountain, a short way inland from the mid-coast, and began to teach. The rest is craft history.
Originated at the Portland Museum of Art, “In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969” presents the story of the first two decades of what became one of the preeminent craft schools in the world. Curators M. Rachael Arauz and Diana Jocelyn Greenwold spent years researching the early years, conducting numerous interviews and seeking out primary sources. In the exhibition and its far-reaching catalogue, they provide both the context and details of Haystack’s remarkable birth and growth.
A new craft culture was already well under way in America, thanks to the Penland School of Crafts, Black Mountain College and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Colleges and universities were establishing craft programs as part of their curricula and museums were mounting shows.
Haystack began with a simple philosophy as expressed by Merritt: “In the school’s program, it is the first aim to encourage creative thinking and personal expression.” Guided by that credo, the school embarked on an ever-expanding journey of craft exploration.
Early on, the school focused on clay, fiber and graphic arts, but other disciplines were gradually added. In 1964 the jewelry program took off. Thomas Gentille and Timothy Lloyd taught the first jewelry workshops; the next year, four jewelers were on campus, among them, Arline Fisch, who had founded the metals program at San Diego State University.
As the curators note, the school “embraced jewelry” at the moment when it was moving beyond the “bounds of precious metals and stones and into the valorization of ‘worthless’ materials and found objects.” The jewelry instructors approached their medium “not as a means of pure decoration but in terms of fine art.”
The school had moved to Deer Isle in 1961 after Maine decided to build a highway near the Montville campus. Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes designed a remarkable interconnected arrangement of cabins and studios on the granite ledges of Stinson Neck overlooking Jericho Bay.
J. Fred Woell found inspiration in the school’s surroundings. “It is nature itself that creates the mood and possibilities that make the experience so powerful,” he said. The setting proved to be not only optimal to creative activities, but also a source of materials. Robert Ebendorf created brooches cast from rocks near the school. His Haystack Kaleidoscope, 1969, combines a sea urchin shell with a vintage photograph found at a local yard sale.
In a similar fashion, in fiber Merritt invited a wide range of artists to Haystack: “the functional weaver, the commercial designer, and the sculptural fiber artist alike.” Like the jewelers, the fiber faculty incorporated the surroundings into their workshops. Ted Hallman, for example, “brought his students out into the woods to weave, knot, and crochet colorful yarns around trees, bushes, and shrubs.” Another visiting fiber artist, Walter Nottingham, referred to Haystack as “the craft world’s magic place.”
The assemblage of craft objects in the show highlights the essential innovative and inventive nature of the artists teaching at the school. More than fifty years later, many of them still have the power to turn your head.
Stan VanDerBeek’s Silverware Road Runner, circa 1964, exemplifies the brilliant—and sometimes humorous—repurposing that took place at the time. With its spoon head and butter knife tail feathers, the bird is wonderfully dynamic. By contrast, Woell’s November 22, 1963, 12:30 P.M., 1967, Smithsonian American Art Museum, uses found materials to frame a photograph of JFK—a stunning memorial.
Miyé Matsukata’s pair of earrings, 1965-1975, Boston MFA, stands out for its arrangement of gold and ebony, at once sculptural and collage-like. More formal is Merry Renk’s resplendent White Cloud wedding crown, 1968, Museum of Arts and Design. The fourteen karat gold sheet has been shaped into petals with cultured pearls interspersed.
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The fiber works are equally spirited, be it Nottingham’s wool Celibacy, 1968, Milwaukee Art Museum; Mary Walker Phillips’s linen hanging, The Creature, 1964, Cooper Hewitt; or Jean Stamsta’s 13 Acres, 1966, also Milwaukee. Pieces by Hallman, Jack Lenor Larsen, Mary Walker Phillips, and Anni Albers, among others, reflect revolutionary notions of cloth designs.
Dale Chihuly, Emily Mason, Wolf Kahn, Antonio Frasconi, M. C. Richards, Cynthia Bringle, James Carpenter, and Robert Arneson are part of the who’s who line-up, each represented by outstanding work in glass, painting, printmaking, and ceramics. As the curators note, Haystack’s “open-ended spirit of experimentation and work beyond boundaries” continues today, providing “an inclusive environment for all variety of makers.”
“In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969” shows November 15, 2019 - March 8, 2020 at the Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 48303. Visit their website at www.cranbrookartmuseum.org.
Arauz, M. Rachael and Diana Jocelyn Greenwold. In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969. Portland: Portland Museum of Art, and Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.
Little, Carl (ed). Discovery: Fifty Years of Craft Experience at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Orono: University of Maine Press, 2004.
Little, Carl. “Haystack Mountain School of Crafts: Craft on the Coast of Maine.” Ornament: Vol. 31, No. 2, 2007.
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Carl Little found “In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969” a revelation. “The exhibition and catalogue tell an amazing story of craft collaboration and commitment,” he says. Little is a regular contributor to this magazine as well as to Art New England and Hyperallergic. His profile of Tom Ferrero, recipient of the Maine Crafts Association’s 2019 Master Craft Award, will appear in a future issue of Ornament. Maine-based, he lives and writes on Mount Desert Island and is a respected critic of New England art. His poetry has appeared in a wide range of literary journals. Among the more than sixteen books he has published is one on self-taught artist Philip Barter in 2017. Little’s most recent book Paintings of Portland, co-authored with his brother David, was published in 2018.