Smithsonian Craft Show 2019 Volume 41.1

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April is always a perfect time to visit our nation’s capital as the city shakes off the withering cold of winter and looks forward to the rest of the year; that is, if one skips over the blazing heat and humidity of a Washingtonian summer. March 20 may formally mark the first of spring, but it is April that everyone truly embraces as a year reborn. Aside from the blossoming of its magnificent cherry trees, originally a gift of three thousand specimens from Japan in 1912, and celebrated by the wildly popular National Cherry Blossom Festival, the month is filled with one wonderful event after another. Savor this small sample of intriguing museum exhibitions currently showing, like “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Freer/Sackler Gallery, and “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” on The Mall, at the National Museum of African Art. Located steps from the White House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery hosts “Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery.” This exhibition of particular interest to those who love craft contains eighty objects from the 1930s to the present, drawn from its own craft collection, and selected by Nora Atkinson its curator.

But the month of April especially shines with that annual celebration of American craft, the Smithsonian Craft Show, at the National Building Museum, a much lauded architectural beauty and elegant setting for displaying wonders. Each year three invited jurors hone applications of approximately a thousand craft artists from across the country to those considered to have excelled in the handwork of their particular medium. The public is not only afforded the opportunity to meet and talk with the talented artists but to purchase one-of-a-kind works, selecting from twelve craft categories in basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood. Many of the one hundred twenty-one artists have participated in prior shows and are well known to serious collectors who look forward to their return, but there is also the precious chance to discover new work. For this year, there are forty-five first time exhibitors like Gregory Burgard (glass), Constance Collins (wearable art), John Guertin (wood), Bill Jones (ceramics), Katherine Maloney (ceramics), Jennifer Nunnelee (jewelry), Deborah Polonoff (wearable art), Tamra Thomas-Gentry (jewelry), Kent Townsend (furniture), Genevieve Yang (jewelry), and Jean Yao (basketry). These entrants reflect the host’s determination to keep the craft world energized with vibrant creations, emphasizing that it is a powerful and lasting artform, always renewing itself. 

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The Smithsonian Women’s Committee, which has sponsored the show for thirty-seven years as a very successful fund-raiser for the Smithsonian Institution, has in recent years established the Smithsonian Visionary Artist Award. Starting in 2014, among those recognized for their achievements have been Albert Paley, Wendell Castle, Dale Chihuly, Toots Zynsky, and Faith Ringgold. For 2019 the recipient is Joyce J. Scott who holds a 2016 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship as part of many points of recognition in her career. In announcing Scott’s award, the Fellowship stated that her jewelry and sculpture “repositioned beadwork into a potent platform for commentary on social and political injustices.” By taking in the “Connections” exhibition at the Renwick during the run of the craft show, Scott’s work can be experienced among other artists who have also helped give voice to American craft as an instrumental embodiment of this country’s complex soul.

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This year sees the return of jewelry luminaries Roberta and David Williamson from Ohio whose work portrays the organic world in its most graceful and blessed. Skillfully wrought sterling silver frames, found objects and antique prints enhance the body in statement neckpieces, in some instances recalling pectorals of former eras. Their iconography is a place of enchantment where the imagery best reflects humanity and other life forces. For those who know the Williamsons or are familiar with their work, it is clear they understand how the world harbors darkness, inequality and injustice, but the couple intends to leave their mark with jewelry that respects what is good and honorable about life.

Massachusetts artist Amy Nguyen is another  award-winning participant in the show. Noted for  her textile work, she employs the art of dyeing through the practice of Japanese shibori. Her handwork is  one of deliberative and careful process driven by a prayerful attitude brought to the cloth from genesis to fruition. Nguyen sets a high bar in her garments and this has been rewarded by her recognition as among the most accomplished in wearable art.

New Yorker Mary Jaeger is a wearable artist who layers cloth for warmth and comfort but also for a certain sensuality in her unconventional arrangement of shapes and cuts through interesting patterns and various textures. Her application of color does not follow the usual path but shows an intriguing sense for the possibilities they might bring to a finished piece.

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The Smithsonian Craft Show is a panoramic example, over its four days, of the diversity of craft in America today. Technical expertise and brilliant craftsmanship reside in the meticulously carved and glazed porcelain objects, in celadon, oxblood and imperial yellow, by Cliff Lee, from Pennsylvania, whose work is on permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shown on the PBS series of Craft in America or honored by the Renwick through its Master of the Medium award.

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Also a ceramist, Irina Okula, from Maine, produces more unconventional pieces. With fragments unified by clay transformed into statuesque vessels, she designs forms  that consist of piecing together broken clay shards, like quilts. “I decorate each shard,” she says. “I try to make interesting and compatible surfaces that dance and complement each other, making for a blend of expected and unexpected play upon the surface.”

There is a sophisticated yet warm and personal aspect to Judith Kinghorn’s jewelry in high karat gold, silver and precious stones. A lifelong Minnesotan, Kinghorn says that her work is mainly intuitive, but she has clearly been drawn to the aesthetic of the natural world and influenced by the beauty and singular characteristics to be found in the upper Midwest. Perfectly realized golden floral forms radiate from her brooches and neckpieces, and one thinks of untamed fields of wildflowers and of bouquets ready to present to a beloved.

Woodworker Peter Petrochko works in Connecticut and has studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati, and fine arts at Silvermine College of Art. While studying design, Petrochko says, “I became enthusiastic about making objects of wood, and chose wood as my craft.” He is challenged, as are most craft artists by the many possibilities that their medium might hold, and for him that is the vessel, one that many artists find themselves drawn to, whether in wood, clay, metal, and fiber.

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From Florida, Lucrezia Bieler astonishes by the brilliance of her papercuttings. Following a tradition from Europe, they are wholly her own. Mesmerizing in totality, one is compelled to enter her personal space, drawn to what seem to be thousands of intricate cuts emerging  in black and white. She has said that “I am intrigued to  create something really beautiful from a simple sheet of  plain paper. It is like turning paper into gold.” Bieler’s  work is another example of where meticulous process, concentration and precision are paramount to the successful realization of a handmade work.

Holly Anne Mitchell works paper in an entirely different manner from Bieler. And it is a fascinating exercise to see how one artist changes the quality of a medium compared to another. Now a resident of Indiana, in 1990 while  studying metalsmithing at the University of Michigan she  began exploring newspaper as a source of expression. Her assignment was to make a piece of jewelry which did not consist of any traditional jewelry materials—so, no metal and precious stones. Such began her journey into paper as a resource, and since those Michigan days Mitchell has been increasingly sought by collectors who want to see the latest in her wry, not cynical, but thoughtful observations on the social and political nature of the modern world.

Partaking of a show like the Smithsonian is to support artist contributions to the innovations that have always been integral to this country’s cultural evolution. During changing times, like the one in which we now live, it is helpful to take some moments to remember that artists help point the way to a more ennobling worldview. It is all about building up, not tearing down, always, but most especially, during the inevitable challenges that life presents to us all.

The Smithsonian Craft Show hosts  its thirty-seventh annual event at the National Building Museum, 401 F St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001, April 25-28, 2019. Visit their website at www.smithsoniancraftshow.org.

 
 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. The Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., is a destination that she looks forward to every year. From the plethora of museums in the city to the inspiring diversity of craft at the show (and of course, the company of good friends), this visit is one of her highlights. Drawn from her personal experience, this year’s article takes the reader through the show, touching upon artists from every media. Benesh also ponders the recent exhibition, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Smithsonian Craft Show 2018 Volume 40.3

JIYOUNG CHUNG

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National Building Museum
April 26-29, Preview Night April 25
www.SmithsonianCraftShow.org

In the Navajo tradition, master weavers would often weave a thin thread of a contrasting color in the outer corner. Called the ch’ihónít’i, this “spirit line” extended out to the edge of the piece. The Navajo believed that the weaver’s being became part of the woven cloth in the process of making, their soul forever entwined with the piece itself. The spirit line allowed a path for the artist to disentangle herself and move on to create even more works of beauty.

IRINA OKULA

      This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living. It is an act of divine creation, linking heart, hand and spirit. It is also an act of vulnerability. Sharing your work opens you to criticism, extending the conversation beyond you and your materials to an outside audience. For makers, there’s arguably nothing better than when viewers appreciate and are moved by your work.

The artists participating in the 2018 Smithsonian Craft Show are well poised for this kind of exchange between maker, object and viewer. Now in its thirty-sixth year, the annual show presents one hundred twenty of the country’s premier craftspeople, and welcomes an educated and seasoned audience of craft lovers each year. Presented by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, jurors make careful selections, choosing from some one thousand artists working in twelve different media—basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood—making this one of the most influential craft events in the nation. For many artists, acceptance in the show is a big moment in their career. Having the chance to exhibit here inspires them to push boundaries, to explore new bodies of work, and to bring their very best to show.

Paper artist Jiyoung Chung relies on tradition, making her painterly, deconstructed paper works using the joomchi method—a Korean artform mixing hanji, or mulberry paper, with water and agitating it to break down and combine layers into one strong, fabric-like entity. It is akin to felting, and over time it ages to an almost leather-like texture. In Chung’s floating sculptures, the paper is layered, with holes like portals to the worlds below, and loose strands, frayed edges and furrowed surfaces. It draws the viewer in and feels both natural and otherworldly. Each piece is one of a kind, and some are large in scale. “It gives me more ground to explore and develop my ideas, as well as challenging my physical limitations,” Chung says of her play with size. “It opens new doors and possibilities for me to discover more about joomchi—what it can do and how far I can push it.”

LAUREN MARKLEY

      In Chung’s eyes her work is driven as much from her own creativity as it is from joomchi itself. She credits much of her design sensibility to a sort of collaboration with it. “I usually have a concept to start with. However, the process has surprising characteristics. It wants to be certain ways. I don’t feel like I am dealing with material, but with a person. So I often negotiate between my original thought and what joomchi wants to do.”

For ceramist Irina Okula, acceptance to her first Smithsonian Craft Show in 2015 was “almost like a dream.” Okula’s fragmented vessels have a quiet, emotive quality, with landscape imagery, text and abstract markings pieced together in simple, pleasing forms. Black bird silhouettes soar alongside snowy hillsides, repeating patterns, excerpts of text and a soft color palette. Her signature technique of piecing together broken clay shards came about by accident, after a pot she was working on broke into several pieces. Rather than mourn the piece, Okula fired the fragments separately and later epoxied them together to reform the original shape. Intrigued by the results, Okula began to break her work on purpose. Each shard is decorated with different surface treatments—using slip, stamps, copper tape, wire, and words—then packed into saggars, or covered clay containers, and fired with combustible materials soaked in solutions of salt, iron, cobalt, or copper oxides. 

The element of chaos brings a narrative quality to the vessels, fragmented like the memories and stories that make up one’s life. “My work emphasizes the relationships of the pieces to each other and to the whole,” Okula says. She welcomes the randomness of her process, each result pushing her to explore further. “There is an unpredictable quality to the breaks and the firing, which play a critical role in the outcome. I like the surprises. After I break the pieces, I tape them back together in the original form and do a drawing, front and back. I love how the pieces contrast and complement each other. They help me tell a story, often my story.”

MEGHAN PATRICE RILEY

      Impulsivity and disassembly are also central to jeweler Lauren Markley’s creative practice. In addition to sterling silver and brass, Markley works with reclaimed wood, textiles and enamel, constructing jewelry inspired by architecture, plans and schematics, spaces and structures. A pair of earrings is made from intersecting bits of sterling silver, reminiscent of angled steel. A brooch of layered wood has metal bars extending out like askew scaffolding. Segments of blackened silver overlap like roof tiles, an accent of golden yellow silk thread adding a touch of softness. “I get asked a lot if I’m a frustrated architect—I’m not!” Markley jokes. “Someone once looked at one of my big, chunky, geometric rings and said ‘Oh! I want to live in there!’ It’s still one of my favorite comments.”

Markley’s jewelry starts in sketch form. “Very loose and gestural, just getting an idea of an appealing shape,” she explains. “From there, I cut the material into smaller pieces and spend time figuring out how to reassemble it to achieve the shape I’m aiming for. It’s fairly improvisational, and I don’t have a clear plan or pattern for how I’m going to solder the metal or glue the wood back together.” Like sculpture or architecture, the “site” of her pieces is just as important. “I want my clients to be comfortable with their pieces. There is always a negotiation with weight, proportion, depth, scale, when figuring this out.”

Jeweler Meghan Patrice Riley also enjoys this relation of jewelry to the body. “I love the idea of the body as site—meaning that jewelry is fashion, art, design, and everything in between. A piece that looks like non-wearable art that belongs on the wall comes to life on the body. And I love the idea of people taking a personal approach; they can play with wearing my pieces in traditional ways or push their own ideas.” Her Blanc and Noir lines are made from steel cable cord and aluminum connectors or crimp beads—typically used in beaded necklaces to secure the stringing material to the clasp. But in Riley’s work, the cord, connectors and crimps take center stage; the stones, when used, are secondary, almost like jewelry turned inside out.

 
This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living.

The two-dimensional, line drawing feel to her work is not accidental. Some of her pieces almost read as blueprints for other complex structures. “It’s definitely jewelry about jewelry, which can be pretty meta,” Riley explains. “I have always loved all of the mechanisms, small parts, connectors that go into the making of jewelry. I love what I can create with this paired down process. I think of all of the crimps as stars in a larger constellation, creating order amidst chaos.”

CHIE HITCHNER

      Riley often starts with sketches derived from physics and mathematical concepts. She then translates them into her materials, often incorporating new items like the industrial ball chain interwoven with stones and pearls in her Gris line. A result of her obsession with ball chain and safety pins in her “grungy-goth-punk” teenage years, the series demonstrates Riley’s ability to turn traditional jewelry concepts on their head. The line was featured in a runway collaboration with Mariana Valentina, and caught the eye of large retailer Free People, who picked up Riley’s work. Riley designed epaulettes, arm and hand chains for the collection. 

Color is an important factor for Chie Hitchner, who uses natural dyes in her loom-woven fabrics. Working with raw fibers such as silk, wool and linen, Hitchner dyes the threads in small batches in her studio, often using materials she finds nearby. “There is something special about discovering the dyeing properties of plants that are right around you,” says Hitchner. “Fig leaves make a brilliant yellow. Camellia blossoms become a steely gray. Japanese maple leaves usually give me a beautiful gray, but last fall they gave me a beautiful green. Depending on the time of year and location, the color can be different.”

While part of the show’s Decorative Fiber category, Hitchner also creates wearables. This lends versatility to her design process. She imagines the pieces displayed cleanly and flat on the wall or a table, and also considers how they will bunch and flow with the curves of the body. Worn or flat, Hitchner’s firm grasp on design and technique and her debt to Japanese traditions is evident. Her patterns are crisp and exact, in calming neutral tones and soothing repetitive patterns one can get lost in.

Hitchner learned to weave at eighteen and attended a Japanese university that placed a heavy emphasis on technique and methodology. “My work is deeply influenced by Japanese craft techniques,” Hitchner explains. “I like to use kasuri, the Japanese form of ikat, in both warp and weft. I also use sukui-ori, which is a technique of pick-and-weave, where I use manual techniques to insert additional colors and threads into the weft. These techniques broaden the range of the designs that I can produce using a simple four-harness floor loom.” 

MARY JAEGER

      Understanding one’s work in the larger picture of the fashion and commercial market is an important part of survival as a craft artist. Clothing designer Mary Jaeger has been sewing since just four years old, and recognizes the complexities of the fashion, craft and couture worlds. In her NYC atelier, she creates everything from dramatic scarves, shawls and jackets that play with proportion, pattern and shape, to classic cut, shibori-dyed indigo tank tops, hoodies and tees that are perfect for everyday wear. The latter are made to touch a broader client base, but the goal of Jaeger’s garments is the same: to empower the wearer. “My couture garments address the need for thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed clothing to communicate individuality in our culture currently exploding with fast fashion,” Jaeger reflects. “Fashion design incorporates multiple aspects of today’s culture and can foreshadow the future through the use of colors, shapes, materials, make, fit, and styles. In turn, fashion communicates messages we individually interpret and consciously or unconsciously adapt to make our own style of dress.”

Jaeger’s Accordion Bonbons do feel a bit like a glimpse into the future. Part of her Unfolding series, multiple colors of silk dupioni are pieced, pleated, dyed, and edge-stitched to drape around the neck and shoulders. Their smart construction folds compactly like a fan for traveling, like something out of The Jetsons. Made from repurposed silks, they combine her love for the visual transformation between flat patterns that become three-dimensional when worn, reducing waste, and using color as an accent to her neutral black, gray, white, and indigo palette.  

TREFNY DIX AND BENGT HOKANSON

      Collaboration is key to Trefny Dix and Bengt Hokanson’s blown glass vessels. Working together since 1996, the duo is inspired by everything from 1920s purses, to graffiti and computer circuits. Their work is varied, calling on Italian methods like the use of murrine and canes for pattern, and Swedish influences in their employment of thick, clear glass and large spots of color to frame and offset their colorful murrine.

Their designing works in stages—often starting with discussion of a new murrine or surface texture they want to explore; then moving on to color choice; what form expresses the pattern best; and finally how to achieve the design in mind. “We work out issues with the size, form, surface application, blowing, and shaping techniques, trying to achieve the concept behind the piece,” Dix explains. “Sometimes the piece goes through such a transformation from the idea one of us started with that it becomes a true collaborative effort.” Skilled colorists, their glass has an energetic movement and fluidity, and the heavy use of color demonstrates their skill in the glassblowing. Like all the artists in the show, Dix and Hokanson are thrilled to be returning this year. “We consider exhibiting in the Smithsonian Craft Show to be a high career achievement. The artists have been selected because their work represents a high standard of creativity and technical mastery within their mediums. It is an honor to show our work with the other artists.”

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Jill DeDominicis is a former Ornament staff writer and editor whose love for wearable art and all things craft remains strong. She works at Mingei International Museum, a craft, folk art and design museum in lovely Balboa Park in San Diego, California. DeDominicis is delighted to be covering this year’s Smithsonian Craft Show held in the nation’s capital at the National Building Museum. With its one hundred twenty artists in all craft media, the show provided an ample opportunity to write and learn more about some of her favorite contemporary artists who are showing their work.

Smithsonian Craft Show Volume 38.5

 

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
 

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.”

                                K. RILEY                                                      SUZYE OGAWA                                      BOYD SUGIKI AND LISA ZERKOWITZ

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.”

MATT REPSHER

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

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.

SARA DROWER

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.

 

   GET INSPIRED!

 
 

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.”