Craft and travel go together. There’s a long history of artists hitting the road in search of a “master” from whom to learn the secrets of a given craft. Today Instagram and other digital media are increasingly bringing faraway craftworks and secrets home to us. But whether you’re a maker or not, nothing beats traveling to a craft hotspot, near home or far away, to learn and be inspired.
Adventures Near Home
You don’t have to travel far to discover great craft. I like to add it to the journeys around our home base in Minnesota that I take with my wife, the independent museum professional Laurie Phillips. These jaunts take two forms. A Blind Date is a short trip that Laurie plans without telling me where we’re headed. I get into her car and keep my eyes closed till we arrive in some corner of Saint Paul, Minneapolis, or a suburb. For longer jaunts that Laurie calls COVID Road Trips, during which my eyes are open, we head farther out into our state and region.
On a 2019 Blind Date, I opened my eyes to find myself in the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, in front of a fascinating exhibit of pottery in the early-20th-century Japanese mingei (“art of the people”) tradition. It included work by the late U of M ceramics professor Warren MacKenzie, the first American disciple of English mingei pioneer Bernard Leach, and three potters taught by MacKenzie. Laurie has also brought me to Minneapolis’s nationally known Northern Clay Center and to Mosaic on a Stick, a cheerful learning center for mosaicists in Saint Paul.
A 2021 COVID Road Trip took us to Duluth and Lake Superior Art Glass, a hot shop and gallery in the city’s Canal Park arts-and-entertainment district, for my first chance to see gathering and blowing at a professional level. Then it was on to the St. Louis County Depot, a decommissioned railroad station that houses the Duluth Art Institute. An exhibition at the Institute, Tignon, introduced me to the profound work of Texas artist Chesley Antoinette: a wealth of colorful head wraps, or tignons, inspired by an 18th-century law that required Creole women of color in New Orleans to cover their hair. This policing of their appearance became an opportunity for exuberant and beautiful self-expression, and Antoinette continues that textile tradition.
“You can explore multiple layers of the works, and multiple layers of the places where the artists work, on trips like these.”
Guided Travel to Meet Artists
To go deeper into craft, you may need expert help. There is a great deal of it to be had in one of the most ambitious programs of craft-related travel, run by the Washington, DC–based James Renwick Alliance. Its journeys include visits to galleries and private collections, and spending time with artists.
Elizabeth Doyle of Bethesda, Maryland, is an enthusiastic Renwick traveler and craft collector. A member of the Alliance for a decade, she’s been on many trips and visited well-known craft regions like upstate New York and Asheville, North Carolina. “I’ve also gone with Renwick to places I probably never would have visited otherwise,” she says, “like Tulsa or Tucson or Norfolk, Virginia. And you find great, passionate artists and collectors no matter where you go.”
The Renwick’s arrangements mean that the visitor groups can meet and spend time with major, even iconic, artists. On a visit to the Rochester, New York, area, for example, Doyle met the famed sculptor and furniture maker Wendell Castle, and at Penland in North Carolina she encountered Hoss Haley, from whom she bought a big steel sculpture; the artist eventually installed it in her yard. (“I love this piece so much that I can never move now,” says Doyle with a laugh. “It won’t fit in a townhouse.”)
And then there were the out-of-the-way experiences. After the Tulsa visit, Doyle’s group took what turned out to be a full day’s side trip to the hamlet of Huntsville, Arkansas. That’s the home of Leon Niehues, who began learning the Ozark splint-knife method of basketmaking from traditional masters at age 15 and has been creating distinguished basketry and basketry-based sculpture for more than 55 years. “We went to his small studio in the back of his house,” Doyle says. “The work was amazing—very traditional and very modern at the same time. It was fascinating to meet someone who has committed himself to one practice, in one place, his whole life long.”
Doyle has also covered familiar urban ground on Renwick trips, but craft made a difference. “When I went to cities that I’ve lived in, like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia,” she says, “seeing them through craft meant I experienced them in a way that I never did when I was a resident. You can explore multiple layers of the works, and multiple layers of the places where the artists work, on trips like these.”◆
jra.org | @jracraft
International Craft Workshops
You can make these kinds of craft explorations all over the world. One nation that’s legendary for craft is, of course, Japan. Museums in Tokyo and other huge cities are full of exquisite works. But exploring living craft traditions means getting out into smaller places where traditional making continues, sometimes against the odds. For this kind of travel, you need the help of someone like Koshiki Yonemura Smith.
Born and raised in Japan, Yonemura Smith ran one of my favorite Saint Paul restaurants, Tanpopo. A craft devotee all her life—she and her husband, Benjamin Smith, created much of the dishware for the eatery—she decided to branch out into culinary and craft travel after selling the restaurant in 2017. Tanpopo Journeys was born. Since 2018 the couple has organized food-related trips and small craft sojourns.
In 2019 Tanpopo Journeys partnered with Minneapolis’s Textile Center to offer a 13-person, fabric-focused trip. Drawing on connections in Japan, including Yonemura Smith’s brother Kai, a woodworking artist, she set up an itinerary that began in Tokyo, then moved on to a rural silk mill, the Koiwai silk-weaving studio just outside of the small, history-rich city of Ueda, and a pottery workshop in Kanazawa. “Another place we visited in Kanazawa,” Yonemura Smith says, “was a 500-year-old needle-making establishment that began by making fishhooks. The owner, who was 93, showed us some of the beautiful jewelry that the workshop also produces.”
After a pandemic hiatus, Tanpopo Journeys has kicked off more trips. One takes participants to northern Japan to explore the sashiko needlework tradition, while another explores the textiles and crafts of Kyushu. An expanded version of the 2019 textile trip, called Textiles and Traditional Arts of Japan, includes a saori weaving workshop, a roketsu (wax-resist indigo dyeing) workshop, and a class in gold leaf. It’s being offered in the fall of 2023.
“As much as possible, these trips are hands-on,” Yonemura Smith says. “Looking is fine, but I want my groups to experience the craft, talk to people, get their hands dirty, and use all their senses.”◆
A Dream Trip
With a little ingenuity, you can customize a craft trip too. Saint Paul artist Paige Tighe had long dreamed of learning saori weaving in its homeland. She contacted another Japanese-born craft expert in the Twin Cities, Chiaki O’Brien, who runs workshops in saori and Bengala mud dyeing. In the fall of 2018, Tighe joined 11 others on a craft tour run by O’Brien that went to Japan’s third-largest city, Osaka, and to Okayama, farther west on the country’s Inland Sea. But she also eventually split off from the group and had her own five-day saori adventure.
“We started out in this Bengala dye workshop in a suburb of Osaka, a place we never would have even noticed without Chiaki’s connection to it,” says Tighe.
The group’s next stop was a small saori weaving workshop and store where O’Brien also had connections, located across the street from a school for kids with special needs. Paige learned that saori, a very free, improvisational style of weaving, is used in Japan to help people with intellectual and physical disabilities express themselves. Paige got a chance to try saori herself when the group visited Saori no Mori (“Saori Forest”), a weaving center south of Osaka proper.
Then it was on to Okayama and the Arts and Crafts Village. “This was an amazing place,” says Tighe, “with a weaving workshop, a yoga room, and these huge pizza ovens. I did nothing but indigo dyeing there, and it was fantastic.”
The group then went to Kyoto for sightseeing. That’s when Tighe went off on her own for a temple stay, then back to Saori no Mori on her own for a full five days of weaving. “I was pretty tired by then and ready to go home,” she says, “so at first I struggled. I told myself I needed to make a lot of pieces to make the trip worthwhile. But Saori no Mori is peaceful and secluded, and I finally just let go and had a lovely time.”◆
Whether you’re planning a simple craft outing close to home or a trip of a lifetime far away, remember that a good craft journey is a mixture of preparation and serendipity. It’s good to have a source of knowledge, whether that’s a museum, a knowledgeable guide, or a program set up for your support. But you also need to be willing to be open, to improvise and discover.
In other words, it’s a little like making craft itself.
Experience more craft!
Become an American Craft Council member to receive a quarterly subscription to the award-winning American Craft magazine, attend our marketplaces free of charge, and gain access to exciting travel discounts - and more!