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The Journey So Far

The Journey So Far

The Journey So Far

April/May 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Craft in America Crew Filming Lucy Mingo

The Craft in America crew films Gee’s Bend quilter Lucy Mingo outside her home. Photo: Mark Markley

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of American Craft magazine.

First broadcast on PBS in 2007, the award-winning documentary film series Craft in America is the centerpiece of a nonprofit project also encompassing a book, a traveling exhibition, educational programs, and a public gallery and research space.

Each hourlong episode explores a rich, multidimensional theme – “Landscape,” “Family,” and “Crossroads,” for example – through beautifully crafted, cinematic stories of contemporary makers in their element. This spring, “Industry” looks at the business of craft and how artists contribute to local and national economies; it features Etsy, the Gee’s Bend quilters of Alabama, and Lowell’s Boat Shop in Massachusetts, among others. (Check local PBS listings for air dates.)

The project is a labor of love for creator/executive producer/director Carol Sauvion and her small, family-like production team. She sat down with us recently at the Craft in America Study Center in Los Angeles – next door to her craft gallery, Freehand – to talk about the journey so far.

You’ve been a visionary in creating this series.
Well, it was all there. It didn't have to be created. It just had to be discovered.

How did Craft in America come about?
I’d had Freehand since 1980. My husband passed away in 1992. In 1996 I decided that I would take my son, Noah, on a camping trip, as we had done when I was a child. He was 12, and crazy about baseball. So I said, we’ll go to baseball games around the country, and I’ll go to museums and craft galleries and visit artists. We went for a month, and it was a revelation to me. There is so much in this country having to do with the handmade, on different levels. I noticed when we visited the artists that their homes were all beautiful. They didn’t necessarily make a lot of money, but they had environments that were nurturing and creative and just beautiful.

When I got home I thought: This is a field and a world that is a subculture, in a way. This is the best part of who we are as a country. These craftspeople are very idealistic in their varied interests, and they’re talented, and they’re problem solvers, and they’re community-based. More people need to know about this, and how can we do that?

And partly because Freehand is in Los Angeles and a lot of my clientele are involved in television or film, I thought, “We have to put it on television.”

How does one begin to do that?
I didn't even know where to start, but I started. I just went to my computer and started making lists and outlines: What would we talk about? What was important? How would we present it? Meanwhile, I was running Freehand and raising Noah.

Then in about 1999, I got a letter from one of my dear customers. It said something to the effect of, “Some people wait around for other people to pass away so that they can have an inheritance, and I've decided to give everyone an inheritance while I’m still alive, so I can see how they enjoy it.” And she gave me a check for $10,000, just like that, in the mail. It was like a miracle. I felt a mixture of excitement, and a feeling of responsibility: “What am I going to do with this money? I'm going to start my project.” And so I started to think about what I needed, and how I could use this money to achieve it.

The first person to help me was Sharon Emanuelli. She had been [a curator] at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. I contacted her, and I said I wanted to make a series. We started thinking about it, and different people became involved. I showed it to [craft collector and advocate] Corrina Cotsen, who thought it was a good idea. But the most important person that I showed it to at that time was a man named Steve Fenton.

Steve was from New York. He had done advertising and public relations and had worked for D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and J. Walter Thompson. He would buy gifts here at Freehand for his wife when he was in town. I’m a potter, and I make these little tiny bottles. One time when he came in, they were all gone. He said, “Well, when you have those again, let me know.” So the next time he came in I said, “You know, I just did a firing. I'm going to run home and bring them.” He chose about a dozen of them, and he wanted to pay me, and I said, “No charge.” We got to be friends, and I told him about my idea.

He said, “Let me help you with this.” I said, “Well, I don't know.” And he said, “No, no, no, this is what I do. Really, I can help you with this idea.” I sent him my structure and outline, and we worked back and forth, starting in February. We didn't email then, we faxed. I think by May we had something. When he showed that first proposal to me, I couldn't sleep that night. It was so exciting to see how he had put it all together. He did an amazing job. It was so essential to what we achieved.

So I had a proposal. Now I had to figure out what to do with it. And just then, I had a wonderful customer named Coby Atlas. Coby is now the executive producer of the Tavis Smiley Show. But at the time, she had worked at NBC with Turner Broadcasting, and she had just become a vice president for programming at PBS. I showed the proposal to Coby, and she said, “This is really wonderful.” She took it to PBS and showed it to them, and they were sure they had already done [a documentary on craft in America]. Then they looked, and they realized they never had. Coby said, “Okay, we are interested. We’ll take it, but you have to give us a treatment. You have to tell us who your personnel and staff is going to be, and you have to give us a sample episode.”

I said, “Okay, well, I'll get back to you in two weeks.” And it was about a year. It took that long just to figure out how we were going to talk about craft. We decided we needed to have a symposium to discuss the themes and content of the documentary series. That was in 2002. It was a very interesting group. We had Beverly Gordon, who was in the environmental art and textile department at the University of Wisconsin; Mihaly Czikszentmilhalyi [the noted psychology professor and architect of the concept of “flow”] was there; Ken Trapp, who at the time was curator of the Renwick Gallery; Robert Liu from Ornament magazine; Jim Bassler, the weaver; Bruce Metcalf, the jeweler; Dale Gluckman from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I think we were 24 altogether.

I needed that scholarship, the different opinions. Important things were said. People were talking about the idea of a hobbyist, and we decided the [better] word was “amateur.” Beverly Gordon said, “Just because work is done by an amateur does not mean it is not the finest work.” That was a revelation, in a way, because there are some people who just enjoy making things of the highest quality, but selling it or making a living from it is not part of the equation for them. That's why it's such a complex field. There are so many aspects to it.

Hidde Van Duym [a collage artist who also had extensive experience in social-services administration] made us understand that if we were going to be an organization with a future, we had to figure out how we were going to run it. He created the bylaws. I had no experience with being a nonprofit and having a board. I came from a completely entrepreneurial background. Hidde helped us to organize the structure, so that we could go forward and be a functioning nonprofit. He was board president for three years and is still very involved.

Our organization today is actually quite small, considering. It looks big, but all together with Freehand, with Craft in America, we might be 12 people, and part-time. Having a board and having people like Hidde to help us to be professional was essential.

What was your original concept for the series?
That there would be a program on TV, and that we would go into artists’ homes, and people would have the experience that I’d had when I crossed the country – of seeing this kind of lifestyle, this dedication. 

At the symposium, Ken Trapp said, “It's not a lifestyle – it's a life. It just looks like a lifestyle.” Because from the outside it looks so idyllic, in a way, even though it is fraught with difficulties. I mean, to be a craftsperson is not a career. It's a calling. You have to be dedicated to it in a way that you're not dedicated to other jobs. You don't leave. It’s not nine to five, Monday through Friday. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you're not doing it, you’re thinking about it. Roberta Williamson, the jeweler [featured in the “Process” episode], talks about that – that she dreams about it. So does [ceramist] Susan Garson, who is in our ”Holiday” episode – she has dreamed about things that she's going to make. Tom Joyce, the metalsmith [in “Memory”], said, “There is no line between work and life. It's all one thing. If I'm making a sculpture or working in my garden, it's the same impetus that makes me do that work, just being creative.”

Why do you think this hadn't been done before? Certainly there had been craft-related documentaries, but nothing this ambitious.
Well I think this was a confluence. I had the idea. I had the support – which was so important – from many wonderful people. It helped me to go along. You never feel like, ‘Okay, this is impossible,’ because every time it seems like it's a challenge, something good happens.

So the agreement was, if you could come up with the sample episode, PBS would air it?
Well, they would agree to accept it. They wouldn't contribute money, but they would allow us to apply to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for matching funds. We had to have a budget, so we came up with all these things, and our budget was $2.5 million for three episodes. The CPB said, “We will give you a matching grant of $650,000.” So we knew that we had to match that grant. We had to raise more money, and we had a year to do it.  And we couldn't do it. By now it was 2003, and still we hadn't raised enough money. Then we went to a meeting at the CPB. John Prizer was our representative there, and he asked, “Why do you think craft deserves three hours on television?” What we had then was a proposal for three hours, and it was going to be finite. I said, “Because I know you won't give us 300 hours, and that's how many we really need.” And I thought to myself: That was not the right thing to say. [Laughs.] But they gave us the money. 

So now we had their $650,000. Then, one thing led to another. We were able to finally raise the money, and then we started.
I said, “okay, this is going to be on television, and it will be on once, twice, maybe three times. How do we extend that?” Well, we should have an exhibition, and some of the work in the exhibition should be from the artists who are in the series. And it should travel, so that people can actually see the objects – because it's about the process, the artist, the philosophy, the thinking, and the object. So we thought that would be a good idea, and that was funded almost completely by one of our supporters who was very interested in an exhibition. Finally we said, “We may as well have a book,” and because of a customer who worked at Random House, we were able to get an interview there and present an idea for a book that was published.

By then we had sort of a critical mass. We knew we had to have a website – that was part of what was required by PBS. It was really the link for everyone, and it’s something we have worked very hard to maintain.

So you really had a comprehensive, synergistic model.
Because it had to make an impression. We could not let this opportunity lapse. You ask, “How did we put it all together? Why was this the first time?” All I know is, I approached a lot of people who wanted to make films … a lot of the problem is funding because people don't quite understand what you're talking about. It's a vague thing. Some people don’t think it really exists, that it’s an invention of the Arts and Crafts Movement. They didn't know what we were talking about.

You mean contemporary craft?

I can remember having these feelings myself in my early days at American Craft in the 1980s, this sense of "Why isn't craft more mainstream?"
Right, why is that? And it has become mainstream, but it comes in waves. Eudorah Moore used to talk about that. She did the “California Design” exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum. It was the 1960s, and [the modern craft movement] was so powerful. Sam Maloof was the American Craft Council representative from the southwest, and [craftspeople] would all meet from all over the country, and that's when studio craft was at its height – the most exciting time.

Now, since Craft in America started, there has been this whole DIY movement, a youth movement like the hippies in the late ‘60s, and that invigorates the crafts in some ways. I just went to SOFA in Chicago, and the work was fantastic, just the highest quality and most creative, spectacular work. But on the other side of that is people who are just starting out. A lot of the early [studio craft work] was very primitive. Craft still exists on every level. The people who started out five or six years ago making big, 12-foot-long scarves are now doing other work that's really amazing. So it just seems like it's a learn-while-you-go kind of process.

It was an interesting bit of serendipity that your project came to fruition at the same time the so-called DIY maker movement was stirring new awareness.
Exactly, and it was a good introduction for people, wasn't it, to have that movement, where people said, “Wait, I can do that, too.” It was interesting, very interesting. And yet we don't want to forget the amount of time and creativity and artistry that went into the [earlier] studio craft movement. I think at the beginning of the DIY movement there was an either-or situation. Now I think we realize it's all part of a larger conversation, and that there is room for everyone.

One of the remarkable things about Craft in America is the range of experience it represents.
We were determined that when you say “Craft in America,” you're talking about a lot of different things. You're talking about tradition that goes back to Europe and Africa and Asia and over centuries, and the individual expression that makes it particularly American.

Mary Jackson [in “Memory”] is a great example of that. She was trained as a child to make sweetgrass baskets, and she took it in another direction. Her grandmother probably had little things she did, to give it her own signature. Or Geoff Blake, a silversmith at the Old Newbury Crafters [in “Forge”] saying, “These spoons all have to match, but I can tell the ones I made.” So there is that kind of varying micro-understanding, and then there's the larger understanding of someone like Jim Bassler [in “Origins”] who takes a medium and makes it entirely his own. That’s the beauty of craft. It's just a very permissive kind of undertaking, I think.

As disparate as these lives you present sometimes are, it all holds together.
Yes, it does. And we are always evolving. The Albert Paley piece that was in the “Forge” episode is 22 minutes long. The Sam Maloof piece in our very first episode [“Memory”] was six minutes long. So to be able to do both of those things – to make a short film and tell a lot, or to do a long film and hold the attention – has a lot to do with the cinematographer, the editor, and the concept.

And you’ve begun directing.
I've been executive producing since the beginning, but I've recently been directing, and it's been thrilling.

In “Forge,” we see a master metalworker, Albert Paley, we see Chloe Darke, who is just starting out, doing traditional silversmithing, and we see Tom Pullin, an Iraq war veteran who works with metal as a way to heal from his experiences.
It was a very interesting and fortuitous group of people in “Forge.” You have different levels of expertise, different backgrounds. You have someone who's using it mostly for expression, which is Tom. You have Paley, who just embodies a truly creative artist. This man has been pushing against steel his whole life and that's the feeling you get from him – just pushing this steel. And you have this young woman, Chloe, doing something very traditional, but also saying, "What can I say about Albert Paley? He is the most important person." That was just great.

And Paley’s great on film.
I think even he was satisfied with it, which was important to me.

Each episode is so polished visually, with such high production values.
Well, I have to talk about our cinematographer, Sid Lubitsch.

Any relation to [famed Hollywood writer/director/actor] Ernst Lubitsch? 
He is. Ernst Lubitsch was his uncle. Sid and the entire crew are from Chicago. I use the same crew every time. We feel that we're family. We’ve worked with Sid for the last six or seven episodes, because first of all, he loves the topic. He has a lot of friends who are artists, and their homes are just filled with craft. He understands that you have to put the camera on your shoulder. You cannot expect to film an artist otherwise. He has 15 minutes with Jeff Oestreich that is some of the best footage I've ever seen. Jeff is building his pitcher that he's known for, and Sid never leaves that. He goes all the way around Jeff, but he never leaves that construction. He has it from beginning to end, and it is magnificent.  He was trained as a still photographer. He has a great eye, and a visual and narrative style that is artful and sensitive, but doesn't overwhelm or upstage the maker.

It’s very cinematic, with those long, lingering shots of hands, materials, details, tools...
Absolutely. He loves tools. Don't you love that shot he did of Paley's hammers, that big circle of hammers? He loved that shot. Paley has this huge studio, which we see in the episode. Sid went upstairs, where there’s an opening, and he got that shot. He just knows what he's doing. He's the secret. I say, “Sid, you’re the director,” and he says, ‘No, you’re the director.” But he tries to teach me about film. He says, “Okay, you walk into a room, and you say, there's a story here or there is not a story here. And then you have to figure that out.”

Dan Seeger, who directed two episodes, insisted – much to the dismay of people who were keeping the budget organized – that we always have a dolly with us, so that we could get those beautiful shots. And that we always have a jib arm, so that we can come up and go down, and get that depth, that sense of expanse.

What is the challenge of capturing craftspeople on film?
One thing we learned very, very early on is that every one of these artists is interesting, and can hold their own on camera. No matter what they look like, no matter what age they are – if they have something to offer, the people are going to see it. Our crew is so interested that the artists really forget that they're being filmed. They feel very comfortable, and that is the beginning of it.

I showed Albert Paley an old picture I had of him and different people at Rochester [Institute of Technology] when he first started teaching there. He said, “Oh yeah, I cut my hair for that job. I haven’t cut it since. I don't have that picture. Where did you get it?” I said, "I did my homework." And he realized I’m in this because I want to know about him, and I want people to understand what he does and why.

We go in with questions and open minds and the best possible artist to film it [cinematographer Sid Lubitsch], and that's the secret. That's all you have to do: Let the artists talk.

Steve Fenton [longtime creative director of Craft in America, who died in 2010] used to say, “It's not just the how-to. Get the ‘How come.’” That’s really important to know. Why take these chances?  Why live this life? Why? It's the road less traveled, but in a way there is no choice. If you really have that gift of working with your hands, you need to follow that.

And do you feel you are reaching the people you want to reach?
After the first episode aired, someone told me a story and it stuck with me. She said her mother lives in Iowa on a farm, and has a TV in her kitchen that she leaves on day and night. She was doing her work in the kitchen, and she looked and there was Sam Maloof on the television [in “Memory”]. She knew of Sam somehow and was so surprised and amazed, that she sat down and started watching the program.

Those are the people we want to reach: people who are maybe a little bit forgotten in what is available on television, who care about handwork.

Everyone told me to put the show on cable. I said, “No, you can't put it on cable. It has to be on a network.” Why? Because not everyone can afford cable. A lot of people have three or four channels, and that's it. They said, “Oh you’re being ridiculous, everyone has cable.” And I’d say, “You live in Los Angeles, and you think everyone has cable. But no.”

We especially want kids to watch our series. People say, “Oh, they're not going to watch that.” Yes, they do! The little ones watch. I have a customer who showed it to his kids, and at night, sometimes, instead of reading a book he’ll put on one segment.  They’ll say, “Daddy, I want the blacksmith. No, I want the quilter.”  They’re 6 and 7 years old, and they know these things exist.

There was always handwork in my family. I remember the first time I understood that you could make things with your hands and use them. No one else would have them, because you made them yourself. And no matter what would happen, you could always take care of yourself. There's a sense of independence, and it's completely irrational: If the world came to an end, it wouldn’t matter that I know how to make my pots. But somehow you feel like, “No, I’m okay. I know how to make pots.” There is a certain satisfaction you get from learning how to do something. I think a lot of our viewers have picked up on that, and that's important to us.

You’ve developed thoughtful themes that go deep. It would have been easy to have a ceramics episode, a quilt episode. . .
We talked about that at the symposium. We said, maybe by presenting themes, we can show different artists in different aspects. We can show contemporary studio craft. We can show traditional work. We can show work that comes from different ethnic backgrounds. It can be more inclusive. Because we want our audience to be inclusive. We don't want the people watching this program to be craftspeople only. We want it to be people who know nothing about it. That's the point. Let's go back to the beginning: Why are we doing this? To increase awareness.

Each episode is a celebration, and a romantic vision of craft.
It should be – and it shouldn't be. I noticed that recently. I watched and I thought, there's got to be a negative somewhere. This isn't good. We've got to be more realistic, somehow. More honest.

In any case, the themes are multidimensional. “Crossroads” for example...
That was complex, because it had two themes. We broke the rules to have two themes in one hour like that – two very disparate themes. One was about actual borders, and the other was about artistic influences. But they still somehow worked.

Do you think there are unlimited themes to explore?
We know the stories are unlimited, because there are so many amazing artists. Some known, some unknown. Some traditional, some studio. Also our culture is so diverse, isn't it now? It just seems there are unlimited aspects to it, and how those relate to craft is always interesting.

It seems that in telling the story of what people make, Craft in America tells a bigger story.
It does, exactly. And it tells it objectively. It's not subjective. At least we try not to be. It’s not as though we feel the viewer has to come to conclusions, or not. We are presenting people doing work, who have ideas and opinions, and those are not necessarily our opinions. A good example is Tom Pullin. Anyone can relate to him, and what he's saying is a powerful message. If someone had told you that message, or expected you to feel that way before the story started, you might not have wanted to. But after, through his eyes and through his art, you got his experience, it makes more sense. You maybe think again about things that you had thought were one way. Maybe they are another way as well. It's complicated, isn't it, our country? It's very complicated.

That’s where the diversity of each episode is so interesting.
Yes, and some of that is – how would I put it? It's almost a charge to us, to say we have to present people from all backgrounds. The thing that's wonderful is, because craft is so naturally diverse, it's not an issue.

And we never know. We don't really have a script. We have a transcript after we finish. Sometimes you go in [to film] and the artist is like, “I've set everything up for you, where to do this, where to do that.” And we say, “Okay, fine, whatever.” Then after a while they realize, no, it's a relationship we’re forming here, an experience were going to have together. We need the artist’s input, but we have our own needs as well. And then it works together.

I think specifically of Warren MacKenzie. He was so welcoming. The whole segment [in “Crossroads”] was another aspect of how he sits at the wheel, and how he works with clay. It just flowed that way. It was all of a piece. I think that's what the crew loves. They never know what we're going to end up with.

Those few bars of “Simple Gifts” that start each episode – why did you choose that song?
When we were in the midst of doing this, I was of course talking to all my customers at Freehand. One of them was Ernest Fleischmann, head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He knew all about the series, and in fact was an early contributor. So when it was time to make music for it, I said, “Ernest, I need somebody who can write music for us.” And he said, “Well, there's only one person for this, and it's Laura Karpman.” So I called Laura, and she came in. She’s very powerful, really knows what she's doing.

The music certainly sets a mood.
Yes, Laura felt that folk music (traditional music) was how we should proceed.

Although, there was some jazz in the Paley segment.
Oh, yes, but do you know what that song was? It was “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.” For each artist, Laura chooses a traditional song and goes from there, composes around it. When we went to the North Bennet Street School in Boston, she used “Yankee Doodle.” For Denise Wallace I think she used “Shenandoah.” For Randall Darwall [and Brian Murphy], she used “Jenny Jenkins” – [sings] “Will you wear white, oh my dear, oh my dear?” She has been amazing.

Did she choose “Simple Gifts”?
Yes, she did.

That's become the sort of signature music of the series.
Yes, and she also chose the way that it was played, with the full voices. Remember when we were kids, and you would hear the music on the TV and you knew your program was starting? We had to have that signature, and she gave it to us like that.

It makes me think of this whole idea of branding and image, which are not words we necessarily like, but nonetheless, to reach a mainstream audience.
Yes, it has to happen, I guess. Except that here's the thing: You can't brand craft. It's like branding the human race. You can't brand an idea that is constantly evolving. You have to have something set that you can brand, and craft will never be that. Just when you think you have it figured out, it's going to go this way. That’s the joy of it – the consternation, but also the joy of it.

Also, if you have an idea like this, and you want to see it happen, the hardest thing is to let go of any aspect of it. But you've got to, because that's how the filmmakers make great films. That's how the editors do a great job. You have to give everybody a place to be creative, starting with the people you’re filming. It's just creativity all the way around. So exciting.

Now that the series is established . . .
It is established, but it is still under the radar. It's huge for craft. We have a viewership of approximately a million people. For TV that is tiny. We have no promotion; we do it all ourselves. So that part is hard – a slow process. We feel, though, with “Forge” especially, that we are breaking through a little bit – that it is a link to a wider audience, even, than before. So we’re excited.

You don’t like to talk about yourself, Carol, yet you have been the public face of Craft in America.
It’s terrible. That's the one negative. I truly mean that. I am an introvert. It's hard, so you overcome it. You have to. Having this business all these years, I’ve had so many young kids come in to work, and it's a really good experience for them because you learn to go up to someone and say, “Hello, how are you? Let me know if I can help you.” I learned a lot working with people at Freehand, and that has helped me with this project as well. But I am a very introverted person. I do not want the publicity. I'm 66 years old with gray hair. I'm not exactly what people think of as a spokesperson for an organization [laughs]. 

But when I’ve seen you get up and make remarks or work a room for this project, you are a force.
Well, I just pretend they’re my customers, and then it's okay.

How has Craft in America changed your life?
It has made my life so exciting in many ways. My whole life has been really wonderful, as far as I'm concerned. Craft came into my life in a very strong way in my childhood. My mother could do anything. She made slipcovers, she could garden, she could paint, she was a great cook. We were taught all these things as kids. We went on a six-week camping trip around the country when I was 11, and we didn't even know how to camp. We just went to Sears and bought the equipment and took two weekends to try it out. That kind of attitude in my family helped me with this project, to just do it.

When I opened Freehand in 1980, everyone said, “How do you think you can make a business out of handmade things in Los Angeles? That won't last.” But people loved it, because it gave them an alternative, something to attach to in a different way.

So that [determination] has always been there. I knew if I could raise the money for the series, and we could actually make it, it would be well accepted and people would enjoy it.

This has been a deeply personal project for you.
It is my lifelong project. But I think anything like this has to have a future without the person who started it, or it's nothing. So that's my goal, that we build toward having it be self-sufficient. We’re writing a five-year plan. We had a blue-sky meeting and came away with such a large vision of what we want to do. We know the future must include the films. We hope it will include other publications and exhibitions and partnerships. It’s so exciting to imagine.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor. Read about her behind-the-scenes visit to the Craft in America office.