Choosing Craft: The Artist’s Viewpoint
Edited by Vicki Halper and Diane Douglas
The University of North Carolina Press
Chapel Hill, NC
This anthology, assembled from makers’ letters, conference reports, articles in periodicals, lecture notes and oral histories, focuses on artists' experiences and opinions as a primary resource for craft scholarship. Editors Vicki Halper and Diane Douglas, both with museum backgrounds, create a picture of craft as cultural labor, emphasizing lifestyle and economics rather than aesthetics.
The period covered, post-World War II to the present, witnessed the evolution of the studio craft movement in the United States. The material is organized not as a linear history but within dominant themes. The editors identify four seminal activities that ground a professional life in craft; they develop this premise in sections labeled Choosing Craft, Getting an Education, Making a Living and Confronting Craft, each with titled chapters and relevant entries. A biographical narrative introduces each entry, creating a frame for the artist’s words. (One could fault the accuracy here and there, like the statement [page 39] that Robert Ebendorf “founded the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) in 1969,” when in fact he was one of the nine artists who figured in this initiative.) Each entry ends with a citation of its source. Numerous references were consulted, but the star trove is the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.
More than 100 makers are quoted, 24 in multiple entries. While the editors justify these repeats, greater breadth might have been achieved by eschewing them in favor of additional voices. For the most part, the makers are leading names in the craft field. Notably, many are peer-elected members of the American Craft Council College of Fellows, begun in 1975.
Among the voices in the first chapter, “Integrating Art and Life,” is that of Marguerite Wildenhain, the Bauhaus potter who emigrated from Europe during World War II, settling in California, where she gave workshops over many years at her place, Pond Farm. She admonishes, “The pot is absolutely the image of the man who makes it, and if that man is nothing, to put it bluntly, the pot thrown with all the skill and all the technique in the world will also be nothing” (1959).
In another chapter, “Responding to Materials,” furniture maker George Nakashima declares, “Each tree, every part of each tree, has only one perfect use. The long, taut grains of the true cypress, so well adapted to the making of elegant thin grilles, the joyous dance of the figuring in certain species, the richness of graining where two large branches reach out-these can all be released and fulfilled in a worthy object for man's use” (1981).
“Training with Masters” quotes a gracious 1995 letter from glass artist Richard Marquis to Anna Venini. “It’s been over 25 years since I worked at Venini & Co. The experience looms large in my development as an artist and as a person. At the time I received the Fulbright grant to Italy I was considered one of the most skilled glassblowers in the fledgling studio glass movement. It was a pitiful state of affairs. I was about as skilled as any ten year old on Murano. I did the best I could and had I known back then that so much attention would be given my work now I would have paid more attention and worked harder.”
“Learning in Communities” provides we-were-there stories about the emergence of schools and organizations so key to craft’s expansion. Among the 11 entries are a letter by Dale Chihuly and Lewis (Buster) Simpson to participants in the summer 1972 workshop at the fledgling Pilchuck Glass School; excerpts from a paper by Margret Craver on the Handy & Harmon workshops she developed (1947-53) for aspiring metalsmiths; furniture maker Judy Kensley McKie’s reminiscences of the New Hamburger Cabinet Works collective to which she belonged in the 1960s; and Gyöngy Laky’s description of the Fiberworks Center for the Textile Arts in Berkeley, ca, which she founded in 1973.
Other chapters cover the choices-and tensions-artists have faced in making a living. The voices of Charles Harder (1945), Edith Heath (1957), Jack Lenor Larsen (1971), Ed Rossbach (1982), Nora Naranjo-Morse (1992) and Jun Kaneko (2000)-are but a few of those included on that theme. The final chapters tackle the persistent push/pull of tradition/innovation and examine craft’s relationship to the larger world. The last words quoted (from an interview in Modern Painters, February 2008) are those of four American artists working in textiles and multimedia sculpture. Ranging in age from 32 to 41, they add currency to this book's valuable and enjoyable conversations on craft.
Lois Moran was editor in chief of American Craft, 1980-2007.