State of Craft: Exploring the Studio Movement in Vermont 1960-2010

State of Craft: Exploring the Studio Movement in Vermont 1960-2010


JoAnne Russo, She’s Come Unraveled, 2006, black ash, beads, hooks and eyes, waxed linen, wire, thread, 35 x 12 x 12 in.

The Green Mountain state has been one of the essential places in American studio craft. A landmark exhibition celebrates its presence at the creation and beyond.

Bennington Museum
May 22 -Oct. 31, 2010
Bennington, vt

The year 1960 was a watershed for crafts in Vermont, the high quality of work attested to by a show organized that year by the Allied Craftsmen of Vermont and judged by David Campbell, then-president of the American Crafts Council and director of its four-year-old Museum of Contemporary Crafts. That same year saw a media conference promoting Vermont crafts, a design conference and a major woodworking exhibition at the Fleming Museum in Burlington. So the Vermont Crafts Council chose 1960 as a marker worth celebrating—50 years of the studio craft movement in the Green Mountain state. “State of Craft,” encompassing events this year at different venues around Vermont, is anchored by the ambitious exhibition at the Bennington Museum.

The five major mediums—clay, glass, fiber, metal and wood—are represented in more than 120 objects by some 90 craftspeople. The organizers, Jamie Franklin, curator of collections at the museum, and Anne Majusiak, guest curator, have arranged objects according to the themes Living by “Making,” Communities & Connections, and Inspirations, and subcategories such as Trailblazers and Vermont as Inspiration to provide added context.

Entering the show, a visitor encounters the wood sculpture and furniture of Michelle and David Holzapfel, respectively. Although the wall text refers to the inspiring qualities of Vermont wood, in fact the charm of Michelle’s work is that it undermines the most obvious qualities of the material—strength, hardness, weight. She has fashioned pieces to look like a quilt (Baby Blocks) or a body organ (Lockheart). In Vermont Spoons, she plays with the notion of utility by making these spalted maple implements gargantuan and presenting them as a fused wall piece. David creates straight-ahead furniture such as Chaise Cerise, a handsome “fainting couch” made of curly cherry, curly maple and spalted yellow birch.

Some of the most exciting works make a rare (in this show) social statement. The place of women in society might seem a tired topic, but a number of artists here address it with élan, originality and a global perspective, for example, JoAnne Russo in She’s Come Unraveled, an elongated oval basket. This “body” is overlaid with the underpinnings, as it were, of women’s garments—the hooks and eyes and stays of old-time girdles or corsets. The rigid stays align as vertical ribs up and down the piece; buttonlike black beads are grouped together at the base and the top like so many tiny nipples. A coil, reminiscent of neckpieces worn by the women of some African tribes, tops the body/vessel, unraveling in an upward spiral, like a tightly wound spring that has popped.

In the irreverent She’s Got Him Where She Wants Him, Georgia Landau employs multiple craft disciplines and materials. Her foot-high “doll” is a voluptuous woman, a wired stuffed-stocking body in velvet attire, her hair swept up into a gold-trimmed scarf, sitting on a couch as if on a throne. At each side two ceramic Pan figures lean forward to do her bidding, their arms held behind them to become armrests. The finefeatured porcelain face perfectly captures a heavy-lidded hauteur and indolence, a wry “luxe, calme et volupté.”

Under the rubric Trailblazers are included makers who came before or shortly after that propitious year of 1960 and had a substantial influence on the crafters who followed. Of this group, which includes Peter Bramhall (glass), Michael Boylen (glass and ceramics) and Betty Atwood (woven textiles), perhaps the best known and most generously represented in this show is the ceramist Karen Karnes, with five pieces. The strength of her work is exhilarating, with a cohesive vision that spans the past 60 years. In the room devoted to Living by “Making,” Karnes’s Tall Vase has the place of honor. A salt glaze creates umber traces along the length of a globular base and long neck, a gutsy assertion of form and texture. It could be a vessel found at the site of an ancient culture were it not for the arrow-like shape fused to the front where base and neck meet, giving it a jaunty flair. Karnes’s Untitled Form with Two Openings is also animated, the long necks bumping against each other.

Like the birds on Jaclyn Davidson’s bib necklace, Returning Swallows, I kept coming back to this intriguing piece made from naturally patinated steel, the neck decoration forged from recycled farm equipment. The swallows—frequent residents of Vermont barns—made of sterling silver and 18k gold, some embedded with pavé diamonds, fly across the front of the necklace, which lies flat at the collar bone. Chosen to exemplify Vermont as Inspiration, the work is also a paean to Vermont ingenuity.

“State of Craft” is a visual delight, with each piece given room to breathe. What’s more, there are so many wonderful stories that attentive viewers should allow themselves plenty of time. The result will be a many-layered aesthetic experience that is also informative and spiritful.

Arlene Distler is a poet and arts writer based in Brattleboro, VT.