Revisiting "Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical"

Revisiting "Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical"

"Sea Jellies" by Arline Fisch

"Sea Jellies" by Arline Fisch

On Friday, August 24th, “Without Boundaries: Transformations in American Craft” opens at the Craft Alliance in St. Louis, MO. As the vision of independent curator Lynn Friedman Hamilton, “Without Boundaries” was inspired by the groundbreaking 1986 exhibition “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical,” curated by Paul J. Smith and shown at the American Craft Museum in New York City. A tribute to handmade works of the 1980s, “Craft Today” featured 286 of that decade’s most dynamic artists concentrating in clay, fiber, glass, wood, and metal. Hamilton selected 39 from this original group of makers to take part in a “reunion” of sorts – an opportunity to explore how each artist's work has evolved and adapted over the past 25 years.

The exhibition, which runs through October 21st, will feature photographs (selected from the ACC’s museum archive) of objects from “Craft Today” alongside new and recent works by the artist. We asked Hamilton to take a moment to answer a few questions about “Without Boundaries.”

How did you become interested in putting together an exhibition based on “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical” (CTPOP)?

The original show, “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical” was a landmark show in the world of craft art. Not only did it illustrate and exemplify the importance of craft at a higher, museum quality level but CTPOP gave rise and approval to the newer notion that craft could be humorous, reflect life, and be something that was for frivolous adornment. Paul Smith’s curatorial statement spoke loudly to me in 1986 and continues to resonate for me today. Additionally, the show really served to put some artists “on the map.” Since 1986, I have wondered what happened to all 286 artists in CTPOP. Did giving these artists notoriety serve to thrust their careers into more museum and collector acceptance? Even though for many years I was removed from the art world, I always wondered what happened to these artists; some who were my friends, some who I had exhibited in my gallery in the 1980s, and some whose work my family and I have lived with in our home. Thus, “Without Boundaries: Transformations in American Craft,” is a personal, from the heart, coming home for me...a resolution to years of curiosity. And a need to know, from these artists, the following:

• Is this the how, who, and where they imagined they would be today?
• What are the transformations to their “essential core” and in what ways have they ridden life’s trajectory to be delivered to the circumstances to make and reinvent their art now?
• How has who they are now made a difference in the art they make now?
• And conversely is the art they make now different because of what has transpired in their lives?
• How and when does their creative spark ignite?
• When they feel the creative spark diminish how do they flame the embers?

In the CTPOP exhibition catalog, Paul Smith writes emphatically about the growth of craft in the 1980s, saying that never before had there been such a diversity of disciplines, a desire by artists to make their work their livelihood, and a focus on refinement rather than experimentation.  Looking back on Smith’s introduction to the exhibition 25 years later, how do you think the craft field has changed? What remains the same?

The artist’s focus, methodology, and reasons for expression have shifted. We investigate and exhibit this change in the craftsman’s move from functionalism to total immersion of the object as an art form. Examining art which mirrors and confronts current events, politics, and  environmental concerns, and utilizes explorations of new techniques allows us to now visually translate and showcase the creative craft history of the 21st century’s first decade… a decade which has offered the craftsperson freedom to try, to experiment, and to explore new avenues for his creativity. Additionally, the public’s perception of crafts now and the manner in which objects can be displayed and shared has been transformed. Today’s craft world is truly without boundaries! Museums show clay pots and glass bowls alongside Old Master oils on canvas.

Furthermore, I was astonished at the number of artists whose acclaim had grown worldwide legs… some of these artists are as well known in Japan as in Oregon! I was so thrilled with the number whose work had matured, and then, equally, so utterly disappointed that some were no longer either present or making art. 

Remaining the same is the artists’ attention to producing objects that are beautifully and meticulously crafted, a continued diversity of disciplines, and the artist as the manager in his dedication to placing his craft and ancillary artistic endeavors as his paramount means of support. And, yes, to this day there is no lack in the attention to detail.

From the 286 artists included in CTPOP, how did you select the 39 featured in "Without Boundaries"? Of the artists you selected, who are some that you think have made the most marked transformations from the 1986 exhibition?

I located as many of the artists as I was able to. I requested to review work made from 2008 until now. After studying images and looking at work, it became apparent to that to repeat the 1986 show, as another survey, made no sense. But, taking a cue from my life’s bends and curves and that of others, what I found the most fascinating, from the most interesting artists, was that of their personal transformations. The life trajectories were exactly what I was curious about early on. And so I decided to make the focus of this show’s content driven by the notion of change and transformation.

These transformations are amazing. They mirror what so many of us either consciously or subconsciously experience. We each are a composite of multitudes of external and internal stimuli as we are faced with decisions. These provocative experiences make us who we are. With the CTPOP artists, some career changes have been the result of making lemonade from life’s lemons. Some artists sought out a new art form that excited them, perhaps having said all they cared to say with a particular material and asking the question “what if?” Some artists found the answer to be a whole new venture.

The focus of this show is the manner in which a select group of artists have changed their methods for making art from 1986 to 2012. Ways and means which mirror all of our lives. Yes, Nancy Crow has been most well-known for her unique contemporary non-functional quilts. I admire her continually daring herself to seek a new means of expression with innovative techniques. Previously, after many years of experimentation Nancy settled on the quilt as the vehicle for her artistic expression and rose to be acclaimed as at the top of her field. I suspected that Nancy felt she said all she had to say in this way and wanted new challenges in her art. So I queried her and received this response from her, “I think it is extremely, and I mean extremely, important for an artist to continue to develop and change till one can no longer make one’s own work. I believe this ability to keep changing, whether in developing new ideas, new techniques, or combining techniques and ideas, is what sets great artists apart from others. It is this critical ability to understand, perhaps innately, that it is not acceptable to just produce the same work/same idea, over and over and over, monotonously, with little appreciable change.”  So, for Nancy, personal satisfaction has come with successfully conquering the techniques needed to produce these monoprints. It is gutsy for an artist to strike out and tackle something new. So much easier to continue to make and place with collectors and museums what has been previously accepted with accolades. I want to acknowledge and celebrate the artist who has dared to innovate and succeed in new ways with new audiences.

And too, there is Nance O’Banion, whose work (when I first met her) was a very mixed media medley: handmade paper, bamboo, aluminum mesh, and acrylic paint all combined into one arresting artwork. According to her, “The piece for the American Craft show was a great example of the blend of materials and forms.” Throughout the 1980s and early 90s Nance’s art/craft was internationally featured in museums such as the Getty, the Victoria and Albert, and at Harvard and Yale, plus walking through the San Francisco Airport, there she was… on the wall. Then abruptly in the mid 90s, the creative spark that had driven her intense period of production suddenly faded, until by her own admission, in the late 90s it disappeared. Many artists (no different than many of us) face similar periods of stagnation, feeling that they have lost their creative way and talent. In O’Banion’s case, she, and I will let her explain it herself, “experienced not just a temporary burnout, but more. These storms slowly started to alter her neural circuitry. She was being transformed. Ideas and images from her previous body of work underwent a parallel metamorphosis.  Her art changed radically and bears no resemblance to her previous work.” This new art, The Tablets, is a visual recording of images from both her waking and dreaming lives in drawings on tablets. She sais, "The Tablet Project has been really special continuing the figure and building on my love of dreams, daydreams and exposing more of my own autobiography. It's evolutionary and continues to surprise me.” Utilizing wood as she did previously, but in a different manner, Nance O’Banion is sharing her inner self with us. This sharing of their inner self is what I so admire about an artist. Nance O’Banion, Nancy Crow, Margie Jervis’ puppets, Jane Lackey’s mapping, and Ray King’s video and lights (employing techniques not even on the horizon in 1986) are but a few of the examples in this show of artists who have experienced transformations in their careers either through burnout or new experiences and are unburdened by the sequential use of materials. Neither do they seem concerned as to whether what they are making is perceived as art or craft.

What do you hope people take away from the show?

I hope visitors become more aware of the world around them, more interested in various forms of expression, and are both visually stimulated and thoughtfully challenged by the work in this show. How terrific it will be if they are inspired to craft something of their own, learn a new technique if currently an artist, and/or discuss what they like and what they don’t care for with their friends… that we have given them something to make a personal decision about is important to me. The artists in “Without Boundaries” are making something very different from what they exhibited in 1986 CTPOP. One has to only look at the photos from the CTPOP exhibit, which the American Craft Council and Paul Smith so kindly loaned us, to see the comparisons from the then to the now. This is not to say, that the other artists who were in CTPOP and are still making art, are marginalized. However, I wanted to tell my story as I have noted it paralleling that in my life and the lives of so many others. May the exhibit visitor relate to this, receiving gratification and affirmation from these internationally renowned artists that it is ok to move along. Follow your heart and take advantage of all opportunities. Reinventing oneself is stimulating and personally rewarding. Life is indeed a journey.

What do you envision the craft field to look like in another 25 years?
I wonder what we will see in 25 years. What will craft be all about? Will it still be called “craft?”  Will the hand of the artist be present? As a lover of all things tactile, I’d like to hope that artists will still enjoy working with their hands and making things that we can enjoy touching. Perhaps we will snap back to our roots… tiring of being bombarded with so many technological novelties, and nostalgia for the “good old days” will reign, and what was new in CTPOP will once be new again.

To see images and learn more about the exhibition "Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical", please visit the ACC Library Digital Collections.