Friday, February 26, 2010

A Brief History of Art v. Craft: Introduction

As requested, the next series will cover the differences between art and craft. Or arts and crafts. Or just what is craft? Aren't crafts those things you made at summer camp with yarn, Elmer's glue, and popsicle sticks? Yes, that's one definition of craft. But the craft I'll explore over the next few posts is the idea behind the contemporary artistic movement, what craftspeople do, who they are, and why I care. I consider myself a craftsperson, as in "one who makes crafts." The more common term would be "potter" but I am like those who work in wood, clay, fiber, metal, plastic, found objects, and other forms in that I work with my hands to create an object.

I plan to write my thesis (should all the stars align properly) on the beginnings of the contemporary craft era. In the post-World War II period in the United States, craft-making changed drastically for a variety of reasons. But this is only one part of the story. I will explore those reasons as we move forward, but I will go chronologically, starting with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement in England in the late 19th century. Granted, handmade objects of beauty and fine workmanship were on the scene much earlier, but it was in this time that people began to seek to align such objects with fine art. The Industrial Revolution and mechanization changed attitudes and feelings toward object-making. There is much more to this, but I'll discuss that in my next post. But for now, I'm going to glue some popsicle sticks together.

Up next: William Morris and How Craft Can Save the World.
Image from here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Top 4 Designers: Part 4


I saved this one for the last post so I could savor the process of narrowing it down. As a potter (or ceramicist, if you will) I feel most intimately connected to designers and creators in this medium. And yet, I spent almost no time at all deciding on my favorite designer for ceramics. But before I reveal it (if you can't tell by the photo), I want to note the artists and designers that provide me with inspiration for my own work. While I posted "honorable mentions" with my other posts, I can't narrow it down to just one when it comes to ceramics. Knowing the process of working clay as intimately as I do, I'm always searching for designs that speak to me, awe me, and make me want to sit at the wheel and turn something out. The following designers and artists inspire me to do just that.

Russell Wright: Wright's greatest work is often cited as his American Modern Dinnerware. Designed in the 1950s with a decidedly Post-War aesthetic, the smooth lines and muted colors re-create the falsely glossy images we have of the era following World War II.
Eva Zeisel: Best known for her Town and Country dinnerware service, Zeisel's cuddly pieces evoke warmth and a sense of home. Not only is she a great designer, her life story is pretty amazing!
Viktor Schreckengost: I love the Jazz Bowl series. An industrial designer of all types, Schreckengost's Jazz Bowl captures the movement, line, tone, and color of jazz in ceramic.
David Pier: I actually just learned about Pier from last month's Ceramics Monthly where he discussed the development of his Ultimate Coffee Cup. A contemporary designer working to solve contemporary problems, I'm inspired by his work and what he seeks to do.

Now, onto my favorite designer in ceramics: Shoji Hamada.
A Japanese potter who moved to England to work with the renown Bernard Leach in the 1920s, Hamada's work combines the Japanese aesthetic and understanding of clay with Leach's studio approach to pottery. Leach is often considered the grandfather of the studio clay movement, but I believe it is Hamada's works with their simplicity of line, simple brushstrokes in glazing, and attention to detail that make him more of an influence in ceramic design today. The Japanese tradition of ceramics goes back much farther than any of us of European descent can imagine, and that tradition carries through Hamada's designs. Credited with bringing back the ideas of the folk potter to Japan, Hamada returned from his time in England with Leach in 1923 and opened the studio where he would spend the rest of his life working.

I don't know as much about Hamada as I would like. I was fortunate enough to handle one of his pieces when on a "behind the scenes" object-handling tour at the Freer Gallery last spring. My ceramics class was allowed into storage and each of us chose a piece we wanted to to handle as part of the lesson. Everyone walked around choosing what they thought would be interesting to see and touch, but I was instantly drawn to the case of 20th century works. When I pointed out my piece to the curator, he looked at me and said, "That's a Hamada, good choice" in a very surprised, yet approving tone. I wasn't sure how I knew it was a Hamada as it was unlabeled, but I knew I liked and and wanted the chance to touch it. I'm a tactile learner, after all. It was a deep iron-red glazed bowl with ink-black lines in a linear pattern. I was enamored. Those are the moments that make me want to stay in the museum world. Being close to a hero through the power of an object, being connected to the past, and looking forward to what as a potter I can create from that connection. Photo from here.

As an additional note: I've very much enjoyed these entries, so please feel free to suggest ideas for more series you'd like to see me write. Be it museums, more specific designers, or other things you'd like to know my thoughts on, I'm happy to write if I'm inspired!