Hear the word landscape, and most of us think of widescreen, 70mm panorama. Something out of a John Ford western, perhaps, or an Ansel Adams photograph. And for many, that is their landscape. But in reality, a landscape is a worldview – how we see our personal environment, depending on where that world is. Sometimes our sights extend beyond the hill to the horizon. And sometimes that landscape is what is merely underfoot – or at the most, within a few feet from where we stand.
Craft artists – like their fine art brethren – reference and find inspiration in their personal environment. In some cases it’s a natural world, encompassing great beauty and singular fragility. Other times it’s a political or social environment that, at its worst, rains down destruction and demands a powerful reaction. Whichever direction their work takes, craft artists have their personal, singular vision that defines and informs it.
Timberline Lodge, shown here in the late fall of 1937, is a national monument to the handcrafted. Learn more about Timberline here. G. Henderson Photograph.
In a way, craft is in a singular position to draw on the landscape. After all, craft draws from the landscape. The resources of wood, clay, fiber, glass, metal and minerals are the genesis of the objects these artists make.
And the medium itself can contribute to the piece made from it. In woodworking, for example, the growth rings of trees give definition and difference to the grain. The burls and bark are nature’s own contributions to turners and basketmakers. Even man-made and synthetic materials designed for commercial applications are a figurative part of our landscape (they are, after all, part of what is around us); applying them, artists today have an ever more boundless panoply of textures and tones that open up to a palette of possibilities.
Or consider the recycling of found objects. This aspect of a broadened landscape to include places visited – not just inhabited – has provided us with objects that boast the yin that comes with the comfort of the known, and the yang that comes from the intrigue of the unexpected. The Hungarian author and social scientist Arthur Koestler in his work, The Act of Creation, suggested that the difference between creativity and traditional thinking was a matter of resourcefulness rather than rigidity.
Ramona Solberg, Necklace with Dominos, 1989. Robert K. Liu Photograph.
For the craft artist, it means breaking through preconceived notions of what things are to what they can be. So, when an artist finds items in a neighborhood antique store or junk shop – or travels the world and finds something along the side of the road to bring home and use – that gives the object a new relevance in a wholly unexpected medium. Artist jewelers such as the late Ramona Solberg and the wife-husband team of Roberta and David Williamson are masters of the found object, incorporating them into work that give the pin, brooch or necklace a meaning that reflects a landscape that transcends time and space.
An extreme example is the contemporary master jeweler Jan Yager. Jan’s warehouse studio is in a part of urban Philadelphia that has just begun to be gentrified. Surrounded by the cast-off detritus of the neighborhood – from crack vials to syringes to bullet casings – she began in the 1980s, to go “beachcombing,” accumulating the symbols of violence and death in her inner city environment.
What she did then was to start incorporating the items into her work, making necklaces from the debris. The emotional response that comes from viewing and handling the work goes far beyond what can be spoken. It’s not for everyone’s taste, to be sure. But it fulfills Koestler’s concept that “True creativity often starts where language ends.” Today, she draws on weeds – “urban flora” – such as the purslane that grows through the cracks in the pavement, to form the basis of her silver and gold tiaras, brooches, earrings and necklaces.
Several thousand miles away, across the Continental Divide, Kit Carson – artist, jeweler, engraver, cowboy – lives and works in New River Arizona. His studio is known as the “Cactus Camp,” so it’s not surprising to find the cactus motif integral to his elegant jewelry. Carson is known for richly colored pieces that display a textured surface inlaid with gorgeous stones, and drenched with western imagery. "When I engrave an old-time cowboy song inside a turquoise-studded gold bracelet, the corporate executive from Chicago gets to carry his connection to the Wild West and the longing of his own soul, right there on his wrist."
David Gurney’s home in central California is rich with flowering plants, mammoth dunes, and rainbow-colored birds. He has not one, but two “landscapes” that he draws on for his work.
First, there is his symbiotic relationship as naturalist and ceramic artist, where one feeds on the other to create beautiful tiles, plates, bowls, and other serving pieces that celebrate a world of plenty just outside his studio doors.
David’s other landscape is more mythical than actual, a world that exists in Mexican folk art and its dynamic religious traditions. It is a personal landscape that thrives in his imagination, one which he happily shares with all of us through his Trees of Life, and other pieces that overwhelm in color and imagery.
For the ceramic artist, Richard Notkin, the landscape is black or white; there is no room for the inbetween. Indeed, if craft has a conscience, Richard’s work is its visualization. He is best known for precise and detailed teapots – “I consider myself a tool-and-die man” – that go straight to the essence of those who would despoil his environment through war, nuclear proliferation, and Big Oil.
Notkin (second from right) in Chicago with his family in 1950.
As a child growing up in Chicago, he was influenced by neighbors who were Holocaust survivors, and his father, who specialized in Asian immigration cases. The people next door exhorted him to be an activist; his father’s fees were often paid in Asian art. So, teapots became a natural vessel for expressing his political perspective. His work now extends to installations that continue to be driven by his personal concerns about where we are today – and where we are headed. "I think it's really important that an artist is in touch with some very deep inner conviction or drive that causes them to create the work they make."
Richard Notkin, Nuclear Nuts Teapot.
So, where does our landscape begin? Where does it end? In a sense it’s an artificial delineation of what is our life. Landscape resides in our eyes, our minds, and our hearts. It is what we see; it is what we believe. It is a macrocosm; it is a microcosm. It is the compass by which we set our inner clock, and determines how we envision our world, bringing together the real and the ideal. It is, at journey’s end, the ultimate look at our surroundings, and what makes the whole trip worthwhile.