In any discussion of our history, our heritage – our memory of things – craft speaks to us in a unique visual and tactile language. Fact is, each of us, in our own way, has had a craft experience. Perhaps it’s the hand-carved rocking horse, now corralled in the attic, that you jumped on when you rode off into the sunset. Maybe it’s the patchwork quilt that has kept generations of your family warm on winters’ evenings. Or just a favorite basket that sits on the dresser, where we toss our keys and loose change each evening. Each day, we’re surrounded by craft that, by combining utility and beauty, enhances even our most commonplace experiences.
Unlike fine artists, who perhaps capture a moment in time, and are more concerned with an artistic style and technique, craft artists, through their objects, go beyond telling where we were, making a statement of who we are. Their objects will create memories for us, because the artists give selflessly of their memories in creating the objects.
“Objects are the only original events in history.” So says Yale art history professor, Jules Prown. And he’s not just postulating about history in the abstract. He’s speaking ofour history, best illustrated by the wide swath objects have cut through American cultural history.
The seminal native crafts; traditions brought from other countries; the seldom acknowledged contributions of African-American artisans; the fine work of Japanese artisans; the pivotal role of Hispanic culture; the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century; the WPA projects of the 1930s; European émigré designers in the 1940s; mid-century modern design; the back-to-nature crafts of the late 1960s; contemporary handwork; and, finally, craft in the 21st century. Each and every one has engendered memories both in the artists of the eras, and in those who have followed, craftsmen and women, never forgetting, always remembering.
Whether the objects created were made by hand for everyday use, or to sit on a shelf to be admired, it makes no difference. The beauty of craft – indeed the art of craft – is that the object has status as more than just a reminder of dates and names. They recall personal stories of the maker, of the collector, and of who we are as people.
The phenomenon of craft is at least 40,000 years old, and today’s craft artists carry on their historical traditions while creating new, uniquely personal work. These artists have devoted their lives to this calling and strive to make sure their chosen path fits into an increasingly fragmented, technological world.
Memory is also about influences: environmental, political, social, and cultural.
We are the product of a vast and rich environment: An America blanketed by forests so dense we had to create legends like Paul Bunyan to explain how so much wood could be harvested; or like John Henry to build the railroads to transport it. In colonial America, each region could draw on endless forests of native species, each pretty much different from the other: walnut in Pennsylvania, cherry in Connecticut, yellow pine in South Carolina and Georgia.
Into this world enter the Newport, Rhode Island, cabinetmaker John Townsend. Fifth-generation American, Townsend’s signature style was typically grand pieces capped by perfectly proportioned block-and-shell fronts and ball-and-claw curved cabriole legs possessed of both delicacy and power that drew on a Georgian tradition. The style, the embellishments – these were his memories. The degree to which he used his skills and inventiveness had few, if any rivals here or abroad.
Furniture became the first American art to attain complete maturity, and today’s practitioners owe him a debt of gratitude – a debt that has been repaid over and over by furniture makers who have followed, like Sam Maloof; Wharton Esherick; Arthur Espenet Carpenter (whose famous scalloped seashell sided rolltop desk was directly influenced by Townsend); father and daughter George and Mira Nakashima; and Garry Knox Bennett. Each has taken their own history and used it to develop a personal “reason for being” in their work.
Sam Maloof, Side Chair. Photograph by Gene Sasse. Learn more about Maloof here
Sometimes an artist will find a truth in someone else’s memory and channel it in his work. The metalsmith Tom Joyce, for instance, draws on the blacksmithing tradition to make tools and pieces that incorporate parts of his personal history; he has also taken the collective “memories” of entire communities to fabricate gates and other large-scale public installations that remember events that have altered and illuminated their times.
Tom Joyce working on Penumbra. Kate Joyce Photograph.
Craft artists are sometimes driven by the ghosts of their own histories to carry on ago-old traditions. Basketmaker Mary Jackson is part of a West African culture brought here in the bowels of ships as human cargo. Her slave ancestors carried with them a tradition of weaving grasses; today the memory and practice remains a cultural identity for a people who were cut off from their own lands, ancestors, and histories. More than just a source of knowledge, experience and emotional satisfaction that has been passed on to her, the memory here is a generational one that continues with her daughter and granddaughter. Proving memory is not just the present looking to a rich past, but the present looking to a vibrant future.
Ancestral spirits of the past also speak through the story-telling basketry of Wasco Indian Pat Courtney Gold, from the south side of Oregon's Columbia River. Here is a woman who grew up in a culture that had been removed from its home and its traditions but who has, through her craft of basketry, re-established that history. Expanding the concept of memory, a Wasco basket holds a place high in our national consciousness – our national memory, if you will – having been given to the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a peace offering when they completed their journey to the Northwest Passage.
Pat Courtney Gold, Sturgeon Basket
In the end, we as a civilization, culture and society are little without memory. It is the revelation that tells us who we are, why we are, and guides us – sometimes in the affirmative, sometimes in the negative – to whom we will be. There are those who would deny their memory; they do so at their own peril. The historian Luis Martinez-Fernandez suggests the reason to study our past is “to come tete-a-tete with ourselves.” 2500 years ago, the philosopher Confucius advised us to “study the past if you would define the future.”
To this we would add the words of Ken Trapp, former curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. In determining the place of craft in our lives, he said, “some dismiss the handcrafted object as an anachronism, a nostalgic throwback to an earlier and supposedly simpler and happier time. But for many more, the handcrafted object is an authentic experience that is personalized, individualized and humanized.”
So, call it what you will – our collective DNA, our memory, whatever – remember this: Craft is more than history. It’s more than her-story.
It’s our story.