Origins. Traditions. Beginnings. Call it what you will: it’s the nexus of people and the objects they make. It’s that moment when artists are face to face with the yin and yang of their creation, and come to terms with abiding by the rules. Or breaking them.
The American craft tradition didn’t just appear one day, fully-formed and mature. Whatever their materials – no matter how “cutting edge” – every artist can trace her or his work to craft techniques that had their beginnings hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. When they are manifested and revealed to us they’re sometimes easy to see. Sometimes they require us to make the effort. But each artist is involved in taking and passing these techniques to others in a continuum of creativity.
Since the beginning of recorded time, human beings have made objects. Most, such as tools, cooking utensils, blankets and clothing, served a simple, utilitarian function. If they performed well, appearance was unimportant. But even here, we see glimpses of artistry, when the makers wanted – needed – to put a personal imprint on the objects they made.
Consider the simplest of tools – a hand axe. And let’s consider it even further, as a tool that takes abuse in its everyday usage, chopping wood, cutting up prey, and all-around whacking – when it was multi-functional, the Swiss Army knife of its day. If that’s all it was, then we’d have little interest in it as anything other than an example of form and function working, if you will, hand-in-hand.
Display case filled with pairs of moccasins at Jeri Ah-Be-Hill's Fort Washakie Trading Post
But at some point in time, the maker wanted to identify his work as uniquely his. And rather than scribe his name, we see examples with embedded, ornamental fossil shells.
Or take beaded jewelry. Once deployed solely in trade and commerce, beads became a personal representation of the power or status of the wearer. The number of beads, their size, and their rarity, all combined to cast their wearer with respect, admiration and appeal.
These observations can be applied to every culture, every society, in every part of the world. For, as tradition and convention established and standardized the shape, size, and function of these objects over time, more personal imprints were incorporated into their production. Traditions, tools, and techniques have been the collection of constants across the sea of time.
Jim Bassler, Spotty, 2008 Ray Carofano photo
Craft also spans a geographic ocean. When the late Philip Simmons began his apprenticeship in blacksmithing in Charleston, South Carolina, he didn’t realize he would be sustaining a heritage of ironworking that had its roots in beads formed from meteors in Egypt over five millennia ago and spread quickly to Africa’s west coast. (See “African American Ironwork” in the “Learn More” section at the right.) At thirteen, he was simply enthralled by the idea of hammers hammering and sparks flying. It was, he said, where “the action was.”
Philip Simmons, Egret Gate
And from that moment in 1925 he joined a rich heritage of Low Country craft artists. Here, as the historian John Michael Vlach has noted, “there are over a thousand basketmakers, from the very old to the very young. The total number of black quilters will never be known: 100,000? Ridiculously low. Plus whittlers, metalworkers, and carpenters. Their inherited skills provided black Americans with cultural stamina and endurance.”
As Charleston – and America – moved on from horses and carriages, so did Mr. Simmons’s output, turning to decorative ironwork. Incorporating local imagery with a “uniquely black creativity – the aesthetic of innovation and improvisation, much as we see in jazz or dance,” his gates reflected – or, more accurately, determined – the spirit of a community. Today, his vision and skills have been passed on to succeeding generations. Truly, Charleston became what Mr. Simmons imagined it to be.
Origins can sometimes be as much a place as a person.
The story of pottery in the South is told in the Appalachian Mountains and the materials it provides: kaolin and iron rich clay and feldspar, and the wood for firing the pottery kilns. For almost a century its center has been Seagrove, Moore County, North Carolina, between Charlotte and Raleigh, with about a hundred operating potteries, including Jugtown.
It was these clay beds that drew English Staffordshire potters over 250 years ago. Clay was so important that, during the Civil War, potters were conscripted not as soldiers, but as pot makers for the Confederate Army. During Prohibition, potters made “little brown jugs” for whiskey from stills hidden deep in the woods. Moore County’s isolation and poverty would insure their survival, and potters produced tableware and other articles for themselves and their neighbors.
Jugtown, itself, was the invention of a wealthy Raleigh couple – Jacques and Juliana Busbee. Dabblers in art, Julia came across a piece of orange earthenware on one of her trips to the countryside, and liked it so much, that she decided to revive the pottery tradition. They hired Ben Owen, himself a third generation potter, and shared their interest in oriental ceramics with him through visits to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, among others. Owen would became their first master potter.
Jugtown Pottery, Orange wares, Will Liddell photo
Today, we can see, in Ben Owen and his children, and to the present, in today’s master potter, Vernon Owens, with his wife Pam and son Travis, a tradition fulfilled. They are to pottery much like Ford is to cars – a family business whose pieces have evolved in style yet have remained incredibly true to its roots.
The area has continued to be a place English potters have been drawn to, and their influences, from firing kilns to glazes are part of its history. For artists like Mark Hewitt, who found a welcome home in North Carolina, the draw is first and foremost the clay: the elemental basis for all pottery. And the material that has maintained an ongoing tradition for almost three centuries.
Clay was not the only material the English drew from their Colonies’ natural resources. Jamestown, Virginia, beaches were considered so pure that ships returning to the homeland loaded up with the sand they found here for glassmakers throughout the Isle.
Paul Stankard, Swarming Honeybee Orb, 2005, Douglas Schaible photo
Later, the Colonists opened their own glass factories in Salem County, southern New Jersey, birthing a fertile American glass tradition. With its high-grade sand and virtually unlimited wood from the Pine Barrens to stoke their furnaces, Casper Wistar founded the first successful factory in 1739, followed by hundreds more in dozens of towns, further fueled by skilled gaffers who immigrated from Europe’s glassblowing capitals. It was they who made the glassware for homes and offices, from candlesticks and jugs to windows, bottles, and flasks.
Beyond commercial uses, the popularity of glass paperweights had created its own tradition, originating in the early-19th century; to the famous Millville Rose created by Ralph Barber in 1905; which continues to this day with the intricate, natural world of Paul J. Stankard’s “botanicals.” These are environments that combine birds, flowers, and bees, many of which are products of his imagination. Added to them are what he calls “root people,” figurative characters that are the nature spirits of the life he has created and encapsulated in blown glass.
The finest, most creative craft artists – as with artists of every stripe – open their work (and our eyes) to the unexpected, while permitting us a comfort zone that allows us to welcome the work into our souls.
Indians, in a way, were the first recyclers, taking cast-offs from other cultures and renewing their usefulness. First were seashells and bones, feathers, and quills. Then, European glass beads and tiny glass seed beads during the mid-1800s, incorporated into traditional patterns, across a network of communities, tribes, and people.
Even when put on reservations and isolated, tribal women (and sometimes men) still did their handwork. Beadwork continued to expand, on all sorts of objects. Once limited to body adornment, it could now be seen as superbly intricate beadwork on clothing and accessories.
And yet, while American Indian beadwork has always had spiritual value to its creators, it, as well as its intrinsic value, have not always been shared by non-Native American culture. Cheapened by prejudice throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries; by its sales as roadside trinkets; and later by poorly made Chinese copies; its history, heritage, and worth too often have been marginalized.
Teri Greeves, Sunboyz Beaded Shoes, 2008, Dan Barsotti photo
Today, the visual treat that is Indian beadwork can be found on all measure of items, with today’s young artists utilizing techniques passed down, but expanding its applications. Perhaps none is more fascinating or unusual than the work of Kiowa bead artist Teri Greeves. As an Indian, she is very much committed to the spirit of her work, and the images they portray, while blurring the boundaries of the usual and the unusual, applying her imagination to objects from parade umbrellas to high-top sneakers. By approaching the art and the traditions of beadwork much as an artist who questions the confines of a blank canvas – and even the canvas itself – she and others pay homage to their origins while refusing to be limited by them.
Perhaps nothing is more origin- or tradition-based than our culture and the part it has played in our history. Fact is, craft artists have a strong sense of who we are and what we have become, and are particularly skilled at creating the most sophisticated objects from the most basic beginnings.
Jim Bassler has spent a lifetime re-creating craft rich in history and techniques while consciously avoiding high technology. His weavings draw from indigenous civilizations, and by using low-tech processes to create them – sometimes taking up to a year to dye, chart and actually weave the piece – he has restored to our vocabulary techniques otherwise on their way to cultural extinction. More importantly, he has made it his life work to preserve and protect his craft’s origins. By playing a part in reinvigorating such techniques as wedge weaving he has called to our attention the ingenuity to make things on all levels with limited resources. In so doing, much as an environmentalist might, he has helped save an endangered species from becoming extinct.
From the waves of immigration that began dozens of thousands of years ago across the Asian land bridge to more recent assimilations, America is genetically rich with traditions. They are the things that have helped make us a great nation. And a great civilization. We only have to open our eyes to see the connections made, the creativity in its many incarnations that have sprung from them, and the limitless future they foretell.