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. See more work by Joyce in out virtual exhibition.
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.