From a distance, a wall hanging by Sabrina Gschwandtner appears to be a quilt, which is what you would expect to see in a craft show. But a closer examination reveals Gschwandtner’s quilt, lit from behind, is made up of 35mm film footage she’s stitched together in a quilt motif. The film images are of women engaged in traditional women’s craft: knitting, weaving, dyeing. It is a tribute to the history of women in craft made by a woman working in a new form.
“Crafting America,” an exhibition opening Feb. 6 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, reveals how hard it is to categorize craft or even know what to call Gschwandtner’s piece. Is craft the painted saw or the broom or the corn cob figurine? Yes. Is stitched film craft? Yes. Has craft, in a sense, made America?
“We’ve had a lot of good conversations about this,” the difficulty of how craft should be referenced, said Crystal Bridges curator Jen Padgett. “In a room of 10 people, you’re going to get 10 different explanations and 10 different examples.”
Padgett and guest curator Glenn Adamson of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., assembled 100 works from eight decades of American craft for the exhibition, sponsored by the Windgate Foundation. Thanks to the foundation’s recently announced gift to the museum of $17.5 million, visitors can look forward to an expanded collection of fine craft there and programming created by a dedicated craft curator. (Like Crystal Bridges’ founder Alice Walton, the largesse of Windgate was made possible by early business connections to Walmart, and its impact on arts education is felt statewide on college campuses and museums.)
In her essay in a fine catalog that accompanies the show, Padgett writes that some artists “might bristle at the very idea of attaching the word craft to their work” because of its connotation of fairs and the homely work of people like you and me. In an interview this week, she said the exhibition is a “starting point” in how to think anew about craft in all its forms. The exhibition’s focus is “on the idea that craft is about making things with skill, in a variety of media,” she said. It explores the evolution of craft from Beatrice Wood’s hand-thrown “Tea Set” (1947) loaned by the Museum of Arts and Design in New York to David Williams’ effigy vessel “Wolf Bowl/Dish” (1964) loaned by the National Museum of the American Indian and Charissa Brock’s woven bamboo and waxed thread “Canticum of Fluctus” (2020).
“There is not just a bucket for craft objects and one for noncraft,” Padgett said. Padgett spoke of contemporary artists working within a tradition but altered, such as Steven Young Lee’s “Vase with Dragon” (2020), an exquisitely painted porcelain vessel that, in Padgett’s words, has been “exploded,” the clay ripped and folded over. “He is not trying to replicate the past or create something functional,” Padgett said, but instead introducing an element of the unexpected that adds to the viewer’s idea of “vessel.” In that way, she said, contemporary craft can affect how we see other art forms, an inspiration for Padgett’s work in the reinstallation of the permanent collection galleries, blends of the old and the new, culture and the 2D and the 3D.
Craft also holds a mirror up to American experience: Several works in fabric in the show address cultural issues, expressing in traditional American craft forms America’s sad treatment of indigenous people (such as Gina Adams’ “Treaty with the Yankton Sioux 1837”), for example, and the impact of enslavement (Diedrick Brackens’ “a year of negotiations, 2019,” which has been acquired by the museum). There are works by artists who live and work in Arkansas, including wood sculptor Robyn Horn, basketmaker Leon Neihues and ceramicist Linda Lopez, and other pieces from the museum’s own collection, including the Bracken work, Ruth Asawa’s unparalleled wire form “Untitled (S.028, Hanging Four-Lobed Continuous Form within a Form”), a Nick Cave soundsuit and Anne Lemarski’s “Tigris T-1” sculpture of a tiger balanced on a ball.
Padgett said the exhibition was also curated to bring to light craft artists who may not have received the recognition they deserved — craft being considered more humble than fine art — along with its well-known artists, such as Peter Voulkos, June Schwarz and those mentioned previously.
“There is something deeply human about craft,” Padgett said, an appeal to those of us who have made something by hand or simply admire the skill of the maker. It is, Padgett writes in her essay, an art form that “provides a crucial contribution to the larger history of American art.”