Friday, November 13, 2009

The Art of Fine Craft in Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft show is up and running, 4 great days of eye-popping ingenuity, imagination, technique, and high perfection. One of the best parts of a show of this quality and scope is first, trying to figure out how-the-heck the artist did THAT and then asking them to explain it and marveling at how they got from HERE to THERE. One of my favorites in the ingenuity category is JoAnne Russo, who makes baskets - I should say basket forms, as she transitioned from functional baskets to more magical interpretations a couple of years ago - which she decorates with sewing notions! As with the best of truly fine craft, she gets to a completely new place from the traditional (the technique and materials) - anyone who's done sewing has buttons, hooks and eyes, and zippers lying around but has anyone else thought to do THIS? She dyes the wooden buttons herself, thus creating organic color schemes, and carefully stacks and arranges them with other findings into precise satisfying patterns on the surface of the forms. I noticed several more basket makers in quick succession, a nice reminder of the endless interpretations of a single theme. Ed Bing Lee from Philadelphia makes small, entertaining baskets out of things like striped shoelaces while Debora Muhl from North Carolina makes her deconstructed shapes out of sweet grass, aware as she does so of the sacred Native American view of her materials. I taught ceramics for a while so am always interested to see the offerings in this category; I found a favorite in Brian R. Jones's small solid handbuilt wares, painted and glazed with milky pastels touched with color. The jewelry range is, as always, fascinating, from strong dark metals to delicate work with stones and ivory. Two other favorites were Akiko Sugiyama's paper creations, and Christine Kaiser's narrative boxes - more to come later. The show invites a different international group each year; this year the focus in on Korea, with 26 Korean guest artists. Most of the artists spoke of keeping prices at an accessible level - they offer amazing value for such astonishing work. I talked with some of the artists about the old chestnut of 'functional vs. non-functional' - a limiting, earthbound discussion that often equates ceramics and other craft with something you buy so you have a way to eat your cereal. This show and these extraordinary artists are reminders that beauty of form and spectacular demonstrations of imagination and technique lift the spirit, provide joy, and inspire better versions of oneself: what could be of more use than that? This is the 33rd year of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, which according to the website ( was the first retail show of its kind, run by volunteers as a fundraiser for the museum. It's the prototype for other Craft Shows of this caliber, and artists are chosen by a highly selective jury process. The show runs through Sunday.

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