For the Love of Craft

The word Craft is both a noun and a verb, and the difference between the two has often been as problematic as the terms ‘craft’ and ‘art’.  In her new edited volume, Craft.  Documents of Contemporary Art, Tanya Harrod, states, “Craft is a contested concept, a word with almost too many associations” (12).   Harrod points out that historically, the ‘Arts and Crafts synthesis’ did not have a wide following in the various schools of art in the twentieth century as the norm for both teaching, learning, and making abandoned the idea of inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary practice or making.

Compartmentalisation became the standard or, as it is often termed today, silos were built where the crafts were cut off from ‘fine art’.  Even though individuals can be heard to say, ‘I thought that debate was over’, the divide was “rigorously policed” (Harrod, 14).  In the 1980s, many who worked with ceramics began to abandon the vessel form in favour of hand building while at the same time jewellers chose not to use precious materials in the hope of being accepted by the fine art world.   Recently, craft writer and theorist, Glenn Adamson, has sought to find ways in which individuals could cross over any barrier in their thinking.  His new book, The Hidden Wisdom of Objects.  Fewer, Better, Things examines craft as both a noun and a verb and includes a close consideration of objects held in the Tucumcari Historical Museum such as cattle brands and barbed wire.  He says, “I don’t think it’s idealistic to suggest that an encounter such as this [visiting a very local historical museum] can …at least establish the possibility of shared respect and understanding” (184).  As the former head of research at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England and the director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, now the Senior Scholar at the Yale Centre for British Art, Adamson is no stranger to the cultural divide that still exists between the craft and art worlds.  In his latest offering, Adamson argues that we need to evoke some kind of collective memory, to find the things that each has in common and to come to a space of shared respect and understanding (184).

In the past couple of weeks, I have been engaged in the act of tidying my cupboards.  Most of you will be aware of Marie Kondo and her methods of organisation that help spark joy in individuals lives.  One of the categories of her sorting is ‘sentimental items’.  In my large Chinese cupboard, I have two stacks of objects.  The intricate crochet work with the detailed pineapple pattern on several dozen doilies was the handiwork of my paternal grandmother, Beulah Sipes Duncan.  The embroidery work was done by my maternal grandmother, Maud Bruesch Daniel.  Maud also embroidered the many quilts that cover the beds in my house and fill at least one cupboard.  As a child growing into a teenager, I became acutely aware of how much the arthritis in her fingers impacted her ability to embroider.  Still, every day she would sit in her rocker embroidering everything from quilt squares to tea towels.  The detail in the stitches changed as she aged.  Over time she abandoned the tiny French knots for longer cross stitches.  Neither of my grandmothers had any training in textiles.  They would have, at one time or another, earned the adjective ‘amateur’.  I would argue, as Adamson does, that is no reason to dismiss the labour of these women.  Using the verb ‘craft’, however, their making was as precise and beautiful as someone categorised as a professional.  To this day, it is alarming to me to hear the work of women dismissed simply because they are not pursuing their craft as a vocation.  It is time, perhaps, that the verb ‘craft’ came into play.  As makers we need to educate the consummer on the difference between something well made by hand or by hand using some tools (my potters wheel is, afterall, nothing but a tool) and that work put together from industrially made parts and sold as being an original, creative idea!  It is comforting to know that craft – the noun – is being re-examined.  Within the broader spectrum of art, materials generally associated with work are becoming part of a larger sphere of socially engaged projects and materials such as clay or glass are finding new possibilities in the world of art.

And this brings me to the purpose of today’s blog, and that is to suggest to you that if you are in Winnipeg that you stop by the Manitoba Craft Council on Cumberland Street to see the exhibition For the Love of Craft.  The gallery showcases the work of the organisations’ members.  The offerings are diverse, many of them quite humorous and range from those just beginning their journey of making to more established members such as Keith Oliver, Grace Nickel, and Kathryne Koop (and myself).  The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 12-4, and the show is up until February 23.

Included is Family Picnic by Gayle Buzzi, an MFA student in her final year at the School of Art, University of Manitoba.  Buzzi works in various media and set about creating a space at the School where she could cast glass.  She also took advantages of the decades of knowledge of Ione Thorkelsson, one of the founding members of the Manitoba Craft Council, who set up her glass making studio in southern Manitoba in the early 1970s.  Buzzi’s piece consists of two cast glass and frit geese.

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Ursula Neufeld submitted Checkered Past, a multimedia work that had lots of visitors curious and giggling.

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The variety represented the range of creative endeavours in our city from the intricate and decorative ceramics of Koop to the book making and binding of Debra Frances Plett’s, Stories of the Forest.

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debra frances plett stories of the forest, paper, wood, bookbinding

Stop in, look around, maybe join the Craft Council or take part in one of the many making workshops that are happening this winter.

Grace Han is at Ace Art

The work of Grace Han along with eight other Manitoba Association of Women Artists (MAWA) mentees is currently being shown at Ace Art, 290 McDermot Avenue (second floor).

The exhibition is entitled SHIFT.  Collectively it focuses on identity politics, adaptability of identity alongside studies of the self, the body, and the land.  Some of the work deals with the artist attempts to regain that which has been lost through trauma, illness, memory, and lineage.  The works of sculpture, painting, installation, photography, ceramics and performance reflect the diversity of the nine emerging artists in the exhibition, their relationship to their self and to society.

At a distance, Han’s ceramic installation (with video) challenges the viewer to distinguish the shapes forming the Onngi jar.  Moving closer the white porcelain wall pieces appear very feminine, very fragile, almost flowerlike.  Yet, when you are face to face with the wall piece, it is easy to see that the form is made up of large casts of metal nuts, a motif previously utilized, in a smaller scale, by Han in her MFA exhibition installation.  Sometimes associated with DIY or an auto mechanics workshop, nuts are commonly used together with a bolt to hold multiple parts together.  In this instance, they are alone, useless at binding two parts together, an ideal metaphor for the shifting identity of Han, for the loosening up or ‘unbolting’ of her Korean identity after having now been in Canada for some seven years.  Enclosed within the Onggi jar is the short video by the CBC of Han wrenching with her personal identity as a Korean living in Canada.

The Foundation Mentorship Program is one of the most important services that MAWA provides for emerging women artists in our community.  It is an intensive year long partnering with an established artist where the mentees receive critical feedback on their work, help with networking, and an open and safe place to share their ideas.  Each year there is an end exhibition.  Other mentees included in this end of the year exhibition are Susan Aydan-Abbott, Carol-Ann Bohrn, Erin Frances Brown, Amber Christensen, Maya de Forest, Sue Joang, Chris Larsen, and Kathy Levandoski.

If you missed the opening like I did, the exhibition remains open until January 10.  The gallery is open Tuesday-Friday from 12noon to 5pm.

 

 

Warren MacKenzie, 1924-2018

I was reminded by ceramic artist, Sally Michener who provided the featured image of MacKenzie, that he lived to be 94!   That is a staggering accomplishment.  Sally also mentions often that it takes bravery to live a long life.  Very true.  Sally was a student of MacKenzie’s when she was working as a social worker in Minneapolis, a time before she went to study for her MFA.  In fact, he fostered her love of clay.  Sally hoped to visit him this year.  Instead, I imagine, that she is so grateful for those times that she was able to spend with him.  MacKenzie was a role model to so many lives.  His teaching was inspirational, and it was a testament to his patience and generosity that he shared his knowledge freely with anyone that had queries.  He did not hide it away.

MacKenzie produced functional ware, and he did not apologise for it!  The tableware that he threw on his Leach style kick wheel – the jugs, mugs, salad bowls, soup bowls, plates, and teapots were purchased by generations of enthusiastic clients.    Those pieces enriched the daily lives of all who used them in the way that Bernard Leach and Soetsu Yanagi imagined – the marriage of beauty and functionality giving joy to the user. It is said that a little corner of Minnesota was renamed ‘Mingei-sota’ in recognition of MacKenzie’s debt to the Mingei movement promoted by Leach, Yanagi, and Hamada.  MacKenzie desired is to create the best functional work that he could by repeating shapes over and over again.  For him, like so many others, throwing was meditative, something that he learned from Hamada.  His work is, as many say, the antithesis of that of a throwaway society.  He never succumbed to calling himself an ‘artist’, setting himself apart from those that created work to be useful.  Indeed, he fought to curb the rising price of his work.  His profound belief that people should be able to enjoy his pots just as much as collectors led him to attempt to control the price of his work and the amount that individuals could purchase. He did this so that profiteers would not accumulate stock and sell it on one of the online auction sites marked up ten or twenty times the purchase price.

MacKenzie was very humble.  As a young student at the Art Institute of Chicago, he acquired a copy of Leach’s A Potter’s Book.  He believed that it was possible to join artistic expression and good design with functionality; in fact, this served him well for the more than sixty years he worked as a potter out of his studio in Stillwater, Minnesota. Warren MacKenzie lived to an incredible age leaving beautiful, functional work for all of us to enjoy along with all of the students who themselves have become teachers and mentors.  He left the world a better place.

Need some ceramic inspiration? Looking for a place to hone your skills while immersing yourself in the culture of the French countryside? Well, then I have a place for you…..

Are you looking for a place to refresh your pottery skills?  Learn more while immersing yourself in local French culture?  What about all of that while staying in beautiful accommodations in the Loire Valley?  Well, if this sounds like a good way to spend some of your summer or, if you have time during year, then I would like to introduce you to Christine Pedley, the person who can make this dream of yours come true.

I met Christine while I was attending the Third European Wood Firing Conference in La Borne, France, last August.  Christine Pedley was one of the key organizers of the weeklong event and one of a small number of local potters who helped get the new contemporary art centre built after two decades of negotiations.  As one of the longest resident ceramists in this village of potters, Pedley is an inspiring instructor who offers courses at her studio in La Borne.  And that is precisely why I am including Christine in today’s blog.  There are many places to go and learn ceramics, but it is rare to find someone whose roots go back to the studio pottery movement in Britain and who are individuals who connect to the modern movement in clay in La Borne.  For lessons, cultural tours, visits to wineries, well…I cannot recommend anyone better than Christine.

Christine Pedley studied studio pottery at the Harrow School of Art in London, England before apprenticing with David Leach in Devon.  She spent a sabbical year touring Japan in 1973-74, three and a half months of which was devoted to working with a traditional potter, Takeo Sudosan, in Mashiko.  She also studied with Jean Claude de Crouzax in Switzerland and Antoine De Vinck in Belgium.  It was the time she spent in Japan, however, that gave her a special view of the world.  She says, “My time in Japan was an eye-opener to a world with no limits, only the ones we give ourselves, and with this new inspiration my work and my life goes on moving forward from the ‘source'”.

Today, she continues to create objects for daily use out of porcelain and stoneware.  Some are lightly salted to further enhance the effects of the wood firing.  Christine’s “raison d’être” in La Borne is her strong interest in the 4-century old tradition wood firing techniques and the excellent local stoneware clay which is a pleasure to throw.  She says, “I am fortunate to feel that live in my element and connected to the abundant nature which surrounds La Borne”.

If you are looking for that special place for inspiration, look no further than Christine in La Borne.  For information on pricing of accommodation and classes, please visit Christine’s website:      Chris-pedley.eu

Use Google Translate if you French is not so good.

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Happy Holidays to Everyone

We are going to take a break from digital media and people for awhile and slide into holiday hibernation mode here in Canada.

I want to thank all of those wonderful students and people who brought so much joy into my life over the past year.  Getting up in the morning would be nothing without you!

If I could give each of you a box of gifts it would certainly hold lots of good health and ikigai – a source for your own happiness and waking up and seeing the wonder in the world.  I would give the world calm and a truck load of trees to plant.  Imagine planting trees and stopping deforestation!  They say it will help clean up the mess we have made of this beautiful planet of ours.

No matter how or what you celebrate this holiday, have wondrous moments with those who really matter to you.  And may 2019 be full of hope.

Mary Ann

Kendra Wile’s Secret Gardens

Teaching beginning wheel throwing where students meet once a week for three hours for a period of twelve to thirteen weeks can be a challenge.  For the students, it takes dedication, perseverance, time, and a lack of fear of failure to be successful.  Some of you might have followed this blog for the past you months.  If so, you will know that I had the most extraordinary group of talented young women in this single class.  I was blessed.  Many of them could be found working at any hour of the day or night in the throwing room.  Kendra Wile was no exception.  Also, she always had a smile on her face.

The last assignment for the students allowed them flexibility.  It read:

THIS IS A CHANCE FOR YOU TO ADD SOME ORIGINALITY AND INNOVATION IN YOUR WORK.  IT COULD BE THE WAY THAT YOU SHAPE THE CLAY, DECORATE THE SURFACE, OR COMBINE THE INDIVIDUAL FORMS TOGETHER.  USING A MINIMUM OF 8 DIFFERENT FORMS, YOU ARE TO CREATE A SINGLE OBJECT OR A SET THAT REPRESENTS YOUR OWN AESTHETIC IN CERAMICS.  THIS MEANS THAT YOU HAVE TO CONSIDER BOTH THE FORM AND THE FINISH.  YOUR PROJECT WILL BE GRADED ON 40 % QUALITY OF THE THROWING AND ASSEMBLAGE, 40 % QUALITY OF THE GLAZING AND APPROPRIATENESS TO THE AESTHETIC THAT IS YOUR OWN, AND 10% FOR VISUALIZING YOUR IDEA IN CLAY AND 10% FOR APPROPRIATE PRESENTATION.  – WITHIN A LIMITED FRAMEWORK, THIS IS A CHANCE FOR YOU TO BE YOU!

My very best friend, the late Charlie Scott, who started the wood firing tradition at the School of Art, always said that ceramics was more like architecture than any other medium.   Ironically and sadly, Kendra will be leaving the School of Art and taking a place in the Faculty of Architecture this coming year.   Her last project suggests that she is extremely patient, knows how to deal with enclosed space, can offer surprises with the reveal, and understands the use of colour.  She also makes decisions that are best for the project at hand, switching up her approach to firing and colour.

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Kendra created what on the surface looked like four soup or latte bowls with various knobs.  She quietly sat them down on the lower platform and walked away, saying nothing.  Little did any of her classmates expect the environments inside when they lifted the lids.  Ellina was fascinated.  She got really close staring into the tiny interior environments.

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In the end, Kendra chooses wisely.  She opted to use underglaze stains and fire her work in a cone 5 or 6 oxidation environment in one of the electric kilns rather than lose the detail in the gas reduction kiln.  Can you imagine the time it took her to create each one of these?  Did she secretly use tweezers?  And how many times did she have to redo an interior?  We will never know!

What I do know is that exciting things are going to come from this very creative young woman and I, for one, cannot wait to see what she will design and what kind of a name she will make for herself in the world of architecture.

Sara loves porcelain

Sara Berg has been working with clay for a little over a year.  One day after our class, Sara came to talk about the clay that the School was buying for the students:  Danish White.  She didn’t like it and insisted that her work would improve enormously if she were allowed to use porcelain.  I don’t know how many ceramic instructors have had a student come and declare an affinity with porcelain so early in their education but, I never had.  Indeed, for those of you unfamiliar with porcelain it is, as famed Canadian ceramist Harlan House proclaims, ‘a difficult mistress’.  Porcelain was made famous by the Chinese early in their history.  China has, along with Germany, the right drying conditions for this pure white material – lots of humidity and the right temperatures.  It needs to be dried slowly.  Our throwing area sometimes obliges but on more occasions than not, it doesn’t.  Everything dries too quickly!  House also says that one has to love trimming because, with porcelain, you will be doing a lot of it.  None of this, of course, daunted Sara.  With my permission she went off to purchase a box of porcelain returning to the ceramics area where she worked most of the night.  Sara was right.  She has a wonderful relationship with this fine bodied clay.  In a former life, it is quite conceivable that she was a porcelain master.

Over the course of three months in the summer of 2018, Sara worked on her cobalt blue painting.  She devoured any book that crossed her path on ancient Chinese  ceramics and, in particular, the beautiful blue and white of the Yuan and Ming dynasties.  Just like the painting students at the School who learn by copying and then changing the work of the old masters, Sara studied the shapes and the painted decorations.  In the process she began to learn the symbols that the Chinese used and what they meant to their culture.  On some work she added a contemporary twist.   During the fall of 2018 she abandoned the standard studio glazes used by most of the ceramic students and began a study of Chinese Chun and celadon glazes.  Mixing and testing, firing, taking photos, making notes – all of this became second nature to her.  And it has paid off with some remarkable work.  She also pushed herself more and more with her trimming to the point that her work was almost too thin!

In 2019, Sara Berg will begin her Honours year.  For Sara, who lives and dreams porcelain, it will give her a chance to focus entirely on her exhibition pieces.  In the meanwhile, it is sheer joy to stand back and watch such a talented young woman continually honing her skills.  Porcelain is, indeed, her ikigai – that thing that she wakes up in the morning so happy to do, wanting to learn more and more and never getting bored.