Meeting fabulous women artists and thinking of Graysville

Several weeks ago, the Director of the Manitoba Crafts Council, Tammy Sutherland, asked me if I would be interested in being a facilitator for The Love of Craft members exhibition.  Even though there are regular critiques that I lead in my university classes, I wondered if I was up to the job.  There was such diversity in the participants – well, it was a bit worrisome.  All of that disappeared when, to my surprise, a former student was standing in the gallery, Erika Hanneson.  I had seen her name on the list of those that wanted to be part of the afternoon discussion but, there could have been many Erika’s as Manitoba has a sizeable Icelandic community.  But, it was her.  There is something beautiful about teaching, and it is seeing the students thrive and prosper when they leave that is the most rewarding.  I am afraid that my photograph of Erika’s work does not do it justice.  At first glance, most of the visitors to the gallery thought that the large plate had been entirely wheel thrown.  But, it isn’t.  The body of the vessel is a manipulated slab over a slump mould.  On the reverse, there is a wheel thrown foot ring.  The base is heavily gouged with the lines filled in with a dark slip.  There are subtle transitions in the glaze towards the rim giving the impression of a fall prairie landscape.  She has recently moved her studio to Gimli, Manitoba and no doubt the colours of the Lake Winnipeg and the summer sky will provide more inspiration.

Like many of those that come to the School of Art, Erika was a nurse, but her passion was art.  She was enrolled in the Diploma programme, but shortly after beginning her classes, Erika discovered that she liked the academic courses and did well in them.  She went on to get her BFA degree while raising children and working.  An excellent role model.  Now she devotes most of her time to her craft.  I wish her every success in her new studio and am anxiously awaiting the end of winter to go and visit.

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I intend to write about all of the women who I met on Saturday.  Each and everyone is doing something they are passionate about, and there were so many similarities in their stories.  Each tries to give voice to their experiences, they appreciate different materials and processes while acknowledging that one must practice a craft, ‘the verb’, and do things well.  One other thing we discussed is the need for meeting new people, the sharing of ideas, and the importance of positive support.

The other talented woman I would like to introduce you to is Judith Rempel Smucker.  Judith is also a graduate of the School of Art here in Winnipeg where she studied graphic design and the Basel School of Design in Switzerland.  She lived for some years in Pennsylvania where she taught graphic design.  The featured image is a photograph of a mixed media collage, one of 28 originals, that form the pages of her book, RE-encounters.  Views from the Field.  Here she has used vintage material, repurposed letters from the newspapers, and bouncing images of sheep.  Judith took 28 words that begin with ‘RE’ and gave them to 28 individuals who are part of her daily life.  She asked them to provide her with a text.  Re-count, re-direct, re-fresh, re-new are amongst the words chosen.  It is a delightful book and is available at the Manitoba Craft Council Shop on Cumberland.

Thumbing through the pages of RE-encounters made me recall part of my life tas a rural potter.  I lived in Graysville, Manitoba.  It is roughly eleven miles west of Carman Manitoba.  There was grain storage, a church, a school, and the general store run by Ada and Howard Stephenson.  The railway line that went all the way to Snow Valley had been removed.  The young people were leaving.  Most of the farms were getting larger and larger.  Some, like my neighbours to the east, used an old tractor and didn’t spray.  None of the ‘new fangled’ technology there.  I loved Graysville and the people who lived there.  And there are times when I miss them all.  I had a marvellous friend, Walter Toews.  He lived with his family near Graysville.  Walter was a teacher, and in his spare time, he raised sheep.  It has been so long ago now that I have forgotten some of the details but..in a nutshell.  Sometimes Walter’s ewes had twins.  And sometimes the mothers didn’t want to have to contend with two sheep so they would push one aside.  At other times, ewes whose lambs had died decided to literally butt in and try and take those of another mother.  Looking at their faces and their soft woolly bodies one would never imagine such things.  They are so cute.  Walter had heard about me from someone, perhaps his daughter who used to come and babysit my children, Cris and Jaine.  At any rate, it came to pass that Walter would give me the orphan lambs.  He didn’t have the time to deal with them.   So, they went in my basement at the beginning because the barn was too cold.  Yes, you read it right – lambs in the basement.  They were fed with bottles of milk from Elsie, the cow.  We were all gleeful when they were around.  The idea was that they would become outdoor pets used for their wool,  and die of old age.  Then one summer, the vegetables in the garden were getting eaten by some kind of worm.  It was taking its toll but, looking up and down, produced no sight of caterpillars or any other insect crunch a munching on the broccoli.  Ah, but one day Jaine and Cris came to tell me that they had seen something so ‘cute’ – it was the word they used.  Little Cindy was in the garden eating up all of the green beans!  Cute I asked myself.  Cute?!  This garden had been years in the making – getting rid of all the weeds and then having it killed by the farmer’s spray the second year.  This year there would be vegetables…an electric fence had been put around the area to keep the calves out.  But apparently, that lovely wool insulated the sheep.  They could go in and out.   We did get to eat those green beans one way or another…but I must thank Judith for bringing back those memories.  Someone asked her why she chose sheep and Judith replied it was because they were innocuous.  I smiled and didn’t say anything.  Shrewd might be the word I would use!

I want to thank the Manitoba Craft Council for inviting me to be the facilitator of the discussion.  I gained more having met three talented women previously unknown to me and become re-acquainted with a former student.  It was my pleasure.

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.

ursula neufelde checkered past

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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.