Taking the “s” Out of Craft – The Symposium Edition

On Saturday February 23rd KMAC hosted the Aegis 3rd Biennial Symposium on Art History an Visual Culture. Inspired by the collaboration between the museum and Aegis, the association of graduate students from the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville, the title set to this year’s theme was Taking the ‘s’ Out of Craft. The symposium featured six emerging scholars from graduate and doctoral programs throughout the country presenting papers on projects from different periods in history and places around the world that employ the use of craft in the creation of artwork.

The students in Aegis provided a dynamic schedule of events on Saturday and they are to be commended for their work. Aegis president Tracey Ekersley and Vice President Eileen Yanoviak selected the presenters from a national call for papers and spent countless hours organizing Saturday’s schedule of events, including the keynote presentation by Lydia Matthews, Professor of Visual Culture, School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design.

We also want to acknowledge Slade Stumbo, Taylor Crush and Nick Hartman, each from the Critical and Curatorial Studies program at U of L, who organized the accompanying exhibition. When Tracey Eckersley and I were talking one evening about a potential collaboration between KMAC and U of L it seemed a perfect time to take the past year’s efforts of our director Aldy Milliken to expand the definition of craft as it is presented at this institution and frame that in the academic excellence and thorough research methods of Aegis and the like minded, forward thinking presenters that they have consistently delivered to this symposium. Within the mission of this museum there are many avenues and topics available for the type of discourse we heard on Saturday, but it seemed the right opportunity to summarize the changes that have occurred here in the last year and punctuate that with a discussion from scholars around the country on the wider shift in views on the nature of craft in the 21st century. At the root of this change is reclamation of the word craft by young artists as a fundamental strength in the making of their work rather than as a negative distinction for objects that are void of a conceptual basis. The symposium and the Taking the ‘s’ Out of Craft exhibition are a part of a succession of programs here at KMAC that have been expanding the discussion for how we define art and craft. This was fully explored in our exhibition Storytelling As Craft from last Fall where craft was presented as an idea that reaches beyond the physical nature of objects and into the realm of the spoken word as well as sound, music, and performance. We also hosted a lecture by writer Glenn Adamson on November 5, 2012 on the subject of craft and the need to separate the term from associations to the rural and to objects created solely from traditional methods.

With the title Taking the ‘s’ out of Craft we are referencing two main points. Firstly, there is the expansion of the former definition of craft from the pursuits of 19th and 2oth century arts and crafts groups who made a distinction between physical objects with an historical basis in functionality to what now points to the limitless methods of labor that are at work in the creation of art and culture.  The title also references our institutions own change in change in name from the Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts to the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. This has indeed been an ideological shift from thinking of craft as a hermetic field of traditional object making to an idea that encompasses this and countless other practices that are employed by artists working today. I cannot speak more highly of the symposium and for its continued success.

The presentations began with Traversing Boundaries: Cultural Philanthropy and the Craft of Mary Seton Watts by Kate Tuft. The paper explored Watts’ work as an artist and her non conventional approach to navigating the limitations of the 19th century woman.

Justina Lee presented her research on the Bilum the “head bag” from Papua New Guinee as a cultural bridge or artefact linked to the past and its current relevant contemporary manifestations in the paper Traditional and Modern Bilum in Papua New Guinea: A Shift from Bodily Extension to Cultural Bridge

Why Clay by Elizabeth di Donna illustrated several examples of contemporary craft artists commenting on conceptual practice and how Theaster Gates is giving meanings to materials and labor.

Chad Alligood spoke about an influential artist from Cranbrook in Wallace Mitchell and the Challenge of Craft. He charted the artist’s transition from abstract painting to several large commissioned rugs in the more collaborative atmospheres of architecture and design.

Haptic Rainbow: Installing Craft in the Work of Gabriel Dawe by Zoë Samels discussed the artist’s reactions to gender bias in his native Mexico. The use of installation art or a series of objects within objects questions the idea of craft as an object. She also notes concepts surrounding process and labor for the artists.

Sara Christensen Blair’s research in More is Less: The Domestic Sublime in Liza Lou’s Kitchen looked at the 3 year project of artist Liza Lou to bead and entire kitchen, the central nerve center of modernity, as an example of philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of the sublime.

Lydia Matthews, the keynote speaker, delivered an engaging talk titled Craft Matters: Exchanging Knowledge in the Wake of Globalization, which navigated both the concepts and traditions of craft practice.  Through international teaching, curating, and publishing, she consistently explores how artists, artisans, designers, scholars and students can work together to foster democratic debates in the public sphere, and focuses on critical craft practices that inspire intimate community interactions. As a 2012 Fulbright Fellow, she co-curated various socially-engaged projects in Greece, Turkey and the Republic of Georgia, highlighting and catalyzing local responses to social and ecological crises resulting from globalization.

Lydia Matthews is Professor of Visual Culture and Director of the Curatorial Design Research Lab at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, where she served as Dean of Academic Programs from 2006-2011. Trained as a contemporary art historian at UC, Berkeley and the University of London’s Courtauld Institute, she worked as a cultural activist in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years, founding the graduate program in Visual Critical Studies and co-directing the MFA Fine Arts program at California College of the Arts.

Photo from left to right: Sara Christensen Blair, PhD Candidate, Institute of Doctoral Studies in Visual Arts
Chad Alligood, PhD Student, Art History, Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Zoë Samels, MA Student, Art History, Williams College, Williamstown, MA
Elizabeth Di Donna, MFA Student, Florida State University
Justina Yee, MA Student, Indiana University (Bloomington)
Katie Tuft, PhD Student, University of Washington
and Aegis President, Tracey Eckersley, PhD Candidate, Byzantine Art and Archaeology at Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville

Is it Art? Is it Craft? My Head Hurts

When we hear the term “crafts” we generally think of little artworks that involve pipe cleaners and tissue paper and a huddle full of boys and girls. If you’re trying to be mature about it you might reference the Arts and Crafts Movement and their elaborately decorated handcrafted household goods. “Crafts” is such an ambiguous little word and to complicate things even further if you omit the “s” it becomes something entirely different, in the art world anyway. Craft implies work/labor that is done by a skilled person. Think Stradivarius violin, the opposite of mass produced.  Some contemporary artists use craft methodology to make objects for aesthetic reasons rather than functional ones. This studio craft tends to align itself more with the critical theory that occurs in fine art. And this is where things get fuzzy.

A recent statement by University of Louisville graduate students from the Hite Art Institute says this. “Art. Craft. At some point in history, a hierarchical distinction was made between these two terms. While both are used to describe an object created by a skilled person, craft is often allocated to functional products that seemingly lack the creativity of art. This distinction is amplified by adding an “s” to craft.”  This is part of Aegis’ Third Biennial Symposium on Art History and Visual Culture titled Taking the “s” out of Craft hosted by the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft on Saturday. The discussion will be focused on distinctions being made between craft and fine art and how these terms are reunited in select artist’s works. An exhibit featuring local and national contemporary artists who employ media or techniques traditionally associated with “craft” will be on view on the first floor gallery. The exhibition is curated by the University of Louisville graduate students from the Hite Art Institute.