'Fellows Choices' are the cream of the crafts ACC Fair: 19 pieces showcase art, technique.

March 01, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Michael Monroe talks with admiration bordering on affection about Gary Schlappal's big ceramic piece that hovers between human and vessel form.

"This takes the vessel as a form, but transforms it," says Monroe. "It becomes a canvas for the artist, who has drawn, incised, added layering of paint. He has used the vessel form as a background on which to decorate in a painterly way, but this is also an excellent example of the artist integrating surface decoration with the form. Some artists are just facile, painting on top of the form. This is thoroughly integrated; it doesn't look silk-screened on."

Schlappal, one of more than 700 crafts artists showing their work at this weekend's ACC Craft Fair at the Convention Center, responds that Monroe has picked one of his own favorite works.

"It took me 44 years to make that piece," he says, meaning a lifetime's experience. "It has everything I wanted to get into my work -- risk taking, richness, subtlety, complexity and the human heartbeat. I want to take clay and give it a human heartbeat."

Schlappal's piece is one of 19 works, out of thousands at the fair, that Monroe has selected for the Fellows Choice Exhibit. This small show near one of the fair's entrances consists of works that illustrate the highest degree of excellence.

Monroe, one of the country's leading experts on crafts, is the former curator-in-charge of Washington's Renwick Gallery, an arm of the National Museum of American Art devoted to American crafts, and is now president of New York's Peter Joseph Gallery, which specializes in furniture. He is also a Fellow of the American Craft Council, whose marketing arm presents the Baltimore craft fair, as well as others around the country.

In searching the show for works to feature in his exhibit, Monroe looked for qualities that mark the superior artist. "What I'm looking for is people of vision who bring technical mastery to the medium and balance those two essential forces of any artist," he says. "Some artists are all technique and no vision, some are all vision and no technique, and you don't want either of those. I don't want to stay in a hotel designed by someone who was all vision and no technique, because it'll collapse.

"I'm also looking for consistency of idea -- people who bring out as many different facets of the idea as possible, but achieve an overall cohesiveness. I'm looking for that more than for someone who has one fabulous piece and the rest of lesser quality.

"There is also the question of whether the materials are appropriate to the idea."

He found fine use of materials, as well as other qualities, in David R. Kiernan's wall cabinet of English sycamore, ebony and bird's-eye maple, another Fellows Choice work. "It has a sense of form and ceremony," Monroe says. "The interior is as important to the artist as the exterior. There is a beautiful formal breakup of the space and fine use of materials and balance of the parts."

A duo of elaborate goblets by Charles P. Savoie also caught Monroe's eye, for they possess another pair of qualities he looks for. "The technique is Venetian and extremely complicated, but it's done with an absolute masterful skill and a wonderful sense of design. Then the color is funky red and purple -- it's modern. The pieces are joining with tradition but updating it, adding the artist's own iconography and colors of the 1980s and 1990s.

"It shows how the artist can join with and change tradition. If you just join tradition, the work becomes sterile. You have to pull it on to the future."

Monroe thinks the Fellows Exhibit will not only highlight excellent works, but will give the public pointers about what to look for. "There are a staggering number of works on view here. I hope the exhibit will help the public to sharpen their own skills in looking, to be able to isolate pieces."

Always a popular show, the ACC Craft Fair Baltimore is the largest of eight ACC fairs nationwide. This year's is the 20th Baltimore show, and Monroe says the biggest change in the craft field over the last two decades has been in the growing number of artists who make their livings from crafts rather than pursuing them as a sideline.

"There has been a dramatic increase in glass and in furniture making," Monroe says, "but as an overview, there has been a great increase in the number of artists working. A generation ago, there were teaching jobs, and people did this on the side. But now that there are not enough teaching jobs to go around.

"And people have become better trained in marketing expertise, promotion and business practices. People used to price out of emotion. The ACC's courses teach people people the realistic side of how to make a living in a larger arena."

ACC Craft Fair

Where: Baltimore Convention Center, Pratt and South Charles

When: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. today, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. tomorrow, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $7 adults, $12 for a two-day pass, children under 12 free

Call: (410) 962-1122

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