Back to nature For several years, artists experimented with vivid hues and startling shapes, but now they are returning to the natural world for inspiration.

February 16, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Nancy Adams had just looked out the window of her studio one recent morning on the California coast in Marin County north of San Francisco when she saw the robins.

"Ooh, there must be 30 of them!" she said excitedly to her telephone interviewer. "They're walking around in the mud. The females are so delicate -- and the males are so red. I never knew that."

If the robins show up in Adams' work it won't be a surprise. Her earthenware sculptures often come from "all the things I've seen," she said. She is particularly fond of birds, and recent works include a red-tailed hawk "in flight," some ravens, and "some beautiful little mourning doves."

Adams is one of more than 750 crafts people who will be bringing ceramics, jewelry, fiber arts, clothing, furniture, leather, wood and mixed-media items to the 21st annual American Craft Council Craft Fair this Friday through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center.

This year the craft fair moves to the 185,000 square feet of the new convention center, and fair sponsors expect more than 35,000 visitors to tour the new facility and the show.

As in past years, there are some common themes that appear in the work of these disparate and geographically distant artists. .. This year, after several years of vivid color and startling shapes, especially in ceramics and furniture, artists are returning to nature for images and colors.

"In general, things are getting a lot more -- I hate to use the word -- conservative," said Ann Alderson Cabezas, a glass artist from Maxomanie, Wis. "Eight or nine years ago, everyone was into bolder colors and funky shapes. Now the colors are softer, they're getting more subtle, and the forms are getting more simple."

"Garden" and natural images appear in Cabezas' etched and carved glass bowls, which look like leaves fastened together at their tips. They appear in Adams' ceramic birds and in David D'Imperio's delicate "Aquifer" lamp, with its tulip-like flowers, tiny wooden leaves, and reflective cutout in the base. D'Imperio, of Miami, who is exhibiting in Baltimore for the first time, said his work has evolved in recent years, but has remained "consistent in scale and botanical or organic quality."

Spontaneous trend

"It's just kind of a spontaneous thing" that certain themes recur, said ceramic artist Jenny Lou Sherburne of Gulfport, Fla. "It's not like artists are looking at each other's work." She said she began noticing a trend in her area to organic and whimsical images about five years ago, and thinks it is driven by the same spiritual force that underlies the literary genre of "magical realism." Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("One Hundred Years of Solitude") and Laura Esquivel ("Like Water for Chocolate") are the best-known literary proponents. "It's fantasy, but it's real."

An example is her "Mug Tree in Bloom," where the "tree" looks like a cross between a milkweed vine and a miniature Ferris wheel. The brightly colored mugs in fantastic shapes look like whimsical seed pods. "It's like, if you took a space ship to another planet, and you stepped off the ship and you needed a mug, you could pick one off a bush," she said.

For Dean Petaja of Salt Lake City, there's no contradiction in working with metal to produce naturalistic forms. "My work has always reflected natural forms," he said. "For me it's the mental space between the structural elements used to build buildings and the structure in nature -- bones, veins in leaves; those are some of the most beautiful things that exist." Petaja makes bird baths, urns, vases and fountains in stainless steel and rusted steel. Sometimes he uses a patina that turns the metal iridescent blue-black.

JoAnn Brown, director of the ACC Craft Fairs in Highland, N.Y., said that crafts people in general reflect their surroundings. "There's a tendency of crafts people to change, depending on circumstances out there in the world. Politically and every other way, it's calmed down a bit. There are no major crises, it's a time of peace." The calm is causing people to turn back to roots, to nature and to natural forms, she said.

Brown said the Baltimore show is an important venue for the craft council, the artists, the retailers and ordinary visitors. This show alone generates more than $20 million in sales. The craft council is excited this year about being in the new convention center space, she said.

That's partly because the new facility has better lighting. The mercury vapor lights in the original convention center "gave people headaches and turned everything green," Brown said. The new space has metal halide lights that are "just brighter," according to convention center officials. (The older center is being renovated -- including new lighting -- and the craft show will return to it in 1998.)

Fairs' evolution

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