The distinction between art and craft has long been debated, and it is unlikely to be resolved as long as so-called "craftsmen" continue to create objects of surpassing beauty that transcend any utilitarian purpose.
We have long since come to accept many functional objects, such as Chinese porcelain, Tiffany lamps, African masks, even Ferrari automobiles, as works of art in their own right, independent of the purpose for which they were created.
A great deal of Asian art falls into this category, a reflection of both our appreciation for its exquisite workmanship and its philosophical relationship to traditional Eastern ideas about the value of simplicity, elegance and grace in even commonplace objects.
These also are the virtues that characterize the extraordinary ceramic art of Carlton Leverette, whose distinctive jars, vases and other vessels are on display at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University.
Leverette's work is sculptural in conception and inventive in design. His influences are drawn from Asia, Africa and Oceania, as well as pre-Columbian and Native-American art and his own African-American heritage.
One might think such a diverse array of sources would produce an unpalatable hodgepodge. Yet Leverette's pieces have an astonishing integrity. Whatever influences he has assimilated, they are filtered through his own powerful artistic personality to create works that seem as natural and inevitable as they are beautiful.
The unforced quality of Leverette's work is in fact its greatest virtue.
Some pieces are so simple that they recall the austere elegance of the Japanese tea ceremony. Others refer to, without really imitating, the severe forms of African, Oceanic and Native-American art, with their suggestion of magical powers and the invocation of spirits.
Leverette's pieces are scaled to domestic proportions, allowing them to function as both utilitarian objects and as artworks. His vases, for example, range from about one foot to five feet in height, while his bowls, jars and other vessels, despite their sometimes whimsical shapes and fantastic colors, clearly can be employed as objects of use as well as aesthetic enjoyment.
In the aftermath of modernism, the either/or dichotomy between art and craft has lost much of its relevance to the Western tradition, while the East never made a sharp distinction between fine and decorative arts.
Leverette's work is closer in sensibility to Asian art in this regard, although in the variety of its influences it surely reflects the continuing evolution among Western artists of a global cultural assimilation that takes the whole world as raw material for art-making.
This is big-hearted work, executed with intelligence, passion and meticulous attention to the smallest details of design and finish.
Where: The James E. Lewis Museum of Art in the Murphy Fine Arts Building at Morgan State University, 1700 E. Cold Spring Lane
When: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and weekends by appointment. Through Jan. 30