Craft evolution

The annual Baltimore Fine Craft Show has moved far beyond its counter-cultural origins


IN 1977, A FEW HUNDRED ARTISTS EXHIBITED CLAY pots, hammered silver earrings and quilted wall hangings at the first Baltimore Winter Market of American Crafts.

Grateful that their four fuzzy slides had met jurors' approval, some artists likely did no more than spread wares on an Indian print bedspread and await customers.

Little did they imagine the sea change ahead.

This week at the Baltimore Convention Center, 700 artists at the 30th annual show will display objects, many of them mixed media pieces formed from combinations of gemstones, glass, wood, fiber, metal, synthetic, electroplated materials. Instead of submitting slides to jurors, they e-mailed digital images. And the bedspreads have been replaced by eye-catching displays that may have cost thousands of dollars.

Freshly branded, slickly promoted and rechristened the Baltimore Fine Craft Show, the American Craft Council's annual event has traveled far from its counter-cultural origins.

The back-to-earth spirit that revived the modern craft movement in the 1970s has given way to a polished professionalism critical to the survival of handmade crafts, says Reed McMillan, director of shows for the American Craft Council in New York.

"We joke that where you used to be able to put a little sandwich board out and people would come, now we have very sophisticated marketing and advertising campaigns and a whole staff devoted to PR and marketing," McMillan says. With the availability of mass-produced, well-designed plates, flatware and furniture at Target, Pottery Barn and other outlets, craft artists also have "huge amounts of competition," he says.

That pricier, handmade objects still offer appeal is a "real testament to the growth of our community -- that it's still alive and thriving and young people are joining the ranks," McMillan says.

A slew of new materials, techniques and a more generous definition of craft that blurs the lines between design, art and architecture has also transformed the field.

Artists are turning out work that doesn't fit into any one category of craft or art, says Dian Magie, executive director of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in North Carolina. "I think right now what we're seeing with students in universities -- they do not want to be pinned down. They want to try all the mediums and see what fits. Often it's more than one medium. That is where the whole field is changing. Craft shows are an expression of that change [or] growth."

And yet, certain verities apply to both ancient and contemporary craft, as David Revere McFadden observes in a 2000 catalog essay, "Artifice and Authenticity: Defining Craft." McFadden, the chief curator for the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, maintains that finely crafted objects, whether created for utilitarian or symbolic purposes, share the "potential for expressing aesthetic values through an attractive and satisfying design, the beauty or rarity of materials used in their fabrication, their innovativeness and uniqueness, or the sheer excellence of their workmanship."

For Edward Kidera, a self-taught Woodbine artist whose metal mailboxes, large Asian-inspired bells and furniture will be exhibited at the Baltimore show, viewing his pieces through the lens of "art" is a way of meeting his own high standards. "I do like to think of my work as being art," says Kidera, who recycles discarded oxygen tanks and other castoffs in his work.

"Although a good portion of my stuff is functional, what tends to make it art as opposed to just craft is that I'm constantly trying to make it different," he says. "I'll make a chair that's very usable, but doesn't look like any other chair I ever made."

To support themselves, though, plenty of show veterans have had to make the transition to production work.

Talya Baharal and Gene Gnida create sculptural jewelry from copper, bronze and silver in their Rifton, N.Y. studio. The couple fabricate one-of-a-kind pieces as well as "studio multiples."

That's a compromise, but a slim one, Baharal says. "I would love to only make one-of-a-kind pieces and never worry about how am I ever going to repeat this so that it still retains its vitality, but is not schlocky, either. It's so much more difficult," she says.

Barbara Heinrich, a goldsmith based in Pittsford, N.Y., first exhibited at the Council show 20 years ago as an invited student. As demand grew for her gold brooches and rings, Heinrich has gravitated from creating singular pieces to production pieces cast from molds. "Production changes everything," she says. "In the beginning, every single piece was 100 percent handmade and everything was a new design. I started from zero."

Changing methods to meet demand hasn't prevented Heinrich from achieving success at the highest levels of the craft world, including representation by galleries that participate in the Sculpture Objects & Functional Art (SOFA) exposition, an ultra-exclusive annual craft show in New York and Chicago.

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