USA Crafts & Traditional Arts Panel for 2009

Jean McLaughlin (Chair)

Executive Director, Penland School of Crafts, Penland, NC

Sonya Clark

Professor and Chair of Craft/Material Studies, School of the Arts
at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA

Sven Haakanson

Executive Director, Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak, AK

Patricia Capone

Associate Curator, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology,
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Richard T. Notkin

Artist, and USA Hoi Fellow, Helena, MT

Statement by Richard T. Notkin

The work of the approximately 35 nominees for USAFellowships in Crafts and Traditional Arts for 2009 amply demonstrated the viable and evolving role of crafts media and traditional/native approaches to contemporary art. These artists reflect some of the best efforts of tens of thousands of America’s artists who choose to work in a media designated as craft—clay, wood, glass, metals, fiber, etc.—or within a cultural tradition, either indigenous or from the native cultures of their distant ancestral lands. The works’ diversity—from inventively functional, to a hybrid of functional and sculptural concerns, to purely visual works of art—clearly conveys that new inspirations and innovations provide fresh directions in contemporary craft and the traditional arts that rival the best efforts of those considered to be practitioners of the “fine arts.”

Like artists in all media and genres, today’s craft and traditional artists work in ways that constantly push beyond the limitations of the past. Tradition and innovation, in all of the arts, are two sides of the same coin, the yin and yang of artistic viability. All past traditions were born of innovation, and, conversely, today’s most innovative works will soon become tradition. Each is the lifeblood of the other, and each provides the inspiration for continued growth in all forms of art.

Works in crafts media have, unfortunately and unfairly, long been relegated to a lower status than the aforementioned fine arts category. This stigmatization has produced a ghettolike mentality in many practitioners of art in crafts media, including most of the traditional artists. Yet this division is based more on prejudicial attitudes and protectionism in the art marketplace than in any rational reality. I prefer to sum up the “arts/crafts” dialogue as follows: An aesthetically strong porcelain bowl is Art (with a capital A), whereas an aesthetically lacking painting or sculpture cannot attain the status of Art. The distinction of “Art” lies in the conceptual underpinnings of a work brought into being by the artist’s skill and choice of appropriate materials and the techniques that will best express his or her particular vision. If a work of art isn’t well conceived and executed in all of its myriad components, both conceptual and technical, it fails aesthetically and will lack the power to hold an intelligent audience’s attention, let alone move that audience in profound ways. As the ceramist Kurt Weiser once replied to the worn question regarding the difference between art and craft, “The difference is between your ears.”

Within the crafts and traditional arts designations, a growing number of artists have chosen to express the many dilemmas of our contemporary world with vigorous commitment and altruistic insight. These artists explore the complex environmental, societal, political, and economic impacts of contemporary human civilization upon the ecological and spiritual condition of our planet and upon the quality of life of individual human beings. But creating art that reflects on social and political dilemmas, while increasingly important in our precarious world, is not the only viable path in artmaking today. Of equal importance is the work of artists who choose purely visual directions, dealing, perhaps, in relationships of form or abstraction, and those who work functionally as potters, woodworkers, jewelers, fabric designers, etc. What is most important is that artists, utilizing all forms of creative manifestations, continue to illuminate the positive side of the potential of humanity, the power to create works of wondrous beauty, intellectual curiosity, and, occasionally, sheer amazement. The best of these artistic efforts stand in stark opposition to the darker side of our nature, the human potential for destruction, a potential all too visible throughout history and in today’s world. Art is our reminder that we possess the intelligence and creativity to end the repetition of the misery-laden half of the human story, to create new narratives that have the power to ultimately transform the world. In the final analysis, it is not the works of art created in themselves which are of prime importance, but the multitudes of people who may be touched in significant and even profound ways by the unique expressions and collective energies of today’s artists.