The Renaissance left us a lot of things, one of which was the evaluative notion that art was above craft. The pleasurable became distinguished from the utilitarian. This viewpoint pretty much persisted throughout the Enlightenment and beyond. A blip occurred during the Industrial Revolution when a group of artists and critics in Britain rejected factory production and machine aesthetic, forming the Arts & Crafts Movement. Their appreciation of the handmade managed to move stateside (think Stickley furniture), but petered out around 1920, leaving craft to dwell in the “minor arts” instead of making it to the majors.
Conceptual art didn’t help. Taking hold in the 1960s, conceptualism’s embrace of idea over object meant teapots and textiles were out. Nevertheless, notable female artists (Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold) used domestic arts like ceramics and quilting to draw attention to gender discrimination, division of labor and civil rights. Ostensibly, postmodernism valued plurality and recognized diverse craft traditions from around the world. But historically, it’s been an uphill battle for the metal smiths, weavers, and potters of the art world.
With all that baggage it’s a relief to see craft thrive today. Less burdened by biases, craftspeople are moving out of the margins, making things which are less functional, and more sculptural.
Enter “The Pleasure of Making,” an exhibition at the ICOSA Collective’s gallery, that can’t completely avoid craft’s history, but doesn’t appear too bothered by it. The exhibition is organized and curated by Tammie Rubin, ICOSA member, ceramic sculptor, and assistant professor of art at St. Edward’s University.
Rubin highlights hobby and craft, much of which possesses their own intellectual merits. Though, together the arrangement of works in the gallery creates such a strong visual play that “The Pleasure of Making,” might just be called the pleasure of viewing.
The exhibition reflects the makers’ devotion as Rubin says, “to continuously learn, to engage deeply, to observe and problem solve, to confront the challenges of techniques, refine skills, remain curious, relieve stress, to share and form a community.” She adds: “But ultimately, they create for pleasure.”
Who doesn’t love a hand stitched tondo brandishing a green spotted leopard on a red felt background complete with multicolored sequined and beaded sunset? The sparkly “Leopard” (2019) by Nikki Alexander Atkinson is irresistible.
Props to Mark K. Beard for her elaborately quilted piece (“Fred and Mabel-Dresden Tie Quilt”), featuring bold sunburst designs made with vintage ties, along with details like delicate lace, button embellishments, a tiny watch face and a vintage black and white photograph sewn into the mix. A found Saver’s “Women’s Dresses/Skirts $5.99” price tag, hanging from the corner of the piece reveals a fabric source and a sense of humor.
Reminiscent of the standing ceramic cow creamer, Bertha Sellers’ “Sleeping Cow” is instead fashioned to sit cleverly on the edge of a shelf. Painted in ivory, putty and pink, the bovine beauty seems overly content as if to say, I belong here.
Crocheted works, weavings, assemblage, watercolor, ink on paper, woodworking and even wreath-making appear. Transforming the mundane, Gregory Lambert’s “Blue Island Teapot” and “Italian Island Teapot” are the stuff of fantasy — other worlds full of medieval architecture stacked and castles perched on blue crustacean-like peaks.
And let’s not forget Erin Butler’s trompe l’oeil pseudo-taxidermized wild goat made from wool, silk, bamboo, wire, glass needle and wet felting. Draped in forest flora like mushrooms and ferns, it’s called “Let Me Tell You a Story” — a life-like embodiment of a character in a fairy tale? It undoubtedly provokes curiosity and wonder.
Jessica Gritton’s “Trans Bodies are Holy” is an old-fashioned looking sampler, with an up-to-date sentiment expressing transgender identity, body positivity and acceptance. Her embroidery hoop artwork “Brave” depicts the outline of a figure (in black thread) alone and huddled in a corner stitched with the words, “YOU MUST BE SO brave” (in blue and pink thread). Using such a “dainty” medium to pack a political punch might seem paradoxical, but Gritton’s work is part of a trend of activism in cross-stitching art.
Whereas factories replaced the handmade in the 19th century, today it’s digital technology that pulls us away from generational learning. Devices devour heaps of time and increasingly isolate us from our peers. Ironically the super successful e-commerce site Etsy, launched in 2005, suggests some pretty widespread feel-goods generated by the DIY ethos — individual work that might be passed on person-to-person and cumulatively translated into social betterment?
Rubin notes “research studies have shown that engaging in a hobby can lead to a more joyful, calm, and empathetic life, while helping to ease a range of mental and physical afflictions.”
Yes, the pleasure of making, and the pleasure viewing can be useful after all.
“The Pleasure of Making: An Exhibition of Hobbyists and Crafters” continues through Feb. 15 at ICOSA, Canopy, 916 Springdale Road, icosacollective.com