Arlene Distler


“State of Craft” for American Craft Magazine

The year 1960 was a watershed year for crafts in Vermont, attested to by a show organized that year by the Allied Craftsmen of Vermont, and judged by David Campbell, then-president of the American Crafts Council and Director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. That same year saw a media conference promoting Vermont crafts, a design conference, and a major woodworking exhibition at the Fleming Museum in Burlington.

So it is that 1960 has been chosen by the Vermont Crafts Council as a marker worth celebrating – fifty years of the studio craft movement in the Green Mountain state.

As one might expect, the five major craft areas are represented: clay, glass, textile, metals, and wood. However, the organizers of “State of Craft” at Bennington, Anne Majusiak and Jamie Franklin, have taken things a step or two further. Each of the rooms elucidates an aspect of the studio crafts movement. Overarching categories are “Living By Making,” “Communities/ Connections,” and “Inspirations”; subcategories such as “Art/Craft Cross-over,” “Trailblazers,” and “Vermont as Inspiration” give added context.

At the beginning of the State of Craft show, the museum-goer meets the work of Michelle and David Holzapfels. I have passed the Holzapfels’ unassuming studio and gallery on Route 9 in Marlboro many times without guessing at the mischief going on inside! Although the wall text references the inspiring qualities of Vermont wood, in fact the charm of Michelle Holtzapfel’s work is that it undermines the most obvious qualities of wood – strength, hardness, weight. She has sculpted pieces to look like a quilt (“Baby Blocks”) or body organ (“Locked Heart”); a set of “Vermont Spoons” plays with the notion of utility by making them gargantuan and hanging them on the wall in a sculptural fusion. David Holzaphel creates straight-ahead furniture. Here he shows “Chaise Cerise” a gorgeous “fainting couch” made of curly cherry, curly maple, and spalted yellow birch.

Some of the pieces I found most exciting made a rare (in this show) social statement. Modern womanhood, women’s place in society…An old, tired topic, one might suppose. But here done with élan, originality and with a global perspective. Certainly this is so in the case of “She’s Come Unraveled,” by JoAnne Russo. An elongated oval basket, the underlying “body” of the piece, is overlaid with the gadgets of women’s dress…hooks and eyes, “stays” as in old-time girdles and corsets. The rigid stays and hooks and eyes align as vertical ribs up and down the length of the piece; round, flat buttons stacked one on top of the other end with a red bead, dot the base and top like so many tiny nipples. A coil, reminiscent of those worn by the women of some African tribes, tops the neck of the “body,” unraveling in an upward spiral, like a too-tightly wound spring that has popped.

Georgia Landau’s irreverent “She’s Got Him Where She Wants Him” employs a multitude of craft disciplines and materials. One of the original founding members of the Artisan’s Hand Co-operative in Montpelier, Landau’s “doll,” about a foot high, is a voluptuous woman (body constructed of stuffed stocking around wire) in velvet attire, her hair swept up into a gold-trimmed head scarf. She sits on a couch as if it were her throne. At each arm two ceramic Pan figures lean forward, anxious to do her bidding, their arms held behind them to become the couch’s arm rests. The doll’s porcelain fine-featured face perfectly captures a heavy-lidded hauteur and indolence, a wry “Luxe et Volupte”.

One of the show’s subheadings is “Trailblazers” which includes those who came before or shortly after that propitious year of 1960 and had a substantial impact on the crafters that followed them.

Of this group, which includes Peter Bramhall in glass, Michael Boylen in glass and ceramics, Brother Bezanson in ceramics and Betty Atwood in textile, perhaps the best known and certainly most generously represented in this show is ceramicist Karen Karnes, with five pieces dating from 1960 to 2007. The strength of her work is evident and exhilarating, with a cohesive vision as it spans the past fifty years. . In the room that expounds on “Living By ‘Making’,” her “Tall Vase” has the place of honor. A salt glaze creates umber traces along the length of a globular base and long neck, a gutsy assertion of form and texture. It could be a ritual vessel found at the site of an ancient culture were it not for the arrow-like shape fused to the front where base and neck meet, giving it a jaunty flair.

The State of Craft show at the Bennington Museum is a visual delight, with each piece given plenty of room to breath. In addition, there are so many wonderful stories. If you go, give yourself plenty of time to read as well as to look.


American Craft Magazine
2010