Currier Museum of Art curator Kurt Sundstrom says there are two different ideologies among craftsmen.
Some relish the usefulness of their work — the fact that their intricate handmade pots, bowls and jars are not only pleasant to look at but practical. You can place that unique bowl on your mantel for decoration, but you can also eat Lucky Charms out of it.
Others, including Sundstrom, recoil in horror at such an idea. Putting processed cereal in a piece that took a skilled craftsman many hours to create (and years to learn how to create) seems to diminish the value of the piece, to ignore or even waste the artistic element. Some craftsmen rebel by tearing holes in their bowls or, as artist Jon Brooks did, creating bottomless chairs, making dysfunctional crafts.
This disagreement was at the core of the studio craft movement, a movement in which New Hampshire played an important role. To explore it, curators at the Currier Museum of Art have crafted an exhibit, “New Hampshire and the American Studio Craft Movement.”
The exhibit is laid out like a timeline, beginning with some of the earliest New Hampshire crafts, such as the Dunlap Family Women Friendship quilt, created in 1879, and Osborn pottery and bottles from Stoddard Glass Works in 1850.
As you move among the bowls, tapestries, quilts and furniture, you’ll see styles evolving. Jene Osgood’s “Spring Desk” from 1996 is perfectly usable, but it’s not something you’d see in most households — its rich, mahogany color and rounded shape almost give it the appearance of a beautiful giant chestnut. Faith Ringgold’s quilt is a warm covering, but also a visual image and a story of a family gathering.
Then, you’ll see what Sundstrom talks about. You’ll see how artists have melded craft and art, in snake-like forks and knives and in the uncomfortable-looking “Integrated circuits with woven needle on metal plate industrial quilt,” created in 2002.
“Craft has traditionally been understood as work that’s functional. Artists intentionally start blurring these lines,” Sundstrom said.
As one of the original 13 American colonies, New Hampshire has a solid craft foundation, Sondstrom said. Before the Depression, people created bowls, rugs and quilts because doing so was practical.
“I think some people forget that while many art forms are taught in school, they’re also handed down in families from one generation to another,” Sundstrom said. Potters made pots because their parents made pots. Quilters quilted because their mothers quilted.
“Unfortunately, or fortunately, when industrialization came about, that put everything to an end,” Sundstrom said. “Industrialization put an end to many traditions, but many saw it as an opportunity [for crafters] to create items of the highest quality — to distinguish crafts from objects,” Sundstrom said. Objects were cheap with industrialization. One way to compete with industry was to try to outdo it, or do what it couldn’t, by creating artwork out of pots, quilts, vases and plates.
In 1931, New Hampshire was the first state to establish a professional organization to support the art of craft. That organization is the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, whose annual fair is the oldest and one of the most respected in the nation today. The state is also home to two of the first professional craft education programs in the country. A non-degree pottery program began in 1932 at the University of New Hampshire, and in 1944 the School for American Craftsmen was established at Dartmouth College.
Harvard-trained architect David Campbell, who helped found the New Hampshire craft league, was fundamental in the support of the craft movement. He believed that craft, or at least certain examples of craft, should be accepted as fine art, on par with painting and sculpture.
“Fine arts programs began to introduce material-related craft programs, replacing the tradition of apprenticeships,” Brooks said. “There’s an overriding theme that a table can be more than just a table. It’s making an artistic statement,” Brooks said. “The real question is, where do you draw the line?”
Also helpful in New Hampshire’s crafting prominence were the artists Campbell brought in to the New Hampshire scene, people like Ed and Mary Scheir, Vivika Heino, Gerry Williams and enamelists Karl Drerup and Joe Trippetti, furniture makers Alejandro de la Cruz and Walker Weed.
“Mary Sheir, one of the best enamelists, was working here, and by Dartmouth, there were some of the best woodworkers,” Sundstrom said. Gerry Williams, a potter and craftsman, founded Potter Studio magazine right in Dunbarton; it became one of the most important magazines for studio potters, Sundstrom said.
These stories are written on signs placed throughout the exhibit, beside the blankets, tapestries, pots and plates. They make the exhibit all the more captivating (especially for the uncrafty visitor) and give these pieces more meaning. But perhaps more than anything, this exhibit gives New Hampshirites another reason to gloat about being first in the nation.