Forty years of bringing critical attention to the nation’s best-known makers in the arts is celebrated at this year’s Smithsonian Craft Show
After two years of virtual events, one of Washington, D.C.’s much-anticipated happenings, the Smithsonian Craft Show, is back up and running in real life, opening April 20 through 24 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
The show, celebrating its 40th anniversary and themed “Future Focus,” is recognizing the new pursuits of contemporary craft artists in their mastery of innovative design, fabrication and use of unusual materials.
Four renowned scholars—Jason T. Busch of New York City’s American Folk Art Museum, Emily Zilber of the Wharton Esherick Museum, Anna Walker of Houston’s Lawndale Art and Performance Center and the Smithsonian’s curator of craft Mary Savig—served as jurors, selecting 120 top-tier artists from hundreds of applicants. Representing all facets of contemporary craft including ceramics, basketry, jewelry, leather, mixed-media, wood, ceramics and more, the artists are offering items for sale to the public with the proceeds going to support dozens of Smithsonian Institution research efforts.
Among them is Hollie Heller, who works with decorative fibers and divides her time between her studios in Tamarindo, Costa Rica and Harlem, New York. Artist Alicia Appleton finds inspiration for her fashion-forward leather goods in her daily nature meditations. And Tripti Yoganathan, who creates India-inspired “elephant teapots,” says she is “humbled and looking forward” to showcasing her work.
This year’s show also honors wood artists David Ellsworth and Michael Hurwitz with the Smithsonian Visionary Award and ceramicists Steven Young Lee and Roberto Lugo with the Smithsonian Women’s Committee Delphi Award.
Nine artists spoke with Smithsonian about their craft and quest.
The Artist: Alicia Appleton was born and raised in New York. Both of her parents are from Jamaica. Appleton says that what creates the structure of her work is the balance between the geometric shapes from her New York side and the organic shapes from her West Indian side. Her paternal grandfather was a farmer and maternal grandfather an architect, which further influenced the combination of nature and buildings in her pieces. Appleton attended the Fashion Institute of Technology as a student, where she now teaches. She has been making jewelry for more than 18 years, and watched YouTube videos to teach herself the craft of leather-smithing. Appleton founded Amber Poitier seven years ago, a company that specializes in sculptural leather accessories.
The Craft: Appleton enjoys the moment when she creates a new piece the most. She sits out in nature and sketches. “That’s my favorite place,” she says. “Just the stillness of it.” Appleton also makes designs using a computer-aided program and then cuts the pieces by hand, playing with the different shapes. She uses vegetable-tanned leather for her works, as it is more environmentally friendly and can last “more than two lifetimes.”
The Quest: “I enjoy sometimes the toughness of the vegetable tanned-leather,” Appleton says. “I'm not a small woman, and I think it reminds me of my resilience and toughness in life. And I like to make it into a beautiful piece because vegetable-tanned leather tends to be the leather that's used for the soles of shoes or, you know, these throwaway pieces. And I like to highlight its beauty because of its toughness.” Appleton is influenced and inspired by women, and hopes to celebrate the strength that comes with womanhood.
The Artist: Nicario Jiménez Quispe was born surrounded by animals and religious traditions in Alcamenca, a town in the Peruvian Andes. His father, Florentino Jiménez, was in charge of restoring the community church’s religious images as the town chaplain. When tasked with religious “retablos” or altarpieces, Jiménez’s father would ask his children to help him. While working with his father, Jiménez learned techniques, which he continues to use for his mixed media sculptures—a mixture of boiled potatoes and gypsum powder for the figurines and wood for the boxes. Jiménez attended the Universidad Nacional de San Cristóbal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, Perú and has taught and lectured at the University of Miami and American University among others.
The Craft: When Jiménez moved to Lima, the capital of Perú, he attended fairs and traveled to different countries, where he learned diverse painting styles. He eventually moved to Florida, where he currently lives with his family. The creative environment Jiménez found in the United States inspired him to experiment with themes beyond the religious images traditionally depicted in retablos, such as socio-political topics. With time, Jiménez started using different kinds of paints, as the natural paints he initially worked with did not last long. In addition to the paint, the use of new carpentry tools and techniques allowed him to make his art more elaborate.
The Quest: Jiménez goes beyond displaying beautiful scenes. Through his pieces, he aims to share his perspective on topics that matter to him. “I learned that art is not to be used like a camera, in which you can take an instant photo of the moment,” he says. “Art can also be used to express my opinions about themes that I understand very well, such as immigration and discrimination.” Jiménez believes that an artist’s only enemy is time. “There are so many things to do. The mind is very productive.”
The Artist: Claire Kelly was introduced to glass blowing in art school. She was instantly hooked. “I used to lie in bed thinking out how to create objects in the glass studio,” she says. In 2004 she was granted the EnergyXchange fellowship in Burnsville, North Carolina. Years later she moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to work with glass artist Toots Zynsky. She has also worked as an instructor in different schools including Penland School of Crafts, Pilchuck Glass School and the Pittsburgh Glass Center among others.
The Craft: Her glass sculptures are an integration of traditional Venetian glass blowing techniques using “cane,” a mosaic-like process that maximizes the effects of densely colored components to create patterns and bold color combinations. She makes her designs including birds, nests and mushrooms on a torch in a process known as “flame-working.” In the flame shop, Kelly tries her best to recycle scrap glass into other components.
The Quest: “Making sculpture is my way to create beautiful storybook worlds that speak about environmental and social fragility,” she says. To Kelly, it is important for people to realize that there are worlds around us, large and small, that deserve respect and care. Her pieces, which have a “whimsical, fun and approachable” aesthetic, allow her to talk about uncomfortable issues, such as climate change or species loss, without being “a giant bummer.” Kelly says that her glass landscapes and animals “are advocates for the precious world they represent.”
The Artist: Doug Meyer’s journey started with Legos. Growing up, he used every single piece he could find to build a spaceship fleet, “a practical thriftiness that would carry throughout my work,” he says. It was in Meyer’s 9th grade sculpture and ceramics class which fed his love for the 3-D. He would spend hours in the library, flipping through the soft organic forms of artists Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy. His early works, made in his bedroom in high school, were plaster and chicken wire shapes that could have belonged to a painting by either Arp or Tanguy. Unable to afford art school, Meyer enrolled in a trade school and learned to weld. This new material knowledge sparked his interest in making “kitchy furniture” out of “anything metal” he could find left on the curb for trash collection. “In those days, I didn't know where to buy metal, so I became a sort of junk collector,” he says. “That resourcefulness proved valuable, as reclaimed materials would come to define my works.”
The Craft: Meyer always has materials pre-cut and pre-bent. He spends a lot of time deconstructing old metal desks and cabinets to strip off the sheet metal for later use. Part of Meyer’s work process is to make sure sheet metal is cut. Once this is done, he hones it further or tack welds more sheets onto it to achieve the desired length. Everything that gets cut off can be added to other sheets, resulting in a patchwork effect that also allows him to use 99 percent of his material. Meyer calls this process “segmenting,” and it is something he innovated and hasn’t seen anyone else do.
The Quest: Meyer uses his art as a means of environmentalism by incorporating reclaimed materials and building things with their legacy in mind. He says that as an artist living in this time, the environment should be the primary issue of concern. “You can't have a play without a stage,” he says. The artist expects most of his pieces to live beyond his own “short history”–and not in landfills. He hopes his work will tell stories about how scraps taken from a world in decline were used to forge a better one. “We can still be hopeful, even if we don't have all the answers.”
The Artist: Tripti Yoganathan grew up in India, where she completed a PhD in applied mathematics. While studying, Yoganathan was exposed to various forms of art, as her parents encouraged her to keep her mind open to the arts and sciences. After moving to the U.S., she learned pottery as a hobby while raising her two-year-old daughter. In similar lines to the traditions of her roots, Yoganathan says she finds inspiration in the flowers in her garden, animals and her environment in general. Additionally, since she has traveled to many different countries alongside her family, the trips have exposed her to a variety of pottery forms, styles and techniques.
The Craft: Yoganathan usually places pots on the wheel, but she has recently become more interested in “hand building.” She says that the space where these two techniques come together are in teapots, where she starts on the wheel for the basic form and then hand builds additional components. Before glazing her pieces, she carves and pierces them. Yoganathan mainly uses porcelain clay for her pots, but she also enjoys working with stoneware, as it can give the pot a “warm surface feel.”
The Quest: Yoganathan says that, pandemic aside, the last few years have been challenging. “The general ignorance about the different cultures of the world has become more frustrating,” she says. As an artist, Yoganathan has been advised to create bunnies or puppies in her pottery, as it might be harder for people to connect with the Indian-style elephant or fish pots and decorations. “It was a suggestion in good faith, but my art, my inspiration and my love for this work is rooted in my heritage, my culture and my environment.”
The Artist: Growing up in Thailand, Wiwat Kamolpornwijit enjoyed watching his mother use the sewing machine and playing with fabrics. Kamolpornwijit says he even got his finger caught under the needle and ended up at the hospital once, but that didn’t stop him from planning to use the machine. Years later, he went to an engineering college in Thailand. He then moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school at New Jersey Institute of Technology and worked for six years as an environmental researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. While working on a fundraising event for his temple in 2004, Kamolpornwijit began experimenting with polymer clay, which immediately caught his attention. Three years later, he decided to pursue his art full time.
The Craft: Kamolpornwijit’s creative process begins when he sees interesting shapes. He visualizes the forms in his head to think about how he could translate them into a polymer sculpture. Then, he hand-forms every piece of the polymer clay jewelry, and uses the original colors of the clay, avoiding the application of external paint. Kamolpornwijit uses different techniques, including caning, engraving, layering weaving and others for which he doesn’t have names. Kamolpornwijit says he loves unique shapes, structures and connections. “Translating those into wearable jewelry is what I do for pleasure,” he says. “And also for a living.”
The Quest: Overtime, Kamolpornwijit has made fewer pieces, but has dedicated more time to the creation of each design. Kamolpornwijit says he collects all of his polymer scraps and reprocesses them, and that he is slowly adding recycled fabric to his work. “I want to love the pieces I created and hope they are cherished by collectors for a long time.”
The Artist: Hollie Heller’s two art degrees are in weaving and textile design. She received her MFA from the School of American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1986. One of Heller’s earliest memories is passing through the weaving studio at University of Delaware and being drawn into the room’s saturated yarn colors and wooden looms. After learning the basics of weaving, she started experimenting with mixed media in the “weft.”
The Craft: In the 1990s, Heller began experimenting with stiffening thin silk fabrics and collaging onto the surfaces, keeping a transparency and using lightweight papers layered, and often stitching as embellishment. “In my eyes, the possibilities were endless when combining fiber techniques with mixed media,” Heller says. As her work developed throughout the years, she started cutting up large collages and reconfiguring them into what she termed “mesh,” or forms using stitching, stapling and appliqué techniques. “The color and texture interactions and the overlaying of imagery answers the visual excitement that I am always reaching for in my work.”
The Quest: Heller divides her time between New York City, where she has a studio in Harlem, and in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, where she lives and works part of the year. She teaches in both places and hosts Costa Rican art retreats. Her advice to young innovators is to travel, embrace other cultures respectfully, and not worry about what others are making. “Pursue the things that you feel compelled to do. And of course, notice what you're noticing, because that is your unique voice including references from the past.”
The Artist: Christian Burchard was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, and currently lives and works in southern Oregon. Growing up, Burchard would always visit medieval churches and museums, as his family enjoyed art history and European art in general. In the mid-1970s, Burchard became a furniture maker's apprentice in Germany, and then studied sculpture and drawing at the Museum School in Boston and the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, B.C. After opening a studio in Southern Oregon, his early focus was on furniture and interiors, but then he shifted to woodturning and sculpture.
The Craft: To Burchard, his hands are the most important tools in his arsenal. “I love to make, I need to make, it keeps me alive, focused and useful,” he says. Burchard works primarily with Pacific madrone, a species of broadleaf evergreen tree, when it is “green,” meaning wet and uncured. During the drying process, Burchard says he takes advantage of the changes that naturally occur as the wood dries. He carefully steers the wood into different forms. “Not knowing exactly what the final object will look like leaves a lot of room for surprises and exploration.” Burchard works with different tools including the chainsaw and lathe. When the pieces finish drying, he sandblasts and bleaches the panels to clean and soften them. Then, he uses fire to create different burning patterns.
The Quest: Burchard says that since he has worked with wood for most of his life, they have a “close relationship” and are “comfortable with each other.” He is fascinated by the form and structure of wood, and hopes to share its stories with others. Most of the wood Burchard uses for his pieces were once destined for the landfill or for firewood. “I try to create beautiful, unusual and surprising objects that create a dialog with the viewer, that invite touch and exploration and give pleasure to the hand and the eye.”
The Artist: Andrea Geer Handy grew up surrounded by farms with her two sisters in Hornby, New York. Everyone in her family knew early on that she would be an artist. She earned an MFA in painting from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a teaching certification from Nazareth College. Geer takes inspiration from the bold vision of artists like Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko.
The Craft: Geer combines digital media, paintings, prints and photographs to make the artwork that gets printed on the fabric. To her, experimentation is an important part of the process and the layering of techniques is playful and random at times. “I balance the beauty of the hands-on techniques with ideas that have become easier to execute digitally,” she says. Once the designs are created, she constructs the clothing in her studio in Rochester, New York, alongside her team. Geer says that design is a collaborative effort, and that she is very grateful to all the people who are part of this process.
The Quest: Geer believes that the continually changing technologies present new possibilities in fashion and wearables. She enjoys learning about different techniques, such as photography and jewelry making, and incorporating them with digital media. “The more I experiment outside my medium, the better I am able to articulate my ideas and the more creative I can be. Nothing is really off limits.”
The Smithsonian Craft Show is both an exhibition of contemporary American craft and a fundraiser to benefit research endeavors at the Smithsonian Institution. The four-day show and sale takes place at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. April 20 to 24 with an opening day reception and preview party, an online auction, and a panel discussion with the award-winning artists David Ellsworth Michael Hurwitz, Steven Young Lee and Roberto Lugo on Thursday, April 21, 1-2 p.m. Regular admission is $20.
Antonia Mufarech is an intern for Smithsonian magazine. Read more of her work at antoniamufarech.com