Monday, 26 March 2012

Looking Down from the Top of Craft Mountain

Andy Pomorski, Gate 2011, forged iron, brass, bronze copper

This week the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Studio magazine will be arriving on newsstands across Canada and in subscribers' mailboxes.  The cover story is Ingenious Diligence and is a profile of Bronfman winner Charles Lewton-Brain.  That issue also contains a side order of home grown Newfoundland talent in the form of a Portfolio mini series on Makers Working in Isolation - watch for the section on Reed Weir of Robinsons, NL.  I liked her saying that when she steps out of her studio under the evening sky the stars feel like friends.

Now, if you want a main dish serving of NL talent look at my article The Tide is Changing, Four NF Craftspeople Reverse an Old Trend.  I originally was going to call this article, The Young and the Restless but I don't blame the editors for turning it down.  I did give them a title menu to pick from. because I always trust an editor to know what fits their readership best.  The article features the bustling careers of four talented craftspeople under the age of 35 who are having or have had solo shows at the Craft Council Gallery this year:  Jessica Waterman, Michael Flaherty, Jaclyn Humphries and Heather Mills.  All of these makers have advanced educations in their field from institutions outside the province but all have decided to base their careers in their home province instead of say B.C, Ontario, Nova Scotia or the States where they could have more options.  This is very important for the profession of craft in NL because–and these were the most recent statistics I could find- a NF Statistics Agency report identified that 63% of the craft industry was over the age of 50 while less than 1% was under the age of 29.
Jaclyn Humphries, Aggressive Comfort, 2011 Ring, sterling silver, handfabricated hollow form

This is how the article concludes:

"Waterman, Flaherty, Humphries and Mills all work with themes that are based on their life experience in NL but demonstrate characteristics that define emerging craft trends across Canada and beyond.  In varying degrees they possess problem solving approaches more consistent with a designer than a craftsperson; a willingness to collaborate, borrow and acquire new skills; a dexterous use of digital technologies; and a refreshing ability to engage the public's imagination.  They are not waiting to be "discovered".  Buoyed by a strong sense of community and a shared resourcefulness, they are busy pursuing and creating new opportunities rather than complaining about the lack of them.  These traits equip these four NL craftspeople to become craft's new global citizens."

The traits I identified in that conclusion mirror a report I read prepared for the Ontario Arts Council in its evaluation of the craft scene in Ontario that Denis Longschamps graciously shared with me.  I cited him and the report but my endnotes were not published.  Back in 1993-94 I facilitated meetings for Vector Research in the Ontario Arts Council previous evaluation of its craft-funding program so it was interesting to be able to make comparisons and note how the craft landscape is changing.  I think this is one of the things I enjoy most:  climbing up on my imaginary mountain top and looking down to get a bird's eye view of craft practice.  That's why I liked the Metal Arts Guild of Canada's job curating their Exhibition in Print– it gave me the opportunity to take the pulse of metal arts from coast to coast in Canada.  That's a pretty wicked side benefit.

Studio magazine attempted and succeeded to do the same thing with a special feature titled The State of Craft, Five senior craft curators look at their chosen medium and take stock of the issues and the makers who define craft today.  Guess who made the cut in textiles?  Barb Hunt!  Now there's a woman ripe for a Bronfman award.

Charles Lewton-Brain, Earsquare Earpiece 2009, welded stainless steel electroformed copper, 24K electroformed gold
Here's the link to Studio :

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Do Awards Really Matter?

Charles Lewton-Brain basks in the sunshine- exuberantly.  Photo courtesy of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Congratulations are in order!  Charles Lewton-Brain, metal wizard of Alberta, is the 2012 winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Contemporary Craft a.k.a. one of the eight Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.   Charles stands out not only for his superb technical skills and innovative sense of design but for his extraordinary creativity and ability to stay true to his artistic vision while being able to help so many in his field.  He is a rare combination of talent and character and truly deserves this award that thankfully comes with a $25,000 cheque and a high profile exhibition.  Nobody would dispute that the Bronfman matters. My personal e-mail to Charles said that I was proud of him and that "sometimes the jury gets it right."  His gracious response was, "Thank you, nice to have shared moments with you."

Unfortunately, there are times when things go awry.  Any award is subject to a cocktail of variables.  Everything from who takes the time to be a nominator, what gene pool are they fishing in, who are the finalists competing with each other, and how in a practice as diverse as contemporary fine craft do you compare apples with oranges?  And then there are the politics and inter-relations of the individuals serving on the jury.  Being a juror isn't easy at the best of times.

Newfoundland and Labrador has not yet produced a Bronfman winner.  We've come close with Michael Massie who made it to a short-list of five finalists.  Maybe, it is time he should be nominated again.  Last year's winner and Charles Lewton-Brain are both metal artists.  Massie works in both stone and silver and is now a more senior artist than he was during his first nomination.

Do awards really matter?  Jason Holley just found out that he has won the People Choice's Award from the Artist Project in Toronto.  No doubt that will influence his next body of work.  We are surrounded with so many awards in so many areas.  Some are a piece of paper alone but the package of nominating letters are moving testimonials that point to a career that has made a difference.  I know when I won the award for Cultural Leadership in the Atlantic Region the nominating letters from my immediate community meant a whole lot more to me than the trophy.  It was like being able to attend my own funereal and listen to the eulogy.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Jason Holley gets "buzzed" on TO

As a professional observer of the craft community in Newfoundland and Labrador I try to keep up with emerging talent. I find satisfaction in trying to pick "the winners" –those artists and craftspeople who will make it over the long haul.  I often see skill, even talent but I am not convinced because I know that this is not enough to make it, to be successful.  Years ago, when I lived in Toronto and worked in arts administration I was an assistant to a talent agent who handled most of the placements for Stratford, the Shakespearan drama mecca in Ontario.  I've also worked in the St. Lawrence Center for the Arts and Theatre Passe Murraille, which gave me a wider appreciation for the cultural scene of Toronto and beyond.  I noticed that directors picked actors based on work ethic more than talent or looks.  But what was more crucial than a work ethic was "the fire in the actor's gut" ­ somebody who is willing to outwork the next guy to be successful.  Talent and looks just gets you in the door, it is the price of admission.  You are looking for someone with the ability to deliver.

When Jason had his second solo show I was convinced he had a story worth telling and one that a larger audience than St. John's would appreciate hearing.  So, I approached Fusion magazine about a feature story because Jason's "back story" was more interesting than a short review would allow me.  I wanted to communicate his intensity and sense of street smarts and just talking about the work would not be enough.  Jason has the "fire in his gut" factor.  The story made the cover of Fusion.

Basically, I opened a door but Jason Holley walked through it.  You can give all the good advice in the world but it doesn't matter if no one is listening.   Holley is not only a listener but he is also a doer. Thank God.  In short order, he had acquired a gallery in Halifax, Studio 21, one in Ottawa - L.A. Pai, been in a 3-artist show at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery and tested the waters further afield.  This week he participated in The Artist Project an exciting event in Toronto that showcases 200 artists and their work in a retail environment - think art fair where the artists do their own selling.  Jason and his work sold very well and together they generated a lot of "buzz".  It was a good match for his personality and his art.  He's no shrinking violet.  Holley relished meeting collectors.  And this is just the beginning.

When Jason came back he made the time to talk with me about The Artist Project (thank you Jason).  He expressed surprise that so many people in Toronto "got" what he was doing.  I wasn't surprised at all.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Alexis Templeton shows how to escape the culture of complaint

Thanks to Alexis Templeton (shown above) for the photos she has kindly provided.

Is it the long winter, approaching tax time or the grant application deadlines?  There's a lot of grumbling out there about the general state of affairs.  I've decided things break and there are life cycles to many things including marketing models or venues like the craft fair.  It is time to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and consider the alternatives.

I have always admired Alexis Templeton's resourcefulness and people who have taken my point of purchase literature workshop know that she is my favourite example of successful marketing in the world of NF ceramics.  She's figured it out and Alexis knows that pots, as lovely as they may be, don't sell themselves.  Alexis has a great studio storefront and she manages it with flair.  She has created a destination and an experience with strategic events around easy to remember dates; it is also a resource that she can share with other craftspeople by selling their work in addition to her own.
 Northern Lights plate by Alexis, who is known for her crystalline glazes.

The retail landscape around the traditional craft fair has changed:  more stores sell craft as a part of their daily business be it in heritage and tourism, interior design, fashion or hip, little boutiques.  There are more studios and competing themed fairs associated with schools, causes and interests like the youth focus in Fresh Fish or the Farmers Market.  In some ways, the traditional craft fair is a victim of craft's successful integration with a wider world.  Not a bad thing.

A sea urchin bowl by Alexis with its source of inspiration.

Alexis Templeton has created The Feast of Pottery, a weekend-long event that has for a few years been held at the Geo-Centre on Signal Hill.  It has focus, a personality and a buzz of excitement.  As a marketing model it combines the feel of an exhibition, which can accommodate higher prices but the immediate gratification of retail shopping.  It is short term so a collector can't procrastinate; it is once a year so it feels "special".  By bringing in a growing number of accomplished potters, Alexis has created a niche market. 

Well done Alexis, well done.