Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Walter Dexter by Jonathon Bancroft-Snell

One of Walter Dexter's amazing torso pots.  The author focuses on the emergence of them in Dexter's work.

You know how you put a book aside for a treat?  That's what I did with what I believe is Jonathon Bancroft-Snell's first book.  I saved this volume about ceramic artist Walter Dexter for my summer vacation when I would hopefully be relaxing and could absorb it with out too many distractions.  And I am happy to announce that it was the treat I was hoping for.  I won't be lending my copy anytime soon because I am afraid I would not get it back.  And I can't afford to pay $65 twice, which is the cover price.

But believe me it is worth every cent.  You know that expression "richly illustrated"?  This book has it in spades.  Luscious, luscious images, very sexy detail shots…I confess I stroked the pages.  The pots are done a tremendous service by both the photography and the book design.  Well-done lads!

A very happy Walter Dexter.  I believe this shot was taken just after he'd won the Bronfman.

The writing is very genuine too.  I could hear Jonathon's voice in my head the whole time I was reading the book.  He clearly loves his subject matter and knows his details.  I was curious to read the book because I'd had the honour of interviewing Walter after he had won the Bronfman award.  At the time I was struck by how modest a man he was.  His work in clay is so masterful but he had no ego about him, which was refreshing.  (Believe me, I've met my share of talented jerks over the years.)  Walter Dexter struck me as a genuinely nice guy who just happened to make great pots. 

The impression of Dexter the man and ceramic artist that comes across in the book could be summarized thusly:  as bold and confident the work was so is Dexter a quiet and gentle man.  It's almost like a study in opposites.  Bancroft-Snell also does a good job tying together abstract expressionist painting in Canada with Dexter's work in ceramics.  And for the record, I agree with that interpretation.  It's great that this has been published while Walter Dexter is still alive.

Jonathon is his gallery with its signature black walls.  Black sure makes the colours pop.

Walter Dexter's career is an interesting one filled with unlikely twists and turns.  Jonathon navigates them well and makes good sense of how Dexter got from one point to the other.  I think a lot of us in the Canadian ceramic crowd will learn from both the story of Walter Dexter as told by JB-S as well as the dynamite images of the pots.  I liked it when on page 38 Bancrof-Snell writes, "This is the story of Walter Dexter dictated to me through his vases."  I don't doubt it.  And it's nice to know that vases talk to him too.

My final verdict?  This book is worth your time and somebody's money.  Put it on your wish list.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A behind the scenes look

I have received a few questions about the curatorial round table that I had proposed for the upcoming UAAC conference in Montreal this November and I wanted to let folks know that I decided to pull the plug on that one.  It was a difficult decision and I felt rather selfish about it so I would like to explain what happened.  In a nutshell, I could not get the talent I wanted around the table for the conference dates: November 1st to the 3rd.

When I proposed the panel I was typically very excited about the idea and prepared to work hard to make it happen.  I reached out to my colleagues across Canada and got some disappointing results.  Without naming names, I was told by some of the people I most respected that the answer would have to be no because they had time conflicts.  It turns out that  the SOFA Chicago dates are November 4 to 6.  There is also another conference that is cannibalizing the UAAC conference; this is a craft symposium at the Renwick Gallery, which belongs to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.  It will be held November 8 to 9 and its theme is Craft and American Culture.  I had already known about this event because I had received the Call for Papers and considered sending in a paper myself as I thought the UAAC conference would be held in late October as it has been for the past few years that I had participated. 

Now if you know me you will not be surprised to learn that I didn't let the first few upsets derail the project.  I am seasoned enough not to let glitches throw me off my game; the bend in the road does not have to be the end of the road as the saying goes.  So, I decided to see what the UAAC's own call for papers would produce.  I decided not to throw in the towel just yet.  I continued to invite folks whose work I admired to join me at the round table as well.  That was Plan B.

Well, I got a few interested nibbles in response to my direct invitations but only a few formal proposals. In the process of corresponding with people about their proposals I also realized there were potential translation snags because we would be presenting in Montreal and likely speaking to a mixed audience of Anglophones, Francophones, and some bilingual delegates.  This could get tricky.  My French is half decent but is limited to informal conversation or reading in French.  I am no translator.

The UAAC call only produced one formal proposal.  It was a rather interesting paper from a Phd student.  I gnashed my teeth.  The panel I had envisioned was a discussion between practicing curators of craft.  That's what I wanted to offer an audience of scholars, students, artists and craftspeople.  So, with some misgiving I decided to withdraw the proposal by the appropriate date.  Big sigh.
 This is one of the images I have submitted for the curatorial chapter.  It is from the In Praise of Function show at the Craft Council Gallery in St. John's.

On a brighter note I'd like to share that I have heard back from Alla Myzelev who is the professor who is editing the volume on Curatorial Strategies that I have contributed to.
And I am happy to say that she reports that Ashgate Publishers in the UK and Duke University Press in the States are considering the manuscript.  So, I'd better finish rewriting my chapter for the next deadline!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review of Rangifer Sapiens

White earthenware with terra sigillata, cobalt sulfate, cobalt underglaze and clear glaze

 A few blogs ago I mentioned that I was working on a review of Michael Flaherty's exhibition at the Craft Council Gallery for C magazine.  While I was working on it I was surprised to discover how many folks here in St. John's were unfamiliar with the publication.  In my opinion, it is Canada's best publication in terms of critical writing about art and it certainly deserves our attention.

Here's a link to their website if you'd like to check it out:

Anyhow, with the editors' permission I am sharing the text of my review, which appears in C magazine's current Summer 2012 issue.
 My favourite image of Mike as a Grey Island settler.

Michael Flaherty: Rangifer Sapiens

Craft Council Gallery, St. John’s, NL February 4 – March 11, 2012

Artist Michael Flaherty describes himself as a “conceptual ceramicist” and occasionally as a “ceramic fundamentalist.” Both self- identifications distinguish his studio practice from functional pottery and highlight the fact that Flaherty is part of a new generation of craft practitioners who are as interested in ideas as they are in materials or objects. Leading craft theorist Glenn Adamson characterizes this generation of makers as “post-disciplinary” because they work across disciplines normally distinguished by
a medium such as ceramics. This is a radical departure in the evolution of studio craft practice. Among his post-disciplinary peers, Flaherty stands out as “ceramic fundamentalist.” He is engaged with ceramics but maintains a critical distance from it.

When Flaherty embarked on a self-imposed exile on one of the abandoned Grey Islands off the north coast of Newfoundland in 2009, he captured the public’s imagination. Why would a young, thirty something artist leave the comfort of his studio and community in downtown St. John’s for the isolation of a remote island? Ostensibly, the three-month project was a self-styled artist residency wherein he set out to “create and document a location specific art piece.” In his presentations before and after the event, Flaherty explained that he was there to build an inside-out kiln. It was a conceptual art event where he would symbolically “fire the island.” In his blog-commentary about the Grey Islands, Flaherty shows himself, the urban potter, decked out in buckskin jacket and coonskin cap, like a campy 2009 version of “a settler.” The title of the resulting show, Rangifer Sapiens translates from scientific Latin as “wise caribou” and it features haunting ceramic sculptures. They are milk-white, life-sized antlers that grow with organic grace from broken pottery—cups, plates and teapots, usually left with a loop of functional handle. Each “shard” is blushed with rust tones and it appears that the decoration of decal or hand-painted motif has migrated from vessel to antler, leaving its imprint. The fascinating result is a rich, ambiguous hybrid object of human and animal, like a mythological creature that simultaneously taps into two interconnected worlds. All of the sculptures in the show are titled by numbers—birth and death dates—found on gravestones in French Cove. These titles hint at the personal and encourage the interpretation of the works as portraits.
Effectively, Flaherty’s invention of antler-shards is a timeline of the habitation of the Grey Islands. From the 1500s onwards, cod, herring and seals attracted French fishermen and ultimately English and Irish settlers to these remote islands. However, by the 1960s, the population of the islands had shrunk from about 200 to 86 souls.

They were resettled to White Bay, which was deemed more easily administered by the provincial government. In the early 70s, a herd of caribou was introduced to the Grey Islands by the Department of Wildlife to save them from extinction due to overhunting by the non-Aboriginal population, who least needed the caribou for subsistence. During his three months on the Grey Islands, Flaherty repeatedly found shed antlers from the living herd and the archaeological remains of the place’s human past. The implications were not lost on him.

Flaherty’s response to the historical narrative of the Grey Islands’ habitation is especially interesting because of the artist’s age and perspective. He is a generation removed from the hot-button topic of resettlement in the province, and two generations removed from Newfoundland joining Confederation. There are many layers to his complicated and intelligent response. On one hand, Flaherty’s vantage point gives him a sobering perspective that his father and grandfather’s generation could not easily enjoy. The questions of whether Newfoundland should join Confederation (and Canada) and whether the government had the right to resettle its rural population were topics of fiery debate, which for decades dominated the province’s cultural identity and threatened to divide families. Resettlement, for exam- ple, was widely regarded as the deathblow to the traditional outport lifestyle that today is the staple icon of the province’s tourism ads.

Flaherty has noticeably avoided the term of “resettlement” in his media inter- views and artist statement. His art points out the human-centric weakness of earlier dialogues on this topic. Succinctly put, it says: where human civilization stops, nature flourishes. It is a subtle wake-up call to a province that has only in the past two years introduced a curbside recycling program in its capital city. In other provinces, it is likely that this body of Flaherty’s work will be seen in terms of colonialism and relevant to a discussion of the residential schools and forced resettlement of Aboriginal youth.

Flaherty’s ability to draw a “connection between past and present, human and animal, presence and absence,” as he sets out in his show statement, is impressive. Flaherty’s ceramic sculptures have a sur- prising, nuanced wholeness, both visually and metaphorically. The fusion of antler and cup assumes a visual logic; they are not awkward or jarring. He is able to communicate that the shed antler, which is scientifically classed as “true bone,” emerging from the skull of the animal is metaphorically equivalent to the shard or “true bone” of the human. The “shard” portions of the sculptures are thrown on a potter’s wheel and then cut with careful precision.

They are not broken or damaged. The “shards” are fragments worn smooth with time and the elements. The language of European settler ceramics and successive contemporary counterparts are documented on the antler portions not as interrupted pattern but in continuous passages that wind around its front and back.

Flaherty’s sculptures function in the manner of a quoted line of poetry: they are sections but are not broken. In fact, some of the decorations are miniature landscapes, which Flaherty has said are of imagined places. The silhouettes of cobalt blue waves or rolling hills echo the profile of the antler’s tines. It is a subtle act of reciprocation.

Gloria Hickey is an independent curator and writer living in St. John’s, NL. Her most recent touring exhibition is The Fabric of Clay: Alexandra McCurdy.
First published in C Magazine issue 114 (Summer 2012)
Mike with an installation of his antler shards.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Sloppy Craft Book Project

The NeoCraft Conference in Halifax was in my opinion a game-changer for Canada.

Time to get back in the swing of things.  Time to get down to business.  My next big project is another book chapter.  This time it is a book about sloppy and post disciplinary craft and it is being edited by two of my colleagues, Elaine Cheasley Paterson and Susan Surette.

Here is the abstract for my chapter:

Abstract:  "Why are Sloppy and Post-disciplinary Craft Meaningful, and what are the historical precedents?"

Ever since 2007, when keynote speaker Paul Greenhalgh challenged scholars (at the NeoCraft conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia) to devise new ways of thinking about craft there has been a recognized need for a more contemporary and socially relevant understanding of current craft practice and objects.  Clearly, if theoretical understanding of craft was to advance the earlier models of contextualizing craft, which heavily relied on either the Arts and Crafts Movement as popularized by William Morris (1834-1896) or the Back to the Land Movement that had influenced studio craft in the 1960s and 1970s, would have to be replaced.  There was a profound gap between the contemporary practice of craft and how scholars understood it.

Emerging generations of craftspeople no longer worshipped at the altar of the past.  They did not learn in apprenticeships with masters and a growing number had abandoned classrooms. They were not slaves to techniques or materials.  Young craftspeople learned from their peers or the Internet. The digital age would be to craft what the sexual revolution was to feminism.  Skills were borrowed or exchanged in collaborative arrangements.  The old tribal media affiliations of clay, glass, metal and textiles were blurred as the younger generation became post-disciplinary.
 The U.K. has always been the leader in craft scholarship.

What is perhaps most meaningful and exciting about this trend is that it has huge significance and acceptance with an ever growing public audience.  This more democratic approach to craft is greater than self-expression for a special interest group or individualism.  This is an approach to craft that resonates with the times, linking craft practice to the wider concerns of today's society.  This is craft that embraces many social currents: think global act local, feminism, gender politics, social justice and ecological concerns.  It has the potential for a craft movement that is democratic and grassroots driven. 

What are the historical precedents for sloppy craft?  Sabi Wabi for one – the Japanese influenced approach to ceramics that preached the perfection of imperfection.  This is also seen in textiles as truth to materials and process that saluted the grace of the hanging thread, the slub in silk.  There is also a current of abstract expressionism that looks "sloppy" whether it is the Sheila Hicks generation of feminist textile art or the testosterone charged ceramics of Peter Voulkos' pots.  We can also consider folk craft with its na├»ve and unpretentious use of materials in woodcarving but also in lawn art and in the use of alternative materials, like houses made from beer bottles.  Or what about a house entirely covered in Barbie Dolls or plush animals?

It is worthwhile examining these historical approaches and their goals –whether it is humility, authenticity, expressivity, shock value and impact – to see if they are useful in understanding and contextualizing sloppy and post-disciplinary craft.  At the very least, it will help demonstrate whether contemporary craft practice is an evolution (of its prior forms) or a revolution.

I have written two articles for Studio magazine about specific examples of trends in contemporary craft practice that has helped to inform this abstract:
No Holds Barred Creativity, Post-disciplinary craft in the small community, Fall/Winter 2011-12 pps. 26-29.
The Tide is Changing; Four Newfoundland craftspeople reverse an old trend, Spring/Summer 2012 to be published.
I have also found Jen Anisef's report prepared for the Ontario Arts Council, Tracing Emerging Modes of Practice: Craft Sector Review (2011) helpful.  In 1993 I facilitated and worked on the OAC's prior review of craft practice; the change in craft practice is especially dramatic.

Friday, 3 August 2012

We're back!

Our Amish neighbours at Verdant View Farms.

Well, we've braved the electric storms, the fog and the inevitable delays in airports and we are now back in St. John's, NL.

We encountered drought in the farm country, especially corn, in Pennsylvania.  Not good news for anybody.  But there were plenty of other goodies at the Farmer's Markets.

This was my second visit at Verdant and it was very enjoyable.  Wish I had more time there…

This time I actually made it to the nearby Quilt Museum in Intercourse, PA.  The exhibits are worthwhile and there is no admission fee.  Downstairs is a great quilt store as well where both "plain and fancy" folk shop.  Put it on your list.  My son and I got a particular kick out of watching a stubborn horse who refused to walk across the street when the lights turned green on the street in front of the museum.  When urged he decided to do the moonwalk instead and back up.  Finally the young chap driving the buggy got the horse to go forward by jogging alongside and then jumping into the wagon.
Amish aerobics.

The quilts on exhibit are both contemporary and traditional.  A real mix.

Storefront of museum.

One of the things that my husband, Dr. Research, discovered as a fun family outing was a trip to the Land of Little Horses.  (It was a nice antidote to all the Civil War stuff in the Gettysburg area that I personally find depressing.) This was a delightful farm, which was more like a petting zoo with shows.  And boy was I ever impressed by one little horse.  This 33 year old creature could add, subtract, multiply and divide.  Off stage we visited this four footed wonder in its stable and discovered that we could hold up a dollar bill ask the horse what it was and she would tap out the amount.  The horse could read numbers!  Give that horse a degree.
Looking pretty good for 33.