2018 Essay | Discipline, Skill, Method, Means and Deliberateness

2018 Essay | Discipline, Skill, Method, Means and Deliberateness

Discipline, Skill, Method, Means and Deliberateness

By Janet Koplos

James Mongrain
Goblets, 2018
Blown glass
24 W x 24 D x 18 H inches
Photo courtesy of the artist

With works by artists of the Appalachian Center for Craft, part of the School of Art, Craft and Design at Tennessee Tech University.   

Essay by Janet Koplos, co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft and contributing editor to Art in America magazine, who is currently completing a book of interviews with American studio potters.  

The objects in this exhibition are, in the most immediate sense, things of beauty. They are to be appreciated for their form, their color, their surfaces. They can be admired for the visual qualities of line and plane, or dynamism and repose or other aspects — any of the vast range of factors that draw us to painting, sculpture, printmaking or other artistic mediums.  

These qualities, in isolation, may occasionally emerge by accident or occur in nature. The world is full of beauty and drama to the extent that we could say there is hardly any limit to aesthetic appreciation: all you have to do is pay attention to your surroundings.  

But the objects in this exhibition are not accidents and not the products of nature. They are intentional, which means that they are generated by a personal philosophy that may be either unconscious or articulated but is always there. The evidence of its presence is the nearness to perfection we can perceive in each work. The makers concentrated their efforts in realizing these objects.  

While they can certainly be called artworks, none of them are paintings or photographs and most of them are not sculptures. What are they, then? They fall under the vague but generous and encompassing term “crafts.” While the term gets applied to everything from beading to beer-making, it has a particular meaning in the context of the Appalachian Center for Craft, a campus of Tennessee Tech University’s School of Art, Craft and Design. The Appalachian Center for Craft is part of the late-20th-century revival of handwork, a mode of resistance occurring at a time of manufacturing, artificial materials and computer controls. “Crafts” are associated with certain materials (most commonly, fiber, clay, metal, wood and glass) and occasionally with traditional techniques executed in non-traditional materials (such as weaving with fishing line or making fine jewelry of refuse.)  

At the Craft Center and its sister organizations, “crafts” are refined techniques, a world beyond the beginner approaches of children or hobbyists. This refinement foregrounds skill. Unlike painting or photography, crafts rarely put subject matter or the communication of an explicit message into the front seat. Wendy Maruyama’s work here is an exception: It is part of a large body of work she exhibits under the title “Executive Order 9066,” which was the wartime law calling for the internment of people of Japanese descent — most of them American citizens. In Zenmetsu, a sample piece from the large work, a broken noodle bowl behind glass conveys multiple thoughts: of broken ties with a native country, of shattered existence in their adopted land, of incarceration, of loss of privacy. The bowl occupies one compartment of a horizontal shelf, sections of which are closed off with sliding panels that recall the sliding screens common in Japanese architecture, where they function much like doors in the West. These wooden panels hide parts of the shelf, suggesting both secrecy and loss, or, in a more formal sense, just exemplifying interruption.

But in addition to these significant meanings, Maruyama’s work is a piece of fine craftsmanship akin to the studio furniture for which she has long been known and honored. Maruyama began assistant teaching at the Craft Center in its first full year (1980) and took over as head of the woodworking and furniture design program from 1982 to 1985. Although this piece lacks the humor and color that she has employed in furniture, the skill and precision are consistent.  

And it’s these qualities that unite the considerable range of interests represented in this exhibition of works by individuals currently or formerly associated with the center and school. These are distinguishing qualities. While of course there are skilled artists in every creative medium, contemporary crafts arise out of the apprenticeship tradition in which the young person trained at length, became a journeyman who could be hired anywhere and counted upon to have the necessary skills, and finally became a master of the given medium.   

True apprenticeships are rare today. Academic art programs once concentrated on the development of skill (consider the old practice of students copying great works of the past or drawing from plaster reproductions of famous sculptures), but today skill is often secondary to the development of a signature subject or style. In this contemporary environment, specifically focused craft centers such as the Appalachian Center for Craft and some non-academic programs have taken up the focus on the development of skills. For some people teaching responsibilities may foster the acquisition of additional techniques, in order to offer them to the students.

Daniel Randall
Assistant Professor, Metals, Tennessee Tech University
Formal Transgression 5
20 x 9.5 inches

Mature practitioners in the craft mediums, like those represented in this exhibition, have gone the extra mile. Their skills are the product of determination and self-discipline. To look at Dan Randall’s vase/object which he titles Formal Transgression 5 is to see an elegant, fluid shape that refutes any suggestion of machine manufacture but in its vastly ascending lip does not seem to be a natural occurrence either. So it’s the product of human imagination coupled with all deliberate skill. It is the flowering of technique into form. It’s not a sketch, not a cartoon, not draft, not a prototype, but a realization that seems satisfyingly complete. Randall has been assistant professor of Metals, at Tennessee Tech since 2015.  

Curtiss Brock
Cat’s Eye, 2017
Blown, cast, cut,
and polished glass
11 x 8 inches
Photo credit: Matt Tate

The discovery of appropriate means is personal to each maker. James Mongrain, for example, targets a tradition of goblet forms that dates back centuries in a workshop-island in Italy’s Venetian lagoon. In this case, achievement is equated with matching or elaborating--or even just suggesting--traditional forms, and achieving a high measure of fine workmanship. Skill is recognizable in the thinness of the bowl walls and the stem of each goblet. The complexity of a goblet’s profile is offset by the serenity of its symmetry, which gives all the information you need from any single viewpoint. These are high-end rather than everyday objects. But they are nevertheless utilitarian, and utility is an ancient and yet current characteristic of what we call crafts. Utility is not present in the same palpable way in most other art mediums, such as painting. Mongrain was a student (studying glass under Curtiss Brock) from 1991 to 1993.  

In all three of these examples, different goals and interests—content that can be verbalized, abstraction, and traditional utility—are connected by the emphasis on learned, practiced and, to some degree, perfected workmanship. “Perfect” is a goal one constantly works toward but never completely achieves. It serves most valuably as grounds for thought and discussion — although, as an absolute term, it would be as hard to define as the word “quality,” which drove the protagonist of Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” over the edge. No one claims a perfect form or a perfect realization of an idea, but degrees of perfection remain an unstated ideal.

The Appalachian Center for Craft is a refuge for monkish concentration on such activities and a place to avoid distractions. The center’s founding principle was the development of skills, and it remains true to that objective. It is unusual in being both part of a university art school and also a workshop program, thus offering multiple paths to mastery. Among other individuals of like inclinations, a maker can focus on determining personal values, how they can be expressed in physical form, and how those forms are best achieved. The consequence of such concerted efforts is the enduring satisfaction of work shaped by these goals and discoveries. It is the kind of work that becomes a life, not just a job that must be endured until quitting time.   

Crafts encourage a feeling of community, not because of a style or even a medium but because of a shared orientation toward the value of work itself. Work is not merely an instrumental means to some end but is an expression of inherent satisfaction in the making process. The self-reward of mastery is an end in itself. In our high-speed contemporary culture, it’s crucial to have places like the Appalachian Center for Craft where such concentration is encouraged. That allows a model activity, inspiring not only for the people doing it and others around them but even, as we—the audience—can see in this exhibition, allowing bystanders such as us to recognize and appreciate the value of skilled work.

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