When potter Bob Smith realized a few years ago that he was in his 25th year "of being a clay guy" in Colorado, it also occurred to him that he wasn't alone. But he realized, too, that there were other craftspeople in the state who hadn't made it to the same level. For one reason or another -- money, responsibilities, creative burnout -- some had dropped out of the life to do safer things.
"I was confused by that at the time," Smith recalls. "I didn't understand how someone could be that passionate about something and then all of a sudden give it up. What did they do with that passion?" Compelled by the desire to honor those who, against the odds, had continued on as craftspeople, he conceived the idea for a Colorado crafts retrospective to top all Colorado crafts retrospectives, a show that's finally found shape: XXV: 25 Years of Master Crafts, curated by Smith with fellow artist Connie Lehman and Arvada Center gallery director Kathy Andrews. The show, which opens Thursday at the Arvada Center, features works by 34 artists in a gamut of craft disciplines. Especially from Smith's singular perspective, it promises to be a regular who's who, an event befitting these brave new millennial times.
The main criteria for inclusion? Beyond the requirement of having worked in-state for 25 years, Smith notes, artists had to display qualities that identified them as master craftsmen -- unique personal statements paired with "technical skills beyond reproach" toward the goal of creating original, non-derivative work. "Every pot's already been made; there are just different ways of making them new," Smith notes. And like any well-kept garden, master craftsmen continue to grow, he adds. Whether they follow vectors that take them from one medium to another or, like Smith, continue to work in one vein, they know their work is never finished.
That, Smith says, is what makes some people go on: "They've found a subtle but compelling blend of head, heart and hands. Something clicks in their makeup, and it's strong enough that they're willing to stick with it, to train their hands to do what they need to in order to do work that properly feeds the soul. Then, as the hands get good, the head gets involved; they begin to study the medium. And once that happens, the heart gets involved. And then they're hooked."
The job of selecting artists fitting that mold in Colorado was, frankly, a piece of well-iced cake. "One of the best things we got to do as curators was go to their studios to select work," Connie Lehman explains. "We got to go see twenty-some people right in the places where they work, right where they eat their breakfast. To be able to walk into the sacred spaces where they work -- it took my breath away!" Included in that leg of their quest was a visit to the studio of late ceramicist Rodger Lang, to whom the show is dedicated. Smith and Lehman immediately bought pieces there, and both, though sold, appear in the show.
Ultimately, the curators hope they've succeeded in giving visual shape to an extraordinary process; indeed, as pieces for the show have come rolling in, it's clear the invitees have been working up to it, selecting old works or making new ones that best epitomize their creative identities and unstoppable drive to create on the upper level. "You have to have quite an ego to believe in your talent," Lehman says. "It's your dream, but nobody says you should get it."
Thank the heavens for the will to succeed. Because of it, our lives and theirs are enriched by beautiful things. "Bottom line, all are master craftsmen," Lehman says of the show's participants. "You don't just do that. It takes a while." A long while, at that -- 25 years and then some. But no matter, she promises: "These lives are being lived so well."
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