All Hands Down

Is there a pattern that connects the various media that are collectively called "crafts"? What does jewelry have to do with glass? Ceramics with quilts? How are they linked to one another?

One obvious connection is that all craft items are handmade. Then again, so are paintings and cakes baked at home -- but neither pictures nor pastries would qualify as crafts, nor would a lot of other handmade items or endeavors.

Don't look to the Arvada Center's current show, XXV: 25 Years of Colorado Master Crafts, to provide the answers to these questions. The show's disparate material, representing a broad group of creative fields, often clashes. Some things are conceptually antithetical to others, and a few of the artists are really sculptors rather than craft artisans. As a result, this exhibit, on display in the upper-level galleries, doesn't quite jell. Nevertheless, there's a bounty of interesting stuff, and if you take your time, you'll be edified.

Master Crafts was organized by Arvada Center exhibition director and curator Kathy Andrews, along with Idledale ceramic artist Bob Smith and fiber artist Connie Lehman (who have both included their own work).

The exhibit's goal is to showcase practitioners who have been working for 25 years or more in their respective fields. This rule ensures that every artist has a high level of technical accomplishment -- after all, practice does make perfect -- though career longevity doesn't necessarily guarantee artistic accomplishment. Unfortunately, some artists who've been working a lot longer than 25 years were left off the list; for example, ceramicist Mark Zamantakis, who has been producing work of a high standard since the 1950s. Thus, rather than being a survey of important practitioners, the exhibit explores only a specific generation of craft artists -- those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Crafts underwent a major revival during those two decades -- remember macramé? -- after being in serious decline since the nineteenth century, when industrialization substituted manufactured things for handmade ones. It was the hippies and their back-to-basics philosophy that drove the craft revival. So really, Master Crafts is, at its heart, a great big hippie reunion. (This may be one of the reasons the show doesn't make sense; hippies hate making sense.)

But don't be misled: This is not Arvada's answer to the Capitol Hill Peoples Fair. No, it's actually a lot closer in ambience to the boutiques of Cherry Creek North. In fact, many of the works of these artists, in particular the jewelers, are available for purchase in exactly those shops, and in other high-end outlets throughout the state.

The show begins on a somber note: It's dedicated to the memory of ceramicist extraordinaire Rodger Lang, who died unexpectedly last spring. Lang, a ceramics teacher for thirty years at Metro State College, was also an advocate for ceramics and the force behind the decision to hold the 2000 meeting of the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts in Denver last March. The conference attracted thousands of ceramic artists, and the city responded by presenting scores of ceramics shows. Lang deserves some of the credit, too, because he spent two years getting galleries on board. Many of these shows were still open when Lang died a few weeks after NCECA left town.

A half-dozen Lang vessels made of stoneware have been included at the Arvada Center. All the Langs -- spectacular in their quiet dignity -- feature the traditional vessel forms of baluster and bottle shapes, and all are expressively thrown and naturalistically glazed. Two of them, "Passage Network #1" and "Change Diagram #3," a double-gourd bottle form and a baluster, respectively, are embellished with linear decorations, while the others are solely adorned with the crystalline effects of the glaze.

The Langs are displayed on a pair of stands enclosed in an area behind large sheets of glass. This security precaution is used throughout the show, preventing visitors from touching -- or stealing -- the included material.

In the same enclosure are a table and a floor lamp by Derek Davis (son of the late architect Rodney Davis), who lives west of Boulder. The long, low table is made of both found and raw materials. The surface of the recycled redwood tabletop has been carved into waves.

Bracketing the enclosure are a whimsical quilt embroidered by Boulder's Faye Anderson on one side, and a table, wall plaques and jewelry by Nelson Giesecke of Denver on the other. The wall-hanging by Anderson is named, with tongue in cheek, "Famous women in Art with Quilting Backgrounds." It's covered with a grid of half-tone portraits of women associated with the history of painting. These range from the Mona Lisa to Marilyn Monroe. And Giesecke makes luxurious references to farm implements and machinery in his meticulously constructed pieces.

The next section displays the work of five artists: Boulder glass-blower Joan Reep and four ceramicists: Parker's Jill Manos, Boulder's Jim Lorio, Peg Malloy from Carbondale and Biz Littell, who worked in Littleton for years but now lives in Steamboat Springs. Lorio's work is close in style, color and technique to the Langs; it shares with them a subtle monumentality within firmly established ceramic shapes, such as the bulbous ovoid vase that has been wood-fired. Littell's smashed vessels with metallic raku finishes are very strong. At times Littell's glazes are garish and almost kitschy, but not so the delicious purply blue-gray seen on the surface of "Platinum Reflections," a Kosai-ware vase.

About midway through the show, the works of co-organizers Lehman and Smith have been installed near one another, with Lehman's first. Lehman is represented by a selection of vaguely disturbing rag dolls in a small showcase and a trio of neo-art-deco beaded panels hung on the wall. Smith's raku pieces, a wall panel and two vessels, are off to the left. The vessels are signature pieces, both topped by spectacular sculptural stoppers.

Commanding a side gallery that opens up nearby is a group of glass pieces by Michael David and Kit Karbler, the Blake Street Glass guys. The three fabulous pieces show off the duo's skill at cutting and blowing. "La Mesita Maravillosa," a small art-glass table, is a triumph, and it furthers the pair's attempts to push the creativity of glass-making.

The glass has been paired with two cerebral sculptures by Ira Sherman from Denver. Sherman's sculptures are out of place in Master Crafts -- although he is a master, and his work is meticulously crafted, his pieces here are not examples of craft. They're conceptual creations meant to be worn, and they generate their own performances. Sherman also makes jewelry, a traditional craft from which these sculptures originate, but his goldwork has not been included in the show.

More traditional jewelry is seen in the back gallery with the work of Alice Abrams from Cherry Hills Village, who has created handsome rings and brooches in 18K gold and diamonds, along with really chic flacon pendants in 14K gold and quartz. Abrams's pieces are combined with those of Denver's Richard Kimball, who also works in precious materials. His earrings, brooch and ring are all done in 18K gold and diamonds.

The last leg of the show begins with "Russian Sage," a geometric abstraction in the form of a quilt, by Denver's Glenne Stoll. The other Stoll quilt, "Wild Flowers," hung around the corner, is also choice, as are the two art fabrics by Boulder's Diana Bunnell displayed nearby.

Next up are three monumental vessels by Peter Durst of Denver. "Thrown Lidded Jar" is exceptionally nice. Adjacent to it is a marvelous stainless-steel wall sculpture, lit by an integral blue light, by Nilda Getty from Fort Collins. Across from the Getty, in the very last part of the show, are three Martha Daniels pieces -- two sculptural vessels and a tile wall-hanging. As usual, Denver's Daniels looks to Mediterranean sources for her expressionist style and sunny palette.

Master Crafts may not make a cogent case for the strength of local craft artists, but it does reveal something many of us already knew -- that the state's fine ceramics overshadow everything else.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia