Friday, February 24, 2012

Art and craft

Yesterday I finally managed to get a museum visit onto our vacation week agenda, which thus far has been fairly lazy. The kids and my mother and I made the 45-minute drive to the Fuller Crafts Museum in Brockton. Taking our time and enjoying the lack of crowds, we examined tiny origami sculptures, jewel-toned glass pieces, wood carved into the shape of tricycles and bi-planes, textiles of all sizes, mobiles, and all kinds of other hand-wrought creations.

Various text panels throughout the museum explore the meaning of “craft.” How is what you see at this museum different from, say, a painting at the Museum of Fine Art or a sculpture at the Institute of Contemporary Art? Craft, as the text panels explained it, is a term for items that could theoretically be put to practical use. It’s hard to imagine drinking from a four-foot-high orange sculpted glass pitcher or riding a tricycle made entirely of wood, but in concept at least, the textiles can be worn; the chair that was cobbled out of found items ranging from screwdrivers to pen caps to clothespins can be sat in.

I thought of this as we examined vases, bowls, light sconces and furniture in the museum, and then I thought of other examples of art with a function. I thought about the lovely dresses that my niece has designed and sewn for proms and other special events throughout her teenage years. I remembered too a potter I interviewed for an article last fall, who talked about how it’s more important now than ever before to support artisans working in craft mediums. As he said, unlike in centuries past, you don’t need to go to a potter for a bowl or to a basket weaver for a basket or to a furniture maker for a table now. You can buy any functional item mass-produced. But you shouldn’t, he explained, because art needs to remain a priority, and it is up to the populace, in his view, to support art by seeking out beautiful design and elegant handiwork in even in the most functional of purchases.

It’s not a standard I always maintain. I buy glassware at Crate and Barrel, clothes at TJ Maxx, even mass-produced groceries when I could be supporting artisanal bakers. But being at the museum reminded me of what a difference there is when a functional object has been created by an artist rather than simply by someone who can stamp out a mass-produced piece of work.

Later in the afternoon, back home, I was walking with the dog in the woods near our house when I noticed a sizable beaver dam in the river alongside the trail. I had to smile as I tried to put it into context of all the art I’d viewed earlier in the day. The beavers are not, at heart, artisans. They don’t care about a visually pleasing form, merely a functional one. The dam isn’t meant to be pretty; it is meant to protect and shelter the beavers who use it. And yet what they had created struck me as just as breathtaking as any of the blown glass or ornately woven fiber art at the museum.

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