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What is Craft? An Introduction to Crafting America

Guest in a health mask stands looking at art in the background is Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, Home of the Brave

Crafting America, the newest exhibition developed by Crystal Bridges (opening February 6, 2021), presents a broad and inclusive look at craft in the United States from the 1940s to today. The exhibition features roughly 120 objects by over 90 artists from diverse backgrounds working in ceramics, wood, metal, fiber, glass, textiles, and more.

Craft can have several meanings, but in its essence, craft is skilled making on a human scale. It is not a strict category, but rather a set of practices that can be as simple or as complex as the individual wants to make it. Craft is ritual, skill, history, reinvention, storytelling, material, concentration, and rhythm.

Porcelain vase by Roberto Lugo
Roberto Lugo, Frederick Douglass / Arthur Ashe Urn, 2017, porcelain, china paint, gold luster, 18 x 11 x 11 in. Collection of Mark McDonald and Dwayne Resnick

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, craft has thrived in the United States. Available materials and passed-down making traditions have made craft accessible to the broadest range of individuals. This accessibility has led to new inventions, techniques, and opportunities to tell varied stories and pass on traditions for the next generation to build upon. 

For example, artist Roberto Lugo combines the elaborate style of centuries-past displayware with his experience as a graffiti artist to pay homage to significant figures from African American history, such as orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (below). (Tennis great Arthur Ashe is featured on the other side of the urn.)

In the United States, craft also offers an opportunity to realize the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—American ideals that, while written in the US Declaration of Independence, have not always been accessible to the full range of the nation’s people. Artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s Home of the Brave (2013) references a lyric from “The Star-Spangled Banner” and incorporates many found objects. In its assemblage, it suggests that the project of American identity is always unfinished. 

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, Home of the Brave
Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, Home of the Brave, 2013, wire, silk, fabric, safety pins, and synthetic and natural threads, 71 x 103 1/2 in. Courtesy of the artist

Crafting America explores this concept further in three thematic sections: life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Craft and everyday life are tightly intertwined from the jewelry we wear to the flatware we eat from, to the family heirlooms we cherish, almost everyone owns a handmade craft or has a connection to craft. When artists become skilled and precise in their craft, they can leave function behind and embrace the liberty of exploration in new ideas. But overall, the process of making itself—the pursuit of happiness in creating something new—is something to celebrate all its own, even though there’s no guarantee in what will be achieved.

An example of this pursuit can be found in the work ¿Qué me ves? (What Are You Looking At?) (2007) by glassmaking brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre. Blending references to Mexican folk art and contemporary pop culture, they incor­porate a wide range of imagery into their thickly ornamented work, such as the Aztec calendar stone and the famed masked Mexican wrestlers of lucha libre.

The stories and artworks found in Crafting America are endless. Seen together, they tell an expansive and insightful story of American art through modern and contemporary craft.

Glass, metal, and mixed-media sculpture by Elnar and Jamex de la Torre
Einar de la Torre (b.1963) and Jamex de la Torre (b. 1960), ¿Qué me ves? (What Are You Looking At?), 2007, blown glass, cast resin, and found objects on painted plasma-cut aluminum, 48 x 48 x 8 in. Arkansas Art Center Foundation Collection, Purchase, Tabriz Fund. 2008.012

Share Your Craft Story

Add your own craft story to the conversation! Share Your Craft Story is a new community-driven project developed by Crystal Bridges for this exhibition that collects stories about personal connections to craft objects. Everyone is welcome to submit their story by visiting the Crystal Bridges website here. Who knows – you might even see your story on a video display in the Crafting America exhibition!

Get your tickets for Crafting America here. The exhibition opens at Crystal Bridges on February 6, 2021.

Crafting America is sponsored by The Windgate Charitable Foundation (Lead Sponsor), Blakeman’s Fine Jewelry, Phillips, and Morris Foundation, Inc.

Crafting America has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.