- PHOTO COURTESY OF PBS
- TOTALLY PUMPED: The design for potter Jeff Oestrich’s “beaked pitcher” was inspired by a pump in his grandfather’s cabin in rural Minnesota.
It’s a little bit like painting with material,” says sculptor, designer, activist, and textile artist Tanya Aguiñiga in Crossroads, episode nine of PBS’s 12-part Craft in America series. In this episode, which screens at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art on Monday, May 19 at 7 p.m., three instances of border crossings in American fine craft are explored: the aforementioned Aguiñiga, Berkeley-based textile artist Lia Cook, and American apprentices of the Hamada-Leach pottery in England.
Each film in SLOMA’s monthly screening series is chosen for its connection to a current or upcoming exhibit. In this case, Craft in America’s creator and Executive Producer, Carol Sauvion, will be the juror for the upcoming Central Coast Craftmakers biennial at SLOMA, Dimensions, which takes place in the fall. This screening coincides with the entry period for the show, which closes on June 20. Sauvion also founded the Freehand gallery in Los Angeles, which specializes in “functional” fine craft.
Aguiñiga, too, calls LA one of her several homes. From large-scale fiber installations to metal folding chairs labor-intensively covered in wool felt, Aguiñiga’s art explores the intersection of American design and Mexican artisanship. She split her time growing up between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, Calif., going on to receive her MFA from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Aguiñiga runs a jewelry studio in the Atwater Village neighborhood—hand dyeing knotted necklaces and woven rope bracelets with the help of her sisters and students from Otis College of Art and Design, where she teaches—to support her more conceptual works.
In a faculty profile on Otis’ website, Mimi Zeiger recounts a performance that Aguiñiga enacted using a backstrap weaving belt, a method used by women in Chiapas, Mexico. “Dressed in traditional Mexican garments,” Zeiger describes, “she attached the belt first to a parking meter and then, when asked by police to move, to a tree in front of the sign reading ‘Welcome to Beverly Hills.’” While this particular performance isn’t covered by the documentary, the intersection of the aesthetic and the political is evident everywhere in Aguiñiga’s work. From bringing wool felting technique to areas with no electricity, to her installation piece Crossing the Line at LA’s Craft and Folk Art Museum (which filled a room with brightly-colored, inextricable layers of string), every gesture of Aguiñiga’s art involves and implicates its intended audience.
“Craft has been malnourished,” Zeiger quotes Aguiñiga as saying. “The origins of the materials need to be told.”
In addition to Aguiñiga’s origins, those of three Midwestern ceramicists—Warren Mackenzie, Clary Illian, and Jeff Oestreich—are also told. All three spent time between the ’50s and the ’70s as apprentices in the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, England. Bernard Leach was an English draftsman and potter raised in the far East who teamed up with a Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada, to open a Western studio run on Eastern principles. A further crossing of borders resulted when Mackenzie, Illian, and Oestreich brought these techniques back to the States, and began to diverge from them in creating their own work. The result is three potteries with widely varied work that still retains the spirit of Leach, Hamada, and of the Japanese potters for whom, as Mackenzie says, “it just had to be right.”
The final artist profiled in Crossroads is Lia Cook, a weaver based in Berkeley, Calif. Although she traveled to Sweden to train at a very traditional weaving school in order to learn her craft, she now works on the border of art and science, using digital technology alongside painstaking hand work to transform family photographs into dramatic tapestries. Cook’s fascination with the intersection of art and science led her to the artist-in-residence program at Greg Siegle’s depression lab at the University of Pittsburg, literally mapping the brain’s responses to creative activity.
“We study emotional disorders, we study emotion,” Siegle says in explaining the program, “and yet, as psychologists and psychiatrists, we’re given very little training in how to generate emotion. Artists have that training, so we bring them in, and they teach us about what it means to create something that generates emotion.”
As with any process-focused documentary, the pleasure of witnessing the actual making of a piece is far greater than the limited analysis provided by the documentarians. This is a “show, not tell” kind of film that will inspire viewers not only to reevaluate the techniques behind the fine craft they see on gallery walls, but also those that went into making the objects they use from day to day. That pinch pot you picked up in a thrift store or that serape you bought at the Olvera Street market in LA just got a whole lot more meaningful.
Arts Editor Erin C. Messer potters around at email@example.com.