Well after a few months delving into the craft, landscape and culture of Tajikistan, I wanted to return to a topic both familiar and exotic to me. Although I have been studying craft for about four years now, most of my investigation has been focused on India and other international crafts. Other than the occasional craft museum visit or magazine article, I have spent little time truly looking at the American craft tradition. And even further, I have yet to open my eyes to the rich craft traditions sitting on my doorstep.
For about the past two years I have worked in Connecticut, but with my attention solely on international crafts I hadn’t bothered to merely open my eyes to the traditions of America contained within Connecticut craft traditions. So upon opening my eyes this month to lead a brief investigation I was surprised to find a healthy contemporary craft scene providing both an outlet for creativity and a source of income for Connecticut artisans.
Being positioned in the Northeast coast, Connecticut was a seat of much of early American history. Along with being the fifth state to sign the American constitution, it is home to such American items as the first public library, the first hamburger, the first Frisbee and the first lollipop, as well as some other greats like the first Ph.D. and the artificial heart. And contemporary Connecticut artisans have carried on this great tradition of innovation and today fill-up the galleries and museums line both historic and new towns throughout the state.
A few of these artisans were recently highlighted in a Connecticut Cultural and Special Events Guide published by the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. Some of the artisans that piqued my interest included Kari Lonning, a contemporary basket maker. Kari, a world renown weaver, creates colorful and intricate baskets that call to mind images of Southern Africa. (http/www.karilonning.com) Kari also works with experimental sculptures and has authored a book on the art of basketry. Her baskets are evocative of both the traditions of Africa and the trends of contemporary America, linking together the geometric patterns with bright funky colors and styles.
Ted Esselstyn, another vibrant Connecticut artisan, creates whimsical wooden sculptures, furniture and public installations throughout the state. His pieces are colorful and imaginative, taking ordinary functional furniture and walls to new levels. (http:/tedesselstyn.com) Ted’s brilliant murals and functional sculptures bring the imaginations and dreams of children to life. Some of Ted’s creations are aptly installed in children’s museums, hospitals and libraries.
On the other end of the whimsical spectrum is Ann Mallory who creates more stoic images that focus on form and shape highlight the sensuality of objects. Ann’s ceramic and multi-media objects are both beautiful and somber, reminding the viewer that even ordinary objects have depth and meaning. Ann also creates Contemplation vessels from ceramic and bronze. These vessels, textured ceramic pieces, suggest a sense that is both inviting through their size and texture and isolating through their sealed off openings.
Although Connecticut is host to a number of rich histories in American aesthetic traditions including quilting, wood working, basket making, embroidery and more, contemporary New England artisans have carried these traditions into the modern economy and society. These artisans still draw heavily on the same inspirations as early American artisans and still use some of the same media and techniques. Aside from the few artisans that I mention only briefly above there are many more contemporary American artisans that continue creating in the traditions of the American past, conveying stories and composing history with every stitch, wood shaving and woven reed.