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"Masters of Their Craft: Highlights of the Smithsonian American Art Museum" Celebrates the American Creative Spirit

Media only:
Laura Baptiste (202) 275-1595
Amy Mannarino (202) 275-1592
Web site:
Public only: (202) 357-2700

"Masters of Their Craft: Highlights of the Smithsonian American Art Museum" features 50 artworks that illuminate the vast creative spirit that is a hallmark of contemporary crafts. Marked by the diversity of artistic expression and approaches to materials, these artworks testify to a renaissance in American studio crafts. This exhibition opens at the Georgia Museum of Art on Sept. 13.

Crafts emphasize materiality—clay, glass, fiber, wood, metal—and the technical means by which the properties of these materials are manipulated. Imaginative conceptions and technical mastery combine in dazzling works by "masters of the medium" such as Dale Chihuly, Albert Paley, Peter Voulkos, Beatrice Wood and Betty Woodman. They are complemented by Richard Marquis, Judy McKie, Richard Mawdsley, Wayne Higby and John McQueen, among many more.

"These are among the very finest American studio crafts, displaying virtuoso technique and a creative approach to materials," said Elizabeth Broun, the museum's Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Best of all, they appeal to every one of us through their references to traditional functional objects."

"The works of art shown in 'Masters of Their Craft' can be enjoyed on several levels, from the purely visual to the tactile to relationships of things we take for granted in our daily lives," said Kenneth Trapp, curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery. "A common thread in craft is the ritualized object—works that suggest application to a codified ritual but are in themselves no part of an accepted ritual."

The contemporary crafts movement is a fairly recent phenomenon, although the origins of the art can be traced to prehistoric time. Evolving from ancient workshops, medieval guild trades and the Industrial Revolution, which gave rise to the very industries associated with crafts today, studio crafts often pay homage to function at the same time that they discard utility as a concern. For example, Michelle Holzapfel's turned wooden "Bound Vase" (1989) of cherry burl cannot hold anything in its interior, and the exterior is carved to look like cloth. As one of the few women to have achieved success in the male-dominated field of wood turning, her art often refers to the domestic lives of women. The basic components of this object, a vase and a cloth wrap, imply that in our culture beauty and ornamentation are often associated with women.

Chihuly demonstrates how contemporary craft artisans look at past techniques and make them modern by paying tribute to the glass-making traditions practiced in Venice since the 14th century. The vessel on view, "Cobalt and Gold Leaf Venetian" (1993), is an intense cobalt blue glass, which when lighted, glows as though alive. Adding to the brilliance of the piece is the gold leaf—concentrated in some areas to suggest pollen floating on water. The piece is unabashedly excessive in its exuberant decorativeness.

Like Chihuly, Woodman draws from the past as well as from other cultures for inspiration. "Kimono Vases: Evening" (1990) are earthenware works exploring the progression of sunlight. One side is glazed with dark colors reminiscent of night, and the other side has pastel hues evoking dusk or dawn. The artist energizes the two vases by applying forms that evoke flowing kimono sleeves. These vases show her use of Italian majolica painting and Japanese costume and textile traditions.

Mary Adams' masterpiece, "Wedding Cake Basket" (1986), weaves the western European ritual of the wedding cake with splint basket making practiced by the Iroquoian peoples since the late 18th century. It is composed of four layers that rise in a conical pyramid ending in a bell-shaped top crowned by arches that support two bells. With its prominent spiral projections, the surface texture of "Wedding Cake Basket" suggests the luscious cream frosting covering the most elaborate ceremonial wedding confections.

Kent Raible's work suggests a court tradition of jewelry that flourished when royal families patronized particular jewelry makers. "Floating City" (1996) is a fantasy constructed of gold and chrome, and gemstones such as diamonds, sapphires and amethysts. When Raible conceived of the pendant, he had in mind the lost city of Atlantis. The miniature city resembles a spaceship in a science-fiction film. The extended blue chalcedony, for example, looks like it might begin to glow at any moment, a force for good.

To accompany the exhibition, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is publishing a lavishly illustrated souvenir book, "Masters of Their Craft: Highlights of the Smithsonian American Art Museum," written by Kenneth R. Trapp, curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retailing for $19.95, the book will feature 52 color illustrations and brief discussions of the individual artworks in the exhibition. The book will be available for purchase at Smithsonian Stores, including the Renwick Gallery's Museum Store and on the museum's Web site.

"Masters of Their Craft: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" is one of five exhibitions featuring the museum's collections that are touring the nation through 2005. The tour is supported in part by the Smithsonian Special Exhibitions Fund.

More information and full itineraries for each exhibition in the tour "Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" can be found on the museum's Web site at

The Smithsonian American Art Museum collection began with gifts of art donated to the federal government in 1829 and has evolved into the world's most important American art holdings with approximately 40,000 artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries.

While the renovation of the museum's historic building continues, American Art offers a full program of exhibitions at its Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.). For information about Renwick Gallery activities, call (202) 357-2700 or visit the museum's award-winning Web site at