This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World

May 13, 2022 — April 2, 2023

Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW)
Quilt featuring the portrait of a woman

This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World showcases the dynamic landscape of American craft today. The exhibition highlights the role that artists play in our world to spark essential conversations, stories of resilience, and methods of activism—showing us a more relational and empathetic world. It centers more expansive definitions and acknowledgments of often-overlooked histories and contributions of women, people of color, and other marginalized communities.

On view at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, This Present Moment activates two floors of gallery space, highlighting 171 artworks from SAAM’s extensive holdings of modern and contemporary craft, in a range of craft mediums from fiber and ceramics to glass and mixed media. These objects deepen the history of the studio craft movement while also introducing contemporary artworks that push the boundaries of what we interpret the handmade to be in the twenty-first century. 

This Present Moment marks the fiftieth anniversary of SAAM’s Renwick Gallery as the nation’s premier museum dedicated to American craft. An anniversary acquisition campaign, begun in 2020, focused on artworks made by a broadly representative and diverse group of American artists and increased the number of Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous and women artists, among others, represented in the nation’s collection. This Present Moment features 135 of these objects, on display at the Renwick Gallery for the first time.

Featured artists include Tanya Aguiñiga, Bisa Butler, Nick CaveDavid Chatt, Sonya Clark, Cristina CordovaCindy DrozdaAlicia EggertJ. Paul FennellAram Han SifuentesCarla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka), Sharon Kerry-Harlan, Ron Ho, Katie HudnallPat KramerSteven Young LeeLinda LopezRoberto LugoWendy MaruyamaTom LoeserJohn MascollConnie MississippiGeorge NakashimaLJ RobertsJudith SchaechterPreston Singletary (Tlingit), Polly Adams SuttonToshiko TakaezuGail Tremblay (Mi’kmaq and Onondaga), Nancy WordenConsuelo Jiménez UnderwoodWanxin Zhang, and many more.

This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World, is organized by Mary Savig, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft; with support from Nora Atkinson, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge for the Renwick Gallery; Anya Montiel, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian; and Elana Hain, collections manager. This exhibition is the latest in a series presented at the Renwick Gallery that reassess what craft is in a modern world.

Exhibition Catalogue

This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World

Publisher
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, in association with D Giles Limited, London
This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World showcases American craft like never before. Accompanying a 2022 exhibition of the same name, it features artists’ stories of resilience, methods of activism, and highlights craft’s ability to spark essential conversations about race, gender, and representation. This book marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, the nation’s preeminent center for the enjoyment of American craft. It honors the history of the American studio craft movement while also introducing progressive contemporary narratives.

Video

Date
  • "This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World" marks the 50th anniversary of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery by celebrating the dynamic landscape of American craft. On view from May 13, 2021, to April 2, 2023, the exhibition features more than 170 artworks from the museum’s permanent collection that push the boundaries what we interpret the handmade to be in the twenty-first century. The exhibition activates both floors of gallery space, highlighting a range of craft mediums from fiber and ceramics to glass and mixed media, and asks the questions, “How have you reimagined your idea of home during the global pandemic?” “How is craft relevant to your life?”

    This Present Moment features artworks made by a broadly representative and diverse group of American artists including Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and women artists who have crafted spaces for daydreaming, stories of persistence, models of resilience, and methods of activism that resonate today. Explore works by artists including Bisa Butler, Sonya Clark, Sharon Kerry-Harlan, Preston Singletary, and Wanxin Zhang, among many others.

     

    - (Mary Savig) This exhibition was conceived to celebrate fifty years of the Renwick Gallery, fifty years of expanding the boundaries of craft and disrupting our expectations of what craft is and what it can do. On view are more than 170 artworks by more than 150 artists. The artworks on view include examples in traditional craft mediums, including fiber clay, metal, glass, and wood. And they also include more experimental works in bison horn, neon, and even discarded plastic. "This Present Moment" inhabits both floors of the museum. The first floor is about centering ourselves in place, and the second floor is centering ourselves in time. The exhibition poses two questions. The first floor asks, "How have you reimagined your idea of home during the global pandemic?" On the second floor, we ask the question, "How is craft relevant to your life?" The global pandemic really required us to recalibrate our entire approach to the fiftieth anniversary exhibition. Our daily life was disrupted by the pandemic. Disruption of everyday life coincided with an eruption of protests. Among these events we wondered, "How can we make an anniversary exhibition relevant and meaningful to our audiences?" We've always followed the lead of artists to help us grapple with uncertain times and to help create a path forward. I was so humbled by the transformative ideas offered by the artists. In a lot of ways, these artworks created unexpected connections across mediums and across time. Putting them together in this exhibition was almost like mapping a constellation in the night sky. And I hope visitors can find their own connections and find their own place in this exhibition. Craft teaches us empathy, it teaches us connections to each other, and we need that, perhaps now more than ever.
    Date
  • On Wednesday, September 14, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted an artist talk with Roberto Lugo. Watch as Roberto Lugo details his studio practice and the intersections of identity, representation, empowerment, and storytelling in his work, now on display at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery in the exhibition This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World. From Sévres porcelain-inspired vessels depicting Frederick Douglass to life-size urns decorated with likenesses of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, Lugo adorns classical pottery forms with portraiture and surface design that incorporate his North Philadelphia roots and hip-hop culture. His hand-painted works reimagine traditional European and Asian ceramics, highlighting themes of poverty, inequality, and racial injustice.

    This program was presented both in person and online as part of SAAM’s annual Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series, which highlights excellence and innovation in American art with outstanding artists, critics, and scholars.

    Date
  •  On Thursday, June 16, 2022, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) hosted Preston Singletary, one of the artists featured in This Present Moment: Crafting A Better World, for an intimate behind-the-scenes look at his studio. Watch the artist discuss how he uses unconventional materials and traditional Tlingit designs to combat prescriptive assumptions about Native art and artists. In this program, Singletary takes the viewers on a tour of his studio and provides insight into his work and artistic process. 

    Date
  • On Thursday, September 22, 2022, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) hosted artist and educator Chawne Kimber on a virtual tour through her studio. Kimber discussed how she draws upon her family history for inspiration to create contemporary fiber art. Inspired by the quilts her relatives made in the late 1800s, Kimber interprets traditional forms in an improvisational style using vibrant modern colors. Combining minimal self-portraits in a street- art style, Kimber uses quilts to respond to current race-related social justice issues. She is one of the featured artists in This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World, on view at the SAAM’s Renwick Gallery from May 13, 2022 – April 2, 2023.

    Start time

    Celebrated artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood discusses craft, textile art, her creative process, and her Chicana and Huichol heritage. Underwood is joined in conversation by Nora Atkinson, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Underwood’s artwork tells powerful stories centering on borders and identity from her American, Mexican, and Indigenous perspectives. By combining traditional fiber art techniques with untraditional materials such as barbed wire and safety pins, Underwood’s large-scale installations and weavings explore border crossings—from the physical crossing of the US-Mexico border to social, spiritual, and artistic borders as well.
     
    This program was part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s annual Director’s Circle Dinner in 2022. 

    SAAM Stories

    Upcoming Programs

    Media - 2021.21 - SAAM-2021.21_3 - 143075

    Virtual Studio Tours
    Stay tuned for a chance to go behind-the-scenes into the studios of artists featured in This Present Moment. Learn about their work and creative process in a series of free virtual tours. Sign up for our email list to be one of the first to be notified when registration is open.

    Thursday, December 8, 7 p.m. ET - Katie Hudnall 
    Thursday, February 16, 7 p.m. ET - David Harper Clemons

    New Acquisitions

    Through the Renwick Gallery 50th Anniversary Acquisition Campaign, begun in 2020, SAAM has brought more than 200 objects by leading craft artists into its permanent collection. This Present Moment features 135 of these artworks.

    Visual Descriptions

    Warrior with Color Face

    Artist
    Verbal Description

    Made of highly textured, unrefined clay, this life-size figure of a man stands a little over six feet tall, with slumped shoulders and a face splattered with multicolored paint. His expression is inscrutable. His hair has been tied in a topknot, which droops to the right side of his head, as if beginning to fall. A red smear stains the man’s chin and mouth. Blue paint drips over his nose and deeply set eyes. A splash of yellow covers his forehead. The stripes seem to have been applied with a liquid glaze, as each color has dripped and mixed with the color below. As a result, these stripes merge and blend together.

    The rest of the figure, from his neck to his feet, remains unpainted. Most of the figure is light beige, though splotches of tan and brown blemish his hands and knees. The surface of this sculpture is rough clay with cracks, crevices, and cuts. The bulky shape of the figure suggests the man may be wearing layers of clothes, or perhaps a suit of armor.

    The Birth of Eve

    Verbal Description

    This stained-glass window is composed of two stacked squares containing contrasting images. The images are divided by a thick silver band and framed with a gradient of yellow and orange. It is four and a half feet tall and two and a half feet wide.

    In the middle of the top square, floating atop a dark rusty brown background, is a woman in an upside-down fetal position. The woman’s naked body shines an unnatural silvery blue that stands out against the dark background. She seems to be suspended in water, with medium length red hair that flows up over her head. The proportions of this woman are skewed, almost as if she is half adult, half fetus. Her expression appears anguished, with eyes that roll up into the back of her head and are marked with drooping bags. Five equidistant silver lines begin behind the woman and spiral outward to the edges of the window.

    Intricate patterns of multicolored and many-hued overlapping flowers fill the lower square. A dull, earthy red dominates the image, contrasted by a smattering of bright blues and oranges.  The same silver lines that divide the top section create a randomized pattern among the flowers.

    Salish Clam Basket

    Verbal Description

    A large basket stands about seventeen inches tall and approximately nineteen inches wide. It is made from frosted white glass and mimics the shape of a Salish clamming basket. Sparsely spaced vertical and horizontal glass ribs weave and intertwine to create the basket’s shape.  There are large gaps left between the intertwined ribs, theoretically allowing water to flow out while holding the clams inside the basket. 

    At the bottom of the vessel sit thirteen glass clams. Some of the clams are made from the same frosted white glass as the basket. Other clams are made of clear glass. Occupying one large gap near the bottom of the basket, an etching in black ink stands out against the icy white sculpture. The etching depicts a woman on the shore with her clamming basket.

    Portrait of Resilience, from the Flag Series

    Verbal Description

    A large eight-foot-tall, seven-foot-wide quilt featuring an abstract portrait of a girl at center. The background is filled with thick, black geometric patterns, like repeating wheels, diamonds, and three-petaled flowers, that stand in contrast against a splotchy light-brown ground.

    The girl’s face is narrow and oblong. Her skin matches the color and texture of the background, but it is filled with more solid, black shapes. She stares directly at us with large, dark-brown almond-shaped eyes outlined with eyelids of sparkly gold. The right eye has thick light-brown lashes that radiate from it, and it sits slightly below the left eye. A bold, light-brown eyebrow sits above the left eye. Her nose is long with a wide end and is comprised of patchwork American flag fabric. Just beneath her nose, her full lips, also made up of patchwork American flag fabric, are slightly parted to reveal the bottom edges of her top teeth. Her ears resemble the halves of peanut shells. A long, gold earring dangles from her right ear. It ends with a circular pendant containing an American flag patch and it is outlined in black with spindly spikes resembling the COVID-19 particle.

    Her long neck extends from small, rectangular shoulders. She wears a colorful shirt made up of patchwork diamond shapes of variously patterned red, blue, white, gray, and green fabrics. It has a lace collar. A glittery faux-leather golden necklace with “2020” dangling at center hangs from her neck. 

    Finally, from the top left side of her head, a large bubble braid gently curves downward, along the shape of her face, and falls just above her shoulder. It is topped with a bow outlined in white and filled with bright orange, yellow, and blue patterned kente fabric. Each bubble gets progressively smaller as the braid curves down the side of her face. The bubbles in the braid have the same shape as the earring—the shape of the COVID-19 particle with protruding thin spikes with circular ends. Some of the bubbles contain small patchwork American flag fabric. Smaller orange bows sit between every two bubbles.

    Ononkwashon: a/Medicine Plants

    Verbal Description

    A face mask of black velvet trimmed in rows of small, colorful beads and decorated with strawberries, flowers, and other plants. In the top left corner, embroidered white beads form “C-19,” and, below that, “2020.” Directly underneath, in the bottom left corner, a white beaded “sky dome” is made up of a simple half circle with a spout-like line of beads coming out of the top. Next to it, at right, several long lines of turquoise beads radiate from a few short orange lines. They reach outward and toward the center of the mask. Another white sky dome sits at the bottom center, and another one sits at the bottom right corner.

    Nine strawberries are scattered across the mask. Most are small and two have long, curling green stems. A larger strawberry is embroidered at the top, just left of the center nose bridge. A flower with rounded white petals and a yellow center sits at the other side, just right of center. Below the flower, near the bottom right of the mask, is a pine tree embroidered in green beads. Finally, lining the edge of the mask are neat rows of beads in yellow, orange, red, and white, on the outermost edge. Within the bottom band is a rope of braided sweetgrass with a few colored beads placed throughout. Bright white leather straps attached to the mask contrast with the soft black background of the mask itself.

    Nut Case

    Verbal Description

    A portable wooden sculpture made up of a tall structure that supports a flat case with its lid propped open, revealing many acorns placed inside. When the petite case is closed, the sculpture stands a little under three and a half feet tall, two and a half feet long, and a little over one foot deep. The case’s irregular geometric shape mimics the top of a grand piano. Its top is made of wide, light brown wooden slats, which are stabilized with thinner, darker brown pieces affixed to the outer surface. The scaffold-like structure underneath is also made from a darker wood.

    A multitude of dividers, made up of small squares, sits within the case. Each light-colored square contains an acorn or two resting on a layer of felt. It contains 178 acorns in all. Set within the right bottom corner of the lid is a small porthole, through which a few acorns peek through when the case is closed.

    Night Blooming Serious

    Artist
    Verbal Description

    With its thin, lightly ruffled, and delicately upturned edges, this inky black wooden bowl roughly resembles the head of a flower. It is about fifteen and a half inches in diameter with a depth of five inches. Six raised, dark amber teardrops line the satiny-slick inside walls of the bowl, separating them into equidistant, petal-like sections. Each teardrop is outlined in a textured black pattern that connects at the bottom of the bowl to form a six-pointed star shape. At the center lies a pile of tiny overlapping black spheres that create a texture similar to caviar, or fish eggs.

    The teardrop pattern repeats around the outside of the bowl, with each teardrop tapering as it reaches the bowl’s base. At the outer base, a short, black, fang-shaped leg sits between each of the six tapered ends. The points of the five fangs support the weight of the bowl.

    Monarch Nation

    Verbal Description

    A delicate sculpture covered in monarch butterflies, in the shape of a large feather arching up in the middle and balancing on its two ends. About one foot long, the three-inch-wide half of the sculpture is like an elongated, downward facing ladle. The other half is a skinny, curving rod. A shiny deep black color covers most of the handle, the surface underneath the ladle shape, and outlines the ladle’s top surface.

    On the top surface, underneath the butterflies, the background is a rough texture made up of tiny black-and-white dots indented into the surface. Sitting slightly raised on top of this gray texture, several large monarch butterflies overlap one another in different ways, as if the butterflies are in flight. Their wings are bright orange with black lines. There are white spots around the outer sections of the wings. The shiny surface of each butterfly contrasts with the dotted, rougher background.

    Lungs

    Artist
    Verbal Description

    This delicate glass sculpture forms the shape of the human respiratory system. The lungs are a foot tall and nine inches wide with a depth of approximately four inches. The windpipe, which extends upward from the center of the sculpture, is a fleshy pink tube with a ribbed texture. At center, the windpipe splits into two thinner bronchial tubes that mirror each other, forming a wide wishbone shape. From each of these smaller tubes sprout numerous thin, colorless glass branches, which in turn sprout others. This creates a radiating network of stems and tiny buds that mimics the overall shape of a pair of lungs. Enclosed within this network are bouquets of tiny delicate glass flowers that blossom from the bronchial tubes like alveoli. The foundational bright pink windpipe and bronchial tubes stand out through the maze of clear glass. 

    Juicy

    Artist
    Verbal Description

    A highly textured ceramic vase with portraits of rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, surrounded by bold patterns in vibrant colors. Standing about twenty inches tall, the vase has a narrow bottom that balloons outward in the middle, at about nine inches in diameter, before sharply narrowing again near the top to form a thick rim. Dark gray busts of Shakur and Biggie form two handles, which reach thirteen inches across. The matte, rough texture of the busts contrast with the shiny golden crown placed atop Biggie’s head. Both rappers have serious expressions.

    A black-and-white painted portrait of Tupac decorates one side of the vase’s body. A wreath of shiny golden ceramic roses affixed to the surface frame Tupac, who lifts his head slightly toward the right while looking down toward the left. A portrait of Biggie is painted on the other side in the same style, also surrounded by a wreath of gold roses. Biggie wears sunglasses and a flat cap.

    The rest of the vase is covered in sections of punchy decorative patterns—like diamonds, spirals, ovals, rainbows, and dots in contrasting color combinations. On the base, hand-painted diamonds, some with alternating bright yellow and black lines, others with yellow dots on light green, vibrate with energy. Along the other side, a black-and-red checkboard pattern is contained within a thick, rectangular coral-colored border. A mix of graffiti-style bubble letters wrap around the vase just above the base. The tall rim is decorated with more shiny golden roses wrapping around it, with green leaves placed underneath, and is topped with a ring of smaller golden roses.

    Drag

    Artist
    Verbal Description

    A large chain made up of ten steel rings covered in discarded plastics. Each ring is slightly larger than the last and looped through one another to create the chain. The largest ring is about two and a half feet wide. The smallest ring is about the size of a bracelet and attaches to the wall, allowing the other rings to slope downward, with the largest one resting on the floor. This gives the impression that the chain is being dragged along the ground.

    The pieces of trash attached to each ring are bright and colorful from a distance. Up close, most pieces are dirty and crumpled. The largest ring is made up of white-colored objects, like Starbucks cups, lids, and bottle caps. The objects within the rings gradually change in color, forming a seamless gradient of light pink to bright pink to bright red at the smallest end. While the trash is arranged to keep the circular shape of the rings intact, ribbons, feathers, and objects of other textures poke out from the sides of the rings.

    Conoid Bench

    Verbal Description

    A bench whose seat is one seven-foot-long smooth slab of wood with its natural, curving edges intact. Three feet deep, the right end of the seat is the widest, and its middle slightly narrows before widening again at the left end. About two and a half feet tall, it rests low on four thin, slightly tapered legs that stand perpendicular to the seat. A backrest is made up of twenty vertical wooden rods, each wider at center and tapered at the ends. The skinny rods connect to a smooth, wider, and slightly concave horizontal piece of wood at the top. While the backrest reaches to the left end of the seat, it doesn’t stretch all the way across to the right, leaving the widest right edge empty. There are no arm rests.

    The natural grain of black walnut varies in shades within the seat; the long edges of the slab are lighter, and the center is a mix of darker shades. The hickory wood of the legs and backrest are more uniform in color. Within the right edge of the seat, a natural notch in the wood slightly interrupts the smooth edge.

    Communion

    Verbal Description

    A massive ceramic pot with thick walls and a color like ebony—a deep, shiny black. This color was created with fired earthenware and a dark glaze. Nearly sixty pounds, this cauldron-like pot is one and half foot round and nearly two feet tall. The lower three-quarters of the outside surface has a rough texture, made up of many carved lines that create a flowing, wavy pattern like woven fabric. About three quarters of the way up, the form slightly indents and the texture changes to a smooth, shiny surface. The large rim of the pot has an open chain-like design made up of intersecting loops that lean slightly to the left. The inside of the pot is smooth, and the glaze is like a glittering bronze. At the bottom, there is a gently carved spiral.  

    Celestial Body

    Verbal Description

    Suspended from the ceiling is a large, irregularly shaped object, roughly five feet tall with a depth of about fifteen inches. It hangs from a point at the top and gently widens. It narrows in the center, then widens again, before tapering off to another point at the bottom. Short wires stick out from the surface of the form and wind in a spiral down its entire length. Beneath this prickly surface there is a dense pattern like that of a steel wool sponge. Made entirely of tangled bronze, brass, and aluminum wires, the floating object has several layers. The outer layer is a translucent bronze, revealing within it a darker bronze core that mimics the overall shape of the object. This core has a denser texture and is roughly half the size of the object that contains it. The multiple dimensions and shape of this floating object might call to mind the form of a cocoon or chrysalis.

    Credits

    This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World is organized by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    Generous support is provided by Carl and Jan Fisher, Shelby and Fred Gans, the James Renwick Alliance for Craft, and Ann Kaplan and Robert Fippinger.

    The catalogue is made possible by Cindy Miscikowski. 

    Additional support is provided by Alturas Foundation, Elizabeth Broun Curatorial Endowment, Sharon and Bob Buchanan, Sheila Burke, Billings and John Cay, Faye and Robert Davidson Jr., DLR Group, Elizabeth and James Eisenstein, Mary Anne Fray, Cary J. Frieze, The Galena-Yorktown Foundation, Michael and Heather Greenbaum, Chris G. Harris, Cecily and Bannus Hudson, Maureen and Gene Kim, Colleen and John Kotelly, Joseph P. Logan, Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman, Eleanor T. Rosenfeld, Dorothy Saxe in memory of George Saxe, Maggie and Dick Scarlett, Barbara Tober, Judith S. Weisman, Myra and Harold Weiss, Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth, and Todd Wingate and Steven Cason.