Russell Biles’ “Gatorland”
photo Tim Barnwell.
Crooked white choppers protrude from pale pink lips that spread into a wide grin you can’t resist returning. Chubby cheeks and a cleft chin enhance the friendly face, urging you to look into a pair of twinkling eyes. But this dude doesn’t have eyes—just a ridged green rim reminiscent of a bandana, and a huge solitary ear.
Truth is, the “ear” is a handle, and the friendly face is a handcrafted mug, not a blindfolded pirate.
The creator of this one-of-a-kind ceramic piece clearly had a sense of humor. The buyer will get a smile with his morning coffee. But is it art?
It’s craft, says artist Brigitte Martin of Connecting Road. Martin, who trained as a goldsmith in her native Germany, creating and repairing precious jewelry, is the author of “Humor in Craft,” a coffee table book that features the “Smug Mug” on its cover. Filled with images from professional craft artists all over the world who work in media such as fiber, glass, jewelry, furniture and metal, the book “reveals an entirely different side of serious craft,” the jacket notes.
“I wanted the mug on the cover from the start,” says Martin, explaining that her goal was to “build a bridge” —to transcend the object’s utilitarian function and show that it is more than a mug.
Thirty-three works by crafters featured in her book are on display at the Humor in Craft World Premiere Exhibition, curated by Martin, which runs through October 27 at the Society for Contemporary Craft on Smallman Street in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Be prepared to smile and maybe even guffaw as you enjoy “highly ironic, political, sarcastic and just plain amusing work,” promotional materials warn.
Although many people enjoy creating—and buying— crocheted blankets, country kitchen plaques or stained glass sun catchers, you won’t find that sort of thing in the society’s show. On exhibit are works by trained artists, most of whom have a BFA or MFA.
For a long time, humor was “the dark secret of the craft world,” Martin says, because it [humor] is not an academic topic—not taken seriously: “Craft was trying so hard to be accepted by the fine art world, the humor was left to the hobbyist.”
But that is changing, in part because of crafthaus, an international web-based community of crafters that Martin founded in 2008, shortly after she moved here with her husband, Paul, a jazz trombonist who works for Mylan. With daughter Monica, now a ninth grader, and son Christopher, now a sixth grader, Martin was able to work out of her home studio and exhibited at several galleries, but she missed being part of a community of artists. “We had moved around so much,” she says. “I had no friends, no contacts—I was isolated.”
A NPR show about Facebook and social networking inspired her. “I thought, ‘you can do this on your own,’” she says. She spent a weekend learning html, designed her own website (www.crafthaus.ning.com) and by the end of the year had enrolled 1,000 crafters from around the world in crafthaus. The social networking site, which has a membership fee of $25 a year, encourages professional craft artists to share their techniques, help one another solve design problems and discover kindred spirits.
People need to apply to join. “I’m not looking for hobbyists; I’m looking for people who have some sort of training,” says Martin who spends her days emailing and Skyping to her online community. She describes herself as a sort of “den mother” who helps artists make connections with one another that they might not otherwise see. For instance, if she sees a ceramicist using a technique more typical of metal work, she might put that artist in touch with a silversmith. “It’s not about me; what I love is the connections people make,” she says, noting that two crafthaus members—one from Japan the other from Turkey—found a commonality in their work and put on a joint exhibition in Turkey.
As membership doubled and the site evolved, Martin began showcasing seven artists a week, choosing a theme—vessels, mugs or black and white, for instance. In searching for images to reflect the theme, she was surprised and delighted to find that many of the works she chose had a humorous component.
“Whether it was unusual materials or colors, exaggeration, or the way the artist spoke about the work, it was obviously funny,” she says. The treasure trove of humorous work she discovered on crafthaus ultimately led to the new book, published by Schiffer and available at major bookstores or online for $50, and to the exhibition at the Society for Contemporary Craft.
In addition to several hundred handsome photographs of whimsical, funky craft by contemporary artists, the 250-page book also offers five essays that “provide an overview on the topic of craft from various perspectives,” Martin says. At the back of the book, each artist also describes his or her own work.
The “backword” at the front the book titled “What Are You Laughing At?” centers on a photo of a poker-faced Martin reclining in Pharaoh’s Chair. The chair is a work from the Society for Contemporary Craft’s permanent collection created from a found chair, red fabric and bottle caps by the late Mr. Imagination (Gregory Warmack). A little off-center, a little off-kilter, the photograph is compelling, and its caption neatly sums up the book’s message:
“Humor is the dessert of life itself.”—Patz Fowler.
For information about the Society for Contemporary Craft exhibit, visit www.contemporarycraft.org.