Craft exhibit shows art with function

By Larissa Gula

“Hand Made: Contemporary Craft in Ceramic, Glass and… “Hand Made: Contemporary Craft in Ceramic, Glass and Wood”

Balcony Gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art

4400 Forbes Ave.


Two Pitt students couldn’t take any classes about crafts at Pitt, but they did learn about them working on a new exhibition in the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Jennifer Lue and Marie Williams, both senior art history majors, went to work as research interns, writing notes, biographies and a glossary for an exhibition of handmade crafts. The exhibition, titled “Hand Made: Contemporary Craft in Ceramic, Glass and Wood”, displays crafts such as a handmade tea pot and a rocking chair.

Pitt studio arts professor JoAnna Commandaros explained that crafts are artistic goods that also have a practical purpose in people’s lives.

“Most of the craft history comes from some kind of utilitarian or some kind of functional background,” she said, giving the examples of metalwork — referred to in the art world as small metals — and pots.

The “Hand Made” exhibit was a long time in the making and features about 100 pieces by artists of multiple nationalities collected over a period of years, said Rachel Delphia, the assistant curator of decorative arts and design.

“In the last decade and a half we began collecting more glass, and in the last five years we made the decision to collect wood as well,” she said. “With some old collections and traditions that have been going on for a long time, we had a real opportunity to showcase craft and to show people what we have across the board.”

The pieces in the art exhibit were created over a period stretching from the 1960s to 2009. While other handmade pieces are on display in permanent exhibits in the art museum year-round, “Hand Made” allows a narrow and in-depth focus on a span of 50 years, Delphia said.

Lue, who is also an English writing major, said in an e-mail that she’s learned not just about how to put together an exhibit, but also more about crafts.

“Decorative arts doesn’t regularly get taught at the undergraduate level here at Pitt … and I think it often, unfortunately, gets stigmatized as lesser than “fine arts” like painting and sculpture,” Lue said. “Working on the “Hand Made” exhibition helped me understand the amount of sheer labor and technical skill that goes into creating these pieces.”

Commandaros agrees with Lue that Pitt does not have classes specifically targeted at learning crafts,  partly because of resource constraints. But she said that many classes teach the basics of craft work — such as ceramics and fiber work — and that interested students can take a directed study course with a professor to gain skills in that art form.

As for the stigma against crafts, Commandaros feels that the arts have come a long way, explaining that when she went to school, she was not allowed to major in both sculpture and small metals.

“I think my generation and the generations before me had to really fight for there to be not a distinction [between “crafts” and “fine arts”] within the university settings within academia,” the professor said.

Delphia said the functionality and commonness of crafts that might have caused a stigma in the past can actually help people relate to the exhibit. Most of the material used is ceramic, wood or glass, with only “trace amounts” of other materials, explained Delphia. She said that the materials in the exhibit might be more “accessible” to viewers than those of other pieces.

“Most of these are mediums we remember as children in art classes,” Delphia said. “People have a sense of what clay feels like. We also have so many ceramic objects in our lives that we look at them and appreciate them as objects and as tools in our homes. This isn’t always the case. There are things in the museum you can only imagine in the museum. But these could come home with you.”

Lue and Williams were impressed by the talent on display in the gallery by the end of the project.

“You have to perfect the process, and that takes years and years of work and sometimes groups of people to complete,” Lue said, explaining that many artists in the past taught themselves how to work with these mediums because of an overall lack of education or mentors in the field.

“The sheer amount of work that goes into turning a wooden bowl or creating a ceramic vessel is just mind-blowing,” Williams said. “I definitely think that people don’t necessarily appreciate these mediums in the same manner that people appreciate painting or sculpture, because the result is not codified as being exclusively an art object.”

This art exhibit also features interactive technology. Touch screens similar to those currently found in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History display material put together by Lue and Williams.

Delphia has hopes that visitors will go home inspired to dabble in the crafts field themselves.

“The main idea for me is really that there’s something new possible, even with what we think as the most traditional techniques,” Delphia said. “They strike us somehow whether in form or color or the way it was created. It’s endless creativity.”

Natalie Bell contributed to this report.