March 31, 2011

Insight into Commonplace Artist Barbara Smith’s Keys

Barbara Smith has work in the current Artist Hall exhibition, Commonplace: Objects by Barbara Smith & Ryan Takaba, which ends Sunday, April 3, 2011. Smith recently received her MFA in Metal from State University of New York-New Paltz. She was gracious enough to take the time to explain her thoughts and process behind her works, which use a very common object: keys. 

Barbara Smith, TR47 USA, SC4, DO NOT DUPLICATE, Brown, (blank), Master, 622, DO NOT COPY SC9 (J&L), Chicago, Illinois, COO68, (blank), (blank), Master, DO NOT DUPLICATE, J, 23, AR4, USA1, GM, E71.
Brass, steel, masonite, pine, paint. 2010.
Photo by Ashley Powell, HCCC.

What do we do when a key becomes obsolete? When we move, get a new car, or buy a new padlock? Keys are familiar and intimate objects.  We carry them in a pocket or a bag. When we are not in transit, we set them aside in a special place.  We search for them when they are lost.  We give or share a key with someone we trust. The keys on a key ring are given order based on function. They are grouped based on place or frequency of use. They get me where I need to go and to where I should be. My key ring contains a narrative that only I can decode.

Barbara Smith, TR47 USA, SC4, DO NOT DUPLICATE, Brown, (blank), Master, 622, DO NOT COPY SC9 (J&L), Chicago, Illinois, COO68, (blank), (blank), Master, DO NOT DUPLICATE, J, 23, AR4, USA1, GM, E71.
Brass, steel, masonite, pine, paint. 2010
Photo by Ashley Powell, HCCC.

To make TR47 USA, SC4, DO NOT DUPLICATE, Brown, (blank), Master, 622, DO NOT COPY SC9 (J&L), Chicago, Illinois, COO68, (blank), (blank), Master, DO NOT DUPLICATE, J, 23, AR4, USA1, GM, E71, I purchased a box of discarded keys.  The box came from Joplin, Missouri, marked “Rattle OK, keys.”  The contents of the box provoked a melancholic adoration.  Organized on rings, the keys were intensely personal assemblages of potential.  For two days I simply looked at the various configurations and reflected upon the individuals who had once used them. To who, where, and what did these keys belong?  Key chains told me about interests, travels, donations, brand loyalty, and banking preferences.  I looked at them long enough to know which set of keys gained two or more people access to the same places.  Here were people’s lives.  These lives were faceless, nameless, and timeless. While these keys could tell me a great deal, there was even more that I could never know. The history contained within them was both strange and familiar. Removing them from the key rings felt like dismantling a life.  The act of disrupting the order was accompanied by an acute sadness.  In touching them, I touched drawers, locks, and hands; in touching them, I did not know what I touched.

Untitled shots of work in progress, photo courtesy of the artist.

Keys are quiet carriers of intimate, personal narratives.  This latent information scattered as I removed the keys from their assigned places on the key rings.  Individual keys became absent and unknowable bodies and spaces. After cutting the blade away from every key, these fragments were recombined to give them a collective life.  I repetitively cut the keys apart and soldered them blade to blade. Progress was measured in small increments: the length of a line grew an inch at a time, and a pile of key heads on my bench grew to be a mound. Hundreds of keys combined to create a new, yet recognizable, form.  People and places met in a linear archive of tactile data.

Untitled shots of work in progress, photo courtesy of the artist.

When I sit down to make, my intention is to account for existence. Keys are intensely personal artifacts of this existence.  In TR47, each blade is a point along a timeline of thought and experience. Time, place, loss, and memory are reconsidered on both an individual and a collective level. When I gather, remake, and recombine keys, I participate in a fiction to both understand my own moment and express an understanding of my eventual absence.

Barbara Smith

March 24, 2011

Listen to the Artists This Weekend at HCCC

When artists are in town installing their work or live nearby, we frequently ask that they give an artist talk for the public. This weekend, you have a chance to stop by Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and listen to two artists speak about their work.

Ryan Takaba, Detail: On to Heaviness.
Porcelain, mums, water, steel pins. 2010 Photo by: Mark Menjivar.

Join us Friday, March 25, at 5:00 p.m. to listen to ceramicist Ryan Takaba talk about his work currently on display in the Artist Hall exhibit, Commonplace: Objects by Barbara Smith & Ryan Takaba, on view through April 3, 2011. Back in February of 2009, American Craft Magazine did a blog post on the work of Ryan Takaba. Watch below for a better understanding of Ryan’s ideas from two years ago, and join us Friday to see how these concepts have evolved.

After Ryan’s talk, please stick around for the opening of Michelle Samour’s exhibition, Truth and Transience, opening in the small gallery, 5:30-8:00 p.m. on Friday, March 25. If you can’t make it to Friday’s events, Michelle will be giving an artist talk on Saturday, March 26, at 11:00 a.m. We hope you will join us for what promises to be an engaging discussion about the process and ideas behind her pulp paper drawings.

Michelle Samour, Reflecting Pools: Beautiful Viruses.
Pigmented hand poured paper/vellum, light. Photo by Robert Schoen.

March 17, 2011

Empty Bowls Nourishes All of Us -- Thoughts from Co-Founder & Chair Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry is a potter and a co-founder and chair of Empty Bowls Houston, which has been held annually since 2005 to benefit the Houston Food Bank. He is a co-founder of ClayHouston, a regional ceramics guild, and has served as President, Secretary, and Treasurer and as co-chair of ClayHouston's first all-clay Festival. Thomas also serves as a docent and as a member of the Board of Directors for the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, where he was also once an artist-in-residence. Here, he shares his thoughts and inspiration for Empty Bowls Houston.

Photo of Thomas Perry by Karen Bruce.
In 2004, I proposed to HCCC staff how wonderful it would be if Houston held an Empty Bowls event and if HCCC would host it. The staff agreed, provided I could enlist the working team. Marie Weichman, Lydia Busch, and I recruited other team members and brought in the Houston Food Bank. At our inaugural event in April 2005, people were waiting in line for HCCC's doors to open. They wanted to help fill the empty bowls of those in need and to fill a need in their own lives for a handmade bowl.

This is just what Marie, Lydia, and I had hoped for. We were building on a tradition that began 20 years ago when a Michigan high-school ceramics class created 120 bowls to raise money for a local food drive, the first-ever Empty Bowls event. We were also building on the millennia-old tradition of bowls being utilized for serving food and drink. What better symbol than the empty bowl to represent the need for nourishment!

Sending out the Call for Bowls is like flipping a switch to activate individuals and groups. Many local college ceramics departments host Bowl-A-Thons, where students, staff, and a few outside potters spend a half day making dozens of bowls. During the following weeks, as students trim, glaze, and fire all these bowls, they improve their skills and gain insight while working on others' bowls as well as their own. Jennifer Herzberg of Baytown's Lee College fosters collaborations—always great learning opportunities—between ceramics and life drawing students, producing bowls decorated inside and out with drawings of the human figure.

SJC Bowl-A-Thon. Photo by Paula Murphy.
Early on, we reached out to the broader craft community, inviting woodturners, fiber artists, glass artists, mosaicists, blacksmiths, and other artists to create bowls. They won't be functional, they argued. It's not about bowl function, we countered, it's about bowl spirit. Artists working in all types of media have accepted the challenge of the bowl, then unleashed their imaginations and problem-solving skills.

We promote Empty Bowls through hands-on and demonstration events, such as HCCC's Hands-On Houston. Kids experience playing with clay and expanding their creativity. And so do adults. More than one father has kept his kids waiting while he completed his second bowl. Urban Harvest Farmers' Market offers us a center space, and we multi-task, making bowls, while explaining what we're doing, how long it takes to make a bowl, and what Empty Bowls is all about. We're educating people about clay and craft, as well as hunger.

Empty Bowls Houston at HCCC. Photo by Paula Murphy.

Empty Bowls Houston at HCCC. Photo by Paula Murphy.
Come to this Saturday's 7th Annual Empty Bowls Houston, 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM, at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and Lawndale Art Center. The event is free, and you can enjoy musicians, demonstrators, and even a stilt-walker. But to really make a difference, purchase one or a dozen handmade bowls, entitling you to a light lunch from Whole Foods Market. For each $25 bowl, you'll help the Houston Food Bank provide 25 people three nutritious meals for a day. And your bowl, forged by hand, passion, and talent, will remind you that you've "taken a bite out of hunger" and will nourish you with the pleasure of owning it, as it once nourished an artist who made it.

To learn more about Thomas Perry and his pottery, visit

March 10, 2011

Metalsmith Lisa Gralnick Speaks about “The Gold Standard”

Earlier this month, Houston Public Radio, KUHF, broadcast Bob Stevenson’s interview with artist and metalsmith, Lisa Gralnick, on their daily arts show, “The Front Row.”  Stevenson interviewed Gralnick when she was in town for the opening of her exhibition, The Gold Standard, which is on view at HCCC through May 28. This interview provides a wonderful overview of the exhibit, and we encourage you to listen to the extended version.

Also, if you want to hear a few one-to-two minute “sound bites” about some highlights from the show, Bellevue Arts Museum has been kind enough to provide audio clips of Lisa Gralnick discussing some of her works. Whether or not you are able to see the show in person, you have a chance to listen to the artist talk about her work and learn a little bit more about the ideas behind this impressive show.

Below are images of the pieces she talks about with an audio file below each image.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part III: Tool, Medical Device or Implement.
Recycled gold, and acrylic, 2007. Photo: Jim Escalante.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part III: Military Brooch, 1940.
Recycle gold, garnets and fragments of gold chain, 2007. Photo: Jim Escalante.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standar Part III: Fourteen Unusually Small Rings.
Recycled gold, gemstones (amethyst, aquamarine, citrine, emerald, green amethyst, moissanite, morganite,
peridot, ruby, sapphire, sunstone, tanzanite, tourmaline), pearls, enamel, and acrylic, 2009. Photo: Jim Escalante.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part III: Foucault’s Panopticon.
Recycled gold, leather, mirror, and acrylic, 2010. Photo: Jim Escalante.

March 4, 2011

College Art Association Annual Conference in New York: A Report from HCCC Curatorial Fellow, Anna Walker (Part II)

On the final day of the conference, Saturday, Feb. 12, I began with the session, Textiles and Social Sculpture, chaired by Hazel Siegel from the Pratt Institute. Three of the four presentations were by artists about their own art and one was by art historian Julie Schlarman, of University of South Dakota, about the public art of Janet Echelman. Echelman creates monumental public sculptures out of high-density polyester fibers, which are frequently used by NASA or engineering companies. She uses traditional knotting techniques practiced by fisherman to fabricate her sculptures. Her public works react to the surrounding natural environment and sometimes include other architectural elements. In her sculpture, Water Sky Garden, created for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, the netted “sky lantern” hangs from a steel structure over a bridge of red painted cedar.

Janet Echelman. Water Sky Garden at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
Painted galvanized steel rings, TENARA® Architectural fiber,
red painted cedar, water fountains. Image courtesy Janet Echelman, Inc.
Photo: Peter Vanderwarker.

Following the presentation by Schlarman, artist Olivia Robinson presented Temporary Spaces for Resistant Histories. She discussed recent projects she and her group, “Spectres of Libery,” have pursued in communities in the Northeast. Robinson’s organization describes itself as “an on-going public, hybrid media project about the history of the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.” The projects she spoke about included The Great Central Depot in the Open City and Ghost of the Liberty Street Church. Both public pieces seek to make visible the history of hidden people and
movements of resistance. Ghost of the Liberty Street Church recreated a demolished church out of inflatable, transparent fabric. In the 1840s, the church was the sight of historic gatherings fighting to abolish slavery under pastor Henry Highland Garnet. I was struck by the soft, almost delicate appearance of the structure as the backdrop for such serious discussions surrounding human civil rights.

Spectres of Libery. Ghost of the Liberty Street Church.

Also presenting on the topic of Textiles and Social Sculpture was artist Elaine Reichek. She spoke about the 16 hand-embroidered samplers displayed in her digital exhibition, madamimadam, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The research for this project was completed while Reichek was an artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in February 2001. The final project was not a traditional exhibition, due to the Gardner Trust’s stipulation that the current display of work had to be permanent and could not to be altered except for purposes of maintenance or loan. To get around this rule, Reichek installed her work on easels, tables and empty spaces on the walls, while the museum was closed. The works were then photographed and, 10 years later, still live on in the original format of a digital exhibition.

After this session, I joined a room of artists, academics, curators and persons interested in craft for the Critical Craft Forum: Platform for Exchange. Co-chairs Namita Wiggers, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and Elisabeth Agro, Curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, led a conversation about how to foster more critical dialogue around craft. After the 2010 CAA conference, many individuals expressed the need for a space to explore and discuss research, exhibitions, ideas and publications surrounding craft. Out of this meeting, the “Critical Craft Forum” was formed on Facebook. Since its initial founding, the group on Facebook has become stagnant. The co-chairs discussed possibly changing the forum from a Facebook group to that of a blog and inviting guest writers to create posts on different issues surrounding craft. A majority of the audience was receptive to this idea, with many of us signing up to volunteer and be part of the next steps of a “Critical Craft Forum.”

Overall, I was excited to attend my first CAA conference and find so many thought-provoking sessions that related to the field of craft. Historically, craft tried to prove itself to the “fine” art world and was frequently overlooked as an amateur art form. It was inspiring to participate in discussions and listen to presentations that are leaving that debate behind and looking ahead to articulate craft’s importance within its own field. Through the development of more research and critical dialogue, craft will become more widely represented in academia and articulate its own place in the field of the visual arts.

Anna Walker
Curatorial Fellow
Houston Center for Contemporary Craft