An exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum showcases contemporary crafts by four exceptional American artists. This biennial exhibition, opening March 25, recognizes living craft artists whose work deserves to be better known.
Though they were born in decades ranging from the 1940s to the 1970s and work in vastly different styles and media, the artists selected this year share similar foundations. “What’s unique about these artists,” says exhibition curator Nicholas Bell, “is an acute understanding of the traditions in their field and of using that to make something entirely new.” Another shared quality is their painstaking creative processes. “These four people will bend over backwards to make something perfect, and they succeed at a very high rate,” Bell observes. “This is some of the best-made work I have ever seen.”
Furniture maker Matthias Pliessnig picks up a curved-steel scraper and, with great concentration, sweeps it across the entire frame of a bentwood bench under construction. Shaved strips fall like droplets from the undulating wave of this 28-foot-long form filling his studio in Northeast Philadelphia. A second piece, its exact opposite, awaits his attention in an adjoining room. While every step is carefully planned, moving between pieces and determining whether a curve goes one way or another “flips the sides of your brain,” he says with self-aware amusement.
Starting with a computer image and progressing though meticulous stages of building, Pliessnig has worked on this commission for more than four months. He expects to finish it in a few weeks; at that point, he will have assembled a grid of 120 wood-strip lengths and 80 cross ribs at 14,000 intersections. All will be secured with wood dowels glued into 3,000 joints.
When smoothed and sanded, these parts and pieces will coalesce in paired volumes of breathtaking scale, grace and unity. The matched benches, his largest to date, are destined for the lobby of a new science center on New York’s Lower East Side.
Just two years after receiving a master of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, Pliessnig has staked a claim to a new frontier in studio furniture.
His formative undergraduate furniture design studies at the Rhode Island School of Design encouraged him to think about unconventional ways to work with wood. “Furniture,” he says, “was the vehicle for what I wanted to do: to bridge the lines between sculpture, design and craft.”
He discovered by chance the technique that has become his trademark. During the summer of 2006, after his first year of graduate school, Pliessnig was experimenting in the woodshop when an engineering student walked in and asked him to cut strips for a boat he wanted to build. The woodworker, who loves boats, obliged. “It was the first time I had ever used steam to bend wood and used the bent wood to create a structure,” he recalls, remembering also his excitement at developing a structural form that “serves a purpose and is inherently beautiful. I was hell-bent on trying to push that as far as I could.”
In his final two years of school, Pliessnig made 23 pieces, perfecting the bentwood process not covered in textbooks. His arduous technique starts with a computer model, using the industrial-design program Rhinoceros. Its line drawings help him visualize the three-dimensional form in space. It also provides dimensions for the first step: building curved plywood stations, molds over which he will position the bent wood.
Once construction begins, he tosses aside computer aids, adapting and adjusting the form to reality. “I tweak the model or move stations around to make it more dynamic,” he explains. “With the computer, you can’t relate your body to it. Even looking at your hand next to a piece makes you see it differently.”
Pliessnig prefers white oak. Lightweight but extremely hard, it bends easily. From flat boards he cuts strips about one-inch wide, one-quarter inch thick, and eight to ten feet long. Each piece, clamped into place, is left to dry overnight, then glued into position. At the end, the entire form is hand-sanded to remove rough edges, then hand-finished. For his recent commission, that process is expected to take two weeks and two people.
So far Pliessnig’s work has explored variations only on seating. He is intrigued with the design challenge of developing a bentwood object’s form and structure, while accommodating the human body’s weight and shape—what he calls “a live load, a dynamic mode.” Following in this bentwood tradition, Pliessnig tackles increasingly complex feats of design and engineering—all inspired by building a boat. “It’s about two curves in space becoming a form,” he says simply.
Potter Cliff Lee looks out his studio window across acres of cornfields reaching to the horizon. “I like the solitude of working in my studio,” he says. “Time goes so fast.”
In fact, time seems to dissolve in this converted 200-year-old stone barn in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Here, Lee has been exploring the legendary art of Chinese porcelain since 1992. His elegant teardrop vases and exquisitely carved lotus and peach-blossom sculptures bring into focus the distant horizon of decorative wares that were prized by emperors, kings and their consorts. Among the few American studio potters working in porcelain, the Renwick’s exhibition catalog notes, Lee “stands alone in his sensitivity to the source and the intensity with which he channels China’s ceramic past into contemporary American work.”
Lee’s art goes back to the earth, as he mixes his own porcelain from kaolin, feldspar and silica. The recipe for this pure white, translucent ceramic body originated in China a millennium ago. It was a coveted secret, only discovered in the West in 1709.
Today, Lee has rediscovered monochromatic glaze formulas rivaling those of Chinese courts. His lustrous Imperial yellow—revealed after 17 years of trials—metallic oil-spot, opalescent oxblood, fine-lined crackle and jade-like celadon enrich the surfaces of his pure, sculpted pieces. An innovative lava glaze suggests dimensional moon rock or the sea’s foam surface.
Hundreds of natural chemicals such as copper, cobalt, manganese and iron are refined through Lee’s art. “Some ingredients come as rock and I pulverize them,” he says. “It is so difficult, but chemistry comes very natural to me.”
Once a practicing neurosurgeon, Lee took pottery classes at James Madison University to relieve the stress of his job—and a new career was born. He began investigating his own heritage; while growing up in Taiwan, the son of a diplomat, he had spent many hours at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
In the time-honored manner, Lee turns his forms on a potter’s wheel. Once dry, pieces are high-fired in a massive brick kiln. About 50 percent are lost through breakage or because they “don’t turn out the way I want in firing,” Lee says. “Sometimes I lose a whole kiln load that I’ve worked on from three to six months.”
Yet he perseveres. “You have to research, study and experiment,” says the tireless potter, whose work can be seen in the White House Collection of American Crafts and in numerous museums. “It’s back to the ancients,” he says. “I don’t cut corners.”
The first important object created by master silversmith Ubaldo Vitali was a 22-karat-gold pen made in his father’s workshop. Pope John XXIII used the pen to sign his 1963 encyclical letter on establishing universal peace. “I felt like I had a little hand in the peace process,” says Vitali, a fourth-generation silversmith born and educated in Rome.
In the 50 years since, Vitali has masterfully created presentation pieces for three popes, Queen Elizabeth II and three U.S. presidents. He has executed or designed collections for Tiffany, Movado, Cartier and Bulgari (a connection that goes back three generations in the Vitali and Bulgari families). He has restored historical silver and gold objects dating from fourth century BC through modern times for auction houses, private collectors and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the government body overseeing all museums in Italy.
He also designs his own sinuous, sleek contemporary art, distilling a far-ranging knowledge of techniques and styles in precious metals. In the exhibition catalog, Ulysses Dietz, senior curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum, calls him “arguably the greatest living silversmith in the United States.”
Vitali arrived in New Jersey in 1967 to join his future wife, Anita. They met while both were students—he in sculpture, she in painting—at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. He studied other disciplines as well, convinced that in his future field, “you have to think as an architect, a sculptor and painter.”
For more than 30 years, a 3,500-square-foot studio in Maplewood, New Jersey, has served as Vitali’s combined workshop and laboratory. Two longstanding assistants work beside him, surrounded by hundreds of handmade tools. Depending on the object to be conserved, techniques from antiquity through the latest scientific technologies are applied. The goal in conservation, Vitali says, is “maintaining structural and aesthetic integrity. We don’t try to make it look new.”
His personal designs—whether a centerpiece in the Yale University Art Gallery, a soup tureen in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, or commissioned trophies—take a separate trajectory. “Silver is a form of kinetic art,” he finds. “As you move, the object and its reflection change. It has to make a statement in space.”
The versatile silversmith embraces these complementary specialties. As he tells it, “When you do conservation, everything is controlled. You become the person who did it 200 or 300 years ago. He is the master.” He reflects, “Modern work is freedom. Love is surrendering as well. They’re different.”
In the Middle Ages, stained-glass windows inspired awe and wonder in a dreary world. Humble peasants, slogging across dirt roads to enter a church, raised their eyes toward heaven, encountering brilliantly colored windows.
“They didn’t see pictures, they didn’t see glass. It was state-of-the-art special effects, like Avatar is for us today,” says contemporary stained-glass artist Judith Schaechter.
Schaechter relates with a heavy heart and touch of humor how the appeal of stained glass as an avant-garde medium has “suffered many deaths” across the centuries, losing ground to new fashions and technologies such as photography, video and the Internet. In art circles today, she notes,
“Stained glass is not trendy, to say the least.”
Yet Schaechter proudly views her artistic medium as part of an honored continuum. Her work evokes that tradition in its spiritual themes, radiant beauty and decorative pattern, while introducing an unflinching contemporary bite. In bold compositions, tearful ashen figures run dreamlike or languish in agony, skulls are piled high and angels teeter. These subjects, she believes, are no more tragic than depictions of saints in an earlier era.
“I understand that others may find the themes depressing. But I’m not wallowing in it. It’s all about getting over it,” Schaechter says matter-of-factly. Historically, she points out, window narratives concerned “transcending pain, transcending one’s circumstances. You can’t talk about people’s souls in transition without talking about where they’re coming from,” she notes. Her art is owned by private collectors and museums in America and Europe, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
At the studio in her Victorian row house in South Philadelphia, Schaechter pushes the technical limits of stained glass. Before firing, stacks of colored glass are sandblasted, engraved and partially painted black. The process is repeated for each separate piece, all soldered together with copper foil. A completed panel, on average about 30 by 40 inches, involves several dozen to possibly hundreds of pieces of glass, and several months of work.
Schaechter constantly changes working methods, modifying as she goes along. The one constant is her own perfectionism. “I have really sort of insanely high standards,” she says. “I don’t know what it is I’m looking for, but I know what it is when I see it.”
Writer Tina Coplan resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011” runs March 25 through July 31, 2011, at the Renwick Gallery, 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC; 202-633-7970; americanart.si.edu. More information about featured artists is available at the following sources: Cliff Lee: 717-733-9373; cliffleeporcelain.com. Matthias Pliessnig: 401-855-3304; matthias-studio.com. Judith Schaechter through Claire Oliver Gallery: 212-929-5949; judithschaechter.com. Ubaldo Vitali: 973-763-9310; email@example.com