When does craft become art? The traditional distinction between art and craft involves differentiating between what is decorative and elevating and what is functional. Thus, a painting would be considered “art” and a ceramic bowl would be labeled “craft.”
Yet, this distinction fails to account for those functional items which transcend their intended purpose as in the case of a clay vessel which can be both a practical container and an object of beauty. In the final analysis, one can say that art can be any end-product of the creative process, regardless of the chosen medium.
If we accept that last premise, the title of the current exhibition at the Morris Museum in Augusta, “Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft and Traditional Art,” is aptly labeled. The show contains works by over thirty artists – basket-woodcarvers, ceramicists, basket makers, metalworkers, costumers, and more – whose creativity is transformative. In their hands and through their vision, an object that may be associated with a particular function – and perhaps still does satisfy that condition – becomes something whose aesthetic value outweighs its original utilitarian purpose.
Take, for example, contemporary basket maker Clay Burnette of Columbia, South Carolina. His work entitled “Just around the curves” might very well serve as a woven repository, but it reads more like sculpture than basketry. Composed of traditional materials, such as longleaf pine needles, the work takes on new meaning by Burnette’s experimentation with shape. The “basket” seems frozen in the process of turning itself inside out. Thus, it becomes an intriguing study in curvature.
Similarly, a diminutive teapot fashioned by Louisville, Kentucky resident Fong Choo appears, at first glance, to be a perfectly predictable porcelain vessel. On closer inspection, however, the viewer wonders whether a piece of citrus fruit had suddenly sprouted a handle and spout. Entitled “Tangerina,” this vibrantly glazed and exquisitely molded piece has a presence independent of its small size.
Equally whimsical but on a larger scale is Craig Nutt’s “Celery Chair with Peppers.” I already have a three-story house full of furniture, but I think that I could make room for this really delightful piece by this Tennessee-based furniture maker and sculptor whose works are part of the Smithsonian collections. The chair in question can certainly serve its intended purpose, but it’s more fun to look at than to sit upon. Made of lacquered wood, the headrest is a giant peapod, the back spindles are carrots, the back legs are celery stalks, and the front legs are red peppers.
There is much to see in this exhibition, but I will mention just one more work that caught my eye, partially because I have always been drawn to dioramas, including “nichos,” the specialized variation made popular by South American artists. A typical nicho is essentially a shadow box with hinged doors; inside is either a painting, perhaps a religious image or retablo, or small sculptured figures taken from Catholic iconography or from popular culture. The latter is true of Nicario Jimenez’s “The Mask Maker Workshop,” an elaborate nicho made to resemble a small cabinet.
Inside this fanciful piece of “furniture,” one is confronted with a colorful small-scale studio featuring three artisans at a small table engaged in the process of carving and painting the masks worn in traditional folk festivals. Up the back “wall” behind these figures are the products of their collective imagination, stacked vertically perhaps six or seven masks high. On either side of the trio are individuals trying on the masks in anticipation of their ritual function. Museum visitors can spend many happy moments examining this intricate three-dimensional scene.
On display until Sept. 1, “Innovation/Tradition” expands the definition of what is customarily identified as art. The Morris is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sunday from noon to five. For more information, call 706-724-7501 or visit the museum on the web at www.themorris.org.
The recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole chair at USC Aiken. Next month, Lamar University Press (Beaumont, Texas) releases his new book “A Shared Voice,” co-edited with Drew Geyer.