Fine Art vs. Craft

Fine Art vs. Craft: Who Decides?

Vermont’s Open Studio Tour Dispels Myths and Expands Horizons

By Clara Rose Thornton

Celebrating 17 years of highlighting the best of Vermont’s vibrant creative culture, the annual Open Studio Tour happens on Memorial Day weekend, May 23 and 24. Showcasing an incredible 273 artisans spread across 13 counties—with 48 in Bennington and Windham Counties alone-Rutland and Windsor….-the event should prove to be a whimsical, thought-provoking and inspiring experience for patrons and casual browsers alike.

Fine Art vs. Craft: Who Decides?

Vermont’s Open Studio Tour Dispels Myths and Expands Horizons

By Clara Rose Thornton

Fiber artist Dena Gartenstein

Fiber artist Dena Gartenstein

Celebrating 17 years of highlighting the best of Vermont’s vibrant creative culture, the annual Open Studio Tour happens on Memorial Day weekend, May 23 and 24. Showcasing an incredible 273 artisans spread across 13 counties—with 123 in Bennington, Windham, Windsor and Rutland Counties alone — the event should prove to be a whimsical, thought-provoking and inspiring experience for patrons and casual browsers alike.

The aim of this year’s Open Studio Tour is, as it has always been, to reveal the personal worlds of Vermont artisans who open their creative spaces to the public, fostering understanding and connections between these often disparate sectors of society. As Martha Fitch, executive director of Vermont Craft Council, the organization that founded and produces the event, put it, “By introducing visitors to the studios of both artists and craftspeople, Open Studio weekend informs the public about the tools, materials and processes involved with creation of artwork in a variety of media.”

This concept of opening closed doors literally opens another, more theoretical, door. There is often a distinction made between “artists” and “craftspeople,” in terms of traditional fine art — painting or sculpture—and craft or hobby art—pottery, weaving, woodwork, glassblowing and jewelry. Both the general public and the art world academic sector has historically put craft and hobby on a lower level than traditional arts, and relegate it to the category of mere entertainment or décor.

Robert J. O'Brien

Robert J. O’Brien

“I think this is due to a few factors,” said Fitch. “One is that craft as a category applies to a huge group of unlike disciplines from furnituremaking, to molding with clay, to fabric surface design with dye. Craft as a verb implies skillful construction but not necessarily innovation. However, you can’t look at (furniture-maker) Michele Holzapfel’s work and not see innovation. Or look at Jen Violette’s work. She is an example of a craftsperson working in glass who is obviously a sculptor.”

Fitch disapproves of the blanket term “hobbyist” being applied to craftspeople, and feels that this is another reason for confusion about craft.

“When I think of the group of craftspeople at the core of Open Studio weekend, I think of serious professionals who have been practicing their art for years if not decades. In my mind a hobbyist is someone who practices an art or craft as recreation, the opposite of professional. I don’t make a value judgment between professional and nonprofessional but there is a difference in the amount of time spent doing the work and the training that goes into it.”

Diedre Healey, executive director of Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center in Middlebury, is optimistic about the progressive attitude changes she sees happening. “Toward the end of the twentieth century and certainly now that we’re working our way into the twenty-first century, I think that perception is being challenged. First of all because design has become such an important component of life and work, and approachable design is so critical, but also because there are a lot of artists who are working with what are traditionally thought of as craft media in the contemporary art and fine art arenas. So the line is becoming more and more blurred.” Frog Hollow’s Web site sums this up beautifully, as their homepage motto reads: “Art for Everyday Living.”

Healey continued, “I think that contemporary craft is developing a new base of collectors and connoisseurs, and I think they’re a part of what is pushing the conversation forward. When you consider traditional craft media— ceramics, fiber, wood, metal and glass—there are certainly artists who are working in those media now who are creating wonderful artworks that are quite contemporary and have a place at the table of fine art.”

Ken Pick

Ken Pick

Events such as Open Studio Tour stand to dispel myths surrounding craft’s possibilities and the extent to which its products can be as communicative as a grand oil painting. Such events are a part of a larger movement that has been circulating for decades. For example, renowned art critic Bruce Metcalf wrote in his 1980 essay entitled “Second Class Citizens,”…the crafts have not been associated with intellectual processes in art. But there is a reason for this. In general, analysis and categorization — which are the cornerstones of intellectual process — are not seen by most craftsmen as having positive value in and of themselves. This distrust of intellectual process goes back to the roots of philosophy in every developed culture in the world. You can place almost everyone in one of two philosophical camps: the Classicists, who believe in the truth and power of analysis and categorization, and the Romantics, who believe in the truth and power of intuition and emotion. The Romantic attitude, I feel, dominates the crafts.”

Romanticism, rage on.

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