Talk of the Arts

By Martha Fitch

Acquiring a whole new appreciation of a handmade object

Stickle quilt

The Jane Stickle quilt, created in Vermont during the Civil War — on display through Oct. 14 at the Bennington Museum

Contemplating the advent of American Craft Week and Fall Open Studio I see at the center of both celebrations, the significance of the handmade object. American Craft Week is a national celebration of craft work which encompasses events in the majority of states from October 4– October 13. In Vermont this includes Fall Open Studio Weekend, October 5 & 6, now in its third year, with 127 sites participating.

What is the significance of the handmade object? Because I am an art teacher, an artist, and an arts advocate, my answers to this question form so many layers that I sometimes feel that I am I am too close to the subject to respond objectively. So I asked my twenty two year old daughter, a political science major, what she thought the differences were between the purchase of a hand made mug and a commercially made counterpart. This is a person who exclusively wears a collection of Vermont, hand made earrings. She answered that if one were caring only for the functionality of a mug, a person would be free to buy the most inexpensive, mass produced version. She sees the choice to purchase a hand made mug as a political and economic choice. She directs her resources to support the artist and the local community, which might include the gallery where the work is sold. As a nearly life long visitor to Open Studio Weekend, I notice that she will return again and again to the studios where she has had interesting conversations with artists. She seeks out their work to give as gifts because of this added significance.

The definition of hand-made is a continuum describing the degree to which an individual is involved with the production of a piece of artwork. On one extreme you might find one person studios where a potter produces an entire line of work. On the other might be an arts business where many workers complete the design of the head of the studio. In each of these cases, the actual objects are produced by hand. Original design is another descriptor found associated with hand made work, describing a continuum between work that reproduces some else’s design, or one’s own designs. Quilt makers and furniture makers are two groups of craftspeople who may begin with a traditional design and reproduce it entirely or use it as a starting point or conversely, may develop original designs entirely of their own making.

Hand made objects, objects made by hand, are objects that connect us to the process of making including the tools and technologies passed from teacher to student, the design ideas and aesthetics concerning the design of the object, and the human history surrounding the work. The studio provides the context within which to view all these elements. Studios themselves are found in a greater context of location and that is part of the pleasure of Open Studio Weekend. In my years of visiting during Open Studio Weekend, I have discovered studios at the top of mountains, studios beside beautiful ponds, studios in the heart of small villages. In every case, the specific tools and machines of the craft were on view, together with the ideas of the artist, the sketches, the pictures and books that provide research and inspiration. The journey to the studio becomes part of the unforgettable experience of Open Studio Weekend.

Hand made objects and the stories they tell, connect us to the past as well, as they are the artifacts that museums use to illuminate the human story. In Vermont, with its agricultural history, the crafts of stone work, blacksmithing, glassblowing, furniture making, weaving, and sewing, are all part of this tradition. This great diversity of artist studios is yet another reason to put this event on your calendar, make a day of it and travel the roads of Vermont and as a secondary thrill, you might see some of the natural beauty of the Vermont landscape while you are doing it.

But finally, when I view a hand made object, I am thinking of all of these factors, to what degree was this made by hand, what materials were chosen, where did the design come from, how functional is it (for my taste, it must be functional) what tradition is it in or is it contemporary, is the artist well known or new? It is all part of my exploration of Open Studio Weekend and I hope it will be for you too.


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