Arts in craft - a half-century of creativity on view at the Whatcom Museum

Despite the rich history of craft in the Northwest, despite the large number of high-quality craft shows locally, many of us tend to think of crafts as unsophisticated decorative or utilitarian items made by loving hands at home. If you need any proof that craft can mean much, much more, drive up to Bellingham and visit the current exhibition at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art: "Looking Forward Glancing Back: Northwest Designer Craftsmen at 50."

It's an exquisite show featuring more than 100 works by members of the Northwest Designer Craftsmen (NWDC), an organization that is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Theirs are not your grandmother's crafts. Though we encounter many glorious utilitarian objects, there are as many other works of art whose purpose is simply to enrich human life through their beauty and the wonder inspired by the creativity they display.

NWDC came on the scene as America retooled itself for peaceful prosperity after Korea, before Vietnam. It was a time of social and artistic change. McCarthyism had just been dealt a deathblow. The modern civil-rights movement was born. Marlon Brando and Elvis were about to revolutionize the performance scene, and the wall between craft and fine art was breaking down.

Modernist experiments established new standards of design and workmanship. Concept overtook function. Museums in major cities sponsored juried craft shows, thereby acknowledging that craftsmen were creative artists who deserved the attention of the art world.

The nine Seattle craftspersons who founded NWDC were, indeed, creative artists. They showed respect for their materials, honored good design and were imbued with originality. Examples of their early work are in the show, and a number of the founding artists are still actively pursuing their art forms.

Today NWDC has members from Alaska to Oregon and east to Montana. They work in metal, wood, fiber, clay, paper, enamel, animal parts and found objects. Examples of all media are on view in the exhibition. Although the Whatcom show has pieces representing artists throughout the region, of special interest to us are the works by local craftspeople, including four artists from Queen Anne.

Dona Anderson is a mixed-media artist who is comfortable in many media. She applies beads to wood and metal, creates collages that would give Matisse pause, uses a cement-like resin to construct chairs that are as breezy as a spring day, and she works with fiber. Anderson is represented in the show by a wood-and-fiber sculpture whose elegance of line matches the more abstract work of artists like Barbara Hepworth and Constantin Brancusi.

David French started working with wood in Berlin in the late 1980s when he was intrigued by some crates he found at a Turkish market. He began creating boxes with sculptural forms within them. Then, gradually, he became more interested in the interior forms than in the boxes. French's piece in this exhibit is a basswood sculpture consisting of a variety of organic shapes, each painted a different color. He uses oil paints to "give the wood a skin" and provide a trompe-l'oeil effect that hints at interior surfaces. He'll be showing at the Linda Hodges Gallery here in Seattle in August.

Peggy Hitchcock works with enamel on copper. In an immaculate studio in the basement of her home she creates enameled copper images and affixes them to small, wooden boxes of various shapes. These are combined according to the artist's aesthetic determinations into wall hangings. The piece in the Whatcom show includes blocks of abstract designs, butterflies, Egyptian tomb images and a rhinoceros. Pictures, shapes and colors have been joined in a fashion that intrigues and compels.

Linda McFarland takes her inspiration from ethnic clothing and works with fabric and paper. "Outcropping 3,1,2," a wall hanging, is her contribution to the Whatcom exhibit. The piece consists of a set of three dress-like constructions made of block-printed and painted paper on cloth. Abstract yet geometrical, the designs on their surfaces represents the South Dakota farmland that she grew up with and that will always lie within her.

The exhibit was curated by Lloyd Herman of West Seattle. The founding director of the Smithsonian's Renwick Museum in Washington, D.C, Herman is a distinguished authority on the contemporary craft movement in the United States. He reminds us that artistry is not constrained by function, materials or process, and that the artist breaks new ground as he or she expresses creativity. The objects he selected for this show celebrate creativity and exemplify the continuity of the craft tradition wedded to contemporary expression.

Some of the works are magisterial. Some are whimsical. Some are functional. Some are abstract; some, representational. All are worth seeing. Head

north this summer and stop at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham.

It's only an hour and a half away.[[In-content Ad]]