Contemporary craft is a field that many new art collectors explore for its unusual and evocative use of materials. Artworks made from wood, fiber, glass, and clay give us images of warmth and strength. Texture and color echo the familiar, while new methods of making speak in unusual tongues. Contemporary craft addresses social justice, gender and sexuality, the fragile and imperfect nature of human existence, and the rhythms of the natural and built landscape. Many new collectors are drawn to this unique mix of the familiar and strange, and the way contemporary craft redraws boundaries in material use.
When a new collector moves from picking up a few interesting pieces to curating a collection, some thought and study can narrow focus on the issues and mediums of interest. How does a collector begin to form a new collection? Professional curation can provide guidance in the early stages of exploration.
Curators are artists and art historians who specialize in forming collections and in staging exhibits. These artists work with themes, materials, methods of making, and other elements that tie disparate artworks into cohesive collections. Curators work with online and brick-and-mortar galleries, museums, universities, non-profit agencies, and many other stakeholders in the art world.
Exploring Themes in Art
Interest in art collecting can focus on medium or on communication. For collectors who are fascinated with process and materials, works on canvas may interest them for the tactile nature of the surface. A gallerist or curator can broaden the understanding of works on canvas to mean more than painting to include collage, mixed media, textiles, and sculpture. Works on canvas can include oils, acrylics, inks, dyes, chalk, encaustic, thread, metal, or glass beads.
But most artists do not think of their work as speaking about the medium, but of their particular passion. Art is a form of visual communication, and most artists are using the visual language of the medium to say something. Sometimes this communication is as clear and bright as the sound of church bells in the early morning. Other times, study and thought allow the expression of ideas to unfold over time. With the already familiar language craft uses to communicate, these themes and ideas tend to be more easily understood in contemporary craft.
Consider fiber and textiles. We are wrapped in cloth at birth, the first man-made object to touch our skin. We are wrapped in cloth at our death. Textiles are soft and warm, are utilitarian, have the variety of use and beauty of everything from a terry cloth washcloth to a silk wedding gown. Bandages are made of textiles. We write letters on paper. The echoes of these familiar uses allows a textile artist to enter into communication with a viewer easily and informally. Aaron McIntosh’s Invasive Kudzu Leaves is an example of an exhibit that speaks openly and easily to viewers.
Kudzu leaves are endemic in the American South, and tend to engulf and overwhelm the native plants. Left untended, kudzu can take over a lamppost, a mailbox, an abandoned house. McIntosh used these references with his collection of fiber kudzu leaves, each carrying a small written message, individual voices on individual leaves. The ideas behind the power of a single voice, on a single leaf, in the middle of a forest of voices, speaks to McIntosh’s ideas about gender and identity.
When a new art collector wants to get serious about collecting, a good first step is visiting galleries and exhibits, getting to know artists and curators, and listening to the voices of the art. Learning the language of visual communication and finding elements in the work that are powerful and vibrant lead collectors into the rabbit hole of the artist’s passion, a passion they might share.
Contemporary craft has a strong regional flavor. Many collectors find the history and traditions of regional craft allows them to get to know artists, visit studios, and collect from a wide variety of local galleries. Western North Carolina, for instance, has a long history of innovative ceramics work. North Carolina pottery can be everything from the folk art coming out of the traditional wood-fired anagama kilns in the mountain communities to the modern forms and materials of ceramics coming from the university programs, the art museums and the local artist’s cooperatives. Collectors come to the region from all over the world, looking for unique ceramics that only leave the mountains when they are passed from the artist’s hand to the hand of the collector. While many of these works also have strong and important themes, they are strongly rooted in place. A successful piece of regional art can have come from no other place.
Most contemporary artists are educated in graduate programs in universities, and visiting the exhibits and galleries near universities is an excellent way to see new work and meet artists. But there are regional artists who work through the apprentice system. The Gee’s Bend quilters, for instance, or the trading post system on the Navajo reservation, allow collectors to buy work directly from the artists. Many of these artworks never enter the traditional art market. Part of the joy for collectors is travelling on the dusty roads from trading post to trading post, visiting the weavers, learning how they wove their dreams into the rugs.
Not all artwork for sale is new, and, for some collectors, part of the joy of collecting is being part of the history of the work. The life of a material object can be written on its surface, and this history can be explored and celebrated, such as with the Japanese tradition of kintsugi. The fractures in a piece of broken pottery are celebrated by repairing them with gold or silver. For these works, the age and the history is part of what makes the piece valuable.
Consulting a reputable gallery with knowledgeable curators is critical when beginning a new collection of artworks with significant histories. Especially for antique and vintage items originally from Japan, care must be taken to trace the history of the piece. With the internment of Japanese families during WWII, many precious family treasures were stolen or lost. Art historians and curators can help collectors find unique pieces of antique craft that were not stolen or appropriated during this period.
Artists also produce remarkable works of art that come out of experiences such as internment. One of the most famous artist-internees, Isamu Noguchi, produced work directly speaking to his internment for many years. Many Japanese Americans, when hearing that art made during internment was going up for auction, became activists, and found ways to move this art into the public historical record, rather than in the for-profit art market. For some collectors, their passion is in making art available to public audiences, or correcting historical injustices, rather than in making a personal collection.
Medium, Material, Theme, or Artist?
When beginning a collection, the vibrant and rich art world can seem almost overwhelming. Should focus be on a particular medium, a favored material, or a specific artist? Individual collectors will find their own passions, but guidance from curators and galleries can keep expensive missteps at bay. Within the varied world of contemporary craft, wood, glass, textiles, and ceramics speak to the material, as well as the object. The focus for many artists combines expert manipulation of materials with the communication of ideas. Some collectors, finding within themselves a deep love of wood-fired ceramics, for example, will develop a collection that is both broad and deep, and includes the work of many contemporary and classics artists from Japan, America, and England. Their collection will be based on the material.
Collectors may find themselves drawn to issues of social justice or human rights. Their collections might include a diverse range of methods and materials, by a variety of artists, all of which speak to the important theme that runs through all of the works. Other collectors may find that the method and material of a specific artist or group of artists, along with the powerful themes of the work, speak to them most strongly. Collections by women artists working in traditional textile forms, or outsider art focused on those with mental health challenges, are examples of collections curated by artist. These collections may develop by collecting the works of a particular artist or cooperative group over time.
What contemporary craft brings to the new art collector is an accessible world of material, method, theme, and artwork that can be strongly regional in flavor, reasonably priced, openly communicative, and familiar. Strongly rooted in familiar materials, contemporary craft seems to reach out to viewers with the warmth, strength, textures and colors of the natural world. Baskets want to be held, and seem to offer a place to hold burdens. Glass refracts light, spreading color and showing new ways to see. When we wrap our hand around a piece of pottery, our fingers move over a surface formed by other human hands. These connections, with ideas, materials, and methods form a strong and direct bridge between artists and collectors.