American Craft Week and the AAAC showcase emerging artists

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: For Anna Johnson — one of American Craft Week's rising stars — a strong artistic community plays an important role at this stage of her career. “I have been able to see firsthand how much work goes into making this a career,” she says.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE: For Anna Johnson — one of American Craft Week's rising stars — a strong artistic community plays an important role at this stage of her career. “I have been able to see firsthand how much work goes into making this a career,” she says. Photo courtesy of Johnson

The idea of craft often evokes images of age-old practices, skills honed over decades and handed down through generations, and mediums — iron forging, for example, or quilt making — that have changed little over time. But even in Western North Carolina, where craft (from ceramics and weaving to woodworking and chair caning) is as much a part of the regional heritage as, say, old-time music and ballad singing, there’s room for new ideas and up-and-coming artists. That’s the idea behind the latest iteration of American Craft Week. The annual, nationwide celebration runs from Saturday, Oct. 1, to Sunday, Oct. 16.

Thirty under 30

For American Craft Week, organizers are highlighting emerging artists in Rising Stars, an online exhibition featuring 30 craftspeople younger than 30. That group was selected from hundreds of competition entries. Among them, five of the artists chosen for the exhibit live and work in WNC. They include Canton-based metalsmith Becky Burnette, knife maker Trent Robinson of Weaverville and, from Asheville, furniture maker Lindsay Giants Black and jewelers Anna Johnson and Alice Scott.

HANDS ON: Ben Grant studied at Haywood Community College’s woodworking program, transitioning from the construction field to his work as a craftsman. “[I've] always enjoyed working with my hands,” he says. Photo courtesy of Grant
HANDS ON: Ben Grant studied at Haywood Community College’s woodworking program, transitioning from the construction field to his work as a craftsman. “[I’ve] always enjoyed working with my hands,” he says. Photo courtesy of Grant
Sherry Masters, a co-chair of Craft Week who also lives in the area, says, “Young people aren’t into only just their technology, with devices plugged in all the time, but are seeking opportunities to create and work with their hands.” This year marks the first for the organization to spotlight emerging artists. Masters says, “It’s important to see these new faces and hear their stories, and to encourage them and help them succeed.”

Masters was one of six judges for the national competition. She says the selection process focused on choosing artists from a variety of mediums who have a range of work, good craftsmanship, community engagement with exhibitions and shows, and an online presence where viewers can find more of their work.

“Everyone I know in the craft industry wants to encourage new artists,” says Masters. “This is an inclusive industry.”

For its companion exhibition, Best of WNC: Emerging Craft Artist Showcase, the Asheville Area Arts Council began with the five local artists who were named Rising Stars. Then, to further develop the concept, “We collaborated with local established craft professionals in the community, and they nominated five other emerging craft artists,” says Mamie Fain, the arts council’s new exhibitions manager. Her first meeting on the job was about the show, which runs through Wednesday, Nov. 23. An opening reception is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 7.

The nominating team for this show included local craft art professionals from Haywood Community College, Local Cloth and the North Carolina Glass Center. The group of artists selected by the team is woodworkers Valerie Berlage and Ben Grant, sculptor Nina Kawar, textile artist Jessica Self and glass artist Hayden Wilson, all of whom are based in Asheville or nearby towns.

While the AAAC’s showcase, like that of American Craft Week, pivots on emerging artists, the arts council did not limit its field to artists younger than 30. “We looked for someone who had all the technical skills of a traditional weaver and used it in contemporary ways,” says Judi Jetson, the board chairman of Local Cloth, who has been involved with American Craft week for the past six years. “I think ‘emerging’ means an artist who is relatively new on the scene, and it doesn’t matter what age that happens.”

Emerging artists

Grant, who will be showing several of his sculptural wood forms in the exhibition, says his work was “created by using chain saws, angle grinders, and other woodcarving tools, [but] these pieces express a sense of delicacy that would seem unlikely given the tools that were used to make them.” Grant wields his machinery to create an intricate, organic ribbing by repeatedly cutting away at the wood. The end results range in size from 6 to 14 inches.

“I started woodworking after several years of construction jobs,” says Grant. “[I’ve] always enjoyed working with my hands.” His sculptural forms all include interior hollows, whether as vessellike shapes reminiscent of a seed pod or nest, or a cocoon that was carved with a chain saw from a solid block of cherry.

In addition to his sculptural series, Grant also makes functional work, including a series of multiaxis wood-turned vessels. In these forms, a symmetrical vase that has been worked on the lathe is altered into asymmetry. By shifting the vessel’s axis, the purposeful off-centered turning ribs the piece with a few diagonal slices.

TO THE POINT: “When I was young, my dad gave me a little red pocket knife to carry camping. I liked it,” says knife maker Trent Robinson in his bio. The craftsman was mentored by blacksmith William Burker, and learned to shape and manipulate materials from his own father. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Area Arts Council
TO THE POINT: “When I was young, my dad gave me a little red pocket knife to carry camping. I liked it,” says knife maker Trent Robinson in his bio. The craftsman was mentored by blacksmith William Burker, and learned to shape and manipulate materials from his own father. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Area Arts Council

A recent graduate of Haywood Community College’s woodworking program, Grant notes that both the instruction and the freedom to explore were key components of his education. Continuing to build technical skills helps him on his path as an emerging craftsman. “The knowledge I have gained while attending school has been extremely beneficial,” he says, “and I feel that I have learned much more under skilled instructors than I ever could by teaching myself.”

For Johnson — one of American Craft Week’s rising stars — a strong artistic community plays an important role at this stage of her career. Whether it’s in Asheville, where she currently calls home, or in Spruce Pine, where she lived after studying at Appalachian State University, she says that being around working artists has been hugely informative: “I have been able to see firsthand how much work goes into making this a career.” Johnson adds that, within that group, she’s found “such an unbelievable outlet of support and people giving me feedback.”

“Personal ecosystems” is one of the phrases Johnson uses to describe her work. The inclusion of bones and cast-metal replicas of natural forms give her jewelry a direct connection to nature. “I’ve always been drawn to collecting different objects,” she says. Her jewelry work, she explains, is a way of bringing them all together.

While it may seem unorthodox to use a coyote vertebra in a necklace, the use of bone in jewelry dates back thousands of years. The addition of a modern aesthetic to this ancient material choice allows the pieces to span elements that span from pearls to the ribbed underbelly of a mushroom cap that has been reproduced in metal. Using only bones and plants that she has found or been given, she places them alongside gemstones, speaking to two different kinds of preciousness. “I know that in our society there can be a taboo with bones, death, etc.,” she says, “but I hope that my incorporation of these elements soften that and represent a balance in how these elements are a part of the natural process.”

Along with Johnson’s jewelry and Grant’s wood turnings, the exhibition includes glassworks by second-generation glassblower Wilson, Robinson’s Damascus steel chef’s knives with the patterned blades that are signature to the technique, and Self’s felted wool sculptures based on the figure, as well as many other surprises and original takes on craft from these up-and-coming makers.

The Emerging Craft Artist Showcase will be on view during the concurrent grand opening celebration for the Refinery Creator Space on Thursday, Sept. 29. A reception runs from 5 to 8 p.m. and will include plein air painting, live music, poetry, performances and open studios of resident artists.

WHAT: Best of WNC: Emerging Craft Artist Showcase

WHERE: AAAC’s Refinery Creator Space,  207 Coxe Ave. avl.mx/2zj

WHEN:  On display through Wednesday, Nov. 23. Opening reception on Friday, Oct. 7, 5-8 p.m.

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