In the gray area between tradition and innovation

Exploring the edge: Dustin Farnsworth’s “Maunder,” made from basswood, poplar, bending plywood, MDF, human hair, various polychrome. Photo courtesy Handmade in America

“To be a craftsperson is to be inherently an inventor at heart,” says Kathryn Gremley, curator of Breaking Ground: Innovative Craft, on display at HandMade in America’s downtown Asheville exhibition space.

The WNC region has a deep history of traditional craft artists making and selling their wares. Along with that, there’s a growing trend of looking forward. Where is craft going? What edges of innovation are being explored? How is the culture of craft changing as a result of these explorations?

“Collectively, there is a sense that the artists selected for this exhibition are comfortable in this gray area between tradition and innovation,” Gremley says. “You can see that for some of them, tradition and innovation are working parallel as they experiment with content and material usage.  The innovation here is not limited to the experimental or the avant-garde; the results can be subtle, enigmatic or reverential.” 

The exhibition features work by Gwendolyn Bigham, Sondra Dorn, Ben Elliott, Dustin Farnsworth, Heather Allen Hietala, Anna Johnson, Robin Johnston, Jeana Eve Klein, Kenn Kotara, Rachel Meginnes, Michael Parry, Sam Reynolds, Austin Richards, Kathie Roig, Janet Williams and Hayden Wilson.

As glass artist Ben Elliott explains it, “There is more of a dialogue in the craft world than there has been in the past. This conversation encourages work that surpasses aesthetics to embrace ideas.”

While Elliott’s work displays a contemporary conceptual framework, he maintains a connection to traditional craft. “I remember driving through WNC at a young age and being in awe as we passed houses with beautiful quilts, pottery, and woodcarvings set out by the road for sale,” Elliott says. “I credit those memories for planting a seed that inspired me to become a maker.”

Another exhibiting artist, Dustin Farnsworth, uses craft to create a vocabulary for storytelling. Displaying a piece unique in form and thought-provoking in context, Farnsworth explains, “the piece Maunder belongs to a series spawned by my question of what the headdress of the post-industrial child might look like, carrying the weight of their forefathers’ foibles.” According to Farnsworth, “The line between craft and art can be as blurred or defined as the handler makes it.” 

Craft is an economic driver for our region, says Gwynne Rukenbrod, director of HandMade in America. “For 18 years HandMade has shown the national craft community that you can revitalize rural communities through craft,” she says. 

The gallery space at HandMade in America will continue to explore the dynamics between traditional and contemporary craft. Rukenbrod previews, “The next exhibition is called Needled and will highlight contemporary artists pushing the legitimacy of needle craft techniques by making cutting edge and conceptual pieces that cross the boundaries of craft, design and fine art.”

The HandMade in America gallery space is located at 125 S. Lexington Ave. #101 (look for the entrance on Hilliard Avenue between Lexington and Church Street). Breaking Ground: Innovative Craft is on view until May 31 during business hours Monday – Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. For more information, call 252-0121 or visit


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