Warren Wilson College’s New MA in Critical and Historical Craft Studies

November 1, 2019


Metalsmith Tech Vol 2 No 2 features an excerpt of a round-table discussion with students from the new MA in Critical and Historical Craft Studies at Warren Wilson College. The full text of the conversation between Director Namita G. Wiggers and students Pheonix Booth, Matt Haugh, Matt Lambert, Kelly Malec-Kosak, and Kat St. Aubin is posted here:

Namita: Our conversation is taking place after you’ve completed your first semester of work in the program. How might the program connect to your future work?

Kat: I’ve definitely gained valuable research skills and have learned different ways of applying research to broader questions—especially the importance of asking questions.

Matt Lambert: The program is supplying the tools to be critical. I think we lack a lot of actual criticism within metalsmithing; we’re one of the fields within craft that doesn’t produce really harsh criticism. We need to have some tough conversations. I think we need more people that are confident in their writing and their speaking abilities to have healthy discussions that are critical. We need to be critical of what has happened, but also what is happening now.

Kelly: I’m interested in looking at things in a broader way than I had before. I feel like my metalsmithing background is really insular. I was trained by people who were trained by people who were . . . you know, it’s kind of this whole sort of incestuous family [group laughter].

I’m part of some weird, dysfunctional family that I want to look at a little bit closer now. Who is  included and who is not included, and how we’ve decided as a field to do that, has become interesting to me as a maker and a writer and thinker.

Matt L: Interesting or problematic: the canonization of our field?

Namita Wiggers: Say a little bit more about that, both of you.

Matt L: I feel like, looking through the American lens, we have missed a lot of very important figures that the European context has held onto:  Jan Yager, Marjorie Schick, or Winifred Mason—all women. Or they exist in an “art world” context, but for some reason they’ve been pushed to the side.

I guess I’m being critical of the historical, of why we have shaped our canon the way we have. We’ve had so many successful makers “make it” outside of the insular craft world, but we don’t celebrate them in a way that I think is appropriate. I think we do them a disservice.

Namita: What do the rest of you all think?

Kelly: There is a link between capitalism and our field that has left some people out. We’re so invested in making a living through selling our work that our structure doesn’t support risk; a lot of times it has to exist within a certain way. You don’t see that in places where there’s more support and more interest in breaking rules or challenging norms. It is problematic.

Matt L: Heck, yeah! We have not celebrated conceptual makers, and so we’ve narrowed our field down to the sell-able object— but we also don’t want to be in a relationship with fashion. We want to be in this weird bubble that doesn’t exist.

Pheonix: As a conceptual maker, I will say that I don’t know a lot about the broader metalsmithing field because I’ve never felt like my work fit into it. In my undergraduate program we were pushed into making in a conceptual way, but there wasn’t a lot of research we could do on other people, or there was a lack of a canon of people that were making in that way. There are people working in that way; I’ve just never heard of them for whatever reason.

Namita: This is an interesting question, then, about how what you learned in your metals programs set you up for the kinds of things you’re thinking about now. For example, Matt Lambert, Kelly, and Matt Haugh all hold MFA degrees; they’ve done deep, focused study in metalsmithing and jewelrymaking specifically, in different ways. Kat and Pheonix have undergraduate degrees and were taught by jewelers who are three of the most prominent women in international contemporary jewelry right now—Kerianne Quick and Sondra Sherman, and Anya Kivarkis all of whom are recognized for material and critical jewelry works. . . . I’m curious about what you recall learning. You are all saying something similar, that there is a deep-dive into conceptual making but not necessarily jewelry and craft history. What craft histories were you exposed to in your academic education?

Matt L: Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Where are we in art history? I think we have the Gates of Ishtar, and I think we have the one pin in Ireland, and no one knows how it was made! We have one piece of jewelry and one piece of blacksmithing.

I feel a little bit bad in this conversation because I think that the people we studied under have done the best that they can to provide us with contexts, but the systems that they work within don’t support craft as part of art history. We cannot rely on our studio courses to also feed us conceptual and historical knowledge as well. This is a critique of the Academy and not the people we study under. The people, predominantly women in craft, have done the best that they can.

We’re not in the art history canon, we’re not being taught our own history in the Academy, but we still have to exist within the Academy, which somehow makes us lesser. And that’s where the problem is. I think that is where this degree (MA in Critical and Historical Craft Studies) can fill that void.

Pheonix: There is no craft theory class where I studied, only art history. You do the making, and then the only thing that you learn about critically is the broader art world. If it’s not built into the curriculum, there is this huge disconnect.

Kat: Sondra Sherman and Kerianne Quick, my instructors, did incorporate research into the making process. Kerianne encouraged me to look into this program because I was really into intersectional feminist theory, classism, and racism and asking, “Where do those things come into craft and making?” Because those things affect people. People are the ones who are doing the making.

I don’t know if it’s because I went to a state school, but we had a checklist of courses you needed to fulfill your degree. Applied design isn’t even its own degree; it’s a subsection of art. To get your art degree you have to take art history, which is painting and sculpture, and craft is maybe a tiny little paragraph in some period where it fits. You can only learn so much about craft from those classes, and then, because we’re all in technical programs, we’re learning technical skills.

Namita: Matt Haugh, what about from a blacksmithing perspective? What does this MA in Critical Craft Studies reveal about your training in the field and the way the field is structured?

Matt Haugh: I recognized pretty early in the course of my MFA (Southern Illinois University) that the theoretical component was missing. There was actually a craft theory class offered as an elective that was, I think, trying to fill that void. I will say that there was not much interest in it. So there was just a difference in terms of what you were looking for out of the MFA experience. I was really interested in the theoretical concerns and an academic approach to material and making that would support my work going forward.

Blacksmithing is a much smaller field; a sub-field of metalsmithing. The Metals Museum is three hours away from SIU, and exhibits and presents blacksmithing on an academic level in a way, and with some regularity, but we weren’t really doing that in our metals coursework. As a field, its practitioners have not applied critical discourse to the material.

ABANA (Artist Blacksmith’s Association of North America), which is the primary organization, has thousands of members and their own publications, such as the quarterly publication “The Anvil’s Ring,” and the “Hammer’s Blow,” which are both largely technical in focus. The work of Daniel Miller is an exception. He has really set an example for critically engaged practitioners and for smiths who make work and also write about their work. It just doesn’t exist otherwise. Either the makers write about it in critical ways, or it doesn’t get written about.

Kat: If I were to go into education, I would want to be able to teach a craft history course, not necessarily focused on metalsmithing, but craft in general. San Diego State University, for some reason, cut fiber arts because they felt there wasn’t a demand, even though there is, and there are plenty of students who are fiber artists who had to work in other mediums.

But looking at the way that academic institutions place value on what courses are able to be taught, I think that’ll be a big challenge for me to find a school and say, “Hey, this is an important course. You have craft courses that are technical. How can I get a craft history course into the curriculum so that these students can get history that’s relevant to their making instead of having to learn just about painting and sculpture and conceptual art?” It’s valid to learn those things but …what use does a metalsmith have for learning two whole semesters of painting?

Matt L.: I think that raises another conundrum that we’re facing right now: the intersectional use of material, and crafts being defined through singular material. Can I call myself a metalsmith? My graduating master’s work is in leather, which doesn’t even exist in the Academy. Where does leather fall? I can’t go teach textiles with that knowledge.

Jewelry sits on this weird cusp, like Matt Haugh was saying. It’s a format, it’s not a material. Ceramics is jewelry, and wood is jewelry, and fiber is jewelry.

Although, Matt [Haugh], you say blacksmithing is small, but it has a very stabilized community that has its own publications, its own production of shared knowledge, its own conferences. Jewelers participate in SNAG, but that organization also incorporates every form of metalsmithing. But jewelry…it’s a little bit homeless. It’s a little bit nomadic because it’s not materially defined.

Namita: Not only are we seeing craft-based media subsumed into sculpture in a broad way, but we also, at the same time, have people talking about textiles as a discipline, or metals or jewelry as a discipline. I’m having some issues with both of those things.

This incorporation [of craft media] into sculpture in academic training impacts aspects of how learning is structured, which Kat brought up. She expressed concern that a student may only have one or two classes, and then seems considered qualified to go out with a degree in a particular area. When craft gets subsumed into sculpture, this may become even fewer in terms of media literacy and focused training. At the same time, I would argue that a lot of contemporary jewelry is sculpture. It’s not necessarily adornment and jewelry in that same way, and it crosses some boundaries that can expand sculpture.

Phoenix: Wasn’t it Marjorie Schick who called her work “body objects?” I’ve adopted that for my work.

Matt L.: Marjorie also had wearable paintings and wearable sculpture. But I feel like in the field that’s been treated as, “Oh, you’re just trying to be part of the art crew or the sculpture crew and disassociate from craft.”

But my question, back to Namita: The borrowing of craft techniques, does that become appropriation? Does it become assimilation?

Namita: I think we have to be very cautious about using the terms assimilation and appropriation. There are certain ways in which humanity has transformed materials in some way, shape, or form. The appropriation would come, I think, in taking from one culture and bringing that into a practice, or into the studio and into the making, in a way that doesn’t recognize [the source]. When working with metal, for example, is it appropriation to take a blacksmithing technique from Nigeria and apply that technique? It’s appropriation if you take the forms or the culturally signified object that has been produced and bring that into your practice without recognizing that finished product. That, I think, is appropriating. But is it fair to take that to the level of the fabrication itself?

Matt L.: I think that gets back to a good conversation we had in a class meeting about authorship and recognizing how things are being produced. We’re being taught keum-boo, shibuichi, and mokume gane  . . . and I don’t think it’s a problem if you understand the historical context. Look at Dorothea Prühl’s work. If you look at her work out of context, they are pieces of wood. If you look at why and when she made them, and where they come out of, that’s what makes them part of the discussion. And so, that’s where I’m going to differ with you, Namita. I think we have to understand the context, or it is very problematic that you’re taking those techniques.

Namita: I’m not disagreeing with you on understanding those techniques and giving the context. I don’t think it’s wrong to engage techniques from multiple cultures. I really strongly object to this idea that only people in a certain area have a right to use certain techniques. It’s a very complex, complicated global history that we all sit in. We’re not in nice, neat categories.

I agree with you that you need to have that process, and that’s why I think it’s going to be problematic as processes get subsumed into broader sculptural practices. At the same time, I think that we should be looking to multiple cultural processes with that context.

This is where I would hope that the program opens up a space for all of you to start writing that language and getting that documentation out there. This ties into a question of Emily Zilber’s: What does a maker bring to this kind of program?

Matt L: There has been a lack of art historians dedicated to craft. And I know that has been changing in the last ten or fifteen years, but it makes sense to me that we would become a part of a group of makers but also craft historians.

Namita: It’s a dialogue: there’s reciprocity in what you bring into the program is as much as what we’re sharing with you. . . . and you bring an ability to manipulate materials into this program.

What do you bring in that somebody else might not?

Pheonix: There’s a foundational understanding—maybe everybody can help me expand on that— of what it is to make. Not just the concept of making, but the physicality of it, an understanding of material. And, like Matt Lambert said, you can’t just organize craft by material, because we all use materials and processes from other areas. It’s convoluted. . . it’s not able to be neatly categorized in an art-historical and canonical kind of way. And so, because we understand that, we understand that there needs to be a new way of looking.

Matt L: I think all of us have unique studies or training beyond being makers. I think we all bring in an understanding of making and certain areas of theory that haven’t overlapped craft yet. And I think craft will gain from participating in dialogues with psychology, with cultural studies, with gender studies, because there’s so many amazing parallels that it’s a mutual relationship that can grow, that craft needs.

Phoenix: To piggy-back on what Matt Lambert is saying, I have noticed that each of us, in our craft degrees, had a minor in something that was theoretical. So, Matt [Lambert] had the psychology, I had a philosophy minor, and Kat’s was gender studies.

Kelly: I think we bring an intimate knowledge of what is missing, and that is probably what drove us all to this program.

Namita: Kelly, I think makes me think back to the ’60s. We started to have more artists writing about the shifts they were making in art. . . in order to make sure people could understand the moves that they were making and the way they were shifting art. They had to turn to writing. They had to turn to other ways of communicating.

Matt L: I hope that’s what we take on . . . the way things are applied, they’re all defined in these very narrow constructs that don’t even imply that there is space for conceptuality or material experimentation or scale size…especially with jewelry shows. It must fit in a case that is X by X size. And if it doesn’t, then you can’t submit it.

Phoenix: Except for the exhibition that you helped to make. Right?

Matt L: I did not make it. I lovingly co-chair the “Exhibition in Motion” for SNAG because it is trying to attempt to make space for alternative conceptual work, larger work. It’s a way of paying back.

Phoenix: So, exhibitions like the one that Matt Lambert’s talking about become seminal in the way that new makers think about what is possible. Right? By the time I came to metalsmithing in academia, “Exhibition in Motion” was already a thing. And so, because it was already a thing, I was able to look back at those catalogs and say, “I can make big work.”

Matt L: But there wasn’t a central archive for that. This is the fourth year we’re doing this specific project that you’re talking about, to create an archive and also to dig up, source, and properly discuss the history. Which is a practical application of this [MA] degree: to learn how to do so.

We have a huge history. You look back and see work by Don Friedlich and Susie Ganch; there is a brilliant photo of Susie wearing a headpiece in the very first “Exhibition in Motion.” We have all the original photos. These are people that have entered the canons of craft. But the thing is with those images, unless we dig them up, where are they going to show up in a book?

Namita:  What kind of readings have an impact on your thinking and work? And what specifically, from working with metal, is impacting your research?

Kelly: I was interested in how women, particularly mothers, adapted metals practices when their lives changed as they parented small kids. It was “Notes On the Division of Labor of Sex,” which defined how women, historically, have been able to work, about being financially [connected] to an economy by being able to do things that linked to childcare and being around small children. That led me to reading about interior spaces; a lot of Penny Sparke’s work kind of influenced that. So, it was sort of the adaptation of what I had done instinctually to keep working and getting away from metals. . . and realizing that I was connecting to a much longer history than I realized, through that one five-page essay from 1970.

Phoenix: I have been returning over and over to two texts. Making by Tim Ingold , for the way he describes the experience of making and, to him, what making is, the crossdisciplinarity of it, and the way that he talks about the slippage that occurs between things. And then also The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader  : the way he talks about the aura of the art object leads me to thinking more broadly about applying that to craft objects.

Matt H: Working with metals was a way for me to connect to histories and to cultures. . . . I think that blacksmithing is a way to connect to history and to grapple with what it means to be a part of a continuum. Theoretically, I’ve come to recently consider . . . how, in a lot of ways, blacksmithing fits the concept of the postmodern or the idea of postindustrial… and from those perspectives it makes a lot of sense. There is unprecedented interest in the craft. You can still walk into a shop and experience and engage with the process and the materials in the twenty-first century.

In terms of texts: Ingold for me, too. I think Ezra Shales’s book The Shape of Craft was interesting for a number of reasons: applying a pedestrian approach to craft, and the idea of the anonymous craft worker, and the idea of developing a craft consciousness where craft is everywhere.

Like Phoenix, I’ve been looking at some other things. I’ve been interested in Deleuze and Guattari for a number of years. I studied film theory as an undergrad, and I think that some of the things Deleuze was writing about in terms of film theory could be applied to craft theory, like the idea of movement and flow that Ingold talks about . . . There are some really interesting overlaps there.

Namita: Oh, Matt. Guess what paper you’re going to write next term.

Matt H: Yeah, maybe. [Group laughter.]

Matt L: As a metalsmith, when you’re working with something that is five inches by five inches, that is considered kind of generous. You have to own up to every decision that you’ve made, and give attention to detail. No matter what I make, I make from the vernacular of jewelry, because jewelry has trained me—and also my writing– to understand the need for patience, repetition, and details, which sometimes are my own details and nobody else’s.

Texts that were very important to me before I got to the program: Pekka Harni’s Object Categories, and Maureen Mercury who is a psychologist using the process of alchemy in relation to what it means to put something on the body. I’m interested in the relationship of craft objects to bodies and how craft forms identity, and primarily nation-state at the moment.

Since the program: Diana Sorensen, Territories and Trajectories: Cultures in Circulation, and Namita’s and my discussions on Homi Bhabha and The Location of Culture, of course. . . .I’m not interested in craft writing because it’s already written, and I think other people are interested in that. I’m interested in how black, queer, intersectional feminism has a strong dialogue with craft, and craft as a minority structure—how queer bodies and feminist bodies and minority bodies can both learn from each other and help each other. I am really confused as to why there hasn’t been more writing on it right now. I think I just assigned myself a paper as well.

Namita: Yes, you may have. Good job. That’s two projects. Thank you.

Kat: Looking at a primary source document, the Asilomar Conference Proceedings (American Craft Council) opened my eyes to the importance of looking at primary sources, especially when it comes to histories. It’s made me interested in how makers usually have notebooks and journals. How can I write about a craftperson from the perspective of their journals, or their own writing, or just from their own voices? I feel it is important to make space for those people to talk about themselves, instead of talking about them from my lens.

Aside from my research, I’m starting to dive into more feminist theory. I think I shied away from that this semester because I was taking on looking into this big historical event [Asilomar]. Now I want to bring myself back home and start reading a lot more intersectional feminist theory.

So, I actually also have Territories and Trajectories, the book that Matt Lambert mentioned, and bell hooks’s Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. I just read Assata Shakur’s autobiography, which talks a lot about oppression and injustice in the “justice system.” I want to look at the ways that makers live within those intersections: how they make, and how that impacts their making. I’m very interested in what compels humans to do the things that they do, so I want to take those intersectional feminist texts and write about makers with those books as my support system.

Namita: Excellent. Thank you all. Is there anything that you feel we didn’t cover that you wanted to mention about the program or why you’re here, and how it connects to metals work or anything that we didn’t touch on?

Kat: Be ready for the revolution.

For additional information on the MA in Critical and Historical Craft Studies visit www. https://www.warren-wilson.edu/programs/ma-in-craft/

and follow on Instagram @macraftstudieswwc

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