All art is craft. But is all craft art? The ancient Greeks did not recognize any sharp divisions between the craftsperson who created a beautiful wine urn and the craftsperson who created a beautiful statue. Both were united under the term “techne,” which meant knowledge and skill.
But today many make a distinction between craft objects that have a practical purpose and those that do not. Practical objects, however beautiful, are craft. Impractical objects, however ghastly, are art. The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft attempts to eliminate this distinction by showing the power and beauty of crafted objects, and reintroducing the public to the process of craft.
The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCCC) was founded nearly 15 years ago. From the beginning, the HCCC has set out to transform people’s perception of craft. “Our mission is to advance education about the process, product, and history of craft,” says Miriam Mendoza, HCCC’s Education Director. A large part of their work involves exhibitions of works, and free tours. The Center also provides a deeper understanding of craft through hands-on classes, and opportunities to witness and talk with craftspeople at work. Though all art is craft, the Center restricts its exhibits to works made with clay, fiber, glass, metal, wood or found/recycled materials.
Why an entire institution devoted to crafts? “Handmade craft objects enrich people’s lives.” says Mendoza. Crafted objects connect us powerfully to the artist and the materials. “If you drink tea out of a handmade cup you can see that it fits perfectly in your hand when you hold it,” notes Mendoza. “You start to think of the clay that was used to make it and admire the glaze that decorates it.”
The HCCC doesn’t just want to sell you craft works, though. They encourage their visitors to appreciate the ancient traditions of craft throughout the world, and the insights these traditions provide. Visitors may take a second look at the mass-produced objects that are so prevalent in the modern world and wonder about their meaning for us today.
In order to facilitate visitors getting the most from a visit to the museum, the HCCC emphasizes the process of craft. “The craftsperson spends years developing and mastering techniques and skills that help them transform craft materials into beautiful objects,” notes Mendoza. And while Mendoza emphasizes that “the level of skill and craftsmanship is evident in the end product,” it takes a trained eye to see the full extent of the skill that many artisans put into their work.
That is why the HCCC makes certain that visitors can interact with working craftsmen and women both through the Artist Residency Program and through annual demonstrations at the Museum Experience Day event. “It is one thing to admire a forged object on a pedestal,” says Mendoza, “but it is a lot more engaging and exciting to see a blacksmith in action.”
But there is no better way to see the richness of craft than to begin to learn the skills. Plus, it’s just a fun way to learn a little something about the world. The HCCC offers workshops for groups of 10 or more, regardless of age. “Visitors can create clay mugs, turn raw wool fibers into a wet felted bracelet, or design a fused glass magnet.” Along with the free tours, these workshops are popular for all kinds of groups, from kids to professionals to seniors.
As a value to visitors and to the artistic community, the HCCC hosts a competitive Artist Residency program. “Our Artist Residency Program is for emerging, mid-career and established artists working in craft media,” says Mendoza. The program only awards residencies to between 5 and 10 percent of applicants each year, with applications coming from across the US. Residencies vary in length from three months to a year, and all residents are provided with generous studio space, monthly stipends and a quarterly materials allowance.
“The Artist Residency Program is designed to offer time and space for craft artists to focus on their creative work and interact with the public,” says Mendoza. Residents must keep their doors open to the public for at least 24 hours per week, during which time visitors can watch skilled craftspeople at work and ask questions about their technique and aims. At the end of the residency, the residents get to take part in a group show to exhibit their work.
A great way to get a first introduction to the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft is to attend one of their HANDS-ON HOUSTON events, held the first Saturday of each month. For this free event, the HCCC “provides materials and instruction so that visitors can learn a new craft technique or create a three-dimensional object related to our current exhibitions,” says Mendoza.
Craft can include everything from jewelry to pottery to woven tapestries to sculptural objects. But Mendoza emphasizes the felt value of the works of craft. “No matter what form a craft object takes, one thing is for sure, it always adds beauty to daily life.”
By David Boegaard.