On a recent trip to Santa Fe, NM, I visited the Museum of International Folk Art. I was amazed at the size of the displays and the huge variety of cultures represented. So many artists, both historic and current, working to keep old processes and traditional styles alive while still expressing personal viewpoints and reflecting on the issues of their time. There was an amazing display of Peruvian art, with artists drawing from political influences, both ancient and modern. There was also a large show of Tramp Art. The earliest “up-cyclers”, which I guess I already knew, but seeing the beautiful and elaborate frames, cabinets, sewing boxes and secret treasure chests, all made from old wooden boxes and scraps that would have otherwise been tossed, was a nice reminder that the desire to make something from nothing, to make something beautiful from refuse has been happening for a long time. No special tools or equipment, just what was on hand. There were no craft or art supply stores to run to.
There was a huge gallery devoted to gorgeous bead work from many different countries. As I wandered slowly, the marriage adornments, warrior tunics, cloaks, vessels, head and neck pieces, although different in many ways, blended somewhat seamlessly, held together by one shared objective — the desire to make things. There was another large gallery with probably over a hundred dioramas, all depicting daily life or traditional ceremonies that are essential to a particular culture. Many of the diorama displays featured dolls, textiles, masks, and other significant objects uniquely created to represent each different country of origin. Dozens of cultures, so different and so rich in heritage, but again, all sharing the distinctly human characteristic of wanting to make things. And not just things that are mundane or merely useful, but things that possess great beauty and show a high level of craft, representing a time, a place and often telling a story. I wondered how hard it would be to understand and grasp another culture’s true essence if we couldn’t see what its people make?
I know not everyone has the desire to create, at least not in the way I create. I have always loved making things, using my hands and creating decorative and/or functional objects with a variety of mediums. I have often looked down on what I make as being only “craft” and not “fine art”. I am educated enough to understand the difference. Lately, however, I have started to feel that maybe what I do as an artist and as a teacher has more significance than I give it credit. Maybe I need to value this deep-seated desire to be a “maker”, cuz if I don’t do it who will? Who will show us how important it is to pass on old traditions of craft and at the same time, cultivate an atmosphere to discover new ways of making as well? After all, this desire to create helps us to understand the human condition, gives us a common visual language and makes us more similar than different.