When art consultant Clara Hollander returned one year from Art Basel, a major art fair in Miami, she was buzzing with ideas about how to spotlight Philadelphia craft scene. She had a drink and “talked the ear off” of a man she hardly knew.
“After the second glass of chardonnay, he said, ‘OK, when can we meet?’ That was David Seltzer,” said Hollander of the day she met the financial adviser, board member of Philadelphia Gas Works, and co-owner of the Philadelphia Union soccer team.
“‘Gee, you must be interested in art,'” Hollander remembered saying. “He said, ‘No. I’m interested in making Philadelphia a more exciting place to live.'”
With Seltzer’s connections and Hollander’s expertise, Craft NOW launched in September as a series of exhibitions and talks about craft, or material-based art, at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Clay Studio, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Center for Art in Wood, and the University of the Arts.
The centerpiece of the initiative is the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, opening Thursday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Now in its 39th year, the juried show features 195 artisans selected by the museum to sell their work. About 18,000 people are expected to browse and shop.
A series of panels and workshops are scheduled concurrently with the Craft Show, leveraging the marketplace’s attendance. Hollander envisions developing a regional craft fair akin to Art Basel, an international art fair that launched its Miami Beach event in 2002.
“Philadelphia is a natural for that to happen,” said Hollander. “Art Basel imports many, many things. Miami, and that area, was a wasteland in many ways before Art Basel. We have so much art, so many artists, and somehow we keep it a secret.”
Starting out small
Craft NOW is starting small, with just four galleries showing work of locals who have been honored as Fellows of the American Craft Council — people such as Paula and Robert Winokur, two ceramicists who work out of their home studio in Horsham, Montgomery County.
Both used to participate in the Craft Show, but no longer.
“It used to be rawer,” said Robert Winokur. “You had a sense of people participating, having a feel for the material you’re working. Now it’s very slick, very finished. The prime goal for the museum is that everything sells.”
“People now working all over the country making craft are extremely well educated, very good at what they do, and demand high prices,” said Paula Winokur.
“It used to be dropout hippies,” added her husband.
In his early days, Robert Winokur, now 82, lived on a farm in Massachusetts making pottery for market.
“You made things you knew would sell — cups, casseroles, vases,” he said. “When I came here to teach at Tyler, you ain’t gonna get tenure for making 50 cups a day.”
He is now a collected artist, making whimsical assemblages of shapes that do not always have a specific function or meaning. Recently he has been making sculptures that resemble houses — on display at the Art Museum and the Clay Studio — but he is loathe to call them that. He sees simply a triangle on top of a rectangle.
“I found that if I gave it a name, it changes it,” he said. “I had a show in Limoges, France. A woman wanted to know if those were concentration camp huts. I said no, no, and left it at that. But what she saw is what she brought to it.”
Keeping melting glaciers in mind
On the other hand, Paula works clay with a clear message in mind. She makes large sculptures out of hunks of textured porcelain that looks raw and cracked. Her sculptures — on display at the Clay Studio and the Philadelphia Art Alliance — are modeled after floating ice glaciers, which she has visited in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska to get a sense of their splits, splinters, and crevices.
“They are gorgeous. Huge sculptures!” she said. “I’ve been influenced by the phenomenon. My idea is to take what I’m seeing and bring it into the gallery and have people think about it.”
Winokur wants people to think about melting glaciers, and global warming. She is now working on a large piece for an upcoming show next spring at North Jersey’s Kean University with painter Diane Burko, a Philadelphia artist who also uses melting glaciers for inspiration and messaging.
After that show, “Glacial Dimensions,” Winokur might give up sculpture altogether, and focus on drawing instead. “It’s heavy, and I’m getting old,” she said.
The four exhibitions of Craft NOW feature 14 fellows of the American Craft Council from the Philadelphia area, including William Daley, Rudolf Staffel, and Judith Schaechter.
Thora Jacobson, director of Philadelphia Art Alliance, would like Craft NOW to reflect the range of crafting in this region, from the amateur to the small business to the fine artist.
“It needs to be known nationally and regionally,” said Jacobson. “A sense of continuum between community center doing craft classes, all the way up to the American Craft Council.”