Fine Craft in New Mexico

Metal, clay, glass, fiber and more.


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Perhaps nowhere in the United States is there a more vibrant and exciting market for fine crafts as in New Mexico. In fact, it’s often the traditional New Mexico crafts of Spanish Colonial woodcarving and Native American pottery that first enthrall the collector new to the state. And here, indigenous crafts as well as contemporary crafts are more often than not exhibited alongside painting and sculpture in museums, galleries and private homes.

Yet many collectors, curators and artists consider craft a “dirty” word, believing it reinforces old-fashioned notions of an art hierarchy in which painting and sculpture take precedence over the material-based arts. Two major American art institutions—the former American Craft Museum and the California College of Arts and Crafts—have changed their names in recent years to remove “craft” from the semantic mix, becoming the Museum of Arts and Design and the California College of Art, precisely for that reason.

Yet there is a difference between the household pottery one might buy at an “arts and crafts” fair and an exquisite pot that takes Best of Show at Indian Market. And though sometimes functionality is a distinguishing factor, it ain’t necessarily so—it is possible, for example, to eat off the carved and painted ceramic tableware that Abiquiu ceramist Eddie Dominguez makes—though it’s unlikely anyone would do so.

The difference “comes down to artistic intention,’’ says Laura Addison, curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. Of course, collector and curator alike don’t always know what the artist’s intention was. Addison admits she once judged an Indian Market piece assuming that the artist’s aim was to parody European portraiture and fuse it with Indian art aesthetics—then realized that might have been only her interpretation, not the artist’s.


Image: ©2005 Tom Joyce "Quoin"
Wood, books, iron
48" x 48"x 41"

Tom Joyce, a Santa Fe blacksmith and metal sculptor who shows at Evo Gallery, agrees with Addison about intention. But when he is working on an object that has a functional purpose, Joyce says, “the work comes from a different place” in his head than when he is working on a piece that he considers purely art. “Though [the fine art pieces] are still in the craft tradition, conceptually they meet an entirely different design criteria, sculpture over a functional work,’’ Joyce explains. And lest anyone think the making of functional objects demeans Joyce’s prestige as an artist, in 2003 the MacArthur Foundation honored him with one of its so-called “genius” grants.

Use of materials doesn’t distinguish humble craft from fine art craft, either. Jane Sauer, artistic director of Thirteen Moons Gallery pic in Santa Fe and a textile artist, believes that a merging of material use between two- and three-dimensional artists has further blurred the lines between craft and art. “The road between them used to be broad, but is becoming narrower,’’ Sauer says.

Inventive use of material can make a work more obviously conform to the idea of fine art than craft. Michael Ceschiat of Jarales, who shows at Mariposa Gallery remote, uses the Japanese hikidashi ceramic firing technique to create ceramic pieces that he calls “bugs”. “If you look at those bugs, they’re really jars, so they are kind of from a traditional potter background,’’ he says. “I kind of blur the boundaries without any real thought.’’ John Garrett of Albuquerque, who exhibits at Thirteen Moons Gallery in Santa Fe, began his career as a weaver, but now his “textiles” are made of metal wire, hardware cloth, thread, plastic pieces, found objects—whatever works for his concept.

And how are we to define Hugh O’Neall of Albuquerque, who shows at Mariposa Gallery? O’Neall makes fanciful creatures constructed of pieces of bone and antler he often finds in his day job as storm drainage supervisor for Bernalillo County—as well as chicken and turkey bones he falls in love with at the dinner table. Is he a sculptor or a craftsman—or perhaps both?

Teri Greeves, a beadworker of Kiowa ancestry who shows at Thirteen Moons, learned to bead from Shoshone and Cheyenne women, combining their original styles of pictorial narration with her own ideas. But Greeves says unless an indigenous artist is making reproduction work, she can’t really “speak in the elders’ voices.” Now she makes primarily objects that are pseudo-functional, such as beaded tennis shoes. In 1999, she beaded an entire umbrella, NDN Parade, that won Best of Show at Indian Market—generally thought of as a venue that recognizes traditional native craft.

Several artists suggested that marketability plays a role in distinguishing fine art from craft. Craft, even custom craft, is created primarily to sell, says K Hyewook Huh, a Korean glass who shows at Palette Gallery in Albuquerque. “I see and feel my sculpture work more freely than craft work,’’ she explains. “From the start, I usually have a different motivation for each work. If I say sculpture is focused to my satisfaction and philosophy, in craft there is more space for a future client. ‘’

It is actually easier to sell traditional craft than fine art craft in most cases, artists say, but for the most part, they find it less satisfying. Arthur Lopez, who shows at Parks Gallery pic in Taos, works with traditional Northern New Mexico woodcarving (santero) techniques, makings both traditional retablos (paintings) and bultos (carvings) of saints. He also makes very edgy political works that incorporate traditional religious figures. The former pay the rent; the latter are harder to sell, and come at some cost to him among traditional art community members who don’t approve. Still, the impetus to express his ideas wins out over practicality, and he keeps making the edgier works.

Lidded Vessel

Image: ©2005 Jane Bruce "Lidded Vessel"
Blown glass: wheel-cut, sandblasted
Courtesy Palette Contemporary Art & Craft remote Albuquerque
Photo by Dave Nufer

Textile artist Lauren Camp uses quilting techniques, and though many of her works are abstract, she also creates portraits, especially for her ongoing series on jazz musicians. As long as she’s making portraits, “Why not paint? I get asked that question so often,’’ she says. She realized at one point in her career that she was, in effect, painting, but she finds her technique provides “too rich a surface now to go back to one dimension.”

Interestingly, craft artists whose work stretches far beyond the boundaries of their craft traditions often continue to use not just the same materials and techniques, but also the same forms. Jane Bruce, a British-born New York glass artist who shows at Palette in Albuquerque, still makes vessels. Her series of Lidded Vessels can’t be opened, but she continues to make them in the shape of tall bottles, with slender necks and what look like openings at their tops. Yet she is adamant that her work is not sculpture. It doesn’t arise from the sculpture tradition, she says, but from her studies of objects and appreciation for the art history of objects.

Of course, the question, Is it art? shouldn’t dictate whether a collector should buy an art object. And whether the maker or seller calls an object art or craft shouldn’t dissuade the collector from judging a work on its own merits.

Whether or not a craft object should be defined as “art” seems best answered in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. In a 1964 attempt to define pornography, Stewart said (now famously), “I shall not today attempt to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced [by the definition]. . . but I know it when I see it.’’

By Hollis Walker,who has been writing about art for many years. She is an alumnae fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program.

Originally appeared in The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 19

Related Pages

Crafts: Many of a Kind article
The Thread of New Mexico article
Tile as Art - Art as Tile article
Oriental Ceramics in New Mexico article

Textiles as Art article
The Art of Craft article
Glass Art in New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources


Patrician Design | 505-242-7646
Weyrich Gallery | 505-883-7410

Santa Fe

EVOKE contemporary | 505-995-9902
Bellas Artes | 505.983.2745
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Heidi Loewen Porcelain Studio & School | 505-988-2225
Peterson-Cody Gallery LLC rem 130 West Palace Ave | 820-0010
Tansey Contemporary rem 652 Canyon Road | 505-995-8513
Tesuque Glassworks pic Bishop's Lodge Road | 505-988-2165
Winterowd Fine Art | 505-992-8878


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