Studio Craft Comes of Age

New Mexico’s history is full of proof of the undeniable human urge to beautify our objects and surroundings. We find in our museums the earliest examples of decorative arts: beadwork, jewelry, earthenware, textiles, burial offerings. There is ample evidence to be seen from pre- and post-Columbian Native cultures and early colonial periods as well. The rise of industrial age mass reproduction sparked a counter movement that emphasized hand-made objects, fabricated with traditional techniques and materials. The Craft Movement, as it came to be known, was brought to New Mexico by a steady stream of artists seeking cultural and natural inspiration.

Over the last 100 years we have seen the Craft (or Studio Craft) movement in New Mexico and elsewhere evolve and transform, marked by a convergence ancient and modern folkways, and by the blending of practical design considerations with aesthetics. Characterized by invention, experiment, “high art” content, as well as refinement of traditional techniques and superior materials, this convergence of art and utility has given us works that defy traditional categories, that straddle the border between sculpture and object, between function and art.

The premiere venue for the exhibition of Studio Craft for many years has been the SOFA shows. Formally known at The International Expositions of Sculptural Object and Functional Art, these prestigious shows in New York and Chicago feature galleries from around the world that specialize in Studio Craft, and naturally including a significant number New Mexico galleries. The importance of New Mexico’s contribution to this movement has been recognized, with the debut of SOFA West at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center in June 2009.


Ivan Barnett, who spent many years on the craft show circuit before opening Patina Gallery in Santa Fe, finds SOFA the place to be. Barnett has been exhibiting at SOFA since its previous incarnation as “New Art Forms”. Barnett says, “It’s the pinnacle of the arena that we’re in.”

“We have an aesthetic thumbprint of scale between small and large,” says Barnett. “Our clients like what we have because we picked it.” Patina’s pleasing blend of wares includes many fine examples of woodworking, including the work of Peter Moulthrop and Christian Burchard. Like many of the gallerys’ artists, their approach to woodworking is highly innovative, seeking both to extend the technique and achieve a personal and idiosyncratic style. Both seek to reveal the inner beauty of the material, the grain and color of the wood.

Christian Burchard
A Lightness in Being Exercises in Zen
Madrone Burl 20” x 15” x 10”

Moulthrop is the son of Ed Moulthrop, himself known for innovative woodturning, and Peter has followed in his father’s footsteps as a maker of superb turned wood vessels. The shapes are compelling, squat and ovoid forms that defy the handling of the material superb as complex grain is revealed. Preferring the woods native to his Georgia home, he works with such woods as ashleaf maple, sycamore, walnut, tulip poplar. He creates objects of simultaneous strength and delicacy.

Burchard also uses the vessel form, but not exclusively, as he also tends toward forms that are distinctly whimsical. He often works with madrone, and prefers to use it in a green state, allowing the sculpted form to change over time as it dries. He employs sandblasting and bleaching to “simplify” and reveal the wood’s inner character. There is a whimsy to his work, as if taking delight in astonishing us with what wood can do.

Some dealers see glass art as a flashy trend. Don’t tell that to Kurt Nelson, owner of Palette Contemporary Art & Craft in Albuquerque. Because Albuquerque doesn’t have a central arts district, Nelson must rely on other forms of garnering attention, such as the SOFA shows. Nelson sees SOFA as “primarily a glass show,” and Palette’s emphasis is squarely on glass. Its broad, open exhibition space is filled with north light lends itself perfectly to the task.

Glass in all its forms can be found here: blown, cast, inlayed, stained, slumped and etched. They range in size form are imposing, human-sized pieces to delicate and beautiful marbles. We have glass from around the world, including Australia, Japan, Italy, France and the Czech Republic,” says Nelson.

His broad and diverse collection of artists includes Petr Hora and Julie Lazarus. Lazarus was a featured in last year’s SOFA Chicago show. Her translucent blocks of glass slumped with pieces of colored glass attached are luminous treasures. Hora works in cast glass. His apricot and ochre-colored geometric forms are stunning, both in their coloration and in their refraction and reflection and in the appealing surfaces.

Are the distinctions between art and craft disappearing? Jane Sauer thinks so. She is all for blurring the distinction between art forms. For her, the importance is not about tradition, precedent or category. What is important is the material, how the artist uses it and whether or not he or she transcends its inherent limitations.

Giles Bettison and Jon Eric Riis are two such artists. Riis is a renowned fiber artist, known for his astounding tapestries. His work is influenced by Asian textiles, often taking the form of multi-layered jackets, dense with structural and formal symbolism. They can be read as profound ceremonial garments, with imagery ranging from political and social critique to Buddhist philosophy.
Giles Bettison has pushed the boundaries of the venerable Venetian glass making technique known as Murini or mosaic glass. Using colored glass canes, he fashions glass sheets of intricate pattern and subtle coloration. He then forms these sheets into billets, plates and vessels of considerable delicacy and beauty.

Giles Bettison Billet 08 #12
Murrini glass 8.5 x 10.25 x 1.625

Like Palette, Jane Sauer Gallery relies on the SOFA exhibition to reach a much broader audience that she can in her gallery on Canyon Road. This concentration of resources can be an advantage for visitors as well. Not only can the aficionado see work from a substantial number of galleries from around the world in just a few days at SOFA, but frequently private and rare, seldom displayed museum collections are often made available to visitors.

The recent SOFA exhibitions have had a strong New Mexico presence, including the above mentioned galleries, as well as the Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe Clay, TAI Gallery, and the Judy Youens Gallery. The arrival of the SOFA show in Santa Fe marks a high point for the studio craft movement in New Mexico. Last year’s SOFA exhibition attracted 100 dealers from around the world, as well as more than 34,000 visitors. When SOFA West comes to Santa Fe in June, it will bring an impressive roster of exhibitors, lectures, films, special exhibits, and we can expect an equally impressive number of aficionados, curators and collectors of contemporary decorative arts and design.

Kevin Paul is editor, designer and production director for The Collector's Guide.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 23

Related Pages

The Art of Craft article

The Blueprint of a Vessel article

Crafts: Many of a Kind article

Fine Craft in New Mexico article

Glass Art in New Mexico article

Textiles as Art article

Textiles and Fiber Art of New Mexico, A Chronology article

The Thread of New Mexico article

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