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An artful appreciation of crafts

In Long Beach, a museum is returning, successfully, to its roots.

May 05, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Not so long ago, energy emanating from here could be felt across the nation. For the first half of the 20th century, functional crafts, particularly furniture and architectural appointments, were part of the excitement of everyday life. Magazines and newspapers tantalized the nation with the virtues of distinctive styles of California living that emerged straight from craft workshops. Later, ceramists at Scripps College and elsewhere gave the region a national profile in the gallery crafts.

During the years that followed, mass production, synthetic materials, saturation advertising, haste and who knows what else dealt crafts a staggering blow nationwide. But not a fatal one. In the last decade or two, the resurgence of crafts has been nothing short of remarkable, if the United States is considered as a whole. That includes both crafts with artistic ambitions and those old-fashioned and once disappearing practical crafts like blacksmithing, boot making, weaving and even the brewing of craft beers.

The revival, though, has been stubbornly slow to flower here. "It pains me to come back to L.A.," ceramicist Carol Sils said, in what has become a commonly heard lament. To her, the functional arts and crafts seem so much more vibrant in other cities. From Seattle to Burlington, Vt., from the rural reaches of the Deep South to the tourist towns of the Rocky Mountains, artists and guilds and galleries and exhibitions strike visitors as being closer to the civic culture.

By contrast, crafts remained underground here. They have been difficult to locate -- a small world unto themselves, catering chiefly to those with specialized interests.

"Most people don't have the chance to know that we have craftsmen here," said Ronald Goldman, publisher of the bimonthly Woodworker West. "We have a vibrant woodworking community, but we haven't had an outlet."

"If it's your passion, you find it. But it requires searching. We're under the radar," said Carol Sauvion, proprietor of one of the region's foremost retail craft galleries, Freehand in Los Angeles.

Both are among those rooting for Long Beach. "It's a fantastic idea," Sauvion said.

None of this is to slight other museums. Important collections of furniture and ceramics are held by some of the larger institutions in the area, although these items are only occasionally displayed. And among smaller museums, the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College has a 60-year history of championing contemporary ceramics. The Museum of the American West, formerly the Autry Museum, has conducted numerous shows of western craft, historical and contemporary. The Brand Library in Glendale hosted popular woodworking shows. The troubled Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum has been taken over by the city and exists as a source of hope in the crafts community, as does its sister institution, Barnsdall Art Park. Intermittently, craft shows pop up in surprise venues, like Beverly Hills City Hall or LAX.

Still, few believe that Southern California has given the public or the crafts enough of a chance. By committing itself almost wholly to the idea, the Long Beach museum now offers a test of the appetites of one for the other.

"So much in our culture mitigates against crafts," Nelson observed. "So much encourages the opposite -- the branding, the brand-name car or shoes. So rarely are we encouraged to seek uniqueness. There is a vanilla quality to it all.

"Still," he continued, "we have not just an opportunity but an obligation to provide an alternative perspective."

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