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Carol Sauvion's Freehand gallery clears space for a craft study center

The idea: To provide new ways to appreciate handmade arts.

October 07, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

In the field of American crafts, Carol Sauvion has just about done it all.

A former studio potter and teacher with a college degree in art history, Sauvion opened her L.A. crafts shop, Freehand, in 1980. The 3rd Street emporium expanded into two adjacent storefronts as it became a popular outlet for functional works of clay, glass, wood, fiber and metal and a destination for believers in the power and beauty of the handmade. With a loyal clientele, it specializes in relatively timeless ceramics and jewelry rather than following trends.

Determined to share her passion with a broader audience, she produced the Peabody Award-winning PBS series "Craft in America" in 2007, under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization by the same name. Then came an exhibition, "Craft in America: Expanding Traditions," which toured the country for two years, and the companion book, "Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects."

And now, on the eve of the PBS program's second season -- airing nationally tonight -- Sauvion has launched the Craft in America Study Center. Freehand's merchandise -- which continues to sell despite the recession -- has been compressed into two of the storefronts, making space for the center's research library, mini exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations and other public programs.

"You can look at the work right up close," she says, opening drawers of an elegantly crafted desk in the inaugural show of wood furniture designed by the late Sam Maloof and produced by his longtime associates Mike Johnson, Larry White and David Wade. "This is a humble space, but it's a place for people to come and see things."

Having settled into middle age, Sauvion exudes a motherly warmth and a youthful enthusiasm for a world of crafts that continues to reveal itself. The time and energy once put into her own ceramics are now spent on discovering and promoting the work of other artists.

On a wall near the furniture, she points out wall-mounted, glass-front boxes that display small pieces in thematic groupings such as "landscape," "community" and "memory." In the back section of the center, shelves are filled with books, magazines, instructional videos, teachers' guides and information about crafts classes nationwide. Computer workstations are available for visitors who want to explore the website www.craftinamerica.org and view other digital resources, including outtakes from the TV series.

The two-part program airing tonight begins with "Origins," focusing on artists who have developed their work from traditional techniques and passed on their knowledge to others. Sauvion and her team visit Philip Simmons, a South Carolina blacksmith who died in June; Vernon Owens, a master ceramist at North Carolina's Jugtown Pottery; Teri Greeves, a Kiowa beadworker; Jim Bassler, a Southern California weaver; and Paul Stankard, a New Jersey glassmaker. For all the featured artists, crafts is not a career, Sauvion says. It's a calling and a way of life.

The second episode, "Process," takes viewers to schools and studios to investigate how artists find inspiration, learn craft techniques and hone their skills. Featured sites include the 92nd Street Y in New York, the Kansas City Art Institute and the North Bennet Street School in Boston.

"All this has the same genesis," Sauvion says, referring to a cross-country driving trip she took 13 years ago. "I realized that crafts are everywhere. It's something we have in common and it's so approachable, but most people don't have a way of accessing it. There are so few places to see it."

"How," she asks, "can you increase awareness? Well, put it on TV. That has been fantastic. And we have the website, the exhibition and the book. But when the exhibition is gone, the opportunity to see the actual objects is gone. So, we thought, what if we could have a permanent place, even if it's small?"

The study center is open noon to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and by appointment. The Maloof exhibition will close Saturday. A show of ceramics by teachers and students at the Kansas City Art Institute will run from Oct. 24 to Nov. 21, followed by David Gurney ceramics and Tom Killion prints, Nov. 28 to Dec. 31. Many other plans are in the works, including conversations with artists and curators, and art-making experiences for school groups.

"I'm very happy with how it's turned out," Sauvion says, "but we don't know yet what we have here."

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suzanne.muchnic @latimes.com

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'Craft in America'

Where: KCET-TV

When: Back-to-back episodes at 8 and 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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