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'Fun as all get out'
Seeing these fine art crafts at the Telfair is almost as much of a hoot as making them
Mardi Gras mask by Darryl Montana

For many people, “crafts” means the hokey, country–kitschy stuff one might find at a flea market or perhaps a First Saturday on River Street. For others, crafts can be a fine arts pursuit every bit on a par with oils, watercolors, and marble sculpture.

Count Telfair Museums Studio Manager Kip Bradley in the latter category.

“We want to educate people about the artistic element in crafts,” he says, referring to the fine art crafts show “Tradition/Innovation” up at the Telfair Academy all summer.

“When people think of crafts often the first thing that comes to mind is papier mache,” Bradley laughs. “They don’t think of it as an art form.”

“Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft and Traditional Art” features the work of about two dozen highly regarded Southern craftspeople from Kentucky down to Florida. The quality of the work is often shockingly good. Louisville artist Fong Choo’s teapot “Tangerina” is stunning, as is the tesselized 3D silverwork of Atlanta’s Julia Woodman.

In fact, Woodman will teach one of two remaining classes open to the public in association with the exhibit. Her class is July 9. The other class happens July 16 and is led by local woodturner Steve Cook, who currently plies his old school art at Kobo Gallery on Ellis Square.

“We’ll do an introductory level class on woodturning,” Cook explains. “We’ll supply all the tools and equipment. What people will be able to do will depend on their skill level and mechnical ability.”

In keeping with the theme of “Tradition/Innovation,” Cook is familiar with both the practical and the more artistic sides of his craft. “There’s a difference between woodturning as an artist and as a production woodturner,” he says. “They’re both talents – but one guy’s a woodturner and the other guy’s an artist!”

One of the most fascinating artists at the show is Steve Miller, a professor of Book Arts at the University of Alabama who makes beautiful books all by hand.

Expecting his answer to contain some reference to Irish monks toiling over illuminated texts in the Middle Ages, we asked him to name the golden age of bookmaking by hand.

“It’s 2011, actually,” Miller laughed.  “As in all craft areas, we’re seeing a growing interest. As people are having their faces in front of computers all day every day, they’re loving those touchstones of reality. There’s no doubt when you hold a handmade book it’s been made entirely by hand. Even the casual observer can sense something very, very different.”

Miller says artist bookmakers “deploy the best of 500–year–old technologies and tune those to the ideas of the 21st century. The art, the words, the structures, the concepts flow down from the web and social networking and make their way into books made by hand.

“It’s very important to be exactly right where we are in the world. We want to pull all resources possible, often using traditional techniques but also bringing in new technology,” he says. “Why not use an Epson color printer? Why not make plates from documents tweaked in Photoshop and Illustrator. It’s fun as all get out!”