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Celebration of Craft

Review by Pan Wendt

The Eptek Centre’s summer exhibition Celebration of Craft offers a welcome opportunity to experience a broad sampling of Island craftwork. But it also focuses on pieces that expand the definition of craft, as organizers asked local craftspeople to submit objects that featured innovation and went a little beyond the format of their usual production work.

Naturally such a brief could be interpreted in a number of ways, and given the variety of mediums and techniques on display, the centre’s small exhibition space was packed with an array of different objects. Eighty-four pieces were chosen to represent contemporary Island craft, and several examples of historical work from Prince Edward Island museums were featured to illustrate continuity with past techniques as well as the way craft has changed over the years.

Craft forms a growing part of the economy of Prince Edward Island, and as a result there was a lot to choose from in this show. Everyone will have their favourites. For me, the gems varied from a subtle smoke-fired bowl by Jamie Germaine to Diane Gaudreau’s elegant Asian-style side table. Or in a more traditional vein, Cheryl Wolthuis’ In the Garden, a representation of Adam and Eve in bobbin lace. Robert Wilby presented a wacky and engaging “Soldier,” made of painted porcelain, although it was somewhat difficult to read it as a piece of craft, per se. Amiel LeBlanc’s Slit Drum was an impressive exploration of the material possibilities within his craft of drum making. There were many others.

In fact most of the pieces won me over, but the exhibition still seemed uneven to me, or maybe just too multifarious and crowded. A show of this sort presents a variety of problems. Firstly, there is the somewhat tired but nonetheless vexing question of the definition of craft: is it utilitarian objects embellished by decoration? Is it a question of technique? Of tradition? Of not being “art”? And some pieces were obviously closer to production work than others. At what point does craft cease being craft when it departs from its utilitarian function? And I was left confused, for example, by the inclusion of photography in the exhibition. Doesn’t craft seem to gain its status through its involvement with technology that’s at least partly outmoded?

Many pieces approached the brief of the show by exploring technique or material, some expanded craft through content, some through conceptual devices that raised the issue of how the notion of fine art and the notion of craft articulate one another; there is clearly art in craft and craft in art. But overall it was unclear exactly how one differentiated craft from other kinds of object-making. What the exhibition presented, not necessarily intentionally, was the uncertain status of craft in contemporary life. This would have been an interesting question to explore, but by including nearly everything, according to the very loose definition of craft adopted by the Island Crafts Council, what we were left with was a kind of everything for everyone position. I would have liked to see a more focused exhibition, perhaps with fewer works (the venue was quite crowded), that tried to make some deliberate connection or contrast between the craft of today and craft of the past.

Despite these reservations, I applaud the Eptek Centre for bringing together so many quality pieces and giving recognition to a rich vein of creative work on the Island. It is basically impossible to go into any depth with respect to medium, theme or tradition when you are trying to give a broad picture, and given this situation the curators of this show did an admirable job arranging the various pieces by medium and technique. The next step will be to follow this exhibition up with further curatorial projects that produce more focused explorations of Island craft.

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