On the Conference Circuit: ACC to SECAC

The past few weeks have been a marathon of listening, learning, speaking, and networking, first at the American Craft Council's Present Tense Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, October 13-15, and then at SECAC (formerly the Southeastern College Art Conference) in Roanoke, Virginia, October 19-22. The events each offered abundant inspiration in their own right, but attending them in close succession enabled me to make connections between materials, ideas, and practices that spanned both events. 

The 2016 American Craft Council  Present Tense  Conference Scholarship Award Recipients at the industrial-chic venue  KANEKO , with  Jun Kaneko 's ceramic heads in the background. Photo by  Ben Semisch . 

The 2016 American Craft Council Present Tense Conference Scholarship Award Recipients at the industrial-chic venue KANEKO, with Jun Kaneko's ceramic heads in the background. Photo by Ben Semisch

The American Craft Council’s generous scholarship program provided me and other emerging professionals with an invaluable opportunity to attend their triannual meeting. Many conferences in the crafts are inhibited by their emphasis on a single material (clay, metal, fiber) or approach (academic, creative, curatorial). In contrast, Present Tense stimulated rich intellectual, aesthetic, and social exchange by bringing together students, teachers, trustees, entrepreneurs, and artists practicing in a range of media. Though my research may focus on fiber, some of my most helpful interactions at the conference were not with textile artists and historians, but rather with ceramists, woodworkers, and glass critics. Their perspectives broadened my craft knowledge in clay, metal, wood, and glass, providing inter-media frameworks for understanding the behavior and meaning of fiber in my own scholarship. 

Oblique view of Sonya Clark,  Tendril , 2007, combs.

Oblique view of Sonya Clark, Tendril, 2007, combs.

Of the many debates addressed throughout the weekend, those most relevant to my research and pedagogy concerned the interface between craft and ethics. Questions of cultural appropriation are central to my dissertation, which explores the ways in which American fiber artists of the 1960s and 1970s drew inspiration from textile traditions beyond the borders of Europe and the United States. These difficult tensions are more effectively explored through conversation rather than in isolation, and it is a positive reflection on the state of the field that virtually every Present Tense panel made a point to discuss issues of diversity and access. Otto von Busch’s energetic presentation was filled with conceptual tools and vocabulary—such as Barbara Deming’s concept of “two hands of nonviolence,” Brian Eno’s “scenius,” and his own neologisms “compassionate fashion” and “strategic sloyd”—that offered new insight into the actions and intentions of the artists I study. Likewise, Sonya Clark, Nicholas Galanin, and Tanya Aguiñiga’s powerful rebuttals of racial tokenism underscored the urgency of addressing white privilege in the arts. 

Enamel on aluminum works by Roanoke artist Dorothy Gillespie in  Legacies: Honoring Artistic Luminaries from Southwestern Virginia  at the Taubman Museum of Art. Foreground:  Ribboned Presence , 1993. Rear left:  Tiered Arrangement III . Rear right:  Colorfall Series, Garden , 1993.

Enamel on aluminum works by Roanoke artist Dorothy Gillespie in Legacies: Honoring Artistic Luminaries from Southwestern Virginia at the Taubman Museum of Art. Foreground: Ribboned Presence, 1993. Rear left: Tiered Arrangement III. Rear right: Colorfall Series, Garden, 1993.

Sonya Clark was a hinge between both events. Following her riveting artist's talk in Omaha, I was able to view her exhibition Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke. The power of her work stems equally from their conceptual and material properties, making it crucial to experience their texture and, in some cases, participatory elements, in person. At the Taubman I also discovered some new favorites like Dorothy Gillespie in an exhibition titled Legacies: Honoring Artistic Luminaries from Southwestern Virginia. The rad palette and patterns of Gillespie's enamel-on-metal sculptures from the 1990s made me nostalgic for my childhood in that decade.

I love the play of textures and colors between my patent-leather wedges and this dazzling "fauxaic" (yes, I am coining that word. You're welcome!).  

I love the play of textures and colors between my patent-leather wedges and this dazzling "fauxaic" (yes, I am coining that word. You're welcome!).  

Another fantastic art venue in the area is Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University, which hosted a reception for the SECAC 2016 Juried Exhibition on Friday night. There were some great works on view, but as a newcomer to the school, the vibrant campus stole the show. The entrance to the museum was paved with a temporary spray-chalk installation, and by the door were two decorated trash cans that I learned were part of a "Battle of the Bins" competition among the students. From this example, it seems evident that Hollins students are deeply invested and creatively engaged with their surroundings.

A slide from my presentation, in which I identify formal congruences between the sculpture Claire Zeisler made (left) and collected (right). Both of these fiber objects juxtapose a densely articulated upper register with loose, cascading strands below.

A slide from my presentation, in which I identify formal congruences between the sculpture Claire Zeisler made (left) and collected (right). Both of these fiber objects juxtapose a densely articulated upper register with loose, cascading strands below.

My interdisciplinary experience at ACC was so rewarding that I chose to emulate it at SECAC by attending a range of sessions on studio art, pedagogy, and technology in addition to my typical art history circuit. My own presentation was titled "Connective Threads: Claire Zeisler's Post-Primitivist Fiber Sculpture," part of the panel "Eclecticism, Appropriation, Forgery: Issues of Borrowing in Art." I was satisfied with my talk, but not with my title. Have you ever submitted an abstract at an early stage of a project, only to find that your subsequent research diverges from - or perhaps even contradicts - your original title? Of course, by that time, the said title is printed on the program. I chose to confront this issue head-on in my talk by thematizing the disjuncture between my expected and actual research outcomes in my talk itself. I concluded: "The title of my presentation, 'Claire Zeisler’s Post-Primitivist Fiber Sculpture,' was initially borne out of my personal desire to view the artist as a figure working within the constraints of primitivism while endeavoring to move beyond them. Instead, my analysis of Zeisler’s ambivalent collecting and sculpting practices suggests that perhaps the potential for moving post-primitivism lies not in individuals, but in objects. The palimpsest of material messages in each of Zeisler’s fiber sculptures provides physical evidence of specific cultural traditions while recognizing their common humanity." 

What conferences or events have inspired you lately? Post in the comments! 

Sarah