Greg Williams carefully pulled on his white cotton gloves. He slowly opened a massive wooden crate and as slowly slid a Styrofoam packing box from inside. No. 12 of 22, it said. With a Christmas morning sense of anticipation, Williams moved aside the fabric lining and lifted a feather-light hand-turned wooden bowl from the box and placed it gently on a white display stand.
The label said: Ronald E. Kent, Honolulu, Hawaii, translucent wooden bowl, Pacific Norfolk Pine, lathe-turned, multiple oil-soaked and hand-sanded.
The scent of linseed oil filled the air.
Kent’s bowl is one of 72 treasures that Williams was busy unpacking this week at the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville. The artworks belong to the White House Collection of American Crafts, an exhibit of extraordinary handcrafted objects by many of America’s most accomplished artisans. The best the country has to offer will be exhibited Sunday through July 13 at Colby and includes works in glass, ceramic, fiber, wood and metal.
The collection was formed in 1993 with the encouragement of President and Mrs. Clinton in honor of the Year of the American Craft. However, most of the pieces transcend the common definition of craft to become high art — absolutely.
Still wearing the gloves, Williams picked up a plain, brown pottery bowl crafted by Joan Mondale, the wife of former Vice President Walter Mondale. “I believe this one was included because of its simplicity,” he said.
With a look at the Mondale bowl, it is easy to connect with the crafters personally, far easier than connecting with the life and struggles of long-dead masters, such as Rembrandt or Goya. These pieces, these dazzling pieces, were created by the hand of contemporary crafters, a hand that could be our hand. The possibility enchants the viewer.
The collection’s artists are from every corner of the country — except, curiously, Maine.
Some pieces are traditional. Others are whimsical. The works range from metal and copper candlesticks to blown-glass pieces, to quilts and rocking chairs, to clocks and dolls.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “The pieces represent the extraordinary beauty and diversity of American craftsmanship as well as the generous spirit of our artists.” Most of the works were donated by their makers.
Stopping by an enormous blown glass bowl, Williams points with his gloved finger. “Look at the way the light filters through,” he quietly says. Indeed, it’s hard to know where to look. Every display stand is alight with color, texture, movement.
“This is a very special show and we are very excited,” said Hugh Gorley, Colby’s museum director. Colby is the sixth of only 14 sites that will exhibit the collection and the only one in Maine.
“There is a great interest nationally in crafts,” said Gorley, and he expects the American Crafts exhibit to be one of the most popular ever held at the museum.
An integral part of American life, crafts have been both objects of utility and aesthetic expressions of daily life. The human dimension of the White House Collections stirs the viewer: These crafts were created with skills either self-taught or passed on from generation to generation, father to son, mother to daughter, mentor to student.
Whether taught in the New Mexico desert by a patient grandfather or schooled in the best institutions in the world, the artists are united by their breathtaking skill.
The youngest artist represented in the collection is Zachary Oxman, a metalsmith who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in art. He produces bronze goblets, candleholders and sculptures in a one-man foundry that he built in rural Virginia. Contrast Oxman’s background with that of Sam Maloof, a completely self-taught, full-time craftsman who next year will turn 80. Maloof completes 75 new pieces of furniture each year in a California studio he built himself.
Maloof, whose handmade rocking chair graces the collection, has said, “I never once thought about recognition because I thought, `How wonderful it is to be able to earn a living working with my hands — to make things that I enjoy making and other people enjoy having.’ So recognition never entered my head at all.”
The collection originally was displayed in the White House and will return there following the tour that has included exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, the American Craft Museum in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California.
The Colby museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Weekday tours may be arranged for groups by appointment. A virtual tour of the collection can be viewed on the World Wide Web. The address is: http://www.nmaa.si.edu/whc/american crafts