Remarkable Women 2012: Masters of Craft
Meet seven New Hampshire women who are masters of their craft
Fine craft is where form and function meet. Artisans take humble materials like wood, metal and clay, and through their mastery of the media, transform raw materials into the stuff of dreams and desire. This year's remarkable women have accomplished this artistic alchemy. And they also possess vision and drive that has advanced their craft disciplines to new levels of technique and imagination.
This year's women:
"Stained glass, lamps, whatever it is — glass always draws me to its luminous quality and color."
I see fused glass as a fantastically versatile reflective and transmissive canvas for color and form," says Shandra McLane. "I'm particularly intrigued with Scandinavian and Modernist designs. I find myself creating patterns with similar structure."
The vehicle for her patterns — always complex and colorful — are kiln-formed fused glass bowls, called vessels in the craft world. McLane, who was influenced by artist Frank Van Den Ham, says her goal is to produce designs that are "strong, delicate, yet bold." These complementary opposites are achieved by the material she uses, the designs and the process she employs.
It's a week-long process, with three firings, two to fuse the glass and one to slump it into a mold. When it's cooled and annealed, she cuts and sands it.
"I enjoy assembling the bowls," she says. "I love the process."
Others love the result. McLane, who studied at Pilchuck School of Glass and is self-taught in her technique, will exhibit at McGowan Fine Art in Concord this coming November. She was also a finalist in the prestigious Bullseye Emerge 2012 competition.
When McLane isn't at work in her studio, a converted horse barn in the Lakes Region, she is teaching drawing at Plymouth State University.
For her, it's been a long love affair with glass — even as a child she loved looking at it. "Stained glass, lamps, whatever it is — glass always draws me to its luminous quality and color."
"I'm often asked, 'Why purses?' It's because not only are they functional, your life is enhanced when you carry beautiful things around with you."
When Kathleen Dustin was in college, she was planning a career in the field of mathematics. But her mother — unusual for parents — encouraged her to become an artist instead. She had seen Dustin's creativity grow from the time she was carving soap and gluing toothpicks as a very young child. Dustin made the switch, getting a Master's of Fine Arts in Ceramics.
Today she is regarded as one of the world's leading polymer clay artists, creating elegantly designed wearable art and sculpture from a medium that has just emerged in the past 20 or so years.
It is a medium that she pioneered. Prior to her interest in it, and that of a handful of others in the country, polymer clay was essentially a hobby clay, used mostly by children. She helped transform it into a fine craft medium. Her renown is such that she's invited to the finest craft shows in the country and overseas to share her techniques.
For many years Dustin, a League member, has focused on creating wearable art, especially her signature evening bags, which might be in the shape of a rose, a stone, a pod or, often, a female face. "I'm often asked, 'Why purses?' It's because not only are they functional, your life is enhanced when you carry beautiful things around with you. And, when you're not wearing them, you can put them on a coffee table or dresser and enjoy them."
Now, though, she has given herself a new challenge — to be more nonrepresentational, more abstract. To do that she uses a translucent layering technique she developed that is similar to enameling. It creates a surface that reveals the layers. "The layers can speak of the many layers of meaning, activity and circumstances we have in our lives," she says. "I want it to reflect the stages of my own life."
"When people see my work they see techniques but can't name them because I made them up."
Inspirations for her work are as varied as geography, ranging from the Southwest, where she first discovered metalsmithing and lapidary, to the more classical elegance of New England. She has traveled to Thailand, studied architecture and tapped into her own ancestral Middle Eastern roots, but mostly she's inspired by people, says Jennifer Kalled.
Sometimes they are people she has only met in books. "I've created pieces for Emerson, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes," says Kalled. "I just finished a biography of Steve Jobs. I'm not going to set out to design something on him, but just watch, it will come."
Her Wolfeboro gallery is a showcase for her work and for a hand-picked group of fellow artisans. She arranges the space as artfully as one of her necklaces, with a goal of "arresting" people the moment they walk in. "It‘s all about honoring the thing you are doing it for, and to me that thing is beauty," says Kalled.
Her methods are her own, not the result of formal training. "I get called ‘big' and ‘bold' a lot," she notes. "When people look at my work they see techniques but they can't name them because I made them up."
There's some irony in the fact that jewelry, often equated with vanity and materialism, can appeal to people as philosophical, even spiritual, when designed by Kalled.
"My understanding of spirituality is remaining focused but open to influences," she says. "There's a word in Sanskrit, ‘lila,' which means spontaneous play. Some people design deliberately; I think the subconscious does a better job."
"All my life I've looked at what the elements do to shells, coral and bones. I want to capture the feeling of their edges and other patterns."
"I gave myself the challenge of working in white only," potter Lulu Fichter says. That white pottery — porcelain that is pierced, cut and embossed — has become her signature. Fichter describes her work as "quietly wild."
Many of her designs consist of circles ("I've always been obsessed with circles") painstakingly arranged to create an organic effect. A clear glaze is applied and the piece is then fired in the controlled environment of an electric kiln.
Less controlled is her raku-fired porcelain. With that technique, different glazes are used and the pottery is fired outside in a gas-fired kiln. What results is far less predictable. "I like the surprise," she says. "I like not knowing what I'm going to get." The raku pieces have a metallic look with unexpected bursts of color.
She works in her West Peterborough studio six days a week, at the wheel again after a back injury. That injury took her in a new direction. To keep clay in her hands as she recovered,
Fichter began to create pieces that don‘t require the wheel — using a pinching technique. These "sea orbs" are unglazed, white and take the shape of things in nature. "All of my life I‘ve looked at what weather and the elements do to shells, coral and bones. I want to capture the feeling of their edges and other patterns created in nature."
Fichter — a League member who recently won an award at a Thorne Sagendorph Art Gallery juried show (the first person ever to win in clay) — says that at age 50 her work is a "culmination of all my inspirations I aesthetically connected with along the way."
"Handmade silverware makes food taste better and a handmade coffee cup improves the coffee. Call me odd, but that's what I think."
Paulette Werger collects botanical prints from the 18th and 19th centuries. During her travels, while others take family photos in front of landmarks, she photographs plant structures. "Addictively," she adds.
These delicate and ephemeral images of organic design are the raw materials for her metalwork, converting bulbs and bristles, fronds and florets into durable tableware and heirloom jewelry.
But it's not mimicry of nature she is achieving — more like an homage. "I have a tendency to strip down all the unnecessary information and then build it back up again," she says. "My work is cyclically either baroque or very spare."
She takes pleasure in the fact that her media is the stuff of the archeological record: gold, silver and stone — things designed to last. With the proliferation of computer-assisted design and the recent advent of 3D printer technology, some in the business of handmade objects even conjecture about the "death of craft," but Werger says she isn't worried.
"No matter how much is mass produced in the world, I think there is a human reaction and resonance between something made by hand and the human spirit. If you have fingers and toes and a brain, handmade silverware makes the food taste better and a handmade coffee cup improves the coffee."
Her studio in Lebanon's AVA Gallery is private, but that doesn't stop people from dropping in unannounced. And it's rarely a problem.
"People become more than clients. I get to know their children and make their wedding bands and baby spoons," she says.
"It's all part of this long conversation I have with a family."
"I think it's critical as an artist to push the envelope. I'm not interested in making the same stuff over and over again."
Patricia Palson is doing her best to make New Hampshire a more fashionable place. The award-winning handweaver, who has more than 20 years of fashion experience, doesn't just make gorgeous pieces of clothing, she makes true wearable art. Palson's often colorful, vibrant creations begin from scratch with her own handwoven fabrics that range from merino wool to silk and even bamboo, each crafted with both tactile and visual effects in mind. She then transforms her fabrics into innovative designs that incorporate bold colors and patterns that, while fashion-forward, still remain practical and comfortable to wear.
Palson finds inspiration everywhere around her. "It's very hard to turn the inspiration spigot off," she says. With new inspirations — such as the tropical colors of chameleons, her current muse — come new ways to grow and change. "I think it's critical as an artist to push the envelope," she adds. "I'm not interested in making the same stuff over and over again."
Though she's continually dreaming up different combinations of color and pattern, Palson also loves to experiment with new fabrics. Part of her process, she explains, is discovering each new fabric's unique features and how best to highlight those qualities in a new piece.
Though Palson enjoys showing and selling her work in the "super stimulating" atmosphere of big cities like New York and Boston, New Hampshire is still one of her best markets and where she finds the relaxed, quiet existence she needs to create. "Living in New Hampshire," she says, "is a little slice of heaven for me."
"When someone asks me what I do, it feels like a big question."
Taking a leap into the unknown is two parts exhilarating and one part terrifying. With the potential for discovering something new comes uncertainty and the fear of failure. Woodworker-in-transition Leah Woods knows all about that particular blend of anxiety and excitement. For 11 years the UNH professor built stunning pieces of furniture that are functional pieces of art, but now she's leaving the world of practicality behind for a new passion — sculpture.
"When someone asks me what I do, it feels like a big question," says Woods, who is still trying to define herself as her work evolves. "It's been interesting to think about what to call myself," she adds. "Is it even important whether I call myself a woodworker or an artist?"
An eight-week residency began her transformation from furniture builder to a sculptor who uses wood. Suddenly she didn't have six months to indulge her usual process — thinking about a piece of furniture, brainstorming with sketches, drafting blueprints and then finally beginning to work with the wood. Her current work references function without actually providing function.
Now she creates sculptures of mannequins, dress forms and items women wear such as the coiled neckpieces inspired by the women of Burma.
Woods is enjoying being a little less methodical. Instead of following a rigid plan she's allowing herself to work with material as it's developing — if her emerging sculpture is a little different than what's in her head or on paper she lets it evolve and gives herself room to shift with the piece's new direction — something that's not possible when making a desk or chair.
"I'm really excited that I'm giving myself the permission to experiment and maybe totally fail," she says. A few months ago she "bit the bullet" and applied to various galleries for a solo show — and it paid off. Her first show is this summer in South Carolina.