DVD Review: PBS Craft in America (4/5)

Mal | Art Process and Creativity,Resources,Reviews | Monday, May 4th, 2009




The PBS Series Craft in America is available on DVD and I rented it through Netflix. It contains one DVD with three “episodes.” I’ve caught snippets of the episodes on my local PBS station, but was under the impression that the only way to get your hands on a DVD was to pony up during the pledge drive. Silly, silly Mal. It can also be bought on Amazon.com.

If you like, you can skip my review of the content and get right to my opinion on it.


The three episodes, beautifully and cinematically directed by documentarian Dan Seeger, are called Memory, Landscape, and Community. I was especially touched to find that the intricate theme song of the series is Simple Gifts — the lyrics of which are the inspiration for my blog’s title.

It’s interesting to note that the series won a Peabody Award. So did Stephen Colbert, so you have to take that for what it’s worth (Hi, Stephen! If you’re reading this, call me!) Here’s a nice summary of the series from the good folks at Peabody:

“Craft” is a term packed with many meanings. This series of three interrelated, one-hour programs sets out to unpack those meanings and to explore the history and continuing significance of craft work. Each of the three topics provides unusually specific focus for this task. Memory examines the history of craft movements in America. Landscape situates craft and craft workers both geographically and in terms of the materials used in creative activities. Community again places people and objects within contexts, in this case the very special networks of schools, mentors, pioneers and practitioners. But all this conceptual elaboration is presented through the most exquisite visual framing, the focus on the works themselves. Clay rises on the wheel, formed into pots. Glass melts into stunning shapes, fiber is woven into fabric, scraps of cloth are sewn into quilts. The treat for the viewer is in what is seen, in watching beautiful objects emerge, and what is said, as craft makers explain what it means to be so intimately involved in these creative endeavors. For examining processes as old as human experience and as fresh and vibrant as the latest local craft fair, a Peabody Award goes to “Craft in America.”

Before we get going, it’s important to mention that when this documentary speaks of “craft,” they are not necessarily speaking of pompoms and glitter. These are not camp crafts or kits or any other type of “quick and easy” projects that you can buy at Hobby Lobby. Rather, the emphasis is on practical, durable, hand-made items and the artists who make them. It is a documentary about hand-made products which highlights the making process. That’s what I ultimately like about it.


Part 1: Memory

This episode features two furniture makers, two basket makers, and a blacksmith.

Glass, clay, wood, fiber, metal. Human hands transform humble materials into works of function and beauty, creating objects that hold the memory of who we are as people. How are the traditions of craft kept vital by today’s finest artists? And how has the legacy of craft been re-imagined as a modern art form?

There is discussion of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the Arts & Crafts Movement. I appreciate its emphasis this episode places on learning from (and breaking with) the traditions of the past.For instance, at one point the blacksmith, Tom Joyce, talks about how he spent years learning the traditional skills and techniques of metalwork before he could branch out into more modern and “artistic” applications. The basketweavers are both grounded in the traditions of their ancestors (African American slaves and Native American Indians, respectively) but have found a great personal meaning and purpose in their modern creations.

As may be expected from an episode called Memory, there is also a lot of talk about handing down traditions and questioning those who came before.

Part 2: Landscape

This episode features two jewelry designers, another woodworker, two ceramic artists, and a ski lodge. Seriously.

Sweeping pastoral vistas. The refuse of city streets. The limbs of a particular tree. The headlines over the morning paper. Artists look to the world around them for inspiration. How does landscape influence the act of creation? And how do artists translate this influence into a landscape shaped by their own hands?

We are invited to reflect about our surroundings and how they contribute to the process of making art.You might think that this episode would be locked into discussions of trees and flowers, but I was highly intrigued by the work of Jan Yager, who uses drug paraphernalia found in her rough Philadelphia neighborhood and transforms them into visually interesting pieces of art. Her commitment to using materials found in her immediate vicinity — no matter how ugly or rough — is pretty inspirational.

A break in the documentary’s form occurs when they highlight Timberline Lodge — a ski lodge built after the Depression by the Works Progress Administration which employed not only welders and brick-layers, but also apparently artists and craftspeople. It seems like a strange inclusion in the documentary, but it (mostly) works.

Part 3: Community

This episode features glass artists, ceramicists, quilters, two more jewelry artists, another basket weaver, and a roster of craft schools and organizations.

A quilt made for a loved one. A piece of jewelry passed down from one generation to the next. Crafts connect us to other times, other places, other people. How do simple, beautiful objects bind us together and how do they come to embody our sense of community?

This episode sticks most closely, in my opinion, to its theme of community. It shows artists working in residences, schools, and other group settings. Readers of this blog will be glad to see that a modern quilting-bee community, Mississippi Cultural Crossroads, is highlighted. Not surprisingly, with the exception of the glassworkers (a craft which I imagine is extremely difficult to complete in isolation), most of the artists featured in this episode are women. This makes sense, given what we see of women finding communities of creativity even here online in blogland.

My take on it

The people and products in this documentary are so lovingly and generously filmed that it will sometimes take your breath away. I frequently wished that I could reach through my television to caress a particular curve of a rocking chair, or feel the weaved texture of a basket or a rug. Fortunately, the camera does a pretty good job of caressing for us. Truly, these episodes are shot with a cinematic view and there is plenty for the eye to take in.

As someone who truly enjoys learning about not only art but also artists and their process, these episodes are jam-packed with gems. Please remember, however, that I am an art therapist and I could sit and listen to people talk about their artwork and their creative process all day every day. (Oh wait. I do. But, I never get sick of it.)

There are things about the documentary which fall a little short for me, too. For instance, I found the organizational structure of the episodes a little baffling. The worst offender of the episodes in this sense is Landscape — which inexplicably (and jarringly) leaps from highlighting artists who are making art based on their physical surroundings to an artist that makes art in protest of war. Huh? This episode also features Timberline Lodge, which is a cool collaboration of artists that came together during a difficult time and… therefore… wouldn’t it fit better in the episode called Community?

Also, those of us who are trying to incorporate art wherever we can in our modern, average lives may have to dig a little to find useful ideas from these full-time, studio-based, livelihood artists. I believe the gems are there, but I had to kind of commit myself to not being jealous of their set-ups. That said, the quilters are of course just everyday women. None of us should find this to be much of a surprise, I guess.

I was also struck by what is missing from this documentary — as I alluded above, it lacks a taste of everyman, of common folks who are using art or craft to enrich their lives. Because of this, there are great swaths of media that are not discussed. The episodes deftly avoid highlighting fine artists (painters, sculptors, and the like) in favor of crafts-people who are creating beautiful (yet largely practical) art. However, I would have liked to have seen more time devoted to things like embroidery, sewing, paper arts, bookbinding, and other more accessible media. I found myself wondering more than once, “Really? Another furniture maker?”

Finally, the “episode” format of this documentary is very tantalizing. My one remaining criticism is that there are only three episodes, with  no apparent plan for continuation. If they could reduce the production value a little, we might get fewer sweeping vistas and perfectly-lit images of glazed pots, but if it would have resulted in a longer-running examination of art and artists, I would have been glad of it.



Overall, I give this DVD 4/5 stars.

The pros: Gorgeously filmed, beautiful work. Lots of artists are highlighted and they talk at length about their lives and their creative process. There’s an emphasis on getting back to handmade, simple objects and moving away from machine-made.

The cons: Organization is a bit loose and, at times, jarring. Many of the arts and media highlighted are out of reach of the average Joe. Potential for an interesting, ongoing series is somewhat wasted with only 3 episodes.

If you’ve seen this documentary (or choose to watch it in the future), please comment on it below!


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