The phrase “arts and crafts” tends to conjure up images of kindergarteners fiddling around with tongue depressors, yarn and Elmer’s Glue. It rarely brings to mind avant-garde pieces that speak to the future of art.
Even if you did imagine wild works of fabric and folded paper, you might think you’d only see them in modern museums in cultural epicenters like New York or Paris. Not downtown Washington, D.C. However, they are here for you to experience; in fact, this weekend is the last few days of a show that’s been running since July.
The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian’s American Art Gallery, is dedicated to preserving this country’s craft and decorative arts traditions. The museum was founded in 1972, making this past year its 40th anniversary. To honor that milestone they launched “40 Under 40: Craft Futures.” It’s an exhibit/showcasing the works of 40 of the most-forward thinking and best craft artists in America, all under the age of 40.
These aren’t typical woven baskets or basic metal works. They are imaginative and unbelievable pieces of art that will make you rethink the ideas of what can be done with standard materials.
One of the artists featured is Erik Demaine, who in addition to being an origami expert is also a professor of computer science at MIT. His work uses mathematical models to come up with new and inventive designs for folding paper. Viewing his “Renwick Series” makes you rethink almost everything you’ve ever seen, with paper in swirling spirals, creases and waves, all created simply by being folded. It seems almost impossible.
Not nearly as inconceivable, but just as beautiful are Marc Maiorana’s exquisite iron works. Maiorana creates pieces in traditional blacksmith fashion, heating iron ore and hammering pieces into shape. His work is full of precision and appears as though it’s been milled by a machine, not forged by hand in an open-air studio in Southwest, Virginia.
Also far-out in the realm of crafts is a new take on knitting. Cat Mazza created computer software that takes video and overlays knitting patterns on them, giving films a crocheted and pixilated appearance. Her series takes a look at the role knitting played in World War II and the importance of women in the war effort. It’s a very intriguing way to see film re-imagined in almost an entirely new media. Alongside her work is that of Stephanie Liner’s, who’s “Memories of a Doomed Construct” is a take on Cinderella’s carriage, covered in textiles.
All of these are showcased at the Renwick Gallery, which is one of D.C.’s most historic buildings. It was finished in 1874, and sits just next to the White House on 17th and Pennsylvania. It was D.C.’s first art museum, and originally held the Corcoran collection. However, the collection outgrew the space and the Federal Court of Claims took up residence. When the court outgrew it, it was slated to be demolished until President Lyndon Johnson stepped in and saved it from destruction. It is now a registered National Historic Landmark building. Admission to the Gallery is free, and it’s open this weekend from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
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