Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in the hand of the crafter. Can the fine crafts on display at the Mansion at Strathmore be considered fine art? Perhaps not, technically, but there’s no denying their beauty, and that’s what makes the biennial exhibit by the Creative Crafts Council (CCC), an umbrella organization of fine craft guilds, such a dazzling display.
“Traditionally, the difference between art and craft is medium-specific,” explained Jaimianne Amicucci, the CCC’s executive officer. ”Historically, craft was known to fit one of five mediums: glass, metal, fiber, wood or ceramic. That has changed over time, and many museums are showing ‘fine artists’ that are working in these craft mediums.”
While she once worked as a ceramicist, Amicucci now dedicates herself to the craft world in a different way. In addition to being executive officer of the CCC, she is director of the James Renwick Alliance, a Bethesda-based group of artists and art enthusiasts. She holds fine arts degrees, a bachelor’s in ceramics from Michigan’s Finlandia University and a master’s in curatorial practice from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA); she once owned a gallery in Winchester, Virginia.
Amicucci said she always wanted a career in the arts, and has always been passionate about ceramics, even writing her college essay about how clay felt under her hands. Still, she said, “There’s no straying; it’s ‘craft or bust’!” But she puts her energy to use on behalf of other artists.
”This is my third biennial,” said Amicucci, who has been with the CCC for six years. “I’m very interested in curating and organizing shows that further craft. I don’t do any artwork. When I started focusing more on curating, focusing more on the organization’s aspects and what the arts need, I found that a lot of the creativity I was putting into clay could be utilized in exhibitions, programming or organizing a unique event.”
And while it’s the CCC’s 32nd Biennial Exhibition, the exhibit at Strathmore can be considered unique. Metals gleam, ceramics shine, fiber wall hangings, like artist Hillary Steel’s majestic kimono-like “Embrace” — handwoven/resist-dyed and printed fabrics assembled and sewn — elevate practicality to an art form.
Open to artists living, working or going to school in Maryland, Virginia or the District, the 2019 Biennial was juried by metalsmith Chris Darway, wood turner Joe Dickey and fine artist Susan Main, who is also director of galleries and programming at VisArts in Rockville. One hundred fifty pieces were selected from the 400 submissions in categories of glass, metal, fiber and mixed media — and every piece is for sale.
“I think the line continues to be blurred,” said Gabrielle Tillenburg, Strathmore’s visual arts coordinator. “In the past, studio craft has been a movement that focuses primarily on mastery of technique: it’s about making the most beautiful ceramic bowl, using the best techniques possible. But craft artists have begun to incorporate concepts into their work that go beyond technique.
“You still have the beautiful bowl and the best of techniques and it exists as an example of aesthetic brilliance, but the artist has incorporated concepts and extended metaphors that are the signature of fine art.”
Tillenburg said that the 32nd Biennial exhibit does a bit of both. “As an artist, it’s hard to separate yourself from taking inspiration from where you live and your environment; from political and sociological ideas,” she said. “For me, art is something that is carefully created by the artist. It’s about process and the creative thought behind it, so I look at craft as art.”
Tillenburg pointed out some favorites among the Biennial Exhibition works: Polina Miller’s “Bottle Couple,’ a whimsical piece that elevates the pitcher to new heights, and the smile-inducing soft sculpture “Sheebie-Jeebie” by Bethesda artist Shana Kohnstamm. There’s something at nearly every price point and for every taste, from stunning statement necklaces and uniquely sculpted rings to fiber sculptures of heroic women to a fish-shaped “teapot” made from stitched metallic threads and recycled CD fragments.
“The show is so big, you’ll see more than one piece on a pedestal,” said Amicucci. “But in theory, we’re trying to curate a show where each piece’s artistic merit allows it to stand on its own.”
The 32nd Biennial Exhibition of the Creative Crafts Council runs through July 31 at the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Gallery hours are10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.