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Vital Skills

I’ve been a curator for most of my professional life. While I’ve had many wonderful experiences working with artists and museum collections, it’s a rare privilege to curate an exhibition that addresses issues and ideas that are truly close to your heart. Vital Skills, which opens at the Wisconsin Academy’s James Watrous Gallery March 8 and runs until May 5, 2013, is this kind of show. Vital Skills offers a closer look at the amazingly diverse people who are keeping traditional hand skills alive here in Wisconsin.

The exhibition celebrates the commitment and mastery of artists and artisans who are preserving craft traditions like harness-making, decoy carving, blacksmithing, papermaking, weaving, and more. These skills have been developed by thousands of individuals over hundreds of years, and yet the accumulated knowledge and experience of the people who have mastered them is surprisingly fragile.

The loss of craft technique can be compared to the extinction of a language or a species: after a few generations, subtleties and sensitivities that were common parlance in traditional workshops can be devilishly difficult to rediscover. Weekend workshops and YouTube videos can be useful tools, but they are no substitute for learning right alongside someone who can sense the perfect consistency for paper pulp or the right moment to strike hot iron.

This exhibition project is important to me because it addresses many of the things I value most—respect for traditional wisdom, the dignity of work, and the intricate dance between hand and mind—as well as my belief that these traditional skills may play an important role in creating local communities with the resilience to weather an uncertain future.


The ideas behind Vital Skills have been percolating in the back of my mind for many years. A bookish kid raised in suburbs and college towns, I ended up studying art history in college. My boyfriend and I, harboring romantic fantasies about living off the land, spent summers picking vegetables on a market farm in eastern Virginia and indulged ourselves in endless conversations about farming and politics among equally endless rows of squash and peppers.

We were glutted with ripe produce, we had a fifty-pound bag of rice, and we caught catfish in the river. In all, we felt competent and secure, knowing that, should the need arise for anything else, we could always go into town.

That is, until one morning a fellow picker threw out a question that absolutely stunned me: What would you do if the Safeway closed?

What indeed? I began noticing how much my comfortable life depended on things brought to the corner store from very far away: not just spinach grown in California, but clothes sewn in Mozambique, dishes from Taiwan, a radio—and a car!—from Japan. Almost everything I owned was imported. I knew how to cook, sew, garden, and fish a little. But my ideal, self-sufficient life would also require baskets, kettles, shovels and hoses, fishing line and hooks, fabrics, hardware, and more. It bothered me to find that almost none of these were still being made close by. When did that change, I wondered, and what would we do if the flow of cheap imports ever dried up?

In college I’d spent hours in the ceramic studio, inspired by studio potters who made beautiful, useful things and priced them affordably. Yet even the most basic twenty-dollar handmade mug was still a luxury compared to the mass-produced ones sold at Kmart. Once so central to local and regional economies, today’s crafts survive on the economic margins, sold at art galleries and fairs, as high-end custom work, or preserved as cultural heritage or living history. It troubled me to learn that contemporary crafts held in museum collections are almost always categorized as “decorative arts” (a term that, despite its long pedigree, strikes a profoundly patronizing tone), and that basket-weaving was synonymous with an easy course for lazy students.

I pursued graduate study in material culture, wanting to understand how the industrial revolution had thrust traditional skills into such new territory. Later, as a curator and writer, I began meeting many of the potters, weavers, furnituremakers, and metalsmiths whose work I admired. In visiting their studios, I often felt touched by a profound sense of integration and connection, of a way of working that required a balanced relationship between body and mind, materials and tools.

It’s easy to idealize craft practice, and it would be a mistake to imagine that many workshops in the past were as calm and orderly as a modern studio artist’s. Yet the disappearance of local craft workshops represented the loss not only of traditional skills, but also of a way of life, one that offered powerfully tangible rewards to significant numbers of people.


As the U.S. job market has shifted more and more toward service jobs and computer-centered office work, a hunger for those tangible rewards has resurfaced. We may be awash in electronic gadgets and social media, but people seem to be craving handwork. Maker-spaces with facilities for soldering, machining, and writing computer code are popping up like mushrooms. The D.I.Y. crafts movement, stereotypically associated with yarnbombing, safety-pin jewelry, and lots of glitter, encompasses a growing number of people committed to forging steel, pouring iron, and tanning hides.

There’s also been a surge of interest in what permaculturists—people committed to sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor—call reskilling. While reskilling has much to do with learning the things our grandparents took for granted— gardening, canning, butchering, soapmaking—it also covers truly ancient skills like fire-building, making cordage, or knapping flint.

Watching all this, I can’t help but hear an echo of my friend’s question: What will we do if the Safeway closes?

It’s no coincidence that this grassroots revival of hand skills comes at a time when we are so immersed in the prospect of disaster. Fear of the future is nothing new (And let’s be clear: I’m no survivalist. I’m not learning to make fire in preparation for the zombie apocalypse). Still, the growing realization that climate change is not only real, but faster and meaner than we anticipated, has put many of us on alert. If the only sure way to avert climate change is to drastically cut back on burning fossil fuels, we can’t just frack our way to a solution, and renewable energy sources are nowhere near ready to scale up to the level necessary to replace our limited supply of conventional fossil fuels. It’s impossible to truly prepare for such an uncertain future. However you slice it, we appear to be in for a rocky energy transition.

In apocalyptic movies, the end comes suddenly and the heroes rely on physical strength, cunning, and lots and lots of firepower to persevere. While that makes for great escapist fun, a more likely scenario for sustainable energy future is a gradual scaling back of our standard of living and an increased reliance on things made nearby.

Many suggest that the safest route to a “soft landing” may be a radical re-localization: creating sustainable food networks, nurturing small regional businesses, and developing smallerscale alternative sources of energy. This doesn’t mean a return to the Dark Ages, or even that we’d all need to raise chickens and make soap in the backyard. But it does mean that our quality of life may depend on how we prioritize our energy consumption.

We may need to make hard choices about what fossil fuels are absolutely essential for, and what can be powered by other means. Does it really make sense, for example, to truck in so many goods from far away?

Just look at a business directory from almost any mid-sized town before World War I, when most imports came by rail or water. You’ll see blacksmiths, small foundries, harness and saddlery shops, printers, shoemakers, milliners and tailors, coopers, boatbuilders, and furnituremakers. Go back another fifty or sixty years, and the lists include weavers, basketmakers, potters, broom-makers, and more. These skilled craftspeople were the backbone of our communities before mass production and low-cost fossil fuels made it possible to flood the market with cheap imported goods.


So who is carrying the torch for these crafts in Wisconsin? The people who master traditional skills are amazingly diverse and come from all walks of life. Some are devoted to preserving cultural traditions, like the Hmong blacksmith Tong Khai Vang; Philip Simeon, who weaves Caribbean-style fish traps; and Greg Johnson, who has revived traditional Ojibwe moccasin making (and also teaches his native language). Others are professional artists who learned their skills in art school—like Mary Hark, whose fine papers are the basis of her art practice and also sought out by printers and bookbinders; master blacksmith Eric Moebius, who specializes in architectural work; or Martha Glowacki, a sculptor who is also a gifted metalsmith. Artist-entrepreneurs like metal sculptor Alisa Toninato, whose cast-iron skillets recently won a Martha Stewart American Made award, blur the boundaries between art practice, small-batch production, and design for industry. Many craftspeople specialize in period reproductions for historical re-enactors, like tinsmith Bob Bartelme, who sets up his “lodge” at several living history gatherings each summer.

Less widely recognized are the remarkable array of artisan shops that serve niche markets, like the fine custom shoes and boots made at Russell Moccasin Company, handcrafted Windsor chairs built by Jeff Trapp of Madison, bespoke harnesses and carriage appointments by Gregory Hunt of Hunt’s Harness, or the elaborately fringed and riveted Harley saddlebags by Max Doering of Iron Bags. Craft skills also survive in surprising places: Tracy Drier is a full-time scientific glassblower in the UW–Madison’s chemistry lab, while Gaylord Schanilec prints and binds books illustrated with his own engravings for a small but avid audience of bibliophiles.

Outside of university and community college art departments, however, there isn’t much institutional support for teaching and passing on these craft practices. A significant exception is the Wisconsin Arts Board’s Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, which began in 1981 with the guidance of Richard March and is now ably led by Anne Pryor. Over the years this program has given many of the people whose work appears in Vital Skills—Greg Johnson, Jarrod and April Stone-Dahl, Mary Lou Schneider, Patrick Farrell, Sam Rust, and Bob Siegel—new opportunities and resources to share their knowledge with apprentices.

This is not to say that there aren’t some wonderful institutions in Wisconsin that provide excellent training in the crafts. Hundreds of weekend workshops and summer courses are offered at places like Shake Rag Alley School for Arts and Crafts in Mineral Point and Sievers School of Fiber Arts on Washington Island, as well as newer initiatives like Viroqua’s Driftless Folk School and programs designed to reach specific communities, like the Woodland Indian Art Center in Lac du Flambeau or the La Crosse Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association’s blacksmith shop.

While all of these programs are striving toward related goals, there is very little connective tissue between them. The survival of craft skills depends almost entirely on the interests of artists and makers themselves, the market for custom work, and communities’ resolve to preserve their cultural heritage. As a result, while there are surely hundreds of excellent quilt-makers and woodworkers in the state, I could probably count the professional tinsmiths and shoemakers in Wisconsin on one hand.


At the moment, the prospect of climate change and a major transition in energy usage is inspiring debate about the best way to implement alternative energy sources, local food networks, even new strategies for national defense. But few, apart from a small number of permaculture advocates and hardcore survivalists, are factoring in the importance and relevance of people who know how to make—and repair—the things we need. This doesn’t seem wise to me. Honestly, if the power grid breaks down, the grocery store closes, and the zombies march in, we’re going to want these folks around!

Of course, I realize we may never need to make brooms or build barrels in Wisconsin again. Maybe 2013 will be the year we develop an astonishing technological breakthrough in safe, renewable, and affordable energy, and life will go on as before. But is it prudent, I wonder, to risk losing so much hard-won knowledge and experience?

Preserving traditional skills is a lot like maintaining a seed bank, with cultural memory standing in for DNA. Like an heirloom plant, a craft skill needs to be cultivated to survive. Every generation that it is neglected makes its loss more complete and its revival more difficult. And saving seeds means more than simply keeping favorite plant varieties going from one season to the next. It means preserving biodiversity, the broad spectrum of genetic heritage so important for healthy, resilient ecosystems.

If we are truly interested in building resilient communities and re-localized economies, I believe we owe it to ourselves to make an investment in preserving the widest possible range of traditional skills, and find new ways of passing them on to the next generation.


Jody Clowes is the director of the Academy's James Watrous Gallery and arts editor for Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine.

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