Abigail Newbold speaks about ‘Crafting Settlement’

Abigail Newbold’s Crafting Settlement is an installation at the Currier Museum of Art (Manchester, New Hampshire, USA) open until 14 July 2013. The exhibition provides a contemporary context for the New England legacy of self-sufficiency, including the Shaker Movement. In the text below, Newbold responds to some of the many questions raised by her fascinating and beautiful installation.

Abigail Newbold Crafting Settlement installation view, Currier Museum of Art, 2013

Abigail Newbold Crafting Settlement installation view, Currier Museum of Art, 2013

JMC: Settlement implies a collective process of finding a place in which to live continuously. In your show, this seems to become a purely personal matter, associated with camping paraphernalia. Is this intended to be ironic?

AAN: Yes, there is irony on a lot of levels here. I am referencing the history of Shaker design philosophy as well as the Shaker’s work ethic as a model for a Utopian community (comprised of many), while making it very clear that this Settlement is designed and inhabited by an individual. While it is a personal narrative about character development, it is also a commentary on the more modern issues of isolation within dense urban environments and our propensity to remain estranged and physically distant from our immediate families as we travel for work and schooling. Given this scenario I take comfort and humor in the notion of an individual having the capability to design, make and erect a settlement on this scale autonomously. It would be ridiculous, and yet there is something so inspiring to me about projecting the hope that there are still multi-talented individuals out there who could and would go to such an extent.

I am also intentionally speaking within a tentative language with these new dwelling structures, which appear half-way between tent and more permanent home—an inference to the mobility that camping affords as well as lack of long-term commitment to that specific spot—referencing the other meaning of the word “settle”—which connotes compromise.

To understand the layout of the gallery better it might help to have a description of what’s present: the installation is comprised of two main components: on the main platform are a series of unique dwelling structures that I’ve designed and made displayed in a spartan context with only an inference of old city infrastructure as back drop (water, power and fuel). Around the periphery of the gallery are six vignettes that address some of the more philosophical concepts I am dealing with around domesticity at large. The vignettes are more abstracted arrangements of both found and made objects that speak to more directed subject matter: “Porch Time”, “Scullery/Larder”, “Hope Chest”, “Workshop”, “Garage/ Stable” and “Antechamber”.

I make many references to a community just out of reach of the immediate sphere that this installation presents. Take the trophy mailbox that appears in the Porch Time vignette—it represents a conduit to the outside world without breaking the continuity of isolation. I have also placed the dwelling structures within a skeletal infrastructure that might have been previously occupied and has since been abandoned—a hand-pump that powers a fire hose, a hickory dovetail outlet box providing the power to the electrical lights in the dwelling structures, and an old water heater re-purposed as a propane tank. These all serve as references to the existence of electricity fuel and water—all massive systems that reach beyond an individual simply fending for herself in the wilderness.

It is my use of craftsmanship that is most strategic in this dialogue as it is imperative to my manifesto of survival. The individual inhabiting this settlement could not survive without the practical hand skills presented here: timber framing, basic woodworking, sewing & pattern drafting, weaving and caning. Hand skills are occupation and a means for survival and to make comfort.

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of garage/ stable vignette

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of garage/ stable vignette

JMC: You seem fond of fluorescent materials. These seem quite artificial and at odds with the natural environment. Is this also ironic?

AAN: This palette comes from an urban or industrial aesthetic. The implication is that the materials are industrial cast-offs. My use of synthetic, fluorescent materials presents a future–hopeful look forward– a re-purposing of available materials applied to older, found objects with a traditional sensibility for craft. The effect is intended to carry tradition from the past into the future tense.

This is not about rural or wilderness survivalism so much as surviving within the context of a more familiar environment—take the de-volution of industrial cities in the “Rust-Belt” of America, where factories and mills are being re-purposed as housing, artist spaces, and markets. Vacant lots become sites for community farming initiatives. The natural world is creeping back into cities—pheasant populations are growing, and sightings of deer, bear and turkey are more and more prevalent. I am presenting a view of a self-sufficient life within this reclaimed industrial context—a life that might have only been possible in more rural landscapes just a couple of decades ago.

I guess you could call this tension between past and present, natural and artificial ironic, but what I am presenting is intended to be more of a realistic future hybrid of re-purposed objects mixed with traditional making techniques and more common industrial cast-off materials.

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of hope chest vignette

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of hope chest vignette

JMC: It appears that your work is about re-purposing consumer camping materials, rather than making new objects. What relationship do you see with craft?

AAN: Crafting Settlement is a conglomeration of newly made objects, re-made and repurposed objects and found objects. Again, I am presenting a model of what it is to live a hand-made life; not in a purist extreme, but in a more realistic manner where objects and materials are harvested, gathered and incorporated as they are useful and or valuable, and new items are made where there is necessity for something custom or unique. Through my incorporation of traditional techniques- quilting, the weaving of chair seats, woodworking and knotting I am advocating for the continuance of such skills of craftsmanship. The character’s survival in Crafting Settlement is contingent upon their ability to make the objects that serve as tools to make means of transportation, shelter and any manner of domestic goods.

I am interested in advocating for the accessibility of making and craftsmanship to a broad spectrum of people and for hand-made objects to be used in our daily lives, not merely relegated to a collector’s shelf. By presenting these objects in a context representational of where they would likely appear (as opposed to the more formal museological method of display in which an object is often isolated from similar functional items and taken out of all visual context of its use) I hope to make them more familiar. The sleeping bag I custom made is an example of how I’ve expressed this philosophy in Crafting Settlement. I made the exterior shell to be like a more modern bivouac sac made of waterproof cordura nylons with an industrial zipper. The interior is lined with a quilt that I made by hand, and refitted along with a black rabbit skin to insulate the interior. I would prefer to use my quilts in this manner then have them hung decoratively and stripped of all relationship to their functionality. That said—I do not want to discredit the very important role decoration and aesthetics play, as I cannot deny that they play a large role in my work as well.

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of scullery/ larder vignette

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of scullery/ larder vignette

 

Abigail Newbold was interviewed by Kevin Murray, online editor of JMC.

Editorial 5.1

Table of contents for 5.1

The pleasures of craft work are often said to reside in its immediacy: the direct access to materials, the handling of tools, and the sense of accomplishment. Even watching a demonstration in person can be an absorbing experience. Yet texts about craft, including this journal, must necessarily present secondhand the process of making. Language alone simply cannot account for craft’s scope of experience. Drawings, paintings, photographs, films, and virtual simulations, all in their own ways, would seem to fill this evident gap, transmitting the reality of skilled work in something closer to its fullness. However, they usually fall short. In the representation of process, such images create a new, different level of material reality, one that needs to be analyzed in its own right.

In this issue we concentrate on the phenomenon of “showing making,” a phrase proposed by Dutch scholar Ann-Sophie Lehmann. When welded together, these two verbs suggest the complexity of craft-in-representation, which always involves a dynamic interplay between artisan, artifact, tool, and image. Each of our contributors examines instances of such convergence. Three articles are drawn from a conference held in 2009, which was organized by Lehmann with Nico de Klerk at the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (EYE), supported by the Meertens Institute (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). Lehmann’s own theoretical overview presents a methodology for the study of “showing making,” and then applies it to the example of hand-colored Japanese photographs. She demonstrates the recursive logic of these images, which offer a kinaesthetic pleasure to the viewer while also constructing a self-referential impression of a craft formed at the intersection of traditional painterly skills and new technology.

The papers by Victoria Cain and Irene Steng, also drawn from the 2009 conference, illuminate two other contexts in which photographic images extend and transform the meaning of craft. Cain focuses on an intriguing case study: the preparators who made dioramas at the Natural History Museum in New York City in the earlier 1900s, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. These workers’ skills recall those of taxidermists, propmakers, and scientists, but had a specificity and theatricality of their own, which were exploited enthusiastically by the museum in its programmatic   and promotional activities. Cain situates staged photographs of the preparators within a broader range of images of craft process circulating in the interwar period. Her argument is that these decades—often thought of as a period fascinated with machines and technology, to the exclusion of handwork—were in fact saturated with such pictures. This widely shared “craftsmanship aesthetic,” she writes, offered an ameliorative or reassuring counterpoint to narratives of technological progress that were equally current at the time. Cain’s article can be set alongside Ezra Shales’s analysis of the Empire State Building (published in our July 2011 issue) as a major contribution to the understanding of modern craft in interwar America, outside the boundaries of the incipient studio movement.

At first, Stengs’s article, on the representation of kingship in Thailand, could not seem more different. She shows how the carvers and gilders who make sculptures of the Thai rulers operate in relation to popular photographs. Another example of “showing making” arises in her discussion of live demonstrations that are conducted in markets and temple complexes. This performance of craft takes its place within a diverse image-scape which has as its goal the consolidation of national identity. Perhaps it is only through the unstated relation of these various representational registers that such an impression of unity could be achieved. Henrietta Lidchi’s discussion of Native American jewelers also involves the analysis of a single craft from multiple angles. Historic photographs and live demonstrations again play a role in her account, as do written texts, oral history interviews, and Lidchi’s firsthand observations of the Southwestern markets in which iconic silver and turquoise jewelry is displayed and sold. The article is exemplary in its juxtaposition of past and present, showing how the tools of anthropology can be brought to bear on both history and the present day.

In her manifesto on “showing making,” Lehmann alludes to the oft-used phrase “the social life of things,” originally formulated by Arjun Appadurai. She insists that this biographical model needs to be extended to include the making of objects, and to this we might add historical precedents—the crafts of the past that make present endeavors possible. A biological or familial metaphor is at the heart of this issue’s Statement of Practice by boatmaker Gail McGarva. She has dedicated her life to the replication of open-sea working vessels, vernacular designs carrying strong associations with particular stretches of the British shoreline. McGarva refers to her lovingly made copies as “daughterboats,” a way of capturing the generational rhythms of craft succession. Given her interest in such legacies as the taproot of contemporary communities, it is perhaps no surprise that she makes her boats in public and invites others to watch, and even participate in the building process. This is another example of “showing making,” this time to the same community that developed and supported the regional product in the first place.
Finally, we include a primary text that is not a description of craft process, but rather a spectator’s response. The author is the indomitable Margaret M. Patch, who, despite her relatively advanced years, went on an extraordinary, round-the-world-ineighty- days-style tour (though it took her a bit longer than that) in the early 1960s.

Her mission was to compile a list of the leading contemporary craft reformers, activists, and developers in advance of the inaugural conference of the World Crafts Council, held in New York City in 1964. As she traveled, Patch paid close attention to cultural differences in practice and attitudes to skill. The previously unpublished text we include here was written early in her journey, and compares the craft cultures of Japan and India. Patch had a high regard for the artisans she found in both places, but was dismayed at the low status of those she encountered in India. This prompted her to reflect on questions of aspiration and recognition that had implications for craft anywhere, including back home in the United States. This is one example of the way that “showing making” can be an invitation to consider one’s own act of looking, and hence position in the politics of skill.

The Editors
The Journal of Modern Craft

Journal of Modern Craft 5.1

The first issue of 2012 considers the way in which craft is represented on the public stage.

Editorial introduction

Articles

Ann-Sophie Lehmann Showing Making: On Visual Documentation and Creative Practice (free download)

Victoria Cain The Craftsmanship Aesthetic: Showing Making at the American Museum of Natural History, 1910-45

Irene Stengs Sacred Singularities: Crafting Royal Images in Present-day Thailand

Henritta Lidchi Material Destinies: Jewelry, Authenticity, and Craft in the American Southwest

Primary text

Gail McGarva Daughterboats

Statement of practice

Margaret Merwin Patch The Craftsman

Glenn Adamson Commentary

Book reviews

Adrienne Childs Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists

Exhibition reviews

Dave Beech Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture by Gregory Sholette
Eileen Boris The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine by Rozsika Parker
Meredith Goldsmith Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art by Maria Elena Buszek (ed.)