If you've ever sipped water from a handblown drinking glass, scooped your cereal out of a hand-thrown bowl or wrapped a warm handwoven shawl around your shoulders, you've experienced the intimacy and beauty of fine craft.
"The fact that it's handmade gives it meaning," said Carol Sauvion, owner of Freehand Gallery in Los Angeles, creator of the Peabody Award-winning television series "Craft in America" and executive director of the nonprofit organization of the same name. "Living with these things is life-changing, and it always has been."
Sauvion is the juror for "Dimensions: An Exhibition of Fine Craft from California," which runs Sept. 5 through Oct. 12 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. Sponsored by Central Coast Craftmakers, the biennial show explores the full breadth of contemporary craftmaking in the Golden State, encompassing clay, fiber, glass, metal, wood, paper and other media.
In addition to showcasing nearly 80 works by about 70 artists, this year's exhibition also honors four local artists who died in the past year: Barbara Flynn and Ken Ray of Los Osos, Ina Mae Overman of Arroyo Grande and Janine Kirkpatrick of Templeton.
According to San Luis Obispo silversmith and sculptor Crissa Hewitt, craft has been an essential aspect of human civilization since the start. "All of us, from the beginning of time, have found ways to adorn ourselves, decorate our homes (and) our habitats, create objects that we hope we can barter and trade with," she said.
Hewitt traces the roots of the studio craft movement to the years following World War II, when universities -- responding to the needs of veterans entering the higher education system on the G.I. Bill, as well as an influx of skilled European artists, craftspeople and designers -- began offering advanced courses on metalworking, glassblowing and other disciplines.
"There was a real hunger for people creating things," she said, buoyed by a growing dissatisfaction with industrial society and mass-produced goods.
As the craft movement continued to flourish through the 1950s and 1960s, "(Artists) were teaching the techniques but they were also encouraging an awful lot of exploration," Hewitt said. "There were people who were going out on a limb and saying, 'This is what I'm going to do with a lump of clay.'"
Over the decades, those craftspeople have only grown more fearlessly inventive, their originality expanding the definition of what is considered "craft." "In a society where everything is regimented, it's nice there's a place where there's freedom," Sauvion said.
"You will often hear the argument that fine art has real meaning behind it and purpose, whereas craft is about function. That's often how the separation has been made," Hewitt explained. However, she and her peers contend that contemporary fine crafts manifest the same spirit of artistic expression, creativity and intellectual curiosity as anything traditionally appreciated as "fine art."
In the 15 years she's spent interviewing artists, curators and gallery owners on the KCBX public radio show "Ears on Art," It's absolutely been borne out to (co-host) Steven deLuque and to me that people are very immersed in process," Hewitt said, adding that artists are interested not only in "the technical process of 'How do I make this?' but (also) the emotional process of 'What am I making? And why?'"
Kathleen DePalma: Sacred Scenes
It all starts with craftsmanship for mixed-media artist Kathleen De Palma.
"I have a great appreciation of the materials I work with, and I try to manipulate them carefully and with as much skill as I can," said the San Luis Obispo native, who has lived in Morro Bay for the past 15 years.
Painting came first for De Palma, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree from California College of the Arts in Oakland. But while running a craft gallery in Cambria with mixed-media artist Ruth Fash in the mid-1990s, she realized she was missing out.
"I was like, 'She's having so much more fun than I am,'" joked De Palma, who decided to try out three-dimensional art.
"For me it was just a fun way to explore things I couldn't paint," she recalled. "There were no limits to what my subjects could be, what my materials to be. It was just up to me to construct (the pieces)."
Housed in wooden cigar boxes, De Palma's meticulously crafted miniature tableaux feature wire armatures covered in papier-mâché, posed and covered in acrylic paint. (She also creates mixed-media paintings, layering canvas, lace and string.)
De Palma compares her creations to reliquaries dedicated to housing sacred objects. In place of a dusty knucklebone or saintly shroud, however, viewers might find a sultry snake charmer, a mischievous monkey or legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo enjoying a smoke.
Because De Palma's pieces evolve as she constructs them -- she has the ability to swap out accessories or body parts at will -- "I have this incredible freedom to go back and redesign things," she said. "The process in the main part of it. I'm as involved from the moment I begin to when it's finished."
De Palma's current series, The Circus, was inspired in part by "Calder's Circus," Alexander Calder's toy theater piece.
It celebrates the golden age of traveling circuses, when acrobats, clowns and freak show performers held the nation in thrall. "This was the big show. There was no limit to the amount of imagination and money that went into it," she said.
De Palma acknowledged that her work can be fragile, like the Latin American folk art she admires. "Part of what I love about it is the ephemeral quality," said the artist, who spent a year living and studying in Michoacán, Mexico. "It's just this joy of creation in the moment."
Doug Lawrie: Truth Through Heat
For Atascadero ceramics artist Doug Lawrie, few forms can match the appeal of the simple sake cup.
"Anyone can make a big pot that impresses people. To make a little cup that has soul or feeling is really a challenge," he said.
Lawrie, who grew up in Claremont, originally studied architecture. After spending two years stationed in Hawaii with the U.S. Army, he enrolled in the architecture program at Claremont Graduate University.
"I look a night course in ceramics, which kind screwed my whole life up," he said. "I decided it was a lot more fun making clay objects than trying to fight the system to make an interesting structure. ... That finished it off. I was a dyed-in-the-wool potter."
"(Japan) was mecca for potters in those days. ...It (was) an artform there, where in America it was just beginning to gain steam," recalled Lawrie, so he moved there. "I went for a month's trip and ended up staying for 26 years."
During that time, he established a folk craft shop, restored a 300-year-old farmhouse in the mountains outside Kyoto and studied with potter Kawai Kanjiro, one of the founders of Japan's folk art movement. It was in Japan that Lawrie developed his affinity for functional, high-fired stoneware with rich, earthy glazes produced in wood-burning kilns.
"As a human, you can do everything possible to make (a piece) come out as you desire," he said. "(But) when it goes into high-temperature firing, you totally lose control. The gods take over." "That's what keeps potters going ... No matter how many years you've done it, it's still exciting to open the door of the kiln and see what happened," the ceramics artist added.
The same element of unpredictability motivates his preference for slab-built forms as opposed to wheel-thrown pieces. "If I knew what it was going to do, I wouldn't do it," he said. "It's the discovery along the way ... (that) is fun."
Upon his return to the United States, Lawrie taught ceramics at UC Santa Barbara for a couple years, then spent two decades running the state Arts-in-Corrections program at Avenal State Prison before retiring. He's lived in Atascadero for about a quarter-century.
"I get as much joy from making pottery as doing anything. It's immensely satisfying. It's totally open-ended in scope," Lawrie said. "There's all kinds of clay one can explore. There's all kinds of glazes one can explore. There's thousands of shapes and approaches."
Andi Perejda: Fabric of Her Imagination
"Wood and stone speak to the sculptor or the woodworker," said Arroyo Grande artist, teacher and quilt judge Andi Perejda, "and the fabric speaks to me."
But the Kalamazoo, Mich., native didn't start out as a fiber artist. Perejda, who holds a doctorate in cell biology from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., spent 10 years as a medical researcher specializing in connective tissue.
But after moving to the Central Coast with her neurosurgeon husband in 1990, she gave up her career to raise her two sons. "In between babies," Perejda, who had sewed all her own clothes in high school, discovered quilting.
"It was a way of being creative and having something to show for it," Perejda said. Put another way, she added, "It was a sanity plea."
After learning traditional techniques such as hand applique, hand piecing and hand quilting, Perejda began branching out into other, more inventive avenues - using surface design techniques such as bleaching, dyeing, painting, stamping and screen-printing to transform textiles from boring to brilliant.
Once altered, "The fabric itself isn't telling you what it needs to be," she explained. "You can use your own creativity or imagination."
What feeds Perejda's imagination most is traveling. "Some things are so spectacular that you come home and know you want to create that (sight)" in fabric form, said the quilter, who uses photographs from her trips as reference points. "My husband takes gorgeous pictures, so I'm always chasing him around saying 'Take a picture of this. Take a picture of that.'"
Perejda's quilt "Hamakua Coast" recreates the dramatic vista from a favorite trail on the island of Hawaii, while "Golden State: Los Alamos" captures the live oak trees dappling the golden hills of northern Santa Barbara County.
Other quilts venture into more esoteric territory, exploring climate change, civil rights and space travel. "Occasionally a pattern or design might catch my eye because it reminds me of my scientific background," said Perejda, whose work has incorporated imagery from electromicrographs of blood vessels and CT brain scans.
According to Perejda, attitudes toward fiber art have shifted over the past few years. "I think we've proven over the years that there're just some absolutely incredible pieces being made," she said. "(Art) has progressed to the point where many people are using fabric as their medium instead of paint or wood. It's just a different way of expressing it."
Randy Stromsoe: A Study in Silver
By modern metalworking standards, silversmith Randy Stromsoe is a bit old-fashioned.
A Templeton resident since 1979, "I do things like they were done in 1920," he said, relying on antique tools and a hands-on approach that's increasingly rare in an era when most metalsmiths are being taught by universities. "I don't bring in too many of the new techniques. There's no CAD program, no shortcuts."
Stromsoe's introduction to silversmithing came while taking art classes at L.A. Valley College, when he accidentally enrolled in a jewelry class with instructor Zella Margraff. "As soon as we started working in sterling silver, I fell in love," he said, drawn by the elastic yet durable nature of the metal.
In 1970, he became the final apprentice of master Arts and Crafts silversmith Porter Blanchard. "I had to learn at break-neck speed, as his days were numbered," recalled Stromsoe, who later trained with Blanchard's son-in-law, Lewis Wise.
In the course of his four-decade-long career, Stromsoe has crafted pieces for the White House, the U.S. State Department and even the Vatican. (The Archdiocese of Los Angeles commissioned him to create the ciborium, or communion wafer container, used by Pope John Paul II to administer mass to at Dodgers Stadium in 1987.)
So what drives Stromsoe's artistic vision? Awe and appreciation for the modernist masters who came before him, as well an affinity for sleek, sculptural designs.
"I'm always playing around with shapes," the silversmith said. "I always feel a little guilty ... over obsessing and indulging myself," he joked. "It's like, 'Here's Randy again, playing with another form.'"
His speckled "Penguin" teapot combines smooth, sophisticated curves and sharp angles, while his "Macaroni and Teas" tea set features containers bowed in a graceful backbend, their wooden handles resting level with their bases.
"I don't feel the need to sacrifice form and good design in order to make something functional. I don't apologize for making functional pieces," said Stromsoe, who prides himself not only on the quality of his pieces but their durability as well. "There are no construction flaws and no weak links. These pieces could last 500 years."
Rather than lock away his flatware, plates, cups, chalices and bowls, Stromsoe prefers that his customers keep them in daily rotation, explaining that regular use actually helps preserve the metal.
"I want to make it so when people use a teapot, even if they only use it every couple months, it's a fun thing to use," he said.