If you’ve been around Mesa for any length of time, you’ve likely heard of the annual Contemporary Crafts exhibition, an art show put on by Mesa Contemporary Arts for 32 years now.
Though it came from humble beginnings (when late Mesa metal work instructor Wendall Waters suggested spotlighting the kinds of crafts artisans had been making for thousands of years), the show has grown to become a yearly high point for admirers of ceramics, fibers, basketry, metals, wood, glass, jewelry, papermaking and book arts. This year, it features close to 50 works by artists from 18 states. At its opening reception a week ago, two collectors nearly went toe-to-toe over a single piece each wanted to purchase.
Tiffany Fairall, associate curator at Mesa Contemporary Arts, gives some insight to the exhibition that’s become a keystone of Mesa’s art legacy.
Q: This show has become synonymous with MCA. What’s the backstory on it?
A: Originally, it was called the annual Vahki exhibition. Vahki referred loosely to a period in Hohokam history when the Hohokam became known for more decorative items, things like textiles, pottery and jewelry. The show borrowed the term and focused on craft items. The title changed around the 23rd year, changing it to something that was easier to understand.
Q: This exhibition highlights the kinds of things people may not think of instantly as fine art. Why has it been important for MCA to spotlight these types of mediums?
A: You know, there’s such a blurring anymore. There used to be such a divide between crafts and high art, and that’s becoming more blurred. As the world’s becoming smaller, so is the art world. The thing that remains, in my mind, when you look at the craft mediums is that hand quality. The hand — the fact that an artist has made an object by hand — is always there. You can see fingerprints in ceramics or how someone has twisted the fibers a certain way in a basket. The hand is always present.
Q: How does an artist make it into the Contemporary Crafts exhibition, and what does it mean to be selected for the show?
A: It’s a national show, and we’ve always brought in artistic talent from across the nation and an outside juror — an art professional from a museum or gallery who is specialized in craft. It’s a blind jurying process, so the juror doesn’t know who the artists are; they’re selecting the works for the show based on the merit of the work alone. Artists from across the nation apply, and I can’t get over how many Arizona artists get selected year after year. New artists often get in, too, so it’s always something new and exciting. And for the artists, it’s a valid, good show in the craft world. After 32 years, it’s stable and very strong.
Q: What changes or shifts in focus are on the horizon for craft mediums or for the Contemporary Crafts exhibition itself?
A: A lot of artists are incorporating mixed media and found objects in their works, and some of them have gone back to really showcasing nature, because the materials they’re utilizing come from nature. Fiber and wool, coming from animals; clay, coming from the earth. They’re incorporating natural imagery or showcasing nature as an influence, and I think that’s going to continue.
Q: Tell us about artist Stephanie Trenchard, who — as the winner of last year’s Contemporary Crafts Jurors’ Choice Award — gets her own show alongside this year’s Contemporary Crafts exhibition.
A: She’s a very well-known glass artist, and her work is exceptional. She does these sand-cast glass blocks with little vignettes inside of them — painted glass objects she encases in the larger piece of glass. She likes to focus on artists, whether they be literary or visual, and specifically female artists, and so the entire body of the work in her show refers to Emily Dickinson.
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