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Restrained, Cut Loose
A curator in Milwaukee commissioned 16 works and limited the artists to one tool each. Here’s why he did it – and what he learned about creativity.
Almost a year ago, curator Ethan Lasser asked 16 artists from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada to each create a work for an exhibition, with one significant restriction: They could use only one tool to make their pieces. The show, “The Tool at Hand,” opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum in December and continues through April 1 (with a series of public programs slated for March 16 – 18), before traveling to other venues in 2013. Lasser works for the Chipstone Foundation, a research and collecting organization that focuses on early American decorative arts. American Craft editor in chief Monica Moses talked with Lasser about what he and the participating artists discovered about tools, limits, and invention.
How does a curator focused on colonial American craft end up organizing an exhibition of contemporary artists experimenting with just one tool? What inspired this project?
Last winter, I was writing an essay about the relationship between 18th-century artisans and their tools. If you were a silversmith in 18th-century Boston, the last asset that would be taken from you if you were sued for debt – after your land, your house, your furniture, your apprentices – was your kit of tools. The law was generous in this sense; if you went broke, it let you hold onto the means to get back into business.
But this history also says something about the intimacy between makers and their tools; somehow this relationship is different from the ordinary relationship between people and things. In the 18th century, people often had their portraits taken with their tools. And tools were passed down through the generations.
You wanted to make the 16 participating artists – and, presumably, the exhibition audience – more aware of the role of tools in art making. How did artists respond? Did they see this as an opportunity to experiment?
Some artists used a single hand-tool they have used for years but never really considered. Others used this project to experiment with an entirely new tool. American woodturner Mark Lindquist laid aside his lathe
and chisel to use glue. He glued together thousands of small wooden dowels to make his Dowel Bowl.
Still other artists attempted to remake their typical work with one tool. British woodworker David Gates typically employs a large kit of planes, chisels, and saws to make his standing sculptures. But for this project, he fabricated a single tool – a saw with a different cutting edge on all four sides – to make a version of his standard work. And the finished piece comes amazingly close to the real thing.
Who used the oddest tool?
The prize probably goes to the British silversmith David Clarke. His tool: a gas oven, circa 1969. For Dead on Arrival II, Clarke used lead to corrode a piece of found silver – a spoon from the 19th century. He covered the silver in lead and heated it in the oven. The lead acted as a corroding agent and literally ate holes in the spoon.
Were any outcomes very surprising?
Glass artist Beth Lipman probably wins the award for most surprising work. Lipman has spent her career recreating 17th-century still life paintings in three-dimensional glass sculptures. But for this project, she went in a completely different direction. Gift Bowl is a bulbous mass of glue and found objects; Lipman’s tool was glue. The piece is as wondrous as Lipman’s other works, but it speaks a totally different aesthetic language.
Along with highlighting the importance of tools – those useful implements we take for granted today – what other goals did you have for the project?
I wanted to highlight something we tend to forget in the modern world: Every object in front of us was made by somebody. We don’t know where most of the stuff we own comes from, let alone how it was made.
Here I am, speaking as a so-called expert, and I can’t tell you how my shoes were made and I’ve worn them for five years. Part of this exhibition is to get people to think a bit harder not just about artists’ processes but also about making in general.
There’s a modern cluelessness you wanted to address.
The more production moves away, the cheaper things become, the more appealing it is to buy things rather than to make them, the more distant we become from how everyday objects are produced. I was the last generation of my public school system to have shop classes in the 1980s. By the time my little brother came around, the workshop had become a computer lab. There is this sense that how production happens doesn’t matter. We’re not really aware that there is a set of hands behind every object around us.
So what happens when you learn that?
On the one hand, things become a bit more magical – you realize they come from materials and someone transformed the materials into an object. On the other, your decisions as a consumer can be more ethical when you realize there was a person behind your shirt and you can think a little harder about the conditions in which the shirt was made. Was it just, was it safe, was the maker paid?
How does tool use in the exhibition compare with ideas about tools in the 17th and 18th centuries?
Well, in his Encyclopédie (1751-72), Denis Diderot spent a lot of time categorizing tools, outlining proper tool use and enumerating “tools fit for a purpose.”
The Enlightenment was all about documentation. Apprentice craftsmen spent seven years of indentured servitude learning how to use their tools. At the same time, there’s the 1719 tale of Robinson Crusoe, who was stranded on an island and had to look at all of the objects on his ship as potential tools to appropriate for new purposes.
Maybe the message of “The Tool at Hand” is that there is a certain freedom in not being steeped in tools and making. In the 21st century, we aren’t necessarily bound by convention. It sounds as if the show’s artists were more Crusoe than Diderot.
Yes. With serious constraints – and the woodworkers in the show have vast tool kits – come possibilities for creativity. When elementary schools stop teaching how to use the saw, maybe that opens something up even as it closes something down.
“The Tool at Hand” travels to Philadelphia Art Alliance in spring 2013, followed by stops at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland.