Future Tense: 40 Under 40

Future Tense: 40 Under 40

40 Under 40 Group Shot

Photographed in the Grand Salon of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., July 19, 2012. Photo: Robert Severi

The Renwick showcases artists whose formative years were shaped by 21st-century fears – but whose work conveys hope and resolve. 

Interview with curator Nicholas R. Bell

What was the impetus behind “40 Under 40: Craft Futures,” and when did planning begin for the exhibition?
This year marks 40 years since the Renwick opened as the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch for craft and decorative art. The building has a colorful history; it originally housed the Corcoran collection, then became the United States Court of Claims, and was slated for demolition before First Lady Jackie Kennedy lobbied to rescue it. So we wanted to mark the anniversary in a memorable way. We started to consider how to treat the occasion in the summer of 2010, and the idea of “40 under 40” stuck. Not because it is original (hardly!) but because it offered an opening to talk about all sorts of changes under way in American craft.

A colleague of mine recently referred to the exhibition concept (the number, the age) as a “ruse,” and he has a point. To some degree it’s an excuse, a deceptively simple premise that gives us a platform to have a wide-ranging conversation about the state of craft in contemporary culture and its possibilities.

Many gifted artists are working in craft mediums today. How did you go about finding those you wanted to feature in the exhibition?
The first decision I made was not to put out a call for portfolios. If we were going to have a major conversation about craft futures, the last thing I wanted was for makers doing important work to opt out before we had started; unfortunately, the word craft can have that effect on people. So we went about things very quietly. I spoke with knowledgeable people across the continent – curators, gallerists, professors, artists, and others who see a lot of up-and-comers. The questions I asked were simple: Who was your best student? Who has wowed you recently?

We also looked at schools, art fairs, blogs, and so on, without letting on to what we were up to. The Internet is a wonderful thing, you know. A decade ago I’m not sure how much it would have aided in our research; now everyone has their own website. Our staff spent several months bouncing from one to the next. Tangents have never been so fun.

What sort of criteria did you apply?
Beyond 1972 as the age cutoff, virtually no criteria at all. That’s what made it interesting. And the age question was fraught enough. Our staff had to make plenty of awkward phone calls to unassuming artists. Imagine you are in your studio one day, and the Smithsonian calls just to ask when you were born! My heart was broken a few times when the response was 1971.

If you didn’t have criteria, how did you go about picking one artist over another?
Ah, the art and mystery of the craft (to use a phrase from pre-industrial apprenticeship culture). The most critical factor was that the work had to be strong; it had to grab me. When you sit down to review hundreds of candidates, you pull out those whose work stops you from moving to the next page – whom you recall above the rest, whom you want to know more about. I also felt it was critical to pull people into the show whose work exhibits the trademarks of craft but who don’t necessarily employ our particular nomenclature. Folks like Jeff Garner, Erik Demaine, Theaster Gates, Olek, and Uhuru live in their own worlds. They haven’t come up in studio craft, but they share techniques, materials, and, most important, the philosophy that is the bedrock for craft. More than anything, I hope this cohort will help people see craft more broadly.

You say these artists share a philosophy. How would you sum up that philosophy?
Each of these makers has made a conscious decision to approach things – the inescapable, material facts of our world – from a standpoint that enriches us, that has a positive net effect on the environment and those who interact with it. Regardless of their aesthetic choices or the words they use to describe what they do, this mission bonds them and strikes at the heart of craft.

What surprised you about putting together this show?
After we decided on the 40- under-40 concept, I had a brief moment of panic. What if we can’t find them? What if they aren’t good enough? What if they aren’t young enough? When the research started to come in, the relief was very real.

Frankly, I was floored by many of the things I saw. What the artists may lack in experience they make up for in chutzpah. There is an incredible energy to this show – so many bright young minds (and hands). I’m consistently impressed with this generation’s catholic attitude toward techniques, materials, and technology. And there are fewer sacred cows than in past years, which is key to expanding the audience for craft. 

Is there an overarching message of the show?
The themes highlighted in the exhibition emerged organically. The role of 9/11 in defining this generation’s worldview is critical. The oldest artist in this show was 29 at the time of the attacks, the youngest only 17. The dramatic shifts in culture since that day have shaped their adult lives and their careers so far. Not surprisingly, the economy and manufacturing are a common subject of interest for this group. And sustainability is an intense focus. Each artist values craft for its prescriptive power – its potential to make life better. This is the terrific irony of the 21st century so far: The worse things get, the more powerful craft becomes, because creativity thrives on doubt seeping through our culture. And that’s the bottom line: Craft is getting stronger. It’s growing in ways that we would never have imagined in 2000. And its values are being shared by an ever-expanding population.

I can see those themes in the work of Cat Mazza, Jeffrey Clancy, and L.J. Roberts. But Matt Moulthrop, Jamin Uticone, and others seem to do more mainline craft work. How do they fit?
The themes I’ve identified are simply common threads. That said, it’s important to recognize what does unite this cohort: a commitment to live more constructively in the modern world than might have been the case otherwise.

What would you say if you had to generalize about the work people tend to make when they are younger?
Dangerous territory! There is a common misconception that, because craft in particular (as opposed to, say, conceptual art) is largely skill-based, young artists will produce work that is inferior to that of more mature makers. This is categorically untrue. Each of the 40 is brilliant at something, and some of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen are in this show. It will be exciting to see how these artists develop, where they will go after this. Undoubtedly they will continue to grow. But a lack of experience should never be mistaken for a lack of talent.

Meet the Artists:

Vivian Beer, 34
Somerville, MA
Medium
Steel, aluminum, stainless steel, automotive paint, concrete, other industrial materials
Training
BFA in sculpture, Maine College of Art
MFA in metalsmithing, Cranbrook Academy of Art
Describe your generation
Attempting to be culturally relevant.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
I hope to be somewhere comfy and still making stuff that’s cool.

Melanie Bilenker, 34
Philadelphia, PA
Medium
Photography, hair, glue
Training
BFA, The University of the Arts
Describe your generation
Connected.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
In the woods with a camera.

Jeffrey Clancy, 36
Portland, ME
Medium
Metal
Training
BFA, Kutztown University
MFA, San Diego State University
Describe your generation
Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Satisfied but still curious.

Dave Cole, 36
Providence, RI
Medium
Mixed media
Training
BA, Brown University

Cristina Córdova, 36
Penland, NC
Medium
Ceramics
Training
BA, University of Puerto Rico
MFA, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University
Describe your generation
Neo-traditional, multifarious, effervescent, fearless, brimming.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
In a light-filled studio with engaging projects everywhere.

Gabriel Craig, 28
Detroit, MI
Medium
Metal, performance, video, text, social activism
Training
BFA in metals/jewelry, Western Michigan University
MFA in jewelry and metalworking, Virginia Commonwealth University
Describe your generation
Seeking purposeful, authentic, and environmentally just work.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Still promoting the virtues and cultural importance of hand production.

Jennifer Crupi, 39
Oceanport, NJ
Medium
Metal
Training
Mobility Exchange Program, Parsons The New School for Design
BFA, Cooper Union School of Art
MFA, State University of New York at New Paltz
Describe your generation
Innovative, tech-savvy, conceptual thinkers.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Hopefully healthy, enjoying retirement from teaching, and still creating!

Erik Demaine, 31
Cambridge, MA
Medium
Folded paper
Training
BSc, Dalhousie University (Canada)
MMath, University of Waterloo (Canada)
PhD in computer science, University of Waterloo
Describe your generation
Digital computers and video games.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Either a cyborg with robotic body parts or an online virtual creature.

Joshua DeMonte, 28
Towson, MD
Medium
Computer-aided design/digital fabrication
Training
BFA, Tyler School of Art at Temple University
MFA, Tyler School of Art
Describe your generation
Aggressive, morphing, direct, digital.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
I will have continued to evolve with the change of values and technologies.

Brian Dettmer, 37
Atlanta, GA
Medium
Sculpture, altered books
Training
BA in art and design/art history, Columbia College Chicago
Describe your generation
Raised analog, living digital.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Hopefully alive and still making art.

Nick Dong, 38
Oakland, CA
Medium
Multimedia, metals
Training
BFA in multimedia, Tung-Hai University (Taiwan)
MFA in metalsmithing and jewelry, University of Oregon
Describe your generation
Postmodern multidisciplinary global renaissance.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Working on the reincarnation project under my bodhi tree.

Joey Foster Ellis, 28
Beijing, China, and Doha, Qatar
Medium
Ceramics
Training
BFA in material studies, Central Academy of Fine Arts (Beijing)
MSc (master of science) in conservation studies (in progress), University College London, Qatar
Describe your generation
Giving another use to “function.”
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
It might take me another 40 years to come home, so America?

Jeff Garner, 34
Franklin, TN
Medium
Sustainable fashion
Training
BA, mentorships, and life
Describe your generation
Romantic vagabonds of privilege.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
In a grizzly bear cage in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. A bear cage allows me to live with nature without being eaten … it’s the way I will leave this world.

Theaster Gates, 39
Chicago, IL
Medium
The discarded, systems of order, and meaning making
Training
BS in urban planning, ceramics, Iowa State University
MA in fine arts/religious studies, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
MS in religious studies, sculpture, planning (interdisciplinary graduate program), Iowa State University
Describe your generation
Caught between belief and consumption.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Playing football with my 5-year-old! Making pots in New Africa.

Sabrina Gschwandtner, 35
New York, NY
Medium
Film, video, textiles
Training
BA in art/semiotics, Brown University
MFA, Bard College
Describe your generation
Information overload.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
In the seaside retirement home for knitters that I cofounded.

Jenny Hart, 39
Los Angeles, CA
Medium
Embroidery
Training
BA in French, University of Kansas
Describe your generation
Independent, creative, guarded, skeptical, sensitive.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Looking back 40 years in disbelief at all that’s happened in my life.

Sergey Jivetin, 35
High Falls, NY
Medium
Mixed media
Training
BFA, Parsons The New School for Design
MFA, State University of New York at New Paltz
Describe your generation
Responding to the introduction of digital into object making.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
In a much bigger studio, or on location, creating larger work.

Lauren Kalman, 32
Detroit, MI
Medium
Visual art
Training
BFA, Massachusetts College of Art and Design Apprentice, Johnson Atelier Technical Institute for Sculpture
MFA, Ohio State University
Describe your generation
Selfish #@*&$ who mean well.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
72 or dead.

Lara Knutson, 37
New York, NY
Medium
Reflective glass fabric
Training
BArch (bachelor of architecture), Pratt Institute
MID (master of industrial design), Pratt Institute
Describe your generation
Entrepreneurial, appreciative, curious, and adventurous.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Merging industrial design and architecture while humanizing material technology through craft.

Stephanie Liner, 34
New York, NY
Medium
Sculpture/upholstery – fabric, plywood, thread, foam, Dacron, adhesive, cardboard
Training
BAD (bachelor of art and design), North Carolina State University College of Design
MFA in sculpture, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Describe your generation
Sustainable, entrepreneurial, global, insecure, and worried.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Living in India and the United States, building artwork, and teaching my grandkids how to build crazy freezer-box houses.

Marc Maiorana,34
Cedar Bluff, VA
Medium
Iron
Training
BFA, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Describe your generation
Lucky.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
In the garden.

Sebastian Martorana, 31
Baltimore, MD
Medium
Primarily stone
Training
BFA in illustration, Syracuse University
MFA, Rinehart School of Sculpture, Maryland Institute College of Art
Describe your generation
Not the best, but good.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Covered in dust, one way or the other.

Christy Matson, 33
Los Angeles, CA
Medium
Fiber
Training
MFA in textiles, California College of the Arts
Describe your generation
Neither slacking nor digitally native.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Happy, warm, and doing what I love.

Cat Mazza, 34
Boston, MA
Medium
Needlecraft and digital media
Training
BFA, Carnegie Mellon University
MFA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Describe your generation
Hard to define.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Knitting.

Daniel Michalik, 39
New York, NY
Medium
Cork, wood, and more
Training
MFA in furniture design, Rhode Island School of Design
Describe your generation
Unafraid of laughter, community, failure.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Alternately between NYC and Massachusetts, surrounded by children, grandchildren, and beautiful objects.

Matt Moulthrop, 34
Marietta, GA
Medium
Woodturning, sculpting
Training
BBA, University of Georgia
MBA, Georgia Institute of Technology
Describe your generation
Realistic, free-thinking, open, thoughtful, enterprising.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Satisfied with my life, without becoming complacent with my work.

Christy Oates, 32
San Diego, CA
Medium
Wood
Training
MFA, San Diego State University
Describe your generation
Technologically creative entrepreneurs.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Working in my studio.

Agata Oleksiak (Olek), 34
New York, NY
Medium
Crocheted mixed media
Training
Self-taught
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Reweaving the world as I see it.

Andy Paiko, 35
Portland, OR
Medium
Blown/sculpted glass
Training
B.S. in studio art, California Polytechnic University
Describe your generation
Innovative and indulgent.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Retired in rural coastal California, surrounded by family and friends, playing horseshoes.

Mia Pearlman, 37
New York, NY
Medium
Installation
Training
BFA, Cornell University
Describe your generation
I’m part of a generation?
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Just hitting my peak in the studio.

L. J. Roberts, 31
New York, NY
Medium
Textiles
Training
BA in English, University of Vermont
BA in studio arts, University of Vermont
MFA in textiles, California College of the Arts
MA in visual and critical studies, California College of the Arts
Describe your generation
Trans-liberating, gender-queer, fiercely feminist, do-it-yourself/together, jerry-riggers.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
I want a goat farm and a nice studio on a queer land project. And a motorcycle.

Laurel Roth, 39
San Francisco, CA
Medium
Sculpture, various mediums
Training
Self-taught
Describe your generation
Finding paths through increasingly fast changes.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Hopefully with more than twice the life experience I have now.

Shawn Smith, 40
Austin, TX
Medium
Lots of little bits of wood
Training
BFA in printmaking, Washington University
MFA in sculpture, California College of the Arts
Describe your generation
Multitasking latchkey kids.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Still making art, still riding my bike, and still learning.

Jen Stark, 29
Miami, FL
Medium
Paper, stop-motion animation
Training
BFA in fibers and animation, Maryland Institute College of Art

Matthew Szösz, 38
Oakland, CA
Medium
Glass, video, mixed media
Training
BID (bachelor of industrial design), Rhode Island School of Design
BFA, Rhode Island School of Design MFA, Rhode Island School of Design
Describe your generation
Better bad decisions.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Dead.

Uhuru
(Bill Hilgendorf, 33, and Jason Horvath, 34)
New York, NY
Medium
Wood, metal, found objects
Training
Both: BFA, industrial design, Rhode Island School of Design
Describe your generation
Bill: Crafty.
Jason: Thinking out of the box.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Bill: Still making things.
Jason: In a shack in Indonesia, carving tiki heads. Seriously.

Jamin Uticone, 37
Alpine, NY
Medium
Baskets from trees (wood)
Training
Six-year apprenticeship
Describe your generation
Hopeful.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Wherever my grandchildren are.

Anna Von Mertens, 39
Peterborough, NH
Medium
Textiles
Training
MFA, California College of the Arts
Describe your generation
ADD but less than our kids.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Still in the studio, this time with grandkids underfoot.

Stacey Lee Webber, 30
Philadelphia, PA
Medium
Metals, jewelry
Training
BFA, Ball State University
MFA, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Kicking ass and taking names.

Bohyun Yoon, 36
Philadelphia, PA
Medium
Mixed media, glass
Training
BFA, Tama Art University (Tokyo) MFA, Tama Art University
MFA, Rhode Island School of Design
Describe your generation
Between analog and digital.
Where do you see yourself in 40 years?
Enjoying art life with my family.

Nicholas R. Bell is the Fleur and Charles Bresler curator of American craft and decorative art at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Renwick tapped the 40 up-and-comers to create personal videos. Watch them all on the Renwick's YouTube channel, and check out the organization's micro-donation campaign to help support acquisitions of works by each of the 40 artists. 

Monica Moses is American Craft’s editor in chief.