Makers, Unvarnished

Makers, Unvarnished

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Lisa Sorrell; Honky Tonk Girl, 2001; kangaroo and ostrich leather. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Craft in America: Season Three

Thanks to an unemotional and lingering style of filmmaking, Craft in America, the documentary TV series that airs occasionally on PBS, takes a generally scholastic approach.

And yet, for the patient eye, the show has plenty of visceral delights in store. With ample footage of craft artists working in their studios, even close-ups of their hands in action, Craft in America provides a rare glimpse of the creative process. "Now the whole world knows how I make this," says Cliff Lee, the master porcelain potter, as he straddles his potter's wheel and laughs nervously.

Produced by Craft in America, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, the series does a fine job of advancing the group's mission: to document and celebrate handcrafted works. Now in its third season, the series recently aired two new episodes. "Messages" profiles four artists whose work addresses some personal or political agenda. In truth, many of them would fit just as nicely in the other new episode, "Family." The real thematic glue is the excellence of the work, whether it's hand-stitched cowboy boots by Lisa Sorrell or hand-painted santos (carved wooden images of saints) by Charles M. Carrillo.

From Atlanta's Moulthrop family of woodturners to Joyce J. Scott, the Baltimore-based artist (and an ACC Fellow) perhaps best known for her beadwork, the program's subjects are established and apparently pleased with their career choices. Everyone's work has been legitimized by the powers that be. To prove it, the producers thread through the show appreciations from curators and collectors (including a surprise visit from woodturning enthusiast President Jimmy Carter). These speeches are relatively stiff, however; they stand out against the more natural encounters with artists.

Thank goodness, the camera behaves more coolly than the curators, especially when it comes to capturing awkward moments in the artists' private lives. Certain scenes at the dinner table are practically Chekhovian. As a result, the show is imbued with another small pleasure: glimpses of the artists as people. As human beings, some come off as likable but fragile, others as blowhards and a touch opportunist - no artists on pedestals here. It's refreshing that Craft in America avoided the usual spoon-feeding style of advocacy. Instead they opted for journalism.

All seven episodes are now available as a three-disc set, The Craft in America Collection. To purchase DVDs or watch episodes, visit pbs.org/craftinamerica. Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. She covers arts, culture, and travel.