|Seattle blacksmith artist Erica Gordon will show her leather belts with metal buckles at this year's show. ((Philadelphia Museum of Art))|
Behind their crafts are the high arts
PHILADELPHIA -- Our excitement grew as we entered the 32d annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show with its 195 artists selling fanciful hats, wood and leather goods, exotic jewelry, ceramics, glass, and crinkled silk dresses.
Friends had suggested visiting the show last November, and my husband and I leaped at the chance. We immersed ourselves in the arts - visual and culinary - flying down on Saturday and returning Monday morning in time for work.
The room housing the show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center seemed to pulse with a creative beat as we scanned the aisles of brightly lighted artist booths displaying an array of decorative art that was functional (like a chair), sculptural (like a basket), or architectural (like a bracelet).
“These are not hobbyists,’’ says Nancy C. O’Meara, the show’s longtime manager. “Most of the artists have been to art school and many teach.’’
To her point, straight ahead lay a collection of polymer clay women’s party purses exquisitely shaped like blossoms and pods, while an assortment of jaunty, colored raincoats hung in the distance. It was the next-to-last day of the five-day event that draws 25,000 visitors, and we wanted to meet the artists, peruse their offerings, and buy something special.
This year’s show, Nov. 11-15, promises to be just as enticing. Among the 195 featured American craft artists will be Robert M. Dane from the Berkshires, displaying his Italian-style glass dishes, vases, and “Tutti Frutti Goblets.’’ Erica Gordon, a blacksmith artist from Seattle, will exhibit bright leather belts with metal buckles resembling striated discs and bubble clusters. And Bradford Smith from Pennsylvania will showcase his furniture, including a white-washed cherry bed with steel birds perched atop each post.
As with last year, there will be almost a dozen emerging artists, including Tami Rodrig from Lexington, showing her painted, bezel silver jewelry. For the first time in the history of the show, there will be 26 guest artists from Korea, including Haecho Chung, who will present his sensually-shaped lacquered containers in red, yellow, green, and blue.
“Artists say that they’ve made it when they’ve been invited to the show,’’ says Elisabeth Agro, an associate curator at the museum. As one of five jurors for this year’s show, Agro viewed 1,402 applications before making her selections. “I wanted to see that the artists had taken their work to the next level, found a new approach to the material, and were pushing themselves artistically,’’ she says.
To wit, polymer clay artist Kathleen L. Dustin from New Hampshire is back with her women’s party purses, along with charm-like bracelets sporting seeds, buds, and tiny tufts of moss. Connecticut fiber artist Danielle Gori-Montanelli also has returned with a dazzling collection of flower felt necklaces and collars.
One special aspect of the show is the demonstration schedule, where several times a day artists explain aspects of their art. On Friday at noon, for example, Cynthia Taylor and Aaron Yakim of West Virginia will transform a white oak tree trunk into a basket. On Sunday at 2, the Pennsylvania couple behind John and Kira’s Chocolates will demonstrate how they make bonbons, which are flavored with locally-sourced ingredients like mint and honey.
In many ways the show is a microcosm for the artistic richness of Philadelphia, which has a storied tradition. “In the late 19th century Philadelphia was a real arts center for lithography and photography,’’ says Nicholas Crosson of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “The first photograph in America was produced here in 1839 and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was established in 1805, making it the first art school in the United States.’’
To experience the city’s culinary arts, don’t miss Reading Terminal Market, where we had lunch our first day. Founded in 1892, it’s the nation’s oldest continually operating farmer’s market with over 80 merchants selling flowers, produce, cookbooks, quilts, and ethnic foods, ranging from warm Amish pretzels to the infamous Bassetts Ice Cream, established in 1861. Every Wednesday and Saturday morning the market offers Taste of Philadelphia: Market Tours, a 75-minute peek into the history of the market, and favorite Philly foods, like cheese steaks. We sampled our own version of the cheese steak at DiNico’s, circa 1954, where we ordered the garlicky, moist, roasted pork and broccoli rabe sandwich served with sharp provolone on a soft white bun.
For a great dinner, head to Amada, an upscale tapas spot where we went our first night. Owned and operated by one of Philadelphia’s hottest chefs, Jose Garces, the restaurant has a warm, candle-lit interior. Offerings include such Spanish specialties as tender octopus slices sprinkled with sweet paprika, flatbread topped with artichokes, wild mushroom, black truffle, and Manchego cheese, fresh clams with chorizo, and a seafood paella made with black rice.
If you want a break from the Craft Show (your ticket is good for all five days), consider visiting The Barnes Foundation, a gorgeous estate in the nearby town of Merion that houses a stunning collection of 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, and 59 Matisses, along with works by such others as Degas, Manet, and Picasso. Only 450 people are allowed to view the collection each day, so you must reserve tickets in advance. However, it’s worth the effort, since part of the collection’s appeal is in how the works are displayed. Many have been hung next to artistic items (such as a footstool on the floor or huge metal spoon on the wall) that are in the painting or related to the depicted subject matter.
Another option is simply to stroll around Old City, the thriving downtown area near City Hall, where on the first Friday of every month area shops and galleries host an open house consisting of free gallery receptions and exhibits. Or visit any of the city’s 39 museums, such as the Rodin Museum with the largest collection of Auguste Rodin sculptures outside of France, or the quirky Shoe Museum, located on the sixth floor of the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine and featuring almost 900 types of footwear, ranging from Egyptian burial sandals to Ella Fitzgerald’s hip gold boots.
In anticipation of our dawn flight home, we capped off the weekend with cocktails in the Sofitel (where we stayed because of a great Internet rate and the hotel’s proximity to the Convention Center). The weekend had surpassed all expectations: exquisite paintings, great bites, and the Craft Show, which for any visitor can result in myriad keepsakes, not the least of them inspiration.
Victoria Abbott Riccardi can be reached at email@example.com.