Blazing a Trail of Artistic Innovation
May 09, 2012
By Kevin Fuller
The School for American Crafts (SAC) at RIT is the oldest craft school in America and has long been one of the leading creative and educational forces in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Current SAC faculty Juan Carlos Caballero-Perez, Andy Buck, Jane Shellenbarger, and Robin Cass exemplify the school's dual mission to honor the American craft tradition, while also developing new and innovative methods for creating and presenting art.
SAC was originally founded at Dartmouth College and moved to RIT in 1950. In its 62-year history at RIT, the school has produced a host of students who have gone on to major careers in the field, while also being home to some of the nation's most prominent craft artists. Year after year, SAC has sought to promote traditional craft techniques, while also paving the way for current and future innovation in the arts.
"It's always been very important that our programs maintain that traditional craft method," says Don Arday, the current chair of SAC. "At the same time, we seek new ways to enhance the creative process."
This includes study and artistic creation in ceramics, glass making, furniture design, contemporary jewelry design, and metal sculpture based on the fusion of craft making and fine arts that developed at places such as Germany's Bauhaus School in the 1920s.
In addition, current SAC faculty members are using modern techniques in material analysis, computer animation, and prototyping to develop new methods and means for expressing and producing craft art. In addition, they explore diverse topics such as history, politics, and science to better present their artistic themes. The school strives to transfer this creativity to its students through unique coursework and programming that balances the past, present, and future.
"Through our educational offerings and the creative work of our faculty and students, we seek to find new methods and means for expressing creativity," Arday adds.
Expressing Heritage Through Sculpture
For longtime metals professor Juan Carlos Caballero-Perez, being a successful artist is a fusing of the past and the future. Born in Mexico City, Mexico, Caballero-Perez came to the United States in 1986. He expresses that background in his art and in his course work.
"I like a lot of historical motifs," says Caballero-Perez. "My own cultural heritage truly reflects in a lot of my work." That creative expression includes public art pieces for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT, the Pieters Family Life Center in Henrietta, and ArtWalk in downtown Rochester. In addition, he has created numerous acclaimed jewelry pieces, including "Mother's Brooch," which won a 2011 NICHE Magazine Award for best gold jewelry.
Caballero-Perez's approach involves practical, hands-on research to get used to how a particular material works—be it steel, silver, gold, or some other medium. This includes the analysis of various material properties in order to better manipulate his chosen medium and ultimately translate his artistic expression into finished sculpted pieces.
Caballero-Perez has also embraced technologies such as computer-aided design to enhance the prototyping and development of his pieces.
During the past two years, Caballero-Perez has attended numerous workshops and seminars on the use of computer technology in art creation, and has also incorporated these elements into his work as well as metals classes on campus.
"They are the ones who are going to really change the field," says Caballero-Perez about his students. "They are the future of the industry."
Despite all this innovation, Caballero-Perez still believes in the basics. He draws inspiration for his art from all manner of fields, from architecture to the natural world, and believes his work is rooted in the fundamentals of craft creation as much as the future.
"I live in the fundamentals," he says with a smile. "I still like to draw."
A Hand-Carved Narrative
In 1987, Andy Buck was a legislative aide to then-U.S. Rep. Leon Panetta, who is currently the Secretary of Defense for President Obama. Buck's days consisted of writing letters to constituents and researching legislation on behalf of the congressman.
That's when his life took a U-turn. "After working on the Hill for a while," says Buck with a grin, "I decided to follow my heart and pursue a career designing furniture and making artwork." Having minored in furniture design at Virginia Commonwealth University, this was not as far-fetched as it might seem.
Buck is a storyteller with his hands. "I'm really fascinated by the narrative qualities associated with making objects by hand," he says.
Interested in the many interpretations of artistic expression, his work often includes visual references to Polynesian, African, and American folk art. His wide range of furniture pieces has earned international acclaim and been exhibited at numerous galleries and museums, including the Fuller Craft Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.
At age 5, Buck's family moved to Switzerland where his father, a specialist in tropical medicine, began work with the World Health Organization. His father traveled the world, bringing back artifacts and many stories, stories of culture and of people.
"My father would come home with shields, masks-all sorts of interesting objects," he says. These artifacts from his childhood became original sources of inspiration many years later as an artist. Buck explains his digging goes deeper than his past. Searching for new ways of working is at the heart of his research. The use of new technology is also an integral part of his work. Hand-carved parts are sometimes combined with laser-cut parts, laser-engraved text, and other computer-generated elements.
Research, innovation, and data collecting can be for the purpose of deconstruction, too, Buck explains. "I try to break down archetypes," he says. "I try to come up with ideas that are not so easily pegged."
It's that constant drive for innovation in his own work that he parallels in the classroom.
"In order to be an effective teacher, I must challenge myself with concept, material, and process, just as I try to challenge my students.
Creative Expression in Ceramics
Jane Shellenbarger, professor of ceramics at SAC, focuses on pottery the idiom, incorporating historical references and social issues with domestic objects. Her work has been exhibited widely and is part of the permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art.
"While function continues to be an essential concern, I am most intrigued with the ability of pots to transcend themselves as objects and convey information," says Shellenbarger.
Conveying information requires an intense regimen of constantly collecting data and research for both technical prowess and content. Shellenbarger focuses her research on utilitarian objects, while interjecting other aesthetic elements into the work. "There are so many ways you can think about your work fitting into society," she says.
Her art often becomes a document of history, while also bearing reference to painting, vessels, and even social content. "I like to explore both culture and history through the pieces I create," she says.
Before coming to RIT, Shellenbarger was involved in a four-week artist residency at the International Ceramic Studio in Kecskemet, Hungary. She worked with master mold makers and absorbed the creative process of the European porcelain factory tradition which she then incorporated into her own work.
"Travel and cultural exchange is such an important aspect of what an artist does," Shellenbarger explains.
Her teaching is also an extension of her research.
"I try to get students to understand the value of research while building technical skill and immersing themselves in the information-gathering process," Shellenbarger adds. "I encourage students to build layers of information into their work."
She emphasizes to her students that the exchange of ideas is all part of growth as an artist. Whether it's conceptual growth or historical knowledge, it's all part of the craft.
"I look backward and forward at the same time," she says.
Two Worlds Come Together
Some artists draw from the most unlikely sources for inspiration. Glass professor Robin Cass often reaches from the science world for her art.
Cass comes from a science-oriented background, with doctors, pharmacists, and biologists throughout her family tree.
"Growing up in this environment instilled me with a fascination of the language and artifacts of the sciences," she says. "But I became more interested in their poetic rather than practical aspects."
For Cass, her love of glass as a material meshes perfectly with her interest in the sciences. "Glass has such a rich history as a material used in scientific research, from alchemical vessels to lenses, glass has had a profound effect on how we observe and understand the natural world."
Cass has explored all ends of the earth for interesting sources for her sculpture. During a sabbatical last year, Cass was a resident artist at the Osaka University of Art in Japan. While in Japan, she visited places like the Meguro Parasitological Museum and Tskiji fish market in Tokyo.
"I find the obscure scientific museums and urban food markets in other countries are often especially inspiring places."
Cass' unique creative style has earned her international acclaim and her work has been exhibited by a host of major arts centers, including the Museum of American Glass, the Tacoma Museum of Glass, and the Tittot Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.
Cass' creative process also relates to how she teaches. She constantly encourages her students to delve deeply into all subjects that pique their curiosity.
"I ask students to follow those tangents—read, collect images and materials. It's so important for artists to try and understand their interests on a deep level; it helps you make more nuanced and powerful work."
There has to be substance, she adds, and that's the basis of research in the arts. "Art about art is kind of a dead end."