Certain assumptions about work in craft media of the post-World War II period have been blindly embraced and continually repeated. First and foremost, we attribute the origins of the Studio Movement entirely to academia and link the first and second generations of makers to the university programs that developed from mid-century onward in America. Secondly, despite the recent concern with materiality in contemporary art, we still cling to the term “Studio Craft” even though more thought-provoking terminology is emerging. One recent definition refers to those makers who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and devoted their careers to using traditional processes and a particular medium to make intellectual statements as participants in the Materialism movement.1 However, the work of Michelle Holzapfel, for example, reminds us that movements consist of multiple voices—and thus are not easily defined.
Holzapfel fits the definitions of both Studio artist and Material movement artist. A product of the revolutionary back-to-the-earth movement of 1960s and 1970s, she definitively attributes the expressiveness of her turned and carved forms to the idealism of those years. “In the 1970s, we tried to be ourselves and not our expectations.” Raised in rural Rhode Island, she has worked alone in her Vermont studio—shared only with her husband, the furniture maker and educator David Holzapfel—since 1976 (fig. 1).
Holzapfel’s trajectory parallels that of many makers of the period: she first sold work out of her studio, exhibited in the 1980s at small to modest craft fairs, and then at venues such as the American Craft Council shows in Baltimore and Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Philadelphia Craft Show. As the gallery system for contemporary crafts developed in the 1980s, dealers such as Betty Tinlot of Ten Arrow Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Ruth and Rick Snyderman of The Works Gallery in Philadelphia; and Bebe Pritam and Warren Eames Johnson of Pritam & Eames on Long Island discovered Holzapfel and gave her gallery exposure. She was one of the first turners featured at Philadelphia’s prestigious Wood Turning Center (now The Center for Art In Wood), where she remains an active participant. By 1991, Holzapfel was the only turner to be highlighted in the distinguished Peter Joseph Gallery in New York that specialized in handcrafted furniture. After the gallery closed in 1997, Holzapfel’s work was sold by such highly respected dealers as Barry Friedman Ltd. in New York and the Connell Gallery in Atlanta.
Unlike the typical Studio Crafts practitioner, Holzapfel was not trained in a university. Instead, introduced to carving by a high school art teacher, she is largely self–taught. She credits her machinist father for introducing her to tools such as the lathe. She acknowledges the important role played in her life by James Prestini, now considered the father of Studio turning; she warmly recalls the friendship and correspondence with him that lasted for several years until his death in 1993. “He would alternate warm encouragement of my efforts with the cold sober reality of the marketplace, tempering and strengthening the form of my vocation.”2
Holzapfel’s work deals with materiality but in unexpected ways. Several of her series actually mimic the textures of textiles (fig. 2), knitted fabrics, and baskets. On a more fundamental level, however, unlike many turners whose work celebrates the sensuality of the grain, Holzapfel goes beyond the surface patterns of her source materials: the crotches where branches emerge from tree trunks, spalted woods, and, most often, burls (rounded growths on trees characterized by abnormal grain patterns).
Usually, the sculptures emerge from a single block of wood, primarily a local Vermont hardwood such as maple, birch, cherry, walnut, or beech, brought to Holzapfel by loggers seeking firewood and construction materials for the logging industry. At times, she turns the wood on the lathe to delineate its basic shape; other times, she uses the lathe simply as a carving tool. In general, she carves and manipulates the wood using techniques such as stippling, bleaching, burning, furrowing, and gouging to create rich repeat patterns (fig. 3), distinctive areas of light and shadow, and, most surprisingly, the illusion of assemblage (fig. 4).
As for many turners, the vessel is Holzapfel’s most frequent vehicle of expression. However, unlike other early turners, her vessels are an expression of the self—an especially meaningful element when we consider that she was one of the first woman turners in a male-dominated field. “I take the vessel off the pedestal, making it real. It becomes a stand in for the human being. As subject matter, it is about being a woman. By pairing two or more vessels [fig. 5], for instance, I talk about relationships.” Essentially, she addresses the autobiographical, referencing her upbringing in a loving environment; a passion for everyday textiles instilled in her by her family; mundane objects of her daily life; and the ongoing issues she faces as a woman artist. She once said, “My work originates from the desire to give shape to the quiet heroism of the domestic realm, the basis of life and culture.”3 Both overtly and covertly, in her work Holzapfel comments on “the expectations for women” as wives and mothers.
Holzapfel draws upon a thorough grounding in art history from high school and college that she has supplemented by extensive reading, travel, and visits to museums. “I do not come from the point of view of many of today’s woodworkers and turners [who are primarily concerned with process and developments in the field]. Essentially, everything that comes before my eyes is ‘grist for the mill.’” Attributing her interest in African art to her husband, she also is fascinated by ancient, Eastern, medieval, and post-Renaissance European civilizations—with decorative arts, the vessel in particular— bearing the most dramatic impact.
Over the years, Holzapfel has simultaneously dealt with several major themes, including nature (fig. 6), illusionism, pattern and decoration, the vessel within its mount (fig. 7), interior/exterior architectural space, and textiles. Her face vases (fig. 8) embody her idea of the vessel as a metaphor for the human figure.4 In recent years, her interest in the vessel within space has led her to join multiple vessels together as well as to explore the spoon form (fig. 9), which she sees as a bowl with its handle extending into space. Since the 1980s, her carving has progressed from low to high relief; she also has introduced moving elements into her compositions (fig. 10). Since she works on several vessels at any given time, Holzapfel’s development is not linear; she returns periodically to earlier themes. “My raison d’etre is my appetite at the moment. I ask myself whether I can succeed in making something that has just popped into my imagination. I am about experimenting; I am not about being a factory.”
During the past few years, she has begun to create wall-mounted sculptures.
"Initially, I made forms that I assumed would be shown on horizontal surfaces. In the mid ‘90s, I made some mirrors for Peter Joseph from which emerged an interest in addressing vertical pieces that are like paintings. Objects on a surface imply usefulness and function. They invite the hand to touch. On the wall, the works are not about touching. I am fascinated with how objects can invite or repel our bodies."
Rage Correctly, 2009 (fig. 11) consists of carved leaves of paper juxtaposed against a seemingly quilted background. Made from a single piece of basswood that has been carved, burned, bleached, and gilded, it is a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil. For Holzapfel, the sculpture has its roots in both Dutch seventeenth- century still life “vanitas” painting and the exquisite collages of the German early twentieth-century master Kurt Schwitters.
Drawing has become an important tool for Holzapfel to capture the multitude of ideas that flow through her head as she spends months on a sculpture. She talks of being surrounded by sketchbooks filled with quick drawings and renderings interspersed with words that serve as “mnemonic reminders” for future sculptures. She sometimes translates these rapid sketches into large, exquisitely rendered compositions (fig. 12) that feature rows of distinctive vessels. “As I do these more finished pieces, I experience the joy of drawing,” which she has known since childhood. “It is almost as if I am a portrait artist doing portraits of the grandchildren.”
Today, Holzapfel has an established place within the history of craft media of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries—whatever the name of that movement is. Her carved vessels are distinctive for their content as well as their exquisite craftsmanship. She hopes that even though she is a female pioneer, she will serve as a paradigm for both male and female turners and inspire them to “simply do [sic] one’s best work with courage and originality.”
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Davira S. Taragin is a curator, writer, and lecturer specializing in modern and contemporary decorative arts, design, and craft. She has organized over forty traveling exhibitions and written extensively, including co-authoring the publication Furniture by Wendell Castle. She is well-known as a leading expert in twentieth-century glass and a lifelong champion and scholar of the Studio movement.
1 The sculptor Dan Dailey who works primarily in glass has been advancing the Materialism theory.
2 Michelle Holzapfel, “Aristocrat of Skills: James Prestini Mentioned,” American Craft 53, 6 (December 1993/January 1994), p. 12.
3 “Michelle Holzapfel,” in Masterworks (New York: Peter Joseph Gallery, 1991), p. 28.
4 Suzanne Ramljak, “Speaking Out of Turn,” in Bespoke Vessels (New York: Barry Friedman Ltd., 1999).