Tuesday, May 14, 2024

A Handmade Assembly


[Various Artists]
A Handmade Assembly
Sackville, Canada: Owens Art Gallery/Struts Gallery, 2023
113 pp., 19.5 x 26.1 cm., hardcover
Edition size unknown

A Handmade Assembly was a beloved annual event that brought together artists and curators from around the country (and beyond) to take a critical look at the intersection of contemporary art and the “handmade". This took the form of symposia, workshops, performances, craft fairs, installations, interventions, exhibitions, meals, and other shared experiences. The scope was deliberately wide, to encompass as many practices and approaches as possible. 

Roula and I took over as Directors of Struts Gallery on March 13th, 2020, a few months after the ninth and penultimate A Handmade Assembly event. Two days prior, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Travel from Europe was suspended, schools announced closures, concerts and sporting events were cancelled, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive, etc. etc. 

We found ourselves in the unenviable position of having to plan an event known for bringing people together, at a time when we couldn’t safely gather. Our solution was to propose a book that would not only commemorate the previous decade of A Handmade Assembly, but would serve as a continuation of it. We put out an open call to artists and writers to respond to the subject, with the aim of producing the tenth and final iteration of the event, as a hardcover volume. 

After this, we contributed very little to the title. We left the role 18 months in, to return back to our own practices, exhausted by having to work ten times as hard during Covid, for a tenth the results. The labour of assembling the Assembly fell to the new staff at Struts, and the staff at the Owens Art Gallery. 

In the spirit of collaboration that the event fostered, the directors of both venues co-wrote the introductory texts, past and present. 

Current Struts and Owens directors Paul Henderson and Emily Falvey contribute a Foreword, writing that “A Handmade Assembly has always encompassed a multiplicity of artistic practices and areas of research, including photography, performance, mending practices, food culture, collage, printmaking, flower arranging, and the intersection of new technologies with traditional craft approaches.”

Amanda Fauteux and Gemey Kelly - co-founders of the event in 2011 - co-author a text titled “What We Were Thinking”, outlining the process of crafting a follow-up to a successful fifteen-year long Performance Symposium. “The non-prescriptive, artist-centred nature of the Assembly was signalled by the way we thought about, and put together, the program. Each year, we scheduled the key-note speaker at the end of the four-day event, rather than the start, making it a time for reflection on what had occurred, rather than sounding out a theme, as is typical of the standard keynote address”.  

Poet Geordie Miller writes about Etsy and the cynical marketing of the term ‘Handmade’ to help suggest an online farmer’s market of crafters. The e-commerce site saw their gross profits triple in the first year of the pandemic, spurred in part by raising transaction fees for sellers at a time when their side-hustle
was most urgent. “Etsy’s carefully crafted marketplace dream of ‘free and equal exchange’”, Miller writes, "is an ideological abstraction that obscures exploitation and breeds alienation”. 

In The Why of D.I.Y., Germaine Koh examines “unplanned urban processes arising from need and desire, about play as fundamental to creative practice and about “do-it-yourself” as an expression of democratic purpose.” Her text features the subheadings “Desire Lines”, “Risky Play”, “Cultivating the Unruly”, “Citizen Effort” and “The Right to DIY”. A Covid Coda follows.

Anthea Black explores Queer and Transgender ceramics, Julie Hollenbach writes about the the “Meditations on Reverberations and Cultural Sovereignty in the Craftwork of Tyshawn Wright”, and Christina Myers contributes “Form on the Fringes: Representation and Distortion of the Body in Craft”. The latter examines the debt contemporary craft owes to second-wave feminism, using examples by Judy Chicago, Casey Jenkins, Shary Boyle and Lido Pimienta.

These texts augment the artists’ contributions, rather than overwhelm them. The book is first and foremost a collection of artists' projects for the page, including Erwin Wurm-style collaborative clothing by Lopapeysa, a cut-out hammer by Suzie Smith, collaged endpapers by Paul Henderson, and "Leather Looms & Limbering Up" by Hazel Meyer. Meyer’s piece charts desire “through the objects we make” - the artist contacted the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, and requested materials on the “organization strategies of dungeons”.  Paige Gratland’s "Setting the Table" reimagines the Pride Flag as a series of textiles handwoven by over 200 participants, ranging from queer teens to skilled senior weavers. 

The book is beautifully designed by Lauren Wickware with a debossed cover, full colour photographs and braille pages for Faye Harnest’s project. It is available for $20 at Struts, here, or the Owens Art Gallery, here

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