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January 7, 2007

Michele Oka Doner on Craft v Art


Anthony Haden-Guest interviewed the highly successful and yet oddly underknown artist (above and below, with her 1995 work "A Walk on the Beach" at Miami International Airport) for an article that appeared in the September 16, 2006 Financial Times.

Here's the story.

    'There's no craft here. This is about ideas'

    The studio visit is an art world ritual and Michele Oka Doner's studio, though workshop would be a more appropriate word, is on Mercer Street in New York's SoHo. The rooms are large, high-ceilinged and crammed with things, both natural and hand-made. Assistants are bent over screens, looking at slides. When I visited, one fellow was punching designs into a sheet of butter-coloured paraffin wax.

    I wandered around, examining rows of shells, giant tree roots, intricate scrims. Behind a huge round table stood a group of standing figures, headless and armless, their bodies textured like honeycombs or crumbling tree trunks. A pile of driftwood sat beside a table looking like a bonfire waiting for a match.

    Then Doner walked in. A slender woman just turned 60 with straight jet-black hair, she is an artist who manages to be at once excellent,highly successful and oddly underknown, even within the gossipy art world. This is, I think, partly because of the variety of her projects and materials, partly because many are commercial and partly perhaps because of her determinedly unfashionable concerns.

    What's the driftwood for, I wondered?

    "I have needed sometimes to make candelabras. Or I've needed a way to make a figure. And I've hauled one of those in. So this is raw material."

    She walked me around.


    "Let's call this whole loft a noble experiment. This is my laboratory. When I need a table, I make a table. When I've needed a chair, I've made a chair. I needed a fork, I made a fork.

    "I'm on the frontier. Nobody has done what I'm doing. Except Alexander Calder. He made public art, he made sculpture, he made hair ornaments for his wife, he made necklaces for their birthdays, he made forks for the kitchen, he made everything.

    "People used to do that. A long time ago. Anything that needed to be made, they made. They didn't ask. The Japanese still do that."

    Do you make your own paper?

    "Yeah. I made all of these books."

    We approached a large round table. Which Doner also made. Likewise, the stools. Actually about the only things I can see that she didn't make, natural objects aside, are some pieces of furniture by Carlo Bugatti, the great designer, and father of another, the automobile engineer.

    The art world is, by and large, deeply suspicious of craft, I observed. It's seen as hobby-ish.

    "There's no craft here," Doner said equably. "Craft for me is about materials. This is about ideas. And what is fascinating is that the younger generation is bringing aggressively hand-made things into the arena. Because they don't want the machine-made things. They are tired of them."

    I looked at some forks.

    "I like to do flatware. I'm just starting some of these," she said.

    She picked up the prototype, a pronged branch.

    "I saw this and I saw that it was a good fork," she said.

    Where did she find it?

    "In the woods somewhere. I always find good things."


    One of her forks had been in Feeding Desire, a show at the Cooper-Hewitt, the design museum on Fifth Avenue.

    "I had to pull this one out of their gift shop because the new foundry didn't know how to do it. So on Monday the silversmith's coming at nine and we're going to beat the hell out if it."

    She pointed out the anvil.

    "Isn't that a beauty? I have the whole kit. I make jewels. Why shouldn't I make my own jewellery? It's just sculpture on a small scale."

    What is she working on currently?

    "I'm still working in Miami Airport. But what's opening now is an entrance lobby at the University of South Florida in Sarasota."

    She added that four screens against the far wall were made for a courthouse in Gulfport. Mississippi. And these paraffin wax sheets?

    "They are banisters for Bill Sofield, the architect. We are doing a beautiful balustrade in a home in Colorado." She hollered to her assistants. "Where is the Colorado place?"

    And the honeycombed figures?

    "Those are sculptures. They are for my next show at the Marlborough. I made them using a heat gun on wax. They are cast in bronze."

    She picked up a piece of wood and looked it over.

    "You know, if John Chamberlain picks up a car bumper and uses it to make a sculpture or gets one from an auto shop, they are accepted as found objects. Or the Duchamp urinal. They're made by technology, they are manufactured. The club membership has been using industrial cast-offs.

    "But not nature. Nature's objects haven't been allowed in the door. But that's changing fast. That's right now breaking open. There's no difference to picking up a bumper and" โ€” she indicated the branch โ€” "picking that up in the woods."

    Does she see the useful pieces and the artworks as different categories of object?

    "No," she said crisply. "They are all about beauty. Beauty is one category."


    Aha. Beauty. The contemporary art world by and large distrusts beauty at least as much as it distrusts craft. Michele Oka Doner, of course, knows this very well indeed.

January 7, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Ah, the contemporary art world can take it and stick it. Or get its head out of its ass. Either, both, however contradictory. What's wrong with craft? I KNOW what THEY think is wrong with craft, but again I ask -- What's wrong with Craft? Maybe an awakening IS on its way. (Oooh, I'd better not get started here.)

Musically speaking -- and I realize full well that we're NOT musically speaking -- no craft = no listenable (to most people) product. I grew up idolizing craft, so I'm warped. But I don't care. There IS room for craft as verb and craft as noun. Craft and beauty ARE what it's all about.

Aaaarrgggghhh. I know none of this makes sense. Don't try. It's just me. Old grudges. Again, aaarrrggghhhh.

Posted by: Flautist | Jan 7, 2007 4:55:29 PM

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