AZ Designer Craftsmen at Mesa Contemporary Arts: The Good, the Bad and the Forgettable

When you hear the word "craft," what pops to mind? Doily dolls and scrapbooks? Clocks made from recycled computer chipboards? Holiday candleholders with creepy cherubs on them? Thankfully, you'll find none of these travesties at the "Arizona Designer Craftsmen 50th Anniversary Juried Exhibition," on display through August 8 at Mesa Contemporary Arts.

Works by exactly 50 members of the nonprofit arts organization were selected by juror and curator Patty Haberman for inclusion in the show. Everything here qualifies as fine art, but there's one thing the exhibit has in common with a felt-and-doily craft show: fabulous finds are rare

Many of the pieces aren't special enough to warrant more than a quick glance. The other thirty percent or so provoke a visceral reaction -- positive or negative -- and it's those pieces that make the exhibit worth seeing.  

Take Becky Chader McDonah's Hearing Protection Protector: A Reliquary for Earplugs, for example. A pair of yellow foam earplugs rest inside a beautifully molded copper ear surrounded by a corona of silver starbursts. McDonah's quirky sense of humor is evident in the hearing aid batteries and miniature headphones disguised as decoration on the pewter base.

It's a playful, tongue-in-cheek sculpture that proves antiquated traditions can be innovative when approached from a new perspective.

Not every piece is as appealing. Jeff Reich's nine-foot-tall ceramic sculpture Navigating to the Sky is a towering mess of tilted and haphazardly glazed pot shapes. Yes, it's meant to be abstract. But the jarring color drips and noticeable gaps in-between sections of the piece contrast too starkly against the neat stitching and smooth color transitions of other pieces in the show.

Even Kathleen Sharp's kitschy pastoral textile Bluelagoon. Redbird featuring a distorted goat and graphic birds reminiscent of a Target comforter has more movement and vibrancy than the wobbly sculpture. Plus her hand stiching is perfect, something a home ec failure like me can appreciate.     

Perhaps the "greening" movement is influencing artists' choices or the pitiful state of the economy is spurring them to seek cheaper materials, because recycled materials are plentiful at this year's Craftsmen exhibition. Mark Ramsour's Sweet Tea necklace made from aluminum can fragments is reminiscent of the jewelry you find at First Fridays on Roosevelt Row.  Artists like Katie Poterala are more deliberate in their choice of materials -- in Poterala's case, a handcuff-shaped chunk of an actual Bible to symbolize the oppression of religious doctrine. I'm betting right-wingers won't approve of that particular recycling decision. 

Another standout is Jason Ripper's Quilt for the Homeless, a blanket made entirely of folded newspaper pages. Glossy Domino's Pizza and Macayo's ads hinting at hunger relief form traditional flower shapes beside black-and-white news clips blaring headlines such as "willing to File Chapter 11" and "you can donate $10." It's a strong social statement wrapped in an artful presentation. No wonder the piece sold on opening night.   

Where do you draw the line between art and craft? That's a subjective decision, much like the process of culling down the original submissions from members of the Arizona Designer Craftsmen to just 50 artists. Not all of the pieces here are memorable. But if there's one thing the painstaking hand-stitches and perfectly soldered decorations proves, it's that these Craftsmen are indeed true artists. 

Admission is $3.50 for adults; free for children 7 and under. Free on Thursdays and on the first Sunday of every month. Visit www.mesaartscenter.com.

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