Good questions, honest answers; glorious illustrations; Handmade in America: Conversations with Fourteen Craftsmasters, by Barbaralee Diamonstein. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1983. 224 pp. $49.50.
''What you make is what you are,'' concludes Barbaralee Diamonstein after interviewing 14 of America's top crafts artists. Diamonstein is a well-known interviewer of artists, both for television and the print media. Although crafts are not her specialty, and there's really not much new said here, these interviews - and this exquisitely designed book - are a good idea.
The artists, who work all over the US, are renowned in their fields. Diamonstein says that ''a serious effort was made to select a representative, if not definitive, group by discipline and, only incidentally, geography.'' It might have been nice to have also included a few lesser-known artists; it would have given the book more scope.
The 14 interviewed are woodworker Wendell Castle, glassmaker Dale Chihuly, weaver Lia Cook, quilter Sandi Fox, violinmaker and restorer Jacques Francais, fiber artist Sheila Hicks, ceramist Wayne Higby, weaver and fabric designer Jack Lenor Larsen, woodworker Sam Maloof, basketmaker John McQueen, ceramist Ron Nagle, metalsmith Albert Paley, jeweler and metalsmith Mary Ann Scherr, and glassmaker Mary Shaffer. The inclusion of two crafts traditionalists (violinmaker Jacques Francais and quilter Sandi Fox) adds substantially.
''What you make is what you are'' is the recurrent theme here. The craft artist's way of life - the romance with materials, the lack of recognition (although this is changing), the willingness to live at times in near-poverty, the way of combining work and studio space, the willingness to work around the clock - is well described. Basketmaker John McQueen says: ''Making art is a verb. It's making art, it's not finished-object art.'' Jack Lenor Larsen says, ''Quality is more important than anything else, and mass culture is our common enemy. We must avoid becoming one great supermarket.''
Diamonstein probes the craft artist's very soul, always emphasizing place, philosophy, and material. With glassmaker Dale Chihuly she asks: ''What first inspired you to experiment with glass? Where did you get your ideas or inspiration?'' Chihuly: ''Inspiration always changes, of course, but one thing that doesn't change is that the material itself is a continuing source of inspiration.''
Each artist is treated exhaustively, respectfully, interestingly. Most receive 12 to 14 generously illustrated pages of copy in this 224-page book. The artist's photo-portrait leads the article, with a brief description of the author and the interview.
New York State ceramist Wayne Higby is typical: ''Wayne Higby is a major force in contemporary clay, and has been since his mid-20s. He began by revitalizing functional ceramics, bowls, cylinder jars, and storage jars with landscape imagery. These carefully composed, stylized landscapes wedded pictorial imagery and vessel forms in a new way.''
The artist first talks about the whole tradition of ceramic vessels. Then, the work. ''I spend three days a week in the studio - but my teaching schedule is very flexible'' ''I use the Japanese process of raku.'' ''I like the feeling of fire left on the pot.''
Cliches sometimes dot Diamonstein's writing. But the interviews themselves consist of alive, well-put questions and answers. This is where the book is at its best. The one-to-one discussions are excellent.
Interwoven with the informative text are 10 color plates and four black-and-whites. The thing missing is an illustration of the artist working.