White House Crafts Collection Tours US -- and Cyberspace

Now at the Smithsonian, an exhibit of glass, metal, ceramic, fiber, and wood crafted by top American artisans can also be viewed 'virtually' on the internet

WHEN thinking of the White House, one imagines stately portraits, elegant draperies, and classic furniture -- hardly the kind of place one expects to find a droopy surreal clock or whimsical red earthenware teapot.

But for a little more than a year, the president's home was the venue for a collection of contemporary American crafts, chosen specifically for the White House as part of 1993's ''The Year of American Craft'' celebration. The collection has recently moved to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

''The White House Collection of American Crafts'' also marks the Smithsonian's first major venture with art on the Internet -- a ''virtual tour'' of the exhibit available to Internet users who have computers with multimedia capability. The tour includes images of the crafts, audio commentary from the curator, videos of the artists, and the history of the White House settings where the crafts were displayed.

So far, the ''virtual tour'' seems to be a success: Steve Dietz, the Smithsonian's head of new media initiatives, says that, although it is difficult to measure, several thousand people are accessing the exhibit by computer each day.

There really is no replacement for seeing the exhibit in person, Mr. Dietz says. But in some cases, the virtual tour offers viewers more than either an actual tour or the accompanying book, such as videos of the artists at work, and the ability to leave messages for the White House, the museum curator, and the artists.

The collection was selected by the museum's curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery, Michael Monroe, with the encouragement of President and Mrs. Clinton.

In the early stages of the project, the first lady met with Mr. Monroe to help choose artists and find the right ''look'' for White House crafts. The Clintons had already shown their support for American crafts when they decorated the White House during their first Christmas there.

The ''Year of American Craft'' and this exhibition are the result of growing interest in crafts and more professionals entering the field, Monroe says. After World War II, involvement with crafts among art students gave rise to craft fairs, craft galleries, and expanded collections at museums.

Part of the appeal of crafts comes from their human quality. Craft works are not computer-designed or mass-produced; they are made by another human being, Monroe explains.

The task of coordinating crafts within the White House presented a new challenge for Monroe and his staff. ''We wanted to find pieces for the historical settings in the White House,'' Monroe says, which meant that objects needed to be ''color or texture appropriate'' and had to coordinate with furniture.

For example, the bright yellow-and-blue ''Bird Jar'' was displayed in the Blue Room atop a mahogany marble-topped table purchased by President James Monroe. Its colors complemented the blue draperies and gold-framed portraits of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. The challenging task of intertwining modern American craft with such hallowed and well-known furnishings was done well: the shiny yellow jar with a blue bird perched on top looks perfectly at home in the Blue Room.

Unlike putting together a museum exhibition, Monroe had to deal with the additional constraint of finding objects that would look right in the White House, not just in a public museum setting. ''We went through the White House with a photographer and took a record of places a craft could work,'' Monroe says. In many cases, the best type of craft turned out to be a vessel of some sort -- a basket, jar, or vase -- something that could be displayed on top of a table or could be used on special occasions, such as centerpieces at dinners. Monroe came up with about 35 places that seemed well-suited to displaying a craft. Then came the fun part: soliciting the pieces.

As curator of the Renwick Gallery, which is dedicated to American craft, Monroe already had a good idea which artists he wanted to feature in the White House. In the end, 72 pieces by 77 artists became part of the collection, most of them donated by the artists, valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. ''There's a sense of community and sharing and generosity'' among craft artists, Monroe says.

Monroe says he could not possibly attempt to represent the full range of craft art in one collection, especially with the limitations of displaying in the White House, but he did want to accomplish several goals in his choice of crafts. All the different mediums are represented -- clay, wood, fiber, and glass. Functional pieces, like Dawn Kiilani Hoffman's ''Oval Punch Bowl and Ladle,'' and objects meant purely for enjoyment, like Harvey K. Littleton's flowing glass ''Blue Orchid Implied Movement'' were chosen, showing the blurred line between craft and art.

It was also important to Monroe to represent artists both emerging and well-established, as well as those who had come to learn their craft through different means. Monroe chose artists from the same family, like father-and-son wood craftsmen Melvin and Mark Lindquist, to show how craftmaking is often intergenerational. Some artists were formally trained at universities or art schools; others are mostly self-taught. Monroe points out that basketmakers Sharon and Leon Niehues of Pettigrew, Ark., taught themselves to weave 20 years ago with a book provided by the Arkansas Extension Service.

Above all, crafts for the White House collection had to be original. ''I look for artists with vision who also have the technical skills to bring about that vision,'' Monroe explains. ''All of these artists are superb technicians, but they also have wonderful vision. They have a unique style that separates their work from that of other artists.''

One of Monroe's favorites -- and an example of a craft that ''adds a new interpretation'' to an old idea -- is Wendell Castle's ''Presence Clock #7.'' The face of this mahogany, brass, bronze, and curly maple clock is perched assymetrically on a cone, which stands on a pair of ''melted'' clock hands.

Monroe also sought crafts that drew upon traditional shapes and forms, such as Dante Marioni's classically inspired ''Yellow Pair,'' a bright yellow blown-glass bowl, and a tall vessel with an elongated neck and single handle, both accented in black.

These pieces ''take risks in terms of their color,'' Monroe says. He likes pieces that ''[join] tradition but at the same time are turning that tradition upside down.''


*''The White House Collection of American Crafts'' will be on display at the National Museum of American Art in Washington through Sept. 4.

*The exhibit will travel to the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, in Rochester, N.Y., Oct. 7 to Nov. 19; American Craft Museum in New York, Dec. 1995 to Feb. 1996; Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Mass., April 4 to June 2, 1996; and a West Coast venue to be announced.

* The Internet ''virtual tour'' of the exhibit can be accessed on the World Wide Web at: http://www.nmaa.si.edu/whc/americancrafts

*''The White House Collection of American Crafts'' catalog is published by Harry N. Abrams, 128 pages, 92 color photos, $35 ($24.95 at the Smithsonian).

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