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Artists strive to give craft's low self-esteem a boost

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The distinctions between art and craft have long been up for debate.

In the minds of many artists, there really is no question as to which side "wins." Art is a high-minded pursuit. Craft, on the other hand, is an inferior, albeit charming hobby, many artists maintain.

But artists like Barb Hunt and Chantel Mireau are turning that old idea on its head. On Friday, both will appear at the Free Press News Café to discuss how to redefine craft. They will showcase their own work as well as a selection of pieces by Manitoba Craft Council members.

Hunt and Mireau are artists and crafters, who, admittedly, have found more inclusivity in the practice of craft. It is not true, they say, that art is about exploration of ideas while craft is about making something that is merely functional.

"To me there is no fundamental difference between art and craft, except for distinctions that have been artificially created," Hunt says. "Craft has been disenfranchised so that art can maintain its status as elite."

Hunt is able to cite numerous examples from art history to support her premise. There are many exquisite quilts and weavings that look remarkably similar to geometric paintings by Paul Klee or Piet Mondrian. And yet, textiles are considered craft, not art.

"Despite many efforts over the years to reunite art and craft, it has been impossible because of three powerful forces that hold this hierarchy in place: racism, sexism and classism."

Hunt, who teaches at Memorial University of Newfoundland while maintaining a studio, is known for her unorthodox knitting projects. Hunt knits replicas of anti-personnel landmines out of pink wool. Knitting is a caring act, and for many people its repetitive nature soothes the spirit. Hunt deliberately uses the emotional associations of knitting to contradict the violence and cruelty of war.

In a previous body of work, Hunt made dresses out of steel. Using a technique she dubbed "sewing with fire," she used a plasma-arc cutter to create incredibly delicate patterns. Hunt's approach to craft is sincere, and yet the objects she makes are full of irony and wit.

"There are intellectual concepts in craft that are equal to those in art," she says. Hunt, of course, is not just speaking about her own work. She points to how profoundly craft can help us understand our relationship with nature, history, culture and community.

"When we hold or touch something handmade by another human, I believe we are connecting on deep levels to that person. To me this is a beautiful haptic act of understanding, perhaps on levels outside our consciousness," Hunt says.

Mireau agrees. Her own art practice incorporates crafts such as sewing and tatting. She feels it's exciting that craft has such a close relationship to our bodies and to our everyday lives.

"We are almost constantly touching fabric, whether we are in bed, wrapped in a towel, fully dressed, or walking on a rug. The intimate relationship we have with fabric is built into our psyche," Mireau says.

Influenced by her Mennonite ancestry, Mireau frequently makes art about the contradictions inherent in traditional "women's work." In a recent piece, she wove a gleaming spider's web out of nylon filaments. The web is beautiful even though it is meant to trap prey, just as homemaking can be a source of pleasure as much as it can feel oppressive or confining.

In a piece called Humility, Fear and Trembling, Mireau turned a pair of sewing pins into knitting needles. Using tiny balls of red thread, she painstakingly knit a strand of lace with her fingertips. The bright red lace resembles the DNA double-helix, and makes for a beautifully intimate statement about bloodlines and lineage.

If art can get a big head, craft suffers occasionally from low self-esteem. Perhaps it is because they have a foot firmly planted in both worlds that Hunt and Mireau are not affected by either condition. They are exceptionally talented, and yet are completely unpretentious. In their art, they have embraced the value and worth of craft.

Sarah Swan is a Winnipeg artist and writer. She will host Art Talk/Art Walk at the Free Press News Café on Friday at 6 p.m. Call 204-697-7069 for tickets to the event.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2014 D8

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