46 Selected for Christmas Directory

by Alexandra Dreka


“Handmade” once meant high-quality holiday decorations, but millions of offshore hands have tarnished its reputation by tying, stapling, and gluing together untold billions of tawdry, quick-to-fall-apart goods. A growing cadre of artisans is working to restore the good name of “handmade holiday” by reviving—or simply continuing—the traditions of past master craftsmen.

Early American Life magazine has honored the best of these craftspeople in holiday themes by publishing its 2008 Directory of Traditional American Crafts - Holiday. The Directory published in the Christmas issue shows the work of the most skilled craftspeople working in traditional media and styles as chosen by a jury of museum curators and collectors. The jury selected the work of 46 entrants as demonstrating the quality of a master artisan or worthy of display in a museum.

To show off the quality of these selections, Early American Life photographed many of them set within the displays at Woodville – The John and Presley Neville House, National Historic Landmark in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. In the magazine’s photos, the modern works take their places side-by-side with museum pieces hundreds of years old.

“Because it’s handmade, each piece is a unique work of beauty worthy of display—but it’s also something more. Each is a connection with our heritage,” said Tess Rosch, publisher of Early American Life. “Putting them in a museum puts them in context and helps us better appreciate the accomplishments of both the artist and his or her forebears.”

Each of the selected artists uses traditional techniques and tools—primarily hand tools, although some use primitive mechanical help—and materials appropriate to the historical period. A few substitutions are allowed for materials no longer available, endangered (for example, ivory), or dangerous (lead glaze, toxic pigments).

The panel of jurors who selected the artisans for the Directory judged the work anonymously—only numbers identified each artisan’s work. Multiple jurors evaluated each work, and each juror judged only works in his or her area of expertise.

Museum curators not only judge the Directory, many use it as a buying guide to find substitutes for antiques that face danger, such as in displays with which the public interacts. Movie studios also use the Directory to find the best period-appropriate props—and are sometimes educated by their makers.

“One studio bought a set of pewter aged to look hundreds of years old, a look that many decorators prefer,” said Rosch. “But when the pewterer found out what it was for, he told them that tableware in the period would have looked shiny—it would have been a prized, polished possession—so the studio re-ordered a set of shiny pewter for use in the movie.”

Of course, decorators and everyone who loves fine handmade goods find the Directory invaluable. But it has a larger purpose than just to show off pretty things. The Directory is a vital part of the efforts to preserve our heritage undertaken not only by the artisans and Early American Life but also the museums and historic sites participating in the Directory, as well as everyone who understands that our past helps define us.

“If we lose the skills used in making these crafts, we lose part of our heritage and we lose something more,” said Rosch. “It’s part of who we are, where we came from, a connection with our ancestors.”

THE NEXT GENERATION

Learning old crafts is only part of the lives of the heritage artisans listed in the Directory of Traditional American Crafts - Holiday. They recognize the tentative nature of their crafts and see themselves as preservationists. They don’t want their hard-won knowledge to be lost again. They don’t see their fellow artisan s as competitors because all reach for the same goal of historic preservation. As with their forbearers however they are threatened with cheap goods similar in conception, but lacking the artistry of long-skilled hands. The Directory rules require each artisan’s piece be hallmarked, if not, jurors would consider the pieces forgeries.

THE END OF HANDCRAFTS

A hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution spelled the end of most handcrafts. Today, imported goods mass-produced by cheap labor are the threat. Many appear visually identical to the handcrafted originals—factory owners visit shows and measure the originals and send drawings back to their factories to unleash a flood of copies. Some knock-offs go so far as to duplicate the modern American artist’s hallmark or signature.

What such historic knock-offs lack is the knowledge of the old makers. Often they are made from different, inappropriate woods or joined differently so they lack the durability and deep beauty of the originals. Sometimes they are even covered with toxic paints.

In response to this situation, the Directory jurors put increased emphasis on scholarship. “It’s no longer enough just to say ‘I made this by hand’,” said Alexandra Dreka, who coordinated the judging of this year’s Directory. “The artisan must also put the work in its historical context and demonstrate an appreciation of its heritage.”

“Some Directory artists have such strong reputations that their work is already appreciating in value,” said Rosch. “Their work is as collectible as any antique, but you can still shake hands with the person who made it.”

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