While the international art community has been abuzz this summer over the Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Marina Abramović’s provocative performance art, a strain of renegade performance that refuses to be tamed by a pristine gallery is taking place in Houston.
It’s the work of studio jewelry artist Gabriel Craig, who is currently featured in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston exhibition, Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft, along with several other artists who introduce their handiwork into the public realm.
Craig set up a metalsmith’s bench on Monday afternoon in the green space along Main Street, between Wheeler and Blodgett streets, adjacent to the Wheeler Street Metro rail station. It was a pro bono affair, in which several visitors received a piece of on-site handcrafted silver jewelry. Craig composed silver rings while engaging onlookers in conversation about the state of handmade goods in today’s economy.
“As a culture, we’re separated from the means of manufacture and the means of production,” he lamented as a light rail car swooshed behind him. “I’m out here to show people how to make this one thing, but typically we don’t see where anything comes from.”
Craig is well-versed in the thinking behind the life of a modern metalsmith: He delivered a lecture for the 2010 Society of North American Goldsmiths conference in March in Houston, and he is publishing an article about jewelry making and metalsmithing in the city, to appear in the fall issue of Metalsmith magazine. Craig is currently an artist-in-residence at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, and in the fall he will be an instructor at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“We’ve stopped demanding quality in exchange for getting more things,” he said. “The Arts & Crafts movement in the 19th century was more about having less waste, and having quality stuff.”
Since everything Craig produces is handmade, his priority is to make something of lasting quality. Craig showed his commitment by banging out his creations in near 100-degree heat on Monday. Both the rail station in the background and Craig’s artworks shimmered beneath the scorching rays.
This demonstration marked the completion of a project in which Craig brought his jeweler’s bench into public spaces and offered impromptu custom work while providing passersby with the experience of what it is to create jewelry. Since 2008, he has used such performance to connect the world of studio jewelry with the general public.
By giving away the jewelry, Craig is able to focus on the art’s cultural, not commercial value — an act he refers to as “craft activism.” The dialogue established with onlookers results in artwork that is both wearable, and a vehicle for memory.
Monday afternoon’s intimate crowd was a mix of artists, art community figures (including the CAMH director Bill Arning), and also the intrigued pedestrian who might not typically enter a museum, gallery or craft fair.
“I just do very simple designs,” Craig explained as he hammered at his stock of recycled silver. “That way, I can talk and work at the same time. I’m not making a ring for a particular person. I’ll just be making something, and hopefully, it will fit somebody.”
Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft is on view through July 25.