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An Interview with Marilyn Zapf

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Marilyn Zapf is currently the Director of Programs and Curator at the Center for Craft in Asheville, North Carolina, USA, a national 501(c)3 non-profit that advances the understanding of craft through research, critical dialogue, and professional development. In Fall 2020, Althea Hurwitz interviewed Marilyn in the context of an investigation of craft, gender,

and art. Here is their dialogue:

Thea Hurwitz: Thank you so much for joining me today. My first question is: how does craft connect to your personal story and background? This can relate to anything you'd like to talk about.

Marilyn Zapf: Well, from an early age, I was very into kits, how-to things, and beading. I was just always very crafty, I suppose, growing up. And in high school, I was very fortunate to have a high school metalsmithing class, which I didn't even really know was possible. That was my first introduction to more rigorous, I would say, skills and tools and that sort of thing. I really enjoyed that. In college, I ended up being a double major in English Literature and jewelry and metalworking at the University of Georgia. I was pursuing those separately. And yet it wasn't until I took some courses in theory, and an art history course, where I started to notice a lot of the same ideas manifesting in material culture as well as literary circles. And that's where this light bulb started going off for me. I think that's how I found my path to where I am today, in that interplay between ideas and objects. And that objects, as primary sources, are traces of our culture, historically and today.

TH: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So with that; I titled my independent study ‘women's work,’ because I think it's a really rich phrase. What does that phrase mean to you? Like, what associations does it inspire when it comes to being relevant to your life and your curatorial practice?

MZ: I mean, craft, especially through a Western, American, Eurocentric lens, has long had associations between domesticity and particular types of crafts. I also think that certain materials have gender and domestic connotations that have also been associated with the female or women-identifying kind of body. And so it definitely brings that up.

I mean, it also brings up you know, just in general, the feminine. I also have positive associations with feminist practices and feminist ideology, and that idea of equality and inclusivity, and fighting for those sorts of values in all aspects of life and work.

TH: I really resonate with that, I feel like there are plenty of negative connotations in that it kind of just describes a certain kind of work and kind of confines women to a certain kind of work, but at the same time, like a lot of recent practice has reclaimed the phrase and in many different ways and kind of focused on the talent and skill and communication required to create that kind of work.

So what drew you to focus on craft art in your curatorial practice?

MZ: You know, practically, having the kind of come from an artist position being a jeweler, being trained in jewelry and metalsmithing, I was interested in that. I also think that I was initially interested in crafts because it has, at least recently, not always been the most culturally valued form of artistic expression. But I think that I liked that because it has a much wider and more far-reaching scope, and in some ways, it has the potential to be a more democratic and ubiquitous trace of culture. It's not always that way, but I think about that aspect of the practice.

TH: I've been thinking about that a lot when forming the big ideas for my course. What intrigues me is the fact that this practice has an extremely ancient history, but also there are so many very contemporary takes that are up to the minute.

TH: So do you think you could speak a little bit more about your experience as a curator who focuses on craft art when it comes to being in the contemporary art world? have you encountered any sort of like, difficult conversations or barriers or just anything that has to do with situating craft in the contemporary kind of scene?

MZ: I mean, I think that in some ways I am very lucky because I don't encounter a lot of that in the ways that I've maybe heard colleagues express frustration around..I think it's because I'm specifically in an organization that's about that. I don't often internally have to make those arguments for the value of craft because we all know the organization already believes in its inherent value. I think also -and maybe this could speak to what you're asking about in an interesting way- Asheville is so crafting heavy and there are actually so many organizations here devoted to craft. The Southern Highlands Craft Guild is here. Penland School of Crafts is just north of here, Haywood Community College has a very strong crafts program. And there's almost an abundance of craft, and at the Center, we are often exhibiting work of emerging living artists.

We have this idea that we are building a future for craft, and so we show a lot of emerging artists; we show a lot of art or craft that pushes people's notion of what craft is and can be. And it's also a big tourist town, so if someone is visiting and they are looking for craft, sometimes they are looking for the traditional Appalachian craft. And they’ll come to the Center and see digital craft and tell us ‘Well, I don't even think this is a craft.’ And That's often a good place to start a conversation about ‘well, like, why is that?’ And let's, let's dig into that and talk about why you think craft can only exist in the past, for example. I would say that's probably more what we experience at the Center then than anything else

TH: I think that's ideal, so I'm happy you don't have more to say about having to bargain for the space or craft art in the art world. I think that speaks a lot to the natural relationship between craft and community, which is also like a big kind of pillar of what I'm exploring. You mentioned that Asheville has this community of people who devote their lives to craft and are interested in craft. And I think that's something that's a pretty ancient concept, when it comes to sewing circles, making things for the home, making things for your family unit, your cultural group. I think that really, is something that's very important to the concept of craft. So I was wondering if you could kind of speak more on that connection between craft and community, and how do you think about community in the context of the center, which is inherently public and inherently works to invite people in?

MZ: Yeah, I mean, I think the two are inextricably linked. If you just even look at different models of craft studios, if you think about glassblowing, it's very hard, if not impossible to do glassblowing without a team of people. I think community and craft like you mentioned sewing circles, quilting bees, I can just think of so many kinds of moments like this wherein craft where people kind of come together to create. I think that the Center for Craft is in Asheville, but it's a chicken and egg thing, but as much because of the community there as anything There are a ton of artists who are starting small businesses, or who have their own studio practice, or who might just appreciate and practice craft on the side, or sometimes they don't and they just have the craft values of slowness, or materiality. Or maybe they value creating a functional, well-designed object.

There are so many different ways to think about craft like that. And as an organization, I would say we think about community on a lot of different levels, because there's the public-facing community that's coming into the gallery, the people that attend our programs, and we've also recently started a co-working space specifically devoted to the western North Carolina creative sector. And so that is inclusive of craft, but also expands beyond craft and puts craft in this broader artistic or creative sector community. But also, we're a national organization. And so we, you know, give out over $300,000 in grants annually, and there's, you know, a national community that we're cultivating and now with everyone's pivot to virtual, we're connecting with that community in a way that we really weren't connecting with them before. And so in some ways, it's a really wonderful experience to be able to function on all of those levels simultaneously.

TH: Absolutely. And it's interesting with the onset of technology, which in many ways, seemingly on paper exists somewhat in opposition to materiality and slowness and values like that. But often, it can actually enable those practices, communicate them to other people, you can learn how to knit online, you can do digital exhibitions, as you were mentioning, and it's kind of creating this expansion of the community for people with craft, like those values.

MZ: Well, I also just want to say, especially with our grant recipients, the community is something we think a lot about, because, you know, a grant on paper is just money to go do that thing that you really want to be doing. But the real benefit, I think, of getting a grant like the ones that we offer is that it represents access and a kind of introduction into a community where you can meet other people. A lot of times we try and link up some of our emerging artists with each other like if we know they're traveling through, and then all of a sudden through relationships the sort of investments that that initial money might make can have a much longer and, and wider impact than just money.

TH: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot about how institutions can help support different kinds of artists, diverse perspectives, responsibly. And I think one of the main components of that is ascribing context to people's lives is understanding their, their communities, understanding their backgrounds, understanding the logistics of them being an artist and where they're coming from. And that's, I appreciate you, you following up and mentioning that aspect of it. Because that's a big pillar of you creating community is giving resources to other communities and uniting those different groups. I also really appreciate you mentioning the values of craft. That was something that was really interesting to me, because that seems like something that can be personal, but also logistical. Did you come up with those? Is that kind of a universal thing in the community? Is that just something you've observed?

MZ: I'm sure I did not invent that. Some of it is coming from a scholar, Glenn Adamson, who in Thinking Through Craft talks about craft as a verb instead of a noun. And the difference there is that it's not a discipline or it's not a capital C craft that we're trying to create, as a place or discipline. That's really where I'm going with that. Glenn talks about craft as like a constellation of, I think he says skill, materiality, technology, maybe tools, and so that that craft is more, some type of relationship or network with those ideas. And so I think there are so many other things that you can add to that. I think I mentioned slowness, but let's see, what would others be? I mean, I think the idea of tradition and craft is very interesting. And not in the sense of like, craft has to be traditional, but like what are the cultural ways or values again, which can all be very different. But I think craft has this sense of like, a keeper or a carrier of culture. That can change over time. Who else talks about craft values?

TH: I’d love to get into more kinds of methods of display and working with artists, and I was really interested in your thoughts on what practices do you think are necessary for institutions to responsibly display and support craft artists. I know we mentioned looking at the artist experience holistically and ascribing context, but is there anything else you can think of any potential pitfalls when it comes to working with craft artists? Anything on that subject?

MZ: Pitfalls? I mean, I think that this, in many ways, applies to working with all artists, but I think as a curator it’s my responsibility not to speak for artists. And so I mean, I consider a big part of my responsibility is listening and learning, and helping artists to achieve their visions. I think that's especially important with working with cultures outside of your own or your own familiarity and just questioning norms that we might bring to the conversation don't apply. I think a lot of that is about relationship building, too. I think that having authentic and, and ongoing relationships that are not just purely transactional is really important, I think, to all curatorial practices. I really don't think that that's specific to craft. One of the greatest programs that I find a lot of joy in, every time we run it, is our Curatorial Fellowship program. And that is a program where emerging curators have basically never mounted a big show before. They could be artists who want to try curation. It could be just someone who's always had internship after internship, but never really got to participate in putting on the full exhibition from start to finish. So we run this program about every three years, and what I love about it is that it turns over a platform to a new idea and let somebody else give their perspective on craft. And I just find that to be a really wonderful experience as a curator because it's really helping someone else to achieve their vision. And to me, that's what makes the field richer, as they'll always know artists that I'll never know and never even have the relationship with to be able to show, they'll have ideas that I've never thought of, and so it's really about supporting those ideas to get out there and have a voice.

TH: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. When it comes to the institution's responsibility, it comes to layering people's perspectives; like maybe you have your perspective, but then you're able to bring in somebody else, and that person has their own experience that can maybe bring in somebody else. So you’re creating a dialogue on the subject rather than one view, which is, I think, maybe one of the pitfalls I was kind of implying.

TH: I was looking on the website, at the values for the Center for Craft and I really liked the idea of bringing information about craft to the public and into like, higher education settings. So for you, what is like one, or maybe a couple, like essential truths about craft practice that you would want anybody to know.

MZ: It's funny because the academic part of me doesn't like being pinned down to these sorts of questions. I do think that having people understand that craft is a particular approach to making. I heard someone else say this perfectly, and I just thought it was the most brilliant approach, because the thing about approaching the public about craft, is that you always have to start where they are. And so I actually think the best educational technique when dealing with the public is to ask ‘what do you associate with craft,’ and then meeting them where they are, and building from there. And so you could talk about materials and you could talk about hobbyists or DIY, and then all of a sudden, you can lead into a conversation about skill or the handmade. And then you can talk about the handmade versus the industrially made, like the handmade mug and why do we value the handmade mug over something that's been mass-produced. What I love about craft is that no matter what point you start at, you kind of quickly get to these much broader societal topics about technology and capitalism, or you know, human ingenuity or human experience and cultures, cultural dialogues, and empathy.

But I do think craft depends on the general public, and every exhibition that we do has something different that it's trying to communicate about craft. So I hope each exhibition might promote something that people might learn, like one other thing they didn't know about craft. Our current exhibition, that's up right now, has a lot of craft that is performance craft, that is a digital craft, craft depicted through photographs, as opposed to the object. I think if someone just walked away and said ‘I didn't know that craft could be all those things,’ that, to me, is a win.

TH: Thank you for working through that thought process with me. I know, that was kind of an absurdly broad question. I think that's a beautiful take on it. I love the idea of approaching an individual patron, and then expanding their perspective and putting it in context with larger societal themes, because you’re right, that's often a pretty easy jump that comes in talking about craft art, because it has so much to do with, as you said, the entirety of the human experience. Because everybody has a craft story, whether they're aware of it or not, whether it's something as simple as having a baby blanket, or your mother knit, or something like that. I think it's all extremely valuable and relevant to the conversation. So thank you for that.

MZ: Yeah. And when we're doing tours with the general public, I mean, that's my favorite part of them. It's like finding moments to just ask the members of the tour, say if we're looking at textiles, questions like ‘did someone in your family ever quilt?’ And all of a sudden they'll have these stories that directly relate to the artwork on view that they may have never considered relevant. But, they now have a connection to the work that if I just told them about the work we'd never make.

TH: I think that that speaks to what you're talking about before about your curatorial practice, like constantly establishing this running dialogue, and those different individual perspectives are pretty essential.

TH: So I was really curious; it’s mentioned a couple of times on the website the idea of building a future for craft. So what does that phrase mean to you? What would that future look like?

MZ: Well, I think that relates to two different relevant principles that the Center works in. One is with emerging practitioners. The next generation is our future, right? And so a lot of what we do is working with emerging artists, emerging curators, emerging scholars, actually, all three of those, and investing in and cultivating their professional and personal development. So that's kind of one answer to what the future of craft is, are just people. And then the other would probably be ideas. And so a lot of our grantmaking is around craft research. But it is also about convening, and sharing research, and having symposia or virtual programming with scholars. Scholars sound like Hightower academics, but we're not into that. We're into the sharing and researching of ideas. That is also the future of craft...and then not being afraid to experiment, to gather together, to form a community. I was on a call before this, working with scholars from the Critical Craft program at Warren Wilson. Craft studies in and of itself are still at a very nascent, beginning kind of phase. And so if you were anybody interested in studying the craft, often you were going to art conferences, or maybe there were anthropologists who are interested in craft, or maybe you were in folklore studies, or maybe you're an artist at, you know, some other conference, but there really has not been a gathering place, a consistent gathering place for scholars to talk about where craft is going, where it should go, like, where the new scholarship is leading us. And so that in and of itself is one of the things that the Center, through its convenings, has done and is interested in continuing to do: that gathering part. So that you can create the fertile ground, and you create the context for the ideas to evolve and generate. Because, you know, just one idea by itself, that's not heard by anybody won't go anywhere fast but when we can get together and discuss them and build support and test the ideas. That's a way that we can collectively create a future together.

TH: Are there any experimental craft projects or works that you are really interested in that you feel like exemplify the future of craft?

MZ: Well, your teacher (Victoria Manganiello) is one of the grant recipients of the Materials-Based Research grant, which combines craft artists with STEM faculty or researchers, broadly speaking, to create a mutually beneficial project. So this is thinking expansively about what skills and thought processes and perspectives do craft artisans or practitioners have. Right now, I think many people are kind of comfortable with craft in an art context. Right? Like, are you in the art school at your university?

TH: I’m in the school of individualized study, but I definitely have a fine arts slant.

MZ: Right. And so if you're going to college to study ceramics, it's probably in the art department. And so the question becomes, can craft offer working opportunities beyond the studio space? Like, what can critical thinking skills, understanding of the process, manual knowledge, as opposed to other forms of knowledge, bring to solving sustainability issues in industry settings? Can we rethink ceramic materials and ceramic waste? The fashion industry is also a great example of that as well. And so regarding technology, I mean, there are all of these other sectors that craft interfaces with, either through materials or other spaces, that may not be integrated. And so this grant is to help, but also lift up teams and models of researchers who are doing this work. And by giving them a platform and visibility and telling their story and giving them modest resources, you create models, and you shift awareness that this is even a possibility for craft. So that is probably one of our more innovative programs.

TH: Yeah, that's really exciting. That's fascinating. As I said, I go to the school of individualized study. So we talk a lot about interdisciplinarity, which is very necessary for, I think, for solving and studying some of the world's greatest issues. I think often bureaucracy and elitism keep people of different fields and disciplines apart. But when they have conversations together they can solve problems with much more efficiency and ingenuity, as you mentioned. I appreciate that.

So outside of the Center for Craft, or maybe the museum or gallery setting, what is one of your favorite places to find craft art? This could be a market stall, this could be a person, this can be anywhere.

MZ: My favorite place to find craft? Oh, I don't know because I find it everywhere.

TH: Could you expand upon that?

MZ: Wow, an example that I have is two talks that I've heard. They stand out to me from a conference we did a while back called Shared Ground. And I'm thinking of two distinct presentations, one that talked about oysters as a crafted object. And that was the work of Bernie Herman. He is a folklorist at UNC-Chapel Hill. And he's also an oyster farmer. And he was looking at the fact that oysters are often farmed, as opposed to found, and there are certain ways you can grow oysters that might give them a particular shape or, you know, particular lens. So eventually these things that you're doing cultivate the oysters or change them as an object, one which is living. And so all of a sudden you have this crafted object that is just a wonderful way to reshape the way you think about craft. So now I can find craft, in any restaurant I go into. And then the other one I was thinking about was this presentation of the Black masking Indians, which are these costumes that are handmade every year for Mardi Gras, in Black communities in New Orleans. It’s an amazing, interesting cultural tradition. Here's this Mardi Gras costume that is all handmade and is just mind-blowingly exquisite and beautiful and exuberant in every way that is also this marker of cultural identity and a bearer of tradition. And you can see it in a parade. So yes, you can find craft everywhere when you start to look; even in bricks! Bricks are really interesting crafted objects. I used to be really into looking at bricks.

TH: I love the idea that because of your research-based perspective, and just general, like inquiry and being in this, this very vibrant community that you can now see craft everywhere.

MZ: I wrote my master's dissertation on toolmakers, which may not be a term that everyone is familiar with. But focusing on an industrial setting, the toolmaker. But as late as the 1970s these tools were literally handmade by precision engineers, who could make the tool itself. It's not like a wrench or anything like that. But it's something that you would fit into an assembly line, that you would then mass produce things from this mold, essentially, or tool, and I just thought, how fascinating that up until very recently, all of our mass-produced items are made by a handmade thing. And so it's this really interesting way to rethink what we consider craft and why?

TH: Yeah, that is so rich; that's a very simple concept that has so many layers and so many potential applications. Thank you for sharing.

Althea Hurwitz is a fourth-year student at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. There, she combines a blend of disciplines, including fine arts, art history, and museum studies, to create a concentration entitled Art in Real Life: Considering Access and Meaningful Participation in Art Education and Practice. Althea is originally from Arlington, VA, but now calls NYC home. In her spare time she enjoys playing ultimate frisbee, thrift shopping, and exploring new art mediums.

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