MFA recognizes the work of conceptual crafters

Francis Ma

It’s finally happened. Crafts aren’t boring anymore.

In a quiet evolution, crafters are pushing their work past the functional knick-knacks you dreaded receiving on your birthday into the realm of contemporary art.

So instead of getting a hand-made coffee table or a colorful tapestry, you get a table made entirely out of scrap wood or melted bowls that look like Salvador Dali’s famous clocks.

Those are just two examples from the new exhibit “Shy Boy, She Devil and Isis: The Art of Conceptual Craft” at the Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 6. Some of 120 pieces in the exhibit look like they came from a contemporary furniture catalog, which makes sense because, prior to this exhibit, all these items were in the California home of Ron and Anita Wornick.

“The house does feel empty,” says Anita. “We have filled it in with some other things, but there are still some bare spots.”

“In fact, it’s horrible,” adds Ron. “We really do miss all the pieces. A stranger may not be able to see all the bare spots, but we do.”

But Ron is quick to say that not sharing their collection would be selfish, especially when it appears this form of art is relatively new and uncategorized.

For most people, the term “crafts” relates to craft fairs where patrons can browse through various tents for colorful bowls, hand-made rugs and wooden furniture. The Wornick Collection shows the evolution of craft artists from making functional pieces to pieces of art.

“We’re trying to throw up the window blinds and tell people that ‘Hey, this is kind of remarkable,’” explains Ron. “We’re trying to separate these pieces from what you may see at a crafts show. It’s possible we do have a new category. This is the discussion we want to start among collectors and art critics.”

The discussion is much-needed. Cambridge resident Marilyn Pappas is one of the artists included in the collection and says the exhibit is a step toward giving craft artists more notoriety.

“In a lot of places around the country, craft artists were seen as second-class artists,” explains Pappas. “There’s been a question between fine art and craft. These artists use craft materials, but their work is really fine art.”

Pappas’ pieces may be the best example of that. She recreates classical female sculptures in her hand stitches. Her “Nike of Samothrace with Golden Wing” is featured in the exhibit and is based on the “Nike of Samothrace” found in the Louvre.

“This is definitely a bigger show,” says Pappas. “My work isn’t usually exhibited in a craft gallery.”

The title of the exhibit comes from three pieces in the collection that the Wornicks say embody the theme of contemporary art emerging out of the craft world.

“Shy Boy” depicts the body of a young boy with a gold-colored wine bottle inside of him. “She Devil” is a mythical creature whose upper body is wrapped in colorful yarn. And “Isis” shows the molding of ceramics into a towering sculpture.

The exhibit also includes a design made from rolled up pieces of newspaper (“Bolsjer #1”), a figure with elongated arms and legs (“Island No. 3”) and a wooden piece that resembles a clam opening its mouth (“Cock’s Comb Oyster Series No. 2”), the first artistic purchase Ron and Anita made for their collection.

“My father was a carpenter and his father was a carpenter,” explains Ron. “Because of that, my father discouraged me from having a career involving my hands. So I was sent off to college, learned to wear a white shirt and got a profession.”

Ron, who was born and raised in Malden (as was Anita), honored his father’s wishes, graduated from MIT, and took a job at the United Fruit Company. Eventually, he acquired a division of the company and moved it out to Oakland, California.

But he was always fascinated with tools — perhaps because he was never allowed to use them — and soon started to create wood pieces that he says “accidentally became art objects.” Later on, he stumbled upon artist David Groth’s “Cock’s Comb Oyster Series No. 2” and had to purchase it. 

“Once you’re captured by the power of the work, you won’t be able to sleep till it’s safe in your home,” explains Ron. “The most profound question and answer during these interviews will be why do you collect what you do. Quite simply, it’s because we like it.”

The two were also blessed with incredible timing. Just as they were making their first purchases, a sort of “mini-revolution” was taking place with craft artists creating more conceptual pieces.

This, according to Anita, is how they became “accidental collectors.”

“I don’t think most collectors start out to be collectors,” explains Anita. “Sure, some of them look at art as an investment. Others will look around and, all of a sudden, realize that they have a collection.”

The latter happened to the Wornicks when museum groups started to pull up in front of their house for a look. But now the Wornicks are the visitors, coming to Boston the see the collection. In the end, the MFA will have about 250 of their pieces.

And though the pieces won’t return to Ron and Anita’s living room or hallway, it’s the hope of the accidental collectors that their pieces will spark a conversation into conceptual crafts and give the talented artists their due.

“I recently thought to myself that my grandchildren, who range in age from 4 months to 18 years, have been looking at these pieces all their lives and told not to touch,” says Anita. “They point at them and call it art. I think that kind of comment is telling.”

“Shy Boy, She Devil, and Isis: The Art of Contemporary Craft”