Welcome to Learning from Things

Conversation with Prof. Catherine Whalen....

posted on 24 Mar 2014 12:47 by Elena Pinto Simon

Assistant Professor Catherine Whalen includes in her areas of expertise American Craft and Design History. She teaches a number of courses in this area. Together with her students, she recently launched the Bard Graduate Center Craft,
Art and Design Oral History Project (http://www.bgccraftartdesign.org/). The Archive is a treasure trove of oral histories, compiled and conducted by her students with craftspeople, designers, and artists. It focuses on contemporary work. There are also photos, video, and a good deal of enormously useful reference materials on the site.

I had a chance to speak with her about this new repository recently.

EPS: Congratulations on the launch. Tell us about how you came to realize that this could be a very important project, and filled a real need.

CW: The project started out in 2007 as an in-class assignment for the seminar “Craft and Design in the U.S.A., 1945-present,” which I regularly teach at the BGC. Oral history is an important methodology for the study of contemporary makers, and one that I believe BGC graduate students should have at their disposal. Time after time, seminar members enthusiastically took on the assignment and came up with great results. I was so impressed with the quality of the interviews they conducted that I began thinking about ways to make them publicly available, and an online digital archive seemed like a very good solution. The fields of craft and design history are vibrant and expanding, and oral histories have been a key resource for new scholarship in these fields. So, the central goal of the Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art and Design Oral History Project document, preserve and make available the voices of contemporary makers for the purpose of research. What makes this archive especially valuable is its range and inclusivity. By highlighting individuals in diverse fields and at different points in their careers, it provides the opportunity to consider the distinctions, continuities, and fluidities among their practices and their work. Interviewees range from those using traditional craft media, such as Mira Nakashima in wood and Mary Barringer in clay, to designers and architects like Ignacio Ciocchini, developer of New York’s newly installed CityBench, and Malcolm Holzman, nationally recognized for his innovative performing arts centers and civic buildings. They also include emerging artists like Allyson Mitchell, who draws upon women’s hobby crafts with a feminist ethos. Our project has garnered praise for its breadth as well as its design, use of images, tagging, and links to resources. These features distinguish it from other oral history projects that may focus on a particular group of makers, don’t incorporate images, or lack ways of making linkages among interviews. Here I am very fortunate to have had the expertise of Kimon Keramidas, director of the Digital Media Lab, designers Laura Grey and Vanessa Rossi, and BGC librarian Erin Elzi.


EPS: How do you hope it continues to grow in the future?

CW: I plan to teach “Craft and Design in the U.S.A., 1945-present” yearly, in which seminar members will continue to conduct interviews for the project. Students undertaking interviews for other research endeavors are also welcome to contribute them. In addition to building the archive, I’d like to make more and more researchers aware of this resource.

EPS: What were some of the surprising things the students discovered as they worked on these projects?

CW: So many things! Interviewing is a revelatory research methodology. This assignment is often students’ initial foray into this mode of intellectual inquiry. It may also be the first time they speak to contemporary makers about their work. It’s impressive to see how much they bring to and get from this experience. Their first task is to select an interviewee, someone they really want to talk to about what they do. If needed, I’ll match them up with a practitioner, but almost always they make the choice on their own, often a person they know, or whose work they admire. Then they draft questions, which we review together. So at the outset, the process raises fundamental questions: Who is a maker? What is practice? What do you want to know? How are you going to find out? How can this material be best presented digitally? How can it be used for future research? The next stage is conducting the interview, which always produces unexpected insights, and that’s exciting. Then, we discuss the interviews as a group, noting their differences and similarities. At present there’s a lot of discussion going on about the convergence of art, craft and design. What do the interviewees have to say on this topic, implicitly or explicitly? Among the makers they’ve spoken with, students have found designers who describe their work as problem solving and craftspeople who stress self-expression, but all are passionate about the relationship between what they make and the people who encounter it.

EPS: Art, Craft and Design seems to be an area that is growing in interest. Why do you think it is historically important to document the ongoing work of these contemporary art and craft makers?

CW: Two reasons: to better understand what is going on now, and to build an archive for future scholars to draw upon. Especially in craft but also design, synthetic secondary literature is a recent and ongoing development. Good oral histories are an essential primary source for this work. In his interview for the project, Paul J. Smith, who assumed directorship of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts and Design) in 1963, remarked that he wished there was more documentation of the field from that time, but no one was thinking of its historical importance. Now, he is repeatedly asked for this kind of information. I take this cautionary tale to heart. Through the Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art and Design Oral History Project, I believe we are creating a valuable resource for current and future scholarship.

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