Showing concurrently at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery and at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John’s, I suppose one shouldn’t be terribly surprised that Tangible: Crafting the Future on the 50th Anniversary of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador offers viewers a wide array of techniques, backgrounds, approaches, aesthetics, politics, and conceptualization in regard to both craft production, and to what it means to be a craft practitioner at this particular moment in the province’s history. Whereas the exhibition’s manifestation at the Craft Council is a raucous cacophony of colour and form, what’s been chosen to show at the Rooms—the focus of this piece—is a much more subdued and contemplative collection of works that share, as may be expected for an anniversary show of this nature, an investigation into the passage of time, into personal and collective memory, mortality, tradition, history, and loss.

Consisting of the works of Michael Flaherty, Barb Hunt, John Lundrigan, Urve Manuel, and Inez Shiwak, Bruno Vinhas, the Craft Council’s Gallery Director, who’s been tasked with the unenviable proposition of curating this exhibition, has struck the right balance in selecting artists whose formal virtuosity is matched by their conceptual rigour, and who all, to one degree or another, synthesize the craft ethic of form and functionality, with the supposed higher-order thinking and feeling of the so-called Fine Arts.

Of particular interest (to this friendly, neighbourhood arts reporter, at least) is Flaherty’s installation, Habitat, an ongoing experiment in which the artist began making pottery to place in underwater ocean environments near his home to see what, if any, aquatic life would colonize and inhabit it. In line with Flaherty’s earlier explorations that humorously marry the intrinsically hands-on nature of craft with the slippery, tongue-in-cheek, anti-artist investigations of certain strains of early Conceptual art, accompanying photos reveal how Flaherty’s elegant amphoras—a type of water jug from pre-Industrial times—are transformed beneath the surface of the water into completely alien looking, nearly monstrous objects equal parts flora and fauna. For the purposes of the installation, enclosed in netting and tethered from the ceiling from small ceramic floats, the amphoras in the gallery space have yet to be submerged, and rest on mounds of broken ceramic pieces that dot the gallery floor. Is the definition and reception of craft and the intention behind its production prone to the same mutations, the same vagaries of evolutionary, environmental, and societal change? And if so, Flaherty seems to ask, who among us could possibly predict how that will look? Or for that matter, the consequences and meaning of its outcome, both creative and destructive as it may well be?

Striking a similarly open-ended note conceptually if not formally, Barb Hunt’s stark, near-Goth (as in 80s subculture), Cluster, Aureole, Nebula confronts viewers with a triptych of towering swaths of black netting whose fabric is affixed with constellations of small white stones in reference to the local custom of placing such at gravesites in the province as an act of remembrance and mourning. An homage to her deceased father, and intended as a kind of emblem of comfort to those who’ve lost a loved one, the stones of the installation, smoothed with time, arranged in compositions upon the netting in a way appropriate to the title of each piece,  draw the viewer’s attention to the vast unknowable quality of life and death beyond the trajectory of our own lives, beyond the arc of history—personal or otherwise—and furthermore toward our existence as discontinuous beings who nevertheless continue after death, in the hearts of those who loved us

Installation view, Tangible: Crafting the Future on the 50th Anniversary of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. Images courtesy of The Rooms

Inez Shiwak’s The Hunter, a wall-hanging constructed of an ovular sheet of seal-skin strung with sinew between the white branches of its willow frame, depicts a lone figure against an icy, rugged landscape, dragging their prey over the white stretch of a frozen body of water. Mountains or tall hills loom green behind them. It looks as though the hide of the seal—which serves as a kind of canvas for the image—has been dyed in depicting the scene, which operates with a certain timeless quality: while Shiwak takes inspiration in “sharing stories from my parents and grandparents—what they had to do to get fresh meat, searching for seal holes in the ice, having to walk long distances,” she also, outside of her craft practice, works as an Artic researcher, seeking to understand the impacts of climate change, health, and language through scientific research and participatory media.[1]  Modestly but elegantly executed, the work presents viewers with a perfect synthesis of its own formal and political concerns: in a present or near-future in which widespread environmental destruction appears eminent, it may be that a solution at least in part to this most contemporary and, in a sense, egalitarian of challenges, resides in searching—one may even say hunting—in the collective cultural practices and traditions of those whose virtual eradication, for so long, was merely one in a litany of brutal, bloody consequences of the colonial project and the extractive industries through which it continues to draw breath.

Death, environmental destruction, colonialism, and the market. The four horsemen of the apocalypse. Capitalism as a bloodthirsty vampire squid, to paraphrase Matt Taiibi.[2] The Craft Council, funded in part by a murky conglomeration of public and private interests,  has long occupied a complex and at times contradictory space within the province’s cultural milieu, operating simultaneously as exhibition space, pedagogical disseminator, and touristic gift shop whose branding, if not its actual politics, has tended to fall in line with long established notions of the province’s official cultural identity, its official memory. Wool socks, trigger mitts, hooked-rug landscapes, stained glass suncatchers, the simple, unpretentious production of a legion of local ceramicists. Has not, in its fifty years, the Craft Council simply given the people what they want? Has it been anything other than an honest broker in the representation of who we are?

So much more, if time and space allowed, could be said about this show and the attendant essays in its publication—Kai Bryan’s writing alone is worth the cover price—but I’m forced to sign off. Running until January 2nd, 2023, Tangible is a worthy commemoration of the history of the Craft Council’s vital contribution to the visual history of the province. A hopeful, reflective experience not to be missed.

[1] Igloliorte, Heather. Inuit Art Quarterly, Fall 2017.

[2] Taiibi, Matt. “The Great American Bubble Machine,” Rolling Stone, April 5, 2010.

Installation view, Tangible: Crafting the Future on the 50th Anniversary of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. Images courtesy of The Rooms