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Treasure Hunt

Finding Perfection at the Smithsonian Craft Show

Article by Pru Bovee

Photography by Monica Vidal

Originally published in Potomac Lifestyle

There’s a thrill when you see it – that perfect item that delights your eye or lives up to your values or fits like a jigsaw puzzle into your life and your home.

The question is – how do you find that kind of perfection?

For almost four decades, smart shoppers have known about the Smithsonian Craft Show. When you’re searching for treasure, it’s not just joyous to shop the show – there’s great efficiency in the one-stop “Aladdin’s Cave” of extraordinary crafts. After all, you could…

…fly across the nation to Seattle, Washington to visit the studios of master glass blower Boyd Sugiki and explore the fresh colors and clean lines of his hand-blown glass, and then…

…take the train south to Nevada City, California, where father-and-son craftsmen Robert and Tor Erickson work largely off the grid to craft ergonomic seating and one-of-a-kind desks and tables. Then…

…rent a car and drive for days to Verona, Wisconsin to run your hands across the sleek curls of wood that typify the remarkable furniture of Richard Judd and then…

…trek to the northeast, to Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts where Jennifer and Tom McCurdy carve near-translucent porcelain and gild it to bring out the fire and dazzle of their work.

Or you can simply go to the National Building Museum in Washington DC (gala preview shopping night on April 22; open to the public April 23-26) to see 120 artists – a nation’s worth of extraordinary crafters – laid out for your discernment.

Event organizer Kelley Gillespie says “The Smithsonian Craft Show is a juried exhibition. Hundreds of craft makers from coast to coast apply for the chance to bring their wares to the nation’s capital. While all applications are appreciated, only the best are invited to participate in the show.”

That commitment to quality has created a proud reputation. Now in its 38th year, the Smithsonian Craft Show attracted applications from many previously-showcased artisans. They want to come back to the show. That simply wouldn’t happen unless the event was a magnet for artists and shoppers alike. Makers like that their work sells to an appreciative crowd, and shoppers are thrilled to always find a mix of “I loved this guy last year!” as well as “I’ve never seen anything like this before!”

Curating a show of this size and scope is a challenge. The jurors work to not only identify the best artisans but also to showcase the full scope of current trends in a wide array of media. (Want the whole list? Take a deep breath! The Smithsonian Craft show will bring you the latest trends and most timeless treasures from artists working in these categories: Basketry, ceramics, decorative fibers, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood.)

This year’s jurors were Emily Orr, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Toots Zynsky, glass artists and co-founder of the Pilchuck Glass School at Washington State; and Kari Harrin, Executive Director of Museums and Exhibitions at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The Smithsonian Craft Show, produced by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, supports yearly grants to the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research facilities, 21 libraries, traveling exhibitions and the National Zoo. Over $12 million has been awarded in grants and endowments since 1966.

The 2020 show continues a proud tradition of spotlighting extraordinary artists from across the United States – a roster of artisans and crafts makers that would take you years to find and visit on your own. 

That’s not to say there aren’t local heroes on display, too – not every maker is from long miles away. For example, Maryland’s own Helen O’Connor is a featured artist. She uses quilting as a proxy for generational change, narrative, and community. 

“The textile industry is responsible for devastating humanitarian and environmental crises globally,” says O’Connor. “Production systems are unsustainable. Workers are criminally underpaid and exposed to harmful chemicals associated with spinning, weaving, washing, dyeing, and construction. I’m using traditional techniques with found fibers to challenge our expectations of uselessness and legacy. Each piece encourages the viewer to touch and reimagine the potential of the quilt as a modern object.”

Across the river in Alexandria, Virginia, Torpedo Art Center jewelry artist Susan Sanders is leaping into new technologies. After years working in precious metals, inlaid stone, and more (all influenced by a valuable background in industrial design), she’s now exploring the vivid, mesmerizing possibilities of 3D printed nylon. “I’m always excited to learn new processes and try unexpected materials. I like that this jewelry isn’t heavy, uncomfortable, or likely to set off metal detectors! Not just for special occasions, these pieces are first and foremost wearable.”

A short drive down I-95 (or a painfully long one, depending on traffic!) to Petersburg, VA brings us to the studio of master hat-maker Ignatius Creegan and his partner Rod Givens. The lighthearted, flattering hats they’ll be selling at the Smithsonian Craft Show are only half of the story; Creegan is now the go-to hatter for major TV and movie productions. “Costume designers call on me for period millinery work. HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels, the John Adams series on HBO, and local and regional theatrical companies have used our hats. When The Lost Colony costume shop burned in North Carolina, we rebuilt the entire hat collection for a play depicting the first colony of English to settle in the new world.” He added, “And right now, I really want to make another hat.”

Farther to the north, in a refurbished production facility outside of Philadelphia, Wendy Stevens works in metal to create singular purses and bags. “I use stainless steel and leather with metal components. The bags are hand-fabricated with precision for durability.” The look is unusual – ultra-functional, lightweight, and effortlessly stylish. This is the kind of bag you carry when you’re not afraid to draw attention to your look.

The dazzling artwork on your wall, the jewelry around your neck, the purse you carry can say a great deal about who you are – or who you want to be. In the treasure hunt for that perfect item, find yours at the Smithsonian Craft Show.

Smithsonian Craft Show, April 22–26, 2020, at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. N.W., Washington, D.C. Admission is $20 at the door. Discounted tickets are available online. Special group rates for 10 or more people. General admission tickets are available here; Preview Night Benefit Tickets are available here.

  • Stainless steel and leather purse – fresh new style from Boyertown PA artist Wendy Stevens
  • (Red hat) What Audrey Hepburn would be wearing today. Hat by Ignatius Creegan and Rod Givens, Petersburg VA
  • (Necklace) Nature’s beauty in contemporary style from Alexandria VA jeweler Wiwat Kamolpornwijit
  • (Knives) History and skill in every knife. Hand-crafted by Zack Worrell and Nick Watson, Charlottesville VA
  • (Gilded ceramic) Fire and ice in stunning porcelain by Jennifer and Tom McCurdy, Vineyard Haven MA
  • (Knives) History and skill in every knife. Hand-crafted by Zack Worrell and Nick Watson, Charlottesville VA
  • (Found fiber quilted wall hanging) Repurposed fibers shake up the quilting tradition, from Helen O’Connor of Hyattsville MD