SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Lia Cook in PBS’ ‘Craft in America’
By Nancy Davis Kho
November 7, 2012
As an award-winning textile artist and longtime professor at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, Berkeley resident Lia Cook admits to a slight bias about the importance of craft to a person’s emotional well-being.
“We’re a visually oriented culture, one in which other senses aren’t emphasized,” she says. “But using your hands to make something is part of what it means to be human.”
Cook was therefore pleased to be included in the next episode of PBS’ “Craft in America” series, which seeks to explore, preserve and celebrate the role of craft in American tradition.
Each episode of the Peabody Award-winning series focuses on one aspect of craft, like community, memory or process. The next episode of the current season, set to air locally on Nov. 17 and 18, focuses on the unique role that craft represents as a crossroads: between fine art and function, between old and new, between tradition and evolution. As with prior episodes, the series follows acclaimed artists working in diverse media through their daily labors, revealing the inspirations, motivations and questions that push their art forward.
Tanya Aguiñiga embodies perhaps the most literal interpretation of craft at the crossroads, having grown up in Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego – her grandmother lived on the American side and babysat while her parents worked each day. The young Los Angeles textile and furniture artist gained experience studying both with traditional Mexican weavers and at the Rhode Island School of Design, and her work reflects those dual influences, pairing traditional techniques and modern forms.
Perhaps not surprising for someone with ample firsthand experience of crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, Aguiñiga’s work incorporates elements of fences and barriers, and by combining unexpected elements, her work seeks to break down barriers around the definition of craft.
With the dawn of modern travel, many traditional crafts began to show the influence of other cultures and traditions, creating an environment in which craft could represent a geographical crossroads. Perhaps none is more obvious than the whimsically named Mingei-sota pottery style, which meshes Japanese pottery tradition with artistic experimentation from the American Midwest, resulting in a fresh hybrid style.
Three American potters, Warren Mackenzie, Jeff Oestreich and Clary Illian, are featured in this segment, relating how they learned Mingei pottery style from the influential English potter Bernard Leach in the 1950s and ’60s, held on to its tenets of functionality and affordability, but advanced the style with notions of modern design aesthetics. The potters talk of creating opportunities for “fortuitous accidents,” those experiments that can result in either disaster or another important step along the continuum of craft evolution.
Cook’s segment is, perhaps, the most expansive because it looks at the crossroads of craft and fine art, weaving and photography, and unexpectedly, textiles and brain science. Her interest in the latter intersection arose during an exhibition of her work that contained large-scale weavings of photographic images of children and dolls.
“The emotional response to the woven photos was so (much) stronger than it was to just the photos,” Cook, who is in her 60s, remembers. “I started to be interested in whether brain science could explain it.”
Thus began one of a series of collaborations with members of the neuroscience community to measure emotional responses to identical images presented to viewers in different formats: photos, weavings and photos of weavings. For instance, simply looking at a photo of a woven image without touching it activates emotional and tactile centers in the brain, a finding that interests scientists like Greg Siegle, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, whose collaboration with Cook is featured in the episode.
For her part, Cook became fascinated by images of brain fibers captured in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) used by the scientists. “So now I’m doing pieces that combine my childhood photos with images of my own brain fibers, from an fMRI,” Cook says. “There are a lot more connections than I ever realized between science and art.”
Craft in America: Crossroads: 11 p.m. Nov. 17 and 5 a.m. Nov. 18 on KQED Life; 5 p.m. Nov. 18 on KQED Plus.