Origins. Traditions. Beginnings. Call it what you will; it’s the nexus of people and the objects they make. It’s that moment when artists are face to face with the yin and yang of their creation, and come to terms with abiding by the rules. Or breaking them.

The American craft tradition didn’t just appear one day, fully-formed and mature. Whatever their materials – no matter how “cutting edge” – every artist can trace her or his work to craft techniques that had their beginnings hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. When they are manifested and revealed to us they’re sometimes easy to see. Sometimes they require us to make the effort. But each artist is involved in taking and passing these techniques to others in a continuum of creativity.

Since the beginning of recorded time, human beings have made objects. Most, such as tools, cooking utensils, blankets and clothing, served a simple, utilitarian function. If they performed well, appearance was unimportant. But even here, we see glimpses of artistry, when the makers wanted – needed – to put a personal imprint on the objects they made.

Consider the simplest of tools – a hand axe. And let’s consider it even further, as a tool that takes abuse in its everyday usage, chopping wood, cutting up prey, and all-around whacking – when it was multi-functional, the Swiss Army knife of its day. If that’s all it was, then we’d have little interest in it as anything other than an example of form and function working, if you will, hand-in-hand.

Display case filled with pairs of moccasins at Jeri Ah-Be-Hill's Fort Washakie Trading Post

But at some point in time, the maker wanted to identify his work as uniquely his. And rather than scribe his name, we see examples with embedded, ornamental fossil shells.

Or take beaded jewelry. Once deployed solely in trade and commerce, beads became a personal representation of the power or status of the wearer. The number of beads, their size, and their rarity, all combined to cast their wearer with respect, admiration and appeal.

These observations can be applied to every culture, every society, in every part of the world. For, as tradition and convention established and standardized the shape, size, and function of these objects over time, more personal imprints were incorporated into their production. Traditions, tools, and techniques have been the collection of constants across the sea of time.

Jim Bassler, Spotty, 2008, Ray Carofano photo

Craft also spans a geographic ocean. When the late Philip Simmons began his apprenticeship in blacksmithing in Charleston, South Carolina, he didn’t realize he would be sustaining a heritage of ironworking that had its roots in beads formed from meteors in Egypt over five millennia ago and spread quickly to Africa’s west coast. (Learn more about African-American Ironwork.) At thirteen, he was simply enthralled by the idea of hammers hammering and sparks flying. It was, he said, where “the action was.”

Philip Simmons, Egret Gate

And from that moment in 1925 he joined a rich heritage of Low Country craft artists. Here, as the historian John Michael Vlach has noted, “there are over a thousand basketmakers, from the very old to the very young. The total number of black quilters will never be known: 100,000? Ridiculously low. Plus whittlers, metalworkers, and carpenters. Their inherited skills provided black Americans with cultural stamina and endurance.”

As Charleston – and America – moved on from horses and carriages, so did Mr. Simmons’s output, turning to decorative ironwork. Incorporating local imagery with a “uniquely black creativity – the aesthetic of innovation and improvisation, much as we see in jazz or dance,” his gates reflected – or, more accurately, determined – the spirit of a community. Today, his vision and skills have been passed on to succeeding generations. Truly, Charleston became what Mr. Simmons imagined it to be.

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Watch a preview of the Origins episode.

Philip Simmons
Jugtown Pottery
Mark Hewitt
Teri Greeves
Jim Bassler
Paul Stankard
Vernon Owens
Pam Owens
Travis Owens

See objects from Craft in America: Expanding Traditions, a seven-city traveling exhibition that ran from 2007-2009, and other Virtual Exhibitions

Important craft artists are featured in the Book. Learn more

Purchase the DVDs or view the programs online

Click to see a list of over 4 hours of video available online

African-American Ironwork

Wheaton Arts