Q&A: Emily Zaiden
Published: December 8, 2020
Presented on December 7, the Decorative Arts Trust’s inaugural Prize for Excellence and Innovation is a bright spot on the cultural landscape in a year otherwise marked by gloom. Selecting from dozens of proposals – narrowed to finalists that also included the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Huntington and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – the trust awarded $100,000 to Craft in America (CIA) for its imaginative plan to create an online video dictionary of techniques, tools and materials. Emily Zaiden, the Winterthur-trained director and curator of the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles, here shares her vision for the project and insight into other CIA activities. The organization’s award-winning television series of the same name debuted on PBS in 2007. New episodes air nationally this month.
Congratulations on this major award. Were you surprised? Elated?
Definitely both. We were honestly somewhat shocked. It’s phenomenal news.
Why is the dictionary important? How will you define its scope?
I carried the massive Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts with me everywhere I went as a Winterthur Fellow. I always wanted to understand how objects were formed. It’s key to understanding objects themselves. Now we have video at our disposal. It’s the optimal way for grasping how an object comes into being. The dictionary project is tiered. Initially we’ll focus on the most common techniques and terms with the most general application, ideally terms that are relevant to both historic and contemporary work. Addressing tools and materials will require additional thought and resources.
What audiences do you hope to reach?
We’d like this to be a resource for students of all kinds and at every level and it will certainly serve a core group of scholars – the insider world of curators, conservators, art historians, collectors and teaching artists. The video clips will be succinct and clear and they will vary in length. We want people to instantaneously understand from looking at hands manipulating material what each technique means. Today’s MFA programs are training students without giving them historical insight nor emphasizing process or technique as much as concept. We hope the video dictionary will restore some of that lost knowledge.
CIA’s documentary work is exquisite. How do you achieve such beautiful, illuminating, moving film over such a range of subjects?
It’s really a credit to our founder Carol Sauvion and her vision for the series. Craft in America’s focus is on the professionalized portion of craft and makers who have trained in various ways, whether through MFA programs or cultural tradition. We identify masters within the field. Each artist we film is articulate about his or her work and we amplify each artist’s story. Through the telling of these stories, and by presenting glimpses into the artists’ studios and lives, we always seek to reach the large, mainstream craft community of enthusiasts and the broad culturally minded public.
How does the series achieve such high production values?
Our production crew consists almost entirely of people who’ve been involved since the beginning, so there’s a consistency level. There’s a body of knowledge you build from hearing the stories of so many artists over the years and understanding what needs to be captured, what doesn’t and what’s unique. Our cinematographer is phenomenal, which is huge. Video has changed dramatically, particularly in the last five to ten years, and we have maintained our commitment to create the highest caliber footage.
What first inspired CIA to make clips demonstrating technique?
We were creating hour-long episodes for broadcast on PBS and we wanted to use our additional footage and share it with the public. We make all kinds of clips and use them in social media to engage an audience broader than our TV watchers. I first became aware of the power of these little gems after seeing artists post bits and pieces of their own process videos on Instagram. There is something about watching a skilled artist who has that fluidity with his hands that just engrosses people. The clips Craft in America makes are short and digestible, but almost meditative.
Craft, design and decorative arts tend to have dedicated followings. How do you bring disparate communities together?
At Craft in America we’ve always been as cross-categorical and non-hierarchical as possible. Art and design, old and new, are fundamentally one. Universally, it’s about the qualities and characteristics of an object: how it’s made, what it’s made from and, most essentially, what it says about a culture or individual at any given moment in time. An object can be beautiful and communicate something powerful, whether it’s a message about how people lived or what an artist experienced. Ubiquitous objects can bring us to certain kinds of shared memories.
Will CIA film conservators as well as artisans for the dictionary?
We will first assemble a group of experts – curators, conservators, teachers and artists – to determine what the terms should be. The goal at the outset is to film the entries with professional artists, generally as local as possible for our budget purposes. But this is Los Angeles. We have a large talent pool from which to draw.
Will the video dictionary be freestanding or built into the existing CIA website?
We envision the dictionary having its own website, but the specifics will be somewhat determined by logistical considerations, including how the dictionary will interface with the Craft in America and Decorative Arts Trust sites.
Do you have insight into what it takes to build a dynamic online presence?
I do because it’s a huge part of what we do. Those considerations will be pivotal to this project, and integral to the research and planning we do in year one. In addition to our website, for which search engine optimization (SEO) is something we constantly address, we have a PBS website and a YouTube channel. Making each as clear, easy and accessible as possible is key. An organization can have tremendous resources that are just buried if not administered correctly. We’ve used social media effectively to share those resources. Digital media is complicated and time consuming, but also simple and grassroots in its own way. In the end it’s about people telling other people. You share information and it’s passed on. It just grows.
Does CIA see the film, exhibitions, publications and web content it produces as part of a cohesive whole?
Absolutely, we are able to deepen understanding of craft and the handmade through our work in all of those channels. The Craft in America Center is wonderful in that we can bring people in to provide the experience of seeing objects and meeting artists in person. We have a national audience and community built off the PBS series. We want to engage with people everywhere as much as possible to expand the exploration and appreciation of the handmade. That’s why we’ve been filming artists’ talks and digitizing exhibitions for a while now, to reach that national community, which is strong and connected. Craft in America functions as a national voice in what it does, whether it’s the series, our publications or our exhibitions.
As curator of the center, what exhibition did you most enjoy organizing?
All of them. Back to my Winterthur roots, I’m very interested in functional objects. Last fall and winter I organized an exhibition called “Consume,” featuring objects in all media created by artist-makers for Los Angeles restaurants. I curated a series of shows called “Good Enough to Eat” several years ago. I’m always interested in the connections between objects and culinary traditions. So many objects are inspired by food prep or presentation. Everyone needs to eat, and craft and decorative arts enhance that part of our lives.
Does the center adjust for differences in regional perspectives and interests?
We always try to reflect the range of perspectives of making across the United States. The organization overall tends to be focused on contemporary work, but work that is informed by the historic spectrum. The curator Eudorah Moore (1918-2013), an early promoter of craft as art, was an important influence for Craft in America. Her “California Design” exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum included everything from traditional objects and functional design by designer-makers to conceptual fine art. Distinctions among categories are breaking down. It relates to the idea of diversity, equity and inclusivity that has become more focal in the last couple of years.
How are staff roles at CIA evolving?
We are a small but versatile and passionate staff. In terms of our annual budget, the series and the center are our two big focuses. Our website has grown to be a base for craft resources, profiles of artists and technique videos that largely come from footage from filming the series. We have all kinds of resources on the website – publications, exhibitions and catalog essays.
How did Craft in America’s “Borders” and “Neighbors” episodes begin to address questions of diversity and inclusion?
They were our first episodes to look outside the United States, specifically to Mexico. That work came in conjunction with a series of exhibitions we did called “Mano Made” that was part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time consortium. “Mano Made” was a trio of solo exhibitions dealing with Latinx and Chicano identity issues and border politics in various ways, both very personal and more broadly social and political.
What about CIA’s newest episodes, “Storytellers” and “Democracy”?
“Storytellers” is really about the way that artists are deeply involved with narrative in their work. “Democracy” is largely about American monuments, symbols, political action and engagement – how we voice our history and what brings us together in terms of the objects that represent our core political values as a nation. “Democracy” for me is a reminder of why, across the entire political spectrum, we can feel patriotic. It’s an optimistic, beautiful message.
As a digital lexicographer, how do you feel about being the Samuel Johnson of the decorative arts world?
I’m not quite there yet, but it’s an amazing thought.
The Craft in America Center is at 8415 West Third Street in Los Angeles.
For more information, 323-951-0610 or www.craftinamerica.org.
Additional details on the PBS series Craft in America can be found at www.pbs.org/craft-in-america.
For more on the Decorative Arts Trust and its programs, go to www.decorativeartstrust.org.