Local artists Wendy Shirran, Anita Singh, and Michael Flaherty have been selected to exhibit at the first ever Canadian Craft Biennial in Burlington and Toronto. 

Arts and crafts seem easy enough to understand as separate entities in the most generalized terms; arts being in the realm of higher expression, while crafts are grounded in the realm of function. This makes sense if you are contrasting stereotypes, grand and obtuse functionless works, or delicate fancies against a chunky, earthy clay coffee mug or sturdy handmade wooden chair.

Art, like life, is rarely that simple.

The Green Chair, artist Will Gill’s recent contribution to the Bonavista Biennial, used the form of an iconic traditional Newfoundland chair, a style that would have often been handcrafted, and positioned it such that it became a larger statement on rural life and Newfoundland identity.

Painter Phillipa Jones recently completed an artwork on a fridge (chock full of beer) for a Riddle Fence raffle. Does the fact that the painting is on a functional fridge make it any less art? As you can see, the lines blur quite easily. Nowhere is this more obvious in our local scene than with clay.

“Pottery is exploding in Newfoundland right now,” Wendy Shirran tells me. She’s one of three Newfoundland artists exhibiting works at the very first Canadian Craft Biennial happening in Toronto and Burlington until October 29th, with a symposium mid September.

All the Newfoundland participants are ceramic artists and all are members of the Crafts Council and affiliated with its Clay Studio, which incidentally is my vote for the undiscovered gem of downtown St. John’s. Chatting over coffees, the Anita Singh mug I’m drinking from becomes a jump off point for a deeper look at whats going on with clay craft in Newfoundland.

Singh is also exhibiting at the Craft Biennial, and the mug in question showcases many of the same themes as the work she’s sending to Ontario. Vague but intricate amorphous organic structures in primordial clusters decorate the mug, in this case with a marine, briny feel. Are they barnacles? Or cells?

The handle reminiscent of a whale tail and a seal flipper at once, Singh seems to be breaking all life down to its recurring structures and patterns. In the Biennial piece the focus is on microscopic life and viruses, but the aesthetic is unmistakably Singh.

Shirran’s own work often focuses on a relationship with the natural world that trusts its innate wisdom and reveres the perfection of its complex yet effortless systems, from the relationships of bees, flowers, and humans, to the untapped ability of natural systems to heal environmental damage if we could only listen and work with the flow of nature. In all honesty, talking to Shirran about her practice is like encountering a “book on tape” version of the Tao Te Ching.

Inspired by the process of phytoremediation (the use of plants to clean toxins from soil), Shirran says of her work for the Biennial, entitled A Beautiful Resilience, “the installation is a hanging flora and fauna porcelain garland created with 21 individual flower sculptures supported by a metal armature.

“Each flower represents one of hundreds of plants with the capability to cleanse soil and air of toxins. These plants are used as a natural, sustainable and beautiful method for restoring our basic natural resources. Yet, this process is unknown and underutilized by most.”

A different take on nature and clay art, Singh describes her piece to be exhibited as “an installation of 29 ceramic sculptures depicting a macroscopic habitat of cells, bacteria and viruses. This installation stems from my interests with biology and is inspired by intricate shapes, elaborate patterns, organic textures and brilliant colors found in the microscopic world.”

Projection overlayed creates depth and movement. From recurring childhood dreams to present practice, Singh says the microscopic world has always been a happy place for her. Focus on the basic building blocks of life gives her work a feel that is sometimes simple and joyful, other times reminiscent of an antediluvian stage in the development life that is mysterious and terrifying. Always it is united by beauty and a playfulness in form.

At last the big, uncomfortable question comes up. How, ultimately, do we define and differentiate art from craft, and why.

“There’s a lot of discussion about that” Singh says, but neither she nor Shirran comes up with a neat, concise sound bite to share. Like all interesting questions, it raises more quandaries than it answers and perhaps the only answer is a subjective one. Functionality and batch production theoretically have much to do with it, but as stated earlier, the lines blur all too easily there.

But in its functionality, in the way it incorporates beauty and grace into our most mundane tasks, craft is a living and evolving tradition accessible in a different way than its exalted cousin, fine art. Perhaps craft is art in action, weaving meaning into the experience of simple tasks.