Craft FORWARD Symposium 2011 - Mass Craft, Theaster Gates Constructs Context with Added Value
April 25, 2011
The lecture by Theaster Gates opened with a song.
emiko oye captured his "a cappella" solo opening at Craft Forward.
As you can see in the opening title of the video, Theaster Gates' lecture was titled, "Soul Manufacturing Corporation, Racialized Materiality and the Life of a Negro Potter." The title is a mouthful....hard to grasp in one sentence. The lecture and the man were equally complex.
At the beginning of the lecture, Theaster talked about two areas of focus early in his adult life. One is his academic study of Urban Planning. Second his multiple years of study in Japan of ceramics. He says I have "clay in my veins."
Untitled (bowl) © 2010
Ink on Paper 24" x 30"
Artist: Theaster Gates
Image Courtesy of artist and Kavi Gupta
Gallery, Berlin / Chicago
My impression was that Theaster Gates's skills with Japanese pottery, tea bowls, and an Eastern influence were perceived as inauthentic by both the art /craft hierarchy and the public. This external evaluation of his work resulted in limited professional success.
The internal issue for Gates was the difficulty to tie his black identity to a Japanese aesthetic. Gates questions, "How do cultural legacy's work?" How could he align his black self to the Japanese self?
This is a valuable lesson for all artists and makers. When attempting to adopt the skills, tools, or aesthetics of another culture or another artist, your own artistic identity will likely become confused. Professional success will always be limited unless the "authentic" artist within you comes out.
“Dave the slave potter” was Theaster Gates' early brand in an effort to connect his black cultural legacy to industry, craft (ceramics), and American history. This is where the "Soul Ceramic Manufacturing Corporation" comes from in the title. He essentially constructed a story from 1840 for Dave the Slave that represents his knowledge and love of clay. Theaster tied this context and structure to make his craft "go forward."
It seems that Gates is much better at creating a conceptual structure around his work based on his own cultural legacy as a black man in America. Read more about Dave the Potter's role in an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum and decide for yourself. Better yet, listen to his lecture at the Opening night at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
At Kohler Artist in Residency program, Gates' background as an Urban Planner took a stronger role as he organized the Kohler Union Workers into a gospel choir. Industrial workers that may not go to art museums, sing about bowls, jars, and teapots, and bring the "whole body into the world of clay." This seems like a natural for Gates.
You can see the Gospel church singing style in many of the video excerpts of these productions online. His "singing is a cultural production" goes back to his southern Mississippi roots, the same way that craft and food carry culture. Yet another way that Craft Forward engages the community as subject and content.
Gates is best at rhetoric. He gives his work credibility and historical foundation a valuable concept for other artists and makers. Theaster knows Japanese ceramic history, 20th-century western ceramic history, and black history which he then connects to his own history with ceramics. He intellectually develops a foundation for his work. He isn't just making "stuff" that he can make. He thinks about what he is making and why he is making it.
More recent work with wood is an outcome of his "urban planning background." He buys old buildings in his neighborhood, guts the buildings using workforce development workers, offering training and jobs to untrained laborers. This is a one-man, grassroots urban renewal initiative - one building at a time.
The old materials reclaimed from the buildings are re-used in his artwork creating the SHOE SHINE STANDS. There is a "value-added" to these reclaimed materials which adds depth to the concepts behind his work. If you ever have the opportunity to see Theaster Gates give a lecture, don't miss it. This was one of a few lectures during Craft Forward that delighted and inspired the audience.
As with most of the lectures, the Q & A was much too short to expand the conversation. There were a few good comments that I will save for my final review.
You can read emiko oye's post about Theaster Gates on Crafthaus. Thank you to emiko for providing the video clip from Craft Forward.
Theaster Gates is an artist, musician, and “cultural planner” as well as director of arts program development for the University of Chicago.
Interview with Theaster Gates from August 2, 2009.
This post was updated on February 1, 2022.