Three Craft Artists Share How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Life and Art

Jiyong Chung, Joomchi
The internationally recognized paper artist Jiyong Chung works in the Korean craft of Joomchi (above: Balance IV, detail), a technique that was born of necessity centuries ago. Smithsonian Women’s Committee, courtesy of the artist

Mother and daughter Rebecca and Amanda Lucario dig for clay at the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico to create exquisitely detailed handmade pottery. Amy Flynn uses objects found in flea markets and antique shops to fashion quirky and imaginative robots. And Jiyoung Chung reshapes paper made from the bark of the Korean mulberry bush to produce striking Joomchi art.

All four find magic hidden in materials that others might overlook, and all four will be participating in the virtual Smithsonian Craft Show “Celebrating American Artistry,” from October 23 through 31. The event, which is considered one of the most prestigious craft shows in the United States, features furniture, basketry, pottery, glass, jewelry, leather, paper, wearable art and wood works from about a hundred of the nation’s leading artists. Expert jurors chose from a huge pool of applicants. For artists, an opportunity to participate is a great coup, whether their art honors traditional crafts or introduces new ones.

The Acoma Pueblo artist Rebecca Lucario learned how to make traditional handmade pottery from her grandmother when she was about eight years old. “We used to go dig our own clay—well, we still do, but when I was little, she and I would go dig our clay, look for our paint, and gather all of the material and the cow dung that we used to fire,” she said. “We used to do all of our firing outdoors.” (Today, she and her colleagues at the pueblo use a kiln to fire their works.) Rebecca’s pottery began appearing at the Santa Fe Indian Market in the late 1970s.

Three Craft Artists Share How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Life and Art
The Acoma Pueblo artist Rebecca Lucario learned how to make traditional handmade pottery (above) from her grandmother when she was about eight years old. Smithsonian Women’s Committee, courtesy of the artist

Amanda Lucario watched her mother work and tried to make fine pottery in her youth, but she couldn’t imagine becoming a professional potter herself. “I used to get frustrated. I wanted them all perfect, and they don’t come out perfect.” However, “being around my aunts and my mom just motivated me more.” In addition to Amanda, Rebecca has another daughter and a son who also do traditional pottery-making. Rebecca and Amanda have received widespread recognition and in an online presentation, they have demonstrated how they practice their craft. 

The global pandemic has stirred the Lucarios’ emotions, affecting their connection to their art. At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Amanda had left her two-year-old daughter with her parents while she made a move to Albuquerque, and then, as the pandemic closed access to the pueblo, she became separated from her child for the next two months. FaceTime visits just weren’t the same as watching her toddler absorb each of life’s lessons.

Furthermore, the artists working in and around the more than 1,000-year-old pueblo confronted spiritual and traditional issues. “We have respect for Mother Nature,” Rebecca says of the very close relationship that they maintain with the material used for the artwork. “Even when we sell a piece of pottery, we don’t just leave it. We part with it. We talk with our pottery and wish them well and tell them to bring joy, happiness and good health to whoever purchases them.” Consequently, a lot of the artists did not make pottery for a while. “We did not want the virus to affect our artwork.” It was especially hard for artists whose pottery sales were their only source of income.  

Like the Lucarios, Amy Flynn, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, traces the creation of some of her works to history. In her case, works spring from her compelling interest in found objects from the past.  After college, she worked as an illustrator for Hallmark. “I did children’s books, greeting cards, paper products, giftware, a lot of cute stuff,” she recalls. “In 2008, I was freelancing and . . . all of our work dried up, and I just started fooling around with all of the junk I had accumulated.”

Three Craft Artists Share How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Life and Art
Mirroring the story of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, artist Amy Flynn places a tiny heart inside her “Fobots” (above) because she feels that each creation deserves that life-giving organ. Smithsonian Women’s Committee, courtesy of the artist

As a longtime fan of small fragments of history found at roadside sales, she had a lot of “junk” available. In addition, she says, “I’ve always had a weird fascination with robots.” During a portion of her life, she built props for a local theatre company, so she understood construction. “Every skill and every interest I picked up in my whole life just sort of congealed. And that was the result.” Her Fobots, meaning “Found Object Robots,” take many shapes and forms as she crafts old tin cans, boxes, screws, bolts, handles and other mechanical parts to create the whimsical figures. Each Fobot contains a tiny heart inside because she feels that like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, her favorite movie, each creation deserves that life-giving organ.

When the pandemic first appeared on the horizon, Flynn was in Southern California to do a show. “We went all the way and were going to hit six more on the way home,” she recalls. The second show was canceled while she was setting up. Then, the others canceled, and she returned home, shouldering one big worry. “That’s it. Everybody is just preparing for the apocalypse, and they’ll all be investing in canned food,” fearing her livelihood was in jeopardy. “I was pleasantly surprised that after a week or two of panic, people were going, ‘OK, I’m bored. Whoo! This robot makes me happy.’” She is grateful that her website and mailing list made virtual sales possible.

Three Craft Artists Share How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Life and Art
Jiyoung Chung says that likes the fact that Joomchi art (above: Inner Peace) is ecologically sustainable because mulberry bushes require frequent pruning as they grow, and she enjoys being able to do her work anywhere. Smithsonian Women’s Committee, courtesy of the artist

“With this technique, all you need is eager hands and the right kind of paper.”

She even encountered logistical issues satisfying the demand. Flynn ordinarily travels across the country for shows and on the journeys, she stops at flea markets and antique sales to gather the pieces she uses in her Fobots. But with the shows canceled, so were her cross-country drives to collect objects. She turned instead to Ebay to find the trinkets she needed in order to satisfy customers eager for her work.

The internationally recognized paper artist Jiyoung Chung works in the Korean craft of Joomchi, a technique that was born of necessity centuries ago. “In the old times in Korea, during the Chosun Dynasty, approximately 900-1300 A.D., clothing was really expensive, to spin, weave and make. So only rich people could afford to wear fabric clothing. Normal people like me, were we running around naked? No. We had really good quality paper. We started to combine two to 20 layers of paper to make paper clothing.” They wore it as a substitute for fabric. They made clothing, their bags and anything else they could think of from this paper made from the mulberry bush’s inner bark.

Her mother, a textile artist, taught her the Asian style of making paper when she was young, and when she came to the U.S., she learned the western way. However, after earning a bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts in the U.S., she stopped making paper because it was too costly. Then, her mother told her about Joomchi, and she was “hooked.”

“With this technique, all you need is eager hands and the right kind of paper,” she adds. She likes the fact that Joomchi art is ecologically sustainable because mulberry bushes require frequent pruning as they grow, and she enjoys being able to do her work anywhere. “If you name a place, I’ve made paper, like on the street, in a toilet, in an airport.”

She wants to be a “human whisperer,” by delivering meaning with her art. Her message began with a conversation that she had with her father in Korea many years ago. She had been shocked to hear about a son killing his father, and she asked her father how this could have happened. Her dad said that the cause was “a broken relationship.” That led her to think about human relationships and the ones that are broken with each other, with nature and with God.

She began thinking about “what we should do to heal the broken relationships that we are having.” She believes that “no matter where we were born or what situation we found ourselves in now, life is a gift so that we have to fully enjoy our lives and share the love between nature and humans and God.” She hopes that through her work, she can provoke viewers to reconsider what is most important in their lives.

Chung says Covid-19 has forced her to reconsider some of her ideas about improving human relationships. “Before the pandemic, I was more trying to redefine the definition of the relationships among nature and humans and God. Then, I realized that I’m one of the broken ones as well and that I need to heal myself and understand myself.” She says she has been “growing up as an artist” and through contemplation and through hardship, she has made her voice stronger than before.

As it has in so many ways all over the world, the pandemic has had an impact on the work and the ambitions of these artists. And the same could be said for the Smithsonian Craft Show and Sale: For the second consecutive year, members of the public cannot reach out to touch or be in the presence of the work of the artists. As in so many instances over the last 20 months, “attendees” to the show must become viewers, seeing the artworks via a looking glass—otherwise known as a computer.

The Smithsonian Craft Show takes place online October 23 through October 31, 2021. Proceeds from the show, hosted by the Smithsonian’s Women’s Committee, finance grants to support research, educational platforms, exhibitions and other experiences at the Smithsonian’s  museums, libraries, research facilities and the National Zoo.

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