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Craft - or art? It was both in `The American Craft at the Armory' show

IS there room for an haute craft show that: Attracts artists who have the imagination and skill? Features unique objects considered to be on the cutting edge of design and creativity? Carol Sedestrom Ross, president of American Craft Enterprises Inc., marketing arm of the American Craft Council, thinks ``yes.''

And this month, for the second year in a row, Ms. Ross has staged ``The American Craft at the Armory'' in an elegant Park Avenue setting with gallery atmosphere, dramatic lighting of handmade pieces, and gala opening party to benefit the American Craft Museum.

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One hundred craftspeople from around the country, selected by jury, showed their one-of-a-kind or limited-edition works - in clay, glass, metal, wood, fiber, and mixed media.

Many of the craftspeople have degrees from universities and art schools. Some teach their craft. Most are represented by craft and art galleries or shops.

Many show at major ACE craft fairs such as the one coming up in West Springfield, Mass., June 21-26, or in San Francisco, Aug. 10-14. They all applaud the concept of such a challenging upscale exhibition.

The Armory craft show has a distinct difference, however. It is for those artists who are deeply involved in experimentation and exploration of their media - and who are willing to push back the boundaries of what people normally think of as craft.

In many ways, Ross explains, what is shown in the Armory supports the theory that crafts have moved far into the realm of art. ``The inspiration influencing today's craft artists has resulted in a movement away from purely functional crafts to more of an art form.''

Here, the phenomenon of handmade wood furniture is exciting.

Thomas Loeser of Cambridge, Mass., had traditional training in woodworking, but now makes painted furniture in avant-garde shapes. He thinks of himself as an artist and his work as a combination of art and craft. His pieces are colorful, fun, and practical.

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Wendy Maruyama builds cabinets and brightens their exterior with slashes of brilliant neon light, a fanciful new ``trim.''

Woodworker Alphonse Mattia of Westport, Mass., shows his arty, but functional valet chairs, which carry price tags of $3,400 to $4,000.

Says Mr. Mattia: ``I refuse to answer whether my work is craft or art. I simply think of myself as a studio artist, and I call what I make studio furniture. It is also sometimes called `art furniture' or `one-of-a-kind, craft-based furniture.'

``It is part of what I see as an advancing concept of art/craft, as well as a growing appreciation on the part of those who collect it,'' he continues.

Floyd Gompf of Chicago made ceramic vessels for many years. Two years ago he took the leap into a type of sculpture that involves a concrete base, a ceramic top, and a variety of materials such as aluminum, glass, marble, and found objects sandwiched in. (Photo next page.)

``I wanted to come up with something original that didn't look like anything else,'' he explains. His cone shapes sell for $1,200, and his wedge shapes for $1,400. They are basically black and white, with subtle variations in between.

``I look on my work as borderline craft/art and consider myself to be in transition. I am now showing in a regular fine arts gallery, as well as craft galleries.''

Bruce Lenore of Providence, R.I., calls himself a ``constructive neo-decoratist'' - which means he makes raku-fired ceramic vessels and individually ``animates'' them with paint. The works sell for up to $1,200.

``I started as a painter and come from a fine-art background. But the fine/crafts field is such a new movement, I felt there was room to make a statement,'' Mr. Lenore says.

Mel Fischer of Philadelphia, who was trained in mathematics and science, left a career in the computer industry to devote himself to creating what he calls ``structural reliefs'' - a complex technology of cutting and sculpting stacked and glued balsa wood.

Fascinated with the idea of using symmetry structure as an integral part of his art, Mr. Fischer developed his own tools, including a saw that emulates a laser. He terms his work, involving perfect symmetry, ``a whole other movement.'' His pieces sell for between $7,000 and $25,000, and are now sought by some top craft connoisseurs.

Fischer not only lives and works in a studio that was once an old bicycle factory, but is also currently the ``scholar in residence'' at Drexel University, where he gives seminars on geometry and structure.

``Mixed media'' is a category that involves deft combinations of materials. Bruce Smith of Boston shows a neon-and-glass sculpture, set in a tin bucket, set on a solid piece of granite.

Using contrasting materials is fun, Mr. Smith says. He thinks of his individual customer as an ``intelligent person who knows how to enjoy aesthetic, pleasurable things.'' Smith's saucy-looking dancing lady, made of neon and colored glass, sells for $3,300.

And there's Leroy Parker of Lafayette, Calif., and his wonderful group of handmade paper pieces - columns and pedestals and all sorts of things - deliciously painted in a variety of ways.

And Fred Woell of Deer Isle, Maine, works in metals and claims he makes things ``that people could laugh at and yet take seriously.''

These are but a few. But there are so many touches of whimsy and joy and humor. They convey affection as well as patience and know-how.

Most of the craftspeople said they valued the exposure gained by such a high-class show.

One collector commented, ``This craft show is really, really!''

Really what?

``Really different and sort of far out! It helps us see where craft has come from and where it is going.''

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