Craft versus Art – What’s The Fuss?

StudioI recently met with David Patchen, one of San Francisco’s premier glassblowers.  He was one of the featured artists on a tour that I co-hosted of San Francisco studios in the ArtSpan Tour des Artistes program.  Interviewing David was a little bit different for me than some of the other interviews that I have engaged in.  Usually I throw out questions and allow the interview to develop organically.  Often I enter the interview with only a vague idea of what I will write about, often moving in an unexpected direction.  However, with David the interview was more participatory.  It felt more like a panel discussion than an interview.  And the subject of the panel discussion was “craft versus art”.Foglio3

Back in the day, when I was studying Japanese art history in graduate school, I was very drawn to the traditional crafts, particularly pottery.  One of the things that I loved about craft in Japan was the over-arching importance of technique.  Technique was instilled in a very traditional, very rigid apprenticeship system.  If you wanted to become a potter, you started by kneading clay until you could do it perfectly.  Then, you made teacups until you could make those perfectly. And so on and so forth.  Becoming a craft master was a long, arduous process, often taking literally decades.  When you see some of the twisted, distorted pieces that are so valued in Japan, there is certainly an element of “accident” that is incorporated in those works.  They are, however, a result of “accidentally on purpose”.  Before there are departures from perfection, first there is a mastery of perfection.


David Patchen is, of course, a glassblower, not a potter.  And, he has never formally apprenticed in the arduous way that Japanese craftsmen apprentice.  Nor did he spend decades in a glassblowing workshop in Murano.  However, the commonality with David’s study and both those systems of apprenticeship is a commitment to excellence; a commitment to perfection.  Starting with his earliest classes at Public Glass, David’s quest has been a quest for technical mastery.  In the tradition of apprenticeship, he worked in the collaborative social environment , an environment at Public Glass that fostered discussion and the exchange of knowledge.  By observing and occasionally assisting professional Bay Area glassblowers such as Jerry Kung, Sean Salstrom and Pamina Traylor; mixed in with  sporadic but leveraged study with Sean and Pamina; David was able to gradually build a formidable skill set.Foglio4
He visited Italy where he observed and learned at the studio of Afro Celotto in Murano.  When Afro Celotto, visited the United States, he worked with and assisted him.  More recently, he was the recipient of the first annual GLANC/Pilchuck Scholarship to study advanced Venetian cane and murrine techniques with Kait Rhoads, at the famed Pilchuck Glass School founded by Dale Chihuly. It has been the kind of hands-on training that traditional apprenticeship systems, like those in Japan and in Italy, have utilized for centuries.  And the resulting mastery of one’s medium is one that I, in particular, value.  So, I am often taken back when glass and ceramics are characterized as “mere craft”, not fine art.  For me, the line dividing craft and fine art is fuzzy.  Great art is typically (though not always) under-pinned by great craft.  And, great craft – craft that is not just accomplished, but which also is expressive – moves into the realm of great art.  I do not really see a divide.  Rather I see a continuum.

David’s work is an exploration of the unique properties of glass.  He is fascinated by its physical properties.  The move from solid to molten and back to solid is an intense one.  The window for creation is very constrained.  It requires meticulous planning and attention to detail.  But the rewards are great.  The best of his works bend color and light in an almost magical way.  David, himself, describes it best:


While varied in composition and design, I most often create work within a series of graceful forms which I consider three dimensional canvases. The diversity and variation in my work reflects my desire to explore a variety of ideas simultaneously. Some visual themes that recur include windows with views into or through a piece, contrasting transparency and solidity and disrupted repetition. Colors in contrasting and/or complimentary tertiary tones woven into complex patterns challenge expectations of the amount of detail glass can carry and its place in the art world.   


This year, David has been selected for an artist residency by the Seto City Art and Cultural Foundation in Japan.  Seto is one of the most historically important centers for the manufacture of pottery in all of Japan.  In fact, the name “Seto” is synonymous with pottery.  It Allegro1will be fascinating for me, personally, to see how this residency resonates in David’s future work.  Will his work become even more precise; or will we start to see some more “accidentally on purpose” elements surface?  Time will tell.

David Patchen is represented by numerous galleries nationally.  Here in the Bay Area, you can find his work at Gump’s.  This fall, he will be showing his work at Public Glass during San Francisco Open Studios, the weekend of October 24th -25th.  As for those of you seeking immediate gratification, this Labor Day weekend (Saturday-Monday), he will be across the Bay at the Sausalito Art Festival, in booth # 131.




3 Responses

  1. […] a hand-blown mug; use it to drink beer while you watch the glass blowers perform their alchemy.  Davd Patchen, shown here, was featured in a SF Art News profile earlier this year.       […]

  2. If you have never seen his work in person and know nothing about glass, you will see a kaleidoscope of color and brilliance. If you are knowledgeable about glass you will see the work of a Maestro in his own right. David Patchen IS the future of Italian technique.

  3. Great site am adding to my favorites. Best Wishes Milissa Bailey

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