Making the Future with Berea College Student Craft

Written by Danielle Burke, co-curator of Heart, Head, and Hand & PhD student in Design Studies at UW–Madison

A few weeks ago, I was talking with Elizabeth Manekin about her in-progress dissertation on the Penland School of Craft. Given the institution’s century long tenure of engaging with craft processes like weaving, pottery, and woodworking, one of her main questions is “who looks at the past through craft?” This question resonates within contemporary craft scholarship—objects fashioned by hand and in concert with tools hold a unique power to communicate cultural identity, to cultivate social ties, as mediators of our relationship to the land, and as conduits between generations. The clay bowl or rough-hewn table persist in a way our bodies cannot. Heart, Head, and Hand: Making and Remaking at Berea College Student Craft looks to the past at Berea College, where craft has been integral to the educational experience since 1893, and just as importantly this exhibition looks to the horizon, asking “what future can we make through craft?”

SeparationEllen Schley Ceramics Student 2023 Slip cast Ceramic
Separation (2023)
Ellen Schley, Ceramics Student
Slip cast ceramic
Image credit: Justin Skeens

Reckoning with our history, shared and individual, is one essential component to reaching the better future we envision. Take Ellen Schley’s Separation, a ceramic installation which is a series of interlocked loops of varying sizes and shapes. Chain-like, it hangs from the ceiling and casts shadows akin to Ruth Asawa’s wire basket sculptures—both artists share an interest in material heaviness counteracted by visual weightlessness. On the work, Schley describes it as one which symbolizes generational bonds, and that “this work was inspired by my own journey as a young adult who is breaking from the patterns of my family and learning to exist on my own.” Using the slip-casting method, the links are formed from the same mold as earlier components. Schley shows us that we can pull from the past but choose new ways forward. We can recognize where we have been while also establishing new patterns, new ways of being ourselves and being in community with others.

The Great Grandchildren of Wee Willie WinkleKatie Bister Manager, The Woodworking School at Pine Croft Berea College Class of 2023 2023 Cherry, maple, milk paint
The Great Grandchildren of Wee Willie Winkle (2023)
Katie Bister, Manager
The Woodworking School at Pine Croft
Berea College Class of 2023
Cherry, maple, milk paint
Image credit: Justin Skeens

Displayed not far from Schley’s Separation, within the same section of the exhibition titled “Speculative Craft,” are a pair to two small, orange wooden chairs. They are the work of Katie Bister and provide another lesson on the future we can create through craft: because objects distill our values, what we make tells stories. Bister’s chairs are scaled models of what could be full-size seating—but even at this size Bister has used traditional joinery, rather than simple methods, and so each one can hold the weight of an adult. They are part of a lineage of miniatures at Berea College Student Craft where palm-sized carved animal figurines were sold to automobile tourists and through a mail order catalog in the early to mid-twentieth century. Some of these older pieces are on display in the “Production” section of Heart, Head, and Hand. As souvenirs, these pieces appear quaint and undemanding of the viewer, they are humble and precious. Bister’s chairs, on the other hand, are in the languages of iterative product design, of developing one’s technical craftsmanship, and how to effectively, joyfully bring whimsy into everyday life. Bister’s chairs demonstrate that through the careful creation of a miniature—of working first within our reach—we can practice and perfect the values that we care about, so that even a small chair can exceed our expectations.

 Unsigned animals by Berea College Student Industries - Woodcraft 1930-1970 Walnut, Cherry 2022.7.2, Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Berea College, Berea, Ky
Unsigned animal by Berea College Student Industries (1930-1970) – Woodcraft
Walnut, Cherry
2022.7.2, Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Berea College, Berea, KY
Image credit: Justin Skeens

There are countless more lessons to read out from Heart, Head, and Hand. With the show on display within the School of Human Ecology, students in Consumer Behavior & Marketplace Studies might be interested to learn about how Berea College has promoted and sold products from Student Craft throughout the past 130 years. Textiles & Fashion Design students, along with their peers in Interior Architecture, may be inspired by a range of historical and contemporary works, particularly the use of natural materials and small-scale production methods. Since Berea College is a radical fixture in Kentucky’s history as the South’s first interracial and coeducational college when it was founded in 1855, students in Community & Nonprofit Leadership and Human Development & Family Studies can engage with the role of educational centers to cultivate aspirational and tangible changes in real people’s lives, for multiple generations.

Heart, Head, and Hand is a celebration of collaborative endeavors. Together, through reflection and perseverance, we can use craft to learn from the past and to make a new future. Many of the objects on display help us to understand where we excelled when confronted with a challenge, and other objects will remind us where we lost our way. Efforts towards a more equitable, sustainable, and happily flourishing world require many of the skills developed in the craft studio, not least of which is that each individual learns that they can change the world we live in. This may start with the throw of a weaving shuttle or the soft, gentle sanding of a dustpan’s edge. Each act is evidence to the incremental, positive impacts we can make for ourselves and for our communities. Learning this together makes it all the more potent.

Bio: Danielle Burke is an artist and folklorist. She studies textiles, craft pedagogy, and artist communities; her studio practice focuses primarily on the process and storytelling potential of woven cloth. She is currently a PhD student in Design Studies with a focus in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Human Ecology where she recently co-curated Head, Heart, and Hand: Making and Remaking at Berea College Student Craft.