Sitting Down With Suzanne Isken of Craft And Folk Art Musuem

Three and a half years ago, when Suzanne Isken took over as the Executive Director of Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum, she wasn’t trying to make history. In fact, she was trying not to.

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“I really don’t believe that [creating art history] is our mission. The Craft and Folk Art Museum is not a collecting museum. We’re not really saving things for posterity. I believe we see ourselves as a stepping stone. [I’ve] always seen us as part of the process and not the arbiter of who should be in the annals of art history.”

Isken’s focus on process over posterity is no surprise when you consider her twenty year stint in the education department of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art- she and her staff developed all of MOCA’s tours, lectures, school programs, and workshops- but it’s also a fitting approach to craft and folk art, both of which inhabit a corner of the art world where the creative process and context of an artist are just as significant as their final creative output.

CAFAM, founded by artist and patron Edith Wyle in 1965, resides on Los Angeles’ Museum Row with heavy hitters like the LA County Museum of Art and the famous La Brea Tar Pits’ George C. Page Museum. Smaller than it’s tourist-frenzied neighbors, CAFAM has no full-time curator, so Isken must consider each potential exhibit with the eye of both a curator and a director. For her, it’s a balancing act of finding those exhibits that the museum’s small scale has the budget and resources to show while never compromising the artistic values that CAFAM wants to project.

As for those values, Isken explains that any piece featured in the museum “has to come from a craft tradition and be handmade.” Beyond that, pinning down the definitions of craft or folk art can be somewhat of a fool’s errand. “When I first came here, I had this sense that I really had to have this hard and fast definition. But more and more, I think the definition is very fuzzy.”

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“This “fuzziness” comes from an ever-changing landscape of culture and technology as well as the many angles from which one can be considered a craft or folk artist. Though folk art might be easiest to point out when it hails from a specific culture, Isken is wary of what she considers a “colonial perspective.” “I think that our museum started out with a real interest in international folk art, but why is it folk art if it comes from Japan or Africa?”

Craft art, alternatively, is unified and defined by processes that transcend specific cultures. “I think there are certain media- working in wood, working in clay, working in metal- that have a long tradition in the craft, and I think that often the education of the person can lead itself into a definition of a craft.” In the larger scheme as well, all craft art education is certainly considered separate from the traditional art education.

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Isken illustrates this point with current CAFAM artist, Stoney Lamar, whose elegant woodturning pieces fill the third floor of the museum. “It’s obviously contemporary sculpture in wood, but he comes from a furniture making background, so it fits really well in our space, and it’s just really gorgeous work that comes from a really serious tradition.” In this case, it’s Lamar’s education-and therefore his approach to the process- that roots Lamar’s art in craft.

On the other end of the spectrum is a recent exhibit on tattoos. “We thought tattooing fit really well into thinking about craft as something handmade. The story we wanted to tell was how it’s really had a transition from being untrained artists to these extremely trained MFAs all picking up the ink gun.”

Isken wraps up the fluidity and contradiction of these classifications simply: “So many craft artists are trained, and so many fine artists are not.” She expresses the same trepidation when dealing with other externally labeled movements, such as Outsider Art. “I have a lot of trouble understanding what that is. I was looking at an artist who I guess was considered Outsider because he’s autistic, but on the other hand, it looks so much like so many artists today. I was like, ‘Oh, wow. This looks like a Dana Schultz.’ So why is she at whatever huge gallery in New York, and why is this guy not?”

In order to ensure accessibility to the public in a realm where Isken admits even the art world can be confused, she incorporated her background in education into the curation process, implementing monthly craft nights on the first Thursday of every month.

“One way to really interest people in seeing art is by making art. The programming becomes as important as the exhibitions. I went yesterday and sat with 18 other people to use a Japanese carving knife to make our own chopsticks out of wood, and a couple people sitting around the table said, “Now I can really appreciate this exhibition upstairs in a way that I couldn’t before.” And that was sort of exactly what I wanted them to say.”

Isken also hopes to stay relevant and connected to the public by never letting tradition become constricting. “We haven’t been able to show a lot of [new] technology, but it’s been really fun to see other museums where they’re using 3-D printing and all sorts of things to move forward. Just because you have a traditional practice doesn’t mean you don’t incorporate new materials- and new ways of dealing with those materials- if they come on the market.”

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Ultimately, this ubiquity characterizes Isken’s view of the craft movement today.”It’s more and more inclusive. It’s a tattoo artist. It’s a shoemaker. It’s someone who very thoughtfully and artisanally makes a loaf of bread. Those kinds of things have really been able to associate with craft in a way that I think is really interesting. In this day and age, when things have become so impersonal and so technological, it’s a great respite and an amazing value to preserve that we can actually make things.”

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By Isken’s account, it seems as though the reason CAFAM doesn’t claim to preserve art history is because they’re too busy preserving history. Even so, she reiterated her belief that labels and categories don’t fall on her or her museum. “I’m more happy when you define yourself than when I’m defining you. So if you tell me you’re an Outsider and you want to be an Outsider, that’s what I’ll call you. And if you want to be a craft artist, I’ll call you that. And if you want to be a contemporary artist, I’ll call you that. You tell me how you want to be called and I’ll follow that lead.”