“Haunting Objects: The Best Craft I Ever Bought” with Garth Johnson

We continue our blog series celebrating the power and beauty of handmade objects, titled “The Best Craft I Ever Bought.”  In this series, creative and passionate Philadelphians tell us the stories behind the craft objects they’ve welcomed into their lives and what the objects mean to them.

In this post, Garth Johnson, Curator of Artistic Programs at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, shares a secret: his favorite craft isn’t ceramic. A writer, educator and artist, Garth has taught at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif. Georgia State University, Columbus State University and Golden West College. His first book, 1000 Ideas for Creative Reuse, was published in 2009. His artwork has been shown nationally and internationally, including a solo exhibition at The Clay Studio in 2009 and the group exhibition “Horizon – Landscapes, Ceramics and Print” at the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design in Oslo, Norway. His work can be found at www.theothergarth.com.

My clay friends and my co-workers at The Clay Studio might be surprised by my choice of the “Best Craft I Ever Bought.” Even though I have pottery and ceramic sculptures by some of the greatest masters in the field, my favorite craft is a crude painted wood carving of Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert’s sweaters that stands about eight inches high.

The painted wood sculpture of Ernie and Bert’s sweaters standing together on a small plinth is iconic—just a glance by anyone the least bit familiar with Sesame Street creates instant recognition. In fact, my 2-year old daughter connected the sculpture with Ernie and Bert after only seeing them on YouTube a couple of times.

Even though the sculpture was a bit out of my price range at the time, I knew I had to have it. I had first met the artist, Sean Samoheyl, in the mid-aughts when I was living in Atlanta, Georgia and writing frequently for my blog, ExtremeCraft.com. Sean, who lives and works at the Twin Oaks commune in central Virginia, found out about my blog and sent me a link to some images of his work. He makes eccentric, raggedy carved wood sculptures and fantastic puppets. Over the past few years, Sean has embraced “traditional” woodworking techniques and has a chair-making business that painstakingly crafts rockers with delicate spindles and bentwood arms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being “haunted” by images and objects. This might be the object in my life that haunts me the most. I’ve always been a person who derives feelings from things, and I spend a lot of time chasing those feelings in words, excited conversations or through my own art.

Not to get all introspective and cerebral, but there’s a powerful sense of absence in this sculpture…of loss even. Sure, Ernie and Bert are literally absent here, but I’m even a little bit haunted by Ernie and Bert’s presence. Their ambiguous relationship has been the subject of intense analysis (and projection) over the years. There’s something in this simple sculpture that evokes generations of closeted relationships to me. Maybe it’s just the way I tend to over-analyze and connect things, but a part of me always thinks of the AIDS epidemic—which if you think of it, would have squarely hit men like Ernie and Bert, who came of age in the ‘70s.

Sean’s sculpture is everything I value in craft. Of course I value workmanship, but I put the power of vision above all else. On the surface, the Ernie and Bert sculpture is whimsical. My 2-year old certainly likes to look at it and talk to it. I bring a lot of baggage to my relationship with the sculpture—all of us bring baggage to the crafted objects we interact with on a daily basis. Can a favorite craft object be “difficult” or even a little bit sad? I’d like to think so.

Visit the 2014 Philadelphia Museum of Art Crafts Show Wood category and Ceramics category to see the original hand-made objects in these mediums available from our 2014 artists. 

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