Crafting New Skills 

How local artists are sharing their talents

From sewing and soldering to baking bread and raising chickens, Americans are in the midst of a resurgence to get back to basics. In an effort to reconnect with the home and the handmade, this movement can be partially attributed to a desire to participate in the green/sustainable lifestyle and a reaction to our current economic recession.

From New York to Los Angeles, the art world has taken note of this grass-roots effort to promote artisans and crafters as culturally important contributors, and it's happening in Boise, too. And while artists are becoming true do-it-yourselfers--marketing their art with hand-lettered fliers, Facebook posts and makeshift galleries popping up in defunct storefronts and warehouses--they are also reaching out to others by offering to teach what they know.

Teaching new art skills without pressure is something Sue Latta, a fine art sculptor and owner of the Sculpture Studio in Garden City, strongly believes in.

"There's just a dearth of this kind of arts education in the valley. There are lots of painting and drawing classes but really none aimed at three-dimensional work or learning traditional craft skills," she said.

Latta holds classes dedicated to a variety of techniques, like woodworking, paper casting, welding, stone carving and working with resin one or two weekends a month in her warehouse space.

"I've had people with a lot of skills to people who are just curious, in the same class, and it works so well. Everyone is willing to help one another and share knowledge," said Latta. "There's no pressure here. It's not like signing up for a lengthier, more expensive college course where you feel required to produce something. Here, it's all about learning how to do stuff.

"Sometimes we want to try new things, but we're never given the opportunity to just check it out and see if we like it with little commitment," she said.

While the Sculpture Studio has only been operating for six months, Latta has had several students return to take different classes who were excited about the skills they gained and looking to forge new ones.

"I have the fortune of inviting people into my space, sharing and creating with me, and taking their new skills out there to spread to others. I am always astonished at what the students in my classes teach me, how they inspire my personal work," Latta said. "The intermingling of ideas and sharing of differing experiences these kinds of classes offer the local arts community is pretty great."

Margarett Ritter and Michelle Keller also found those connections to be vital. They are co-directors of the Idaho School of Art and Craft, formerly the Mend Project. The Mend Project, which started in 2008, was dedicated to mending the gap between artists and local nonprofit organizations, but Ritter and Keller quickly realized a different need from the arts community.

"We pride ourselves on being flexible, adapting our resources, classes and offerings to what people want," said Keller.

The warehouse space is part meeting hall and part studio. Keller's expertise is in metalsmithing, and Ritter's is with fabric, so the school contains work spaces dedicated to both.

"We try to think about what sorts of things artists and crafters can't do at home, either because their space is limited or the tools too expensive, and offer them here," Keller explained.

A corner dedicated to small woodworking projects and stretching canvases sits alongside a spot set up for still-life and model painting and drawing. The ISAC has between five and 10 artist members at any given time who pay $50 a month to utilize the space as an open studio with free use of supplies.

As recent college graduates with fine arts degrees, Ritter and Keller were both disenchanted with the local offerings for crafters and artists who wanted to continue their education. Kids and adults without previous experience are welcome, since the ISAC's goal is to foster a supportive community of makers by just getting people's hands on things. Class prices range from $30 to $100 and run the gamut from sewing an appliqued pillow to crafting a silver ring to stitching a holiday tree garland from fabric scraps.

Twigs and Twist, owned by Gretel Care, is a crafters' workshop space fronted by an eclectic shop in Hyde Park. The store boasts unique gift items, like felted soap and hand-carved wooden bowls by Care's husband, as well as a variety of sewing notions, from vintage buttons to rickrack trim. There's a space dedicated to small groups working on projects like beading or knitting, as well as classes devoted to paper-based creations like artist trading cards. A larger room is designated for fabric projects requiring more space--art quilting and clothing-adornment classes--and includes a handful of high-quality sewing machines and sergers.

Classes are inexpensive, costing $6-$30 for an afternoon or evening session and are open to all experience levels.

"It's a very supportive learning environment, which is essential to the philosophy of the shop: 'where people create,'" said Care.

Mark Jones, director of the celebrated Victoria and Albert Museum in London, summed up the craft movement succinctly when the museum partnered with the Crafts Council.

"Craft is remembering that art is seen, felt and heard, as well as understood, knowing that not all ideas start with words, thinking with hands as well as head," he said.

And it's this notion--that by learning a new skill with our hands we might all be able to create something unique and all our own--that has inspired these local artists to open their workshops to the rest of us.

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