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Handmade and gripping 

‘Craft in America’ at Arts Center.

SOFT WOOD: Maple woodwork by Michelle Holzapfel at the Arts Center.
  • SOFT WOOD: Maple woodwork by Michelle Holzapfel at the Arts Center.

What's a pot got that a painting hasn't? Heft and usefulness. If its glaze is poured color, it's also an abstract work you can hold in your hand, a Frankenthaler you can drink from or put flowers in.

Which is not to say that pots are better than paintings, or that rugs are better than prints, or that rocking chairs are better than pictures of rocking chairs. The appeal of contemporary craft is that of touch and the delight we feel in the handmade, when a utilitarian object (or one borrowing its form) is also a testament to human creativity.

“Craft in America: Expanding Traditions” at the Arkansas Arts Center is a hugely satisfying show, excellent work and lots of it. It is not a dash in, dash out deal. Its treasures are enough that it is very unlikely you'll regret the $12 you had to pay at the door to get in unless you're a member. (Paid exhibits are another story for another time; I'll just mention that four people decided they couldn't afford it the afternoon I was there, which was a pity.)

Once in the gallery, the time will come when you will have to sit on your hands or have a friend cuff them behind your back, because you'll want to handle everything labeled Do Not Touch. Sam Maloof's double rocker, which occupies a place of honor in the front of the gallery, cries out to be stroked along its polished and delicately meandering arms and legs; what a temptress it is. Terri Greeves' deerskin prayer blanket, bleached in brains, is a soft background into which she's beaded images of slain Kiowa warriors walking the Milky Way, one in camo. Fortunately, Candace King's silk-ribbon candies, folded and ruched and twisted into creamy, sexy shapes, is under glass.

The “Craft in America” exhibit opened its national eight-city tour at the Arts Center just as the first segment of its companion PBS show aired on AETN. (The last installment will be shown at 7 p.m. May 2). Both exhibit and show were put together by Craft in America Inc., a non-profit organization, and illustrate the history of craft from 18th Shaker furniture to contemporary work that often is more commentary than commodious. The show includes a wonderful tumbling piece, “Already Set in Motion,” by Little Rock woodworker Robyn Horn, who has been a vital local and national force in the promotion of contemporary craft.

Other examples of inspired handware:The wall-hanging depicting in silk thread an abstracted “Rose Tree” and other flowers, an Arts and Crafts period piece from the Deerfield Society; the blue and black Jazz Bowl by Victor Schreckengost; a Tiffany bowl; an Acoma pueblo pot; Preston Singletary's large glass “Killer Whale Hat” etched in a Northwest Indian motif; Adrian Saxe's wild snail-covered stoneware vessel “Stoneware Shiitake Jamboree”; Kiff Slemmons' deft silver hand cutout “Roald Amundsen” in which Antarctica rests in the palm; a kimono in which needlepointed body parts representing the senses are encircled by pearl beads; a glass table supported by two slinky dogs holding bones in their mouths; a wooden “boxing chair” made to look like the corner of the rink ... and so forth, 150 objects in all.

The exhibit runs through June 24.

It's a short walk from genius to madness, and people with illnesses of the mind may produce creations of art unfettered by art school constraints. Expressions Art Show and Sale has taught us this lesson, and will again when Birch Tree Communities presents its fifth annual showcase from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at St. Mark's Episcopal Church at Mississippi and Evergreen streets.

More than 200 paintings, photos and books of poems by Birch Tree clients will be auctioned both live and silently. All proceeds from sales go directly to the artists; the $20 ticket benefits Birch Tree.

KATV, Channel 7, anchorwoman Pamela Smith will host the live auction at 7:15 p.m. Beer, wine and hors d'oeuvres will be served and Wine and Music will play jazz. For tickets and more information, call Luke Kramer at 944-8653 or 303-3270.

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