Intrepid craft expert Clare Smith is best known for her 22 years as president of Aid to Artisans, during which time the agency became an innovative voice for artisans looking to thrive in new markets. And thrive they did, thanks to her pragmatic and flexible approach to artisan business development. The practicality came from many years as co-owner, with her late husband Burges Smith, of Primitive Artisan, purveyors of unusual, hard to find crafts from all over the world. Clare and Burges traveled and purchased in places most people were a bit leery of, though once they blazed a trail many tended to follow.
With a sale of a selection of her antique and near-antique Asian basketry happening now at the new Tucker Robbins showroom at 200 Lexington Avenue, Smith has prepared a catalog, which identifies the source of each basket, its use, and often photographs of the traditional peoples who made them. If you wish to purchase a basket call the Tucker Robbins showroom at +1 212 355 3383 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, Clare answered some questions from HAND/EYE.
You and Burge were “compassionate importers” before the term was much in vogue. What drew you to folk art?
I always liked things that had a purpose – and still do. And I like things that are cheerful rather than portents of doom. A lot of the books that I read and liked as a child were about rural life: harvesting, making haystacks, filling granaries, things like that. Not exactly Little House on the Prairie because many of them were about other countries. And many of them were, naturally, about growing up and getting skills – catching fish, fixing broken wagon wheels, spinning wool, taming horses, splicing ropes.
Travel must have been a primary draw. What was travel to Southeast Asia like in the 60s and 70s?
Of course travel was the draw. I liked almost every place that I went and still imagine that I will like new places. But it wasn’t really the places, though I do like the sights and sounds. I really like meeting the people. Being involved with folk art and buying it certainly helps to make the connection. Who hates a good customer?
We might not have gone to the Philippines except that Burge had flown out from Palawan during World War II and, in a sea plane, often flew pretty low on rescue missions looking for downed US pilots. He liked the look of the islands and, when we needed new merchandise for Primitive Artisan, we thought we might as well look there.
There was a lot of Philippine merchandise in the market – capiz shell and monkey pod and pukka shell necklaces – and I guessed that with so much obvious skill and production there must be something really good there, too. And so it was – especially baskets. Most of the collection shown in the book is from the North, but there was a lot of intricately patterned basketry in Mindanao, too, along with giant shells, which we bought as well. There were exporters and importers but we think we were the first buyers to come along with an interest in the cultural background, in the “real” stuff.
In Indonesia we concentrated on almost everything except baskets – batik, silver, pottery, textiles, wood carving. But because they had really nice baskets, too, often each with its own wood platform, we began to get a lot of Indonesian basketry. Our exporter was Chinese, actually a tobacco grower, but he needed something for his workers to do in between crops, so he brought in experts to teach them “authentic” crafts. They were surprisingly good at Sumatra Lacquer, although they were based in Java and it was not their heritage.
Thailand’s baskets were often almost too fancy and elaborate, much as Chinese baskets were, and we had to go to the fields and paddies to find examples of baskets that were actually used. You can imagine how pleased I was to see that huge threshing basket. It was more than six feet across and we bought three of them. Three!! Were we crazy? Still, they nested making shipping in the container economical and they sure did get attention. I wish I knew where they were now.
When you returned to Southeast Asia in 2001, what struck you as the major changes?
Buyers from America and Europe were becoming more and more common, even in the 70s and 80s. Willing exporters were even more common and artisan skills have always been very advanced in Thailand. Agents were willing to go afield and find us the huge everyday water pots and road workers’ big red paper umbrellas, things we saw in use and loved.
One of the reasons for the broad base of handcraft in Thailand is the broad support, recognition, awards, festivals and sales HRH Queen Sirikit of Thailand has provided. Her patronage is impressive; some of her best basket makers now make the baskets in silver and her support for silk weavers is huge.
But it’s hard to find ordinary stuff in Thailand now. Brooms, scoops, buckets, pails, hampers that used to be made with rattan, bamboo, palm or grasses are easier made and cheaper in plastic. It’s understandable, but the real costs of petroleum-based plastic products, large-scale production and transportation are not yet thoroughly understood. Then, too, hand skills take time and training and don’t pay well. Today’s generation is more interested in computers.
Baskets are a special love for you. Why baskets?
They are lovely, incredibly varied in shape, texture, pattern and usage. They not only frame space but hold stuff too. I like pots almost as much but they are heavy and breakable.
Did you have a particular trip where you “hit the mother lode,” where you just stepped into a plenitude of great basketry?
Yes, the Philippines. We stepped off the plane, quite unprepared in terms of our own research and discovered that the government had just finished a promotion of handcrafts of the minorities and had convinced even the Igorot and Ifugao people that buyers will come. We were, quite accidentally, the first. We were introduced to artisans and exporters from Banawe in the North to Mindanao and Mindoro in the South, and many items in between.
When you began to see baskets being replaced by plastics and manufactured goods, what was your reaction?
You are putting your collection up for sale after all these years. Are you holding anything back for yourself or your children?
Oh yes, there are still baskets on top of bookshelves, our wastebaskets are African and Indonesian and Amazon and some especially intricate ones from the Tiruray people of Mindandao. My briefcase is fine pale rattan. My sewing basket is Papago from New Mexico. We carry baskets to the beach and collect weeds from the garden in some. The Pasiking, light and flexible, is a perfect picnic basket for cross-country ski or snowshoe picnics. Come to think of it, my snowshoes are basketry too, just ash and rawhide instead of rattan. One of my sons is a sculptor and he loves the baskets for their shapes, especially the fish traps. The thing is that we use them – they aren’t really a collection. I wouldn’t have a “collection,” as I wrote in the catalogue, if our warehouse manager hadn’t insisted on the set-asides.
Would you tell us about you other collections?
They are not as extensive. I do have several trunks of handwoven textiles, some fanciful terra cotta from Mexico, a group of aboriginal bark paintings, things that would be good additions to someone else’s collections but not really enough to call a collection in themselves.
Please visit Tucker Robbins’ beautiful brand new showroom on the 5th floor of 200 Lexington Avenue. His website is www.tuckerrobbins.com.