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When museum curator Nicholas Bell was putting together the show Craft Futures: 40 Under 40 at the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery, he realized the artists had something in common besides their under-40 status. Because of their youth, he felt that each of them could be classified as "post 9/11" artists.
"Their worldview is defined by the angst, the unease, the trepidation of the difficulties of the 21st century," he says.
Bell, who's only 32 himself, admires how these artists unite new technology with centuries-old crafts. They're using everything from silversmithing to ceramics to explore post-Sept. 11 concerns: globalism, privacy, sustainable living, war. One artist born in 1978, known as Olek, built an entire fake studio apartment and blanketed it in a camouflage pattern — but this camouflage is bright red, pink and blue crochet.
Another artist, Cat Mazza, used real footage from World War II, Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rendered it with software that makes each low-resolution pixel look like a big, fuzzy hand-knitted stitch.
"So what you're seeing here," says Bell as he stands before the video screen showing her work, called Knit For Defense, "is black, white and gray stitches representing planes dropping bombs, representing troops jumping out of aircraft, representing ships at sea, representing tanks on the battlefield. And it's all eerie because it's through this odd, homespun lens."
Mazza, 34, intended this piece to recall national efforts to knit for soldiers during World War II, when knitting connected civilians to the frontlines. Nowadays, people connect to the wars abroad through Youtube videos. Hence, the knit pixels. Mazza says even though she's exploring explicitly post-Sept. 11 themes, she's not really comfortable with the label: "post 9/11 artist." She doesn't like the idea of artists being framed by just one thing. But that doesn't bother Anna Von Mertens, another artist in the show.
"I am of a generation that came of age artistically post Sept. 11th," she says matter-of-factly.
One of Von Mertens' series of quilts is hanging in the Renwick Gallery show. Her quilts show the night sky, if you looked up during a moment of terrible violence in American history. Bell says the artist used a software program that shows what the stars would look like from a particular location at a specific moment in time.
"So one of the wall hangings in the series is looking from the World Trade Center toward Boston on the morning of 9/11," he says.
The stars bear witness to the chaos we humans create and remind us of the weight of our history, says Von Mertens. Other quilts in her series show starscapes from the balcony of Martin Luther King Jr.'s hotel room in Memphis the evening he was shot, or looking north from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon at 2:45 a.m., when the Tet Offensive began. Von Mertens says the hours she spends working on each quilt stitch a connection to these events in history.
"I'm speaking about time," she says. "I'm speaking about our place in time and embedding time into the piece."
She says they're quilts — and memorials. Bell says not every piece in this show literally refers to Sept. 11 or war. But this exhibition quivers with a kind of tension — and a kind of consolation that art and crafts can provide.
"Because it's something people can turn to that makes them feel better," he says. "That makes people feel like they have control over their own destiny."
And a way to make something meaningful.