Up until the mid-1700s, just about anything a person could own would have been made by hand. Every mug, every stitch of clothing, every table and chair would take hours and hours of DIY labor.
By 100 years later, the Industrial Revolution had changed that forever.
There are at least two different ways to look at this monumental shift. Tim Barringer, a Yale art history professor, summed one of them up during a Nevada Museum of Art Zoom lecture: “The 19th century said, ‘Everything before us was handmade, primitive, crude, old-fashioned, clumsy. And now, we make things which are brash and machine-made and identical and hygenic and powerful, moneymaking.'”
Artists, of course, pushed back. A touring exhibition from Birmingham, UK, Victorian Radicals, now on view at the NMA, presents their case. The show includes more than 145 works from 19th-century Brits who raged against the industrialist machine in one way or another. The show includes an enticing assortment of fabric designs, stained glass work, an ornate tabletop casket that one Seattle critic called “painfully kitschy” but that I personally could not get enough of, and all manner of objects you’re not likely to see in town again any time soon. If you’re an artist or designer of any sort, I recommend heading over to the museum to get an eyeful.
The art-historical terms for the 19th-century art movements the artists in this show represented are “Pre-Raphaelite” and “Arts & Crafts.” I like to think of them as the original maker movements. So, I invited representatives from some of the region’s makers to respond to the works that resonate with them.
The Christabel Necklace
Made be George Frampton, 1893
Response by Alysia Dynamik, a sculptor who works with jewelry and electronics (sometimes both at the same time), and serves as Education Director for The Generator
As a silversmith and jewelry maker myself, the unusual design of this necklace caught my eye—but it was the story behind it that really knocked my socks off. The maker was a sculptor who crafted it for his artist wife after being “unable to find jewelry befitting her beauty.” A lovely gesture for certain, but it was the line in the description, “It was the first piece he made” that stunned me.
The idea that this man constructed such an interesting and unique piece as his actual first piece of jewelry is really incredible to me. The material and construction choices are quite daring, and pulled off skillfully. It is an extremely inspiring piece to behold, and truly made me want to run home straight to my jeweler’s bench!
The Blind Girl
Made by John Everett Millais, 1856
Response by Lawrence Silva, a faculty member at the College of Alameda and director of Makers Paradise, a Berkeley-based makerspace that’s in the process of expanding into Reno
John Everett Millais’ painting “The Blind Girl” was especially important to me because I have worked with blind and visually impaired individuals for over 30 years. The painting uses vibrant colors to depict weather after a rainstorm including a rainbow and sun on the older girl’s face. The blind girl appears to be using her other senses to feel and hear what is going on around her. She relies on touch, hearing, and smell to enjoy the landscape and her surroundings while sitting completely still as evident by the butterfly on her shawl.
Made by David Cox, 1849
Response by Lee Horner, a job coach with disabled artists and sculptor in Suisun Valley, California who plans to spend more time in Reno in the coming years as a friend of Makers Paradise
Sleep After Toile
Made by Mary Jane Newill, before 1905
Response by Jessi “Sprocket” Janusee, a sculptor who specializes in metal works and large-scale Burning Man installations, who’s also the Communications Director for the Generator
As a metal artist, I assumed I would find myself enthralled with something metal, but instead I was immediately drawn to the glowing light of painted glass like a moth to a flame. I was unable to pull away from the warm light of this ornate window. I stood there hovering for minutes and minutes as my attention sunk deeper into every detail. Although I’ve worked with glass before, I had never thought of painting it, and the magic that would happen when fine lines sprawled over the translucent wonder of glass. I had never considered how each tiny scrawling would separate the glass to foster little moments, scenes unfolding and wandering across the glass window, telling a story with light and reflection.
There is something innately holy about this type of glasswork. It harkens back to churches and synagogues and temples, across the world and through time, holding the history of so many cultures, frozen and entombed in glass. And here, this woman has carefully created her own retelling on such a fragile material. I imagined her in a studio hunched over fragments, piecing together her own little world in a meditative makers reverie few ever get the pleasure to experience. Honestly, I felt jealous of the solitude and concentration I imagined her having. It’s a wonderful idea to think of making in a time without cell phones and internet, when you could enter your studio and remain fully present and uninterrupted for hours. And something about this style of glass work and the detail and attention it demands reminds me of that style of art making—when suddenly you find yourself in a fully enraptured experience of maker manifestation that truly feels like the flow of the world. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and I was glad to witness it in this stunning, handmade window into the past.
Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art though May 30.
Melissa Leventon, a co-founder of Curatrix Group and a former textiles curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will give a talk, “Victorian Radicals and the Cult of Beauty” on May 13, 4-5 p.m.