Crafty Boston: The Finest Handmade Art in Town

Three of Boston's cutting-edge crafters show us their studios.

Earlier this year the re-run of an “Antiques Roadshow” episode from 1998 opened our collective Where Boston eyes to the history and value of arts and crafts in the region. One of the objects under scrutiny was a single Marblehead ceramic tile depicting trees by a lake, made just north of Boston circa 1908. “It’s very much in the Arts and Crafts movement,” said the appraiser before valuing the tile at $2,500 to $3,000. “Oh, my heavens,” gasped the owner. “I’m carting it around in a plastic bag.” Reappraised by the show in 2012, the estimate was revised to $15,000 to $20,000.

Money isn’t everything but that stunning valuation might just encourage budding collectors to check out the work of contemporary local artists and craftspeople on show—and for sale—at the Society of Arts and Crafts in the Seaport District.

The society has been around for 120 years and was a cornerstone for the American Arts and Crafts Movement from which the Marblehead tile emerged. Currently on display there through October, 2017, is Tanya Crane's work  a sculptor, jewelry maker, craftsperson and part-time lecturer in metals at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts.

Pendant by Tanya Crane

Metal Queen

“All my pieces at the Society of Arts and Crafts are based on New England becoming my home and the history behind metal and craft,” Crane said. “On the East Coast there’s so much history it’s hard to avoid. You’re bombarded with all this imagery all the time, on the weekends, walking round observing the environment: architecture, natural history, the people, the craft.”

Crane’s work ranges from enameled earrings to large sculptures. “I’m definitely interested in surface and material, and wherever that leads me. I don’t limit myself. In grad school, I made this huge necklace that was 25 feet long out of cast ceramic. The material is really what attracts me.”

Fox by Mimi Kirchner Veggie tattoo man by Mimi Kirchner

Toile Tattoos

That last sentiment is echoed by Mimi Kirchner, who works from her home studio in Arlington, a few miles northwest of Boston. She makes delightful fabric dolls: cats, foxes and—most uniquely—salty looking men with tattoos. “If I died today my obituary would say: That lady who makes the tattooed men,” she told us, with a smile.

Her breakthrough moment—when she realized that dying toile fabric flesh-colored would resemble intricate tattoo work—snuck up on her gradually.

“I often think about creativity like composting: I get the idea of something I want to do but it doesn’t just happen—it takes me maybe a year of thinking about it. I had been thinking about how to do the tattoos. I could embroider them, or I could just draw on the fabric. Then I thought: Isn’t there a fabric that already looks like it’s drawn on? And that was the light-bulb moment. A couple of days later I got out this toile and cut it out using a pattern I already had.”

Kirchner’s highly collectible dolls fall somewhere between indie craft and high-end fine craft, although she has been “juried in”—the usual method of selection at fairs and shows—to both sectors at various times. “I always wanted to be the Little House on the Prairie kid. I don’t think I’ve changed that much. Everything I was interested in when I was nine is still what I’m interested in. I’m in my own little world here. But it’s a real job: it’s real work.”

Eli G. Epstein, Union Press

Love Letterpress

At Union Press in Somerville, artist/ owner Eli G. Epstein has found a sweet spot at the intersection of “real work,” art and craft. During his college years at Northeastern University he sought out an internship at Hatch Show Print in Nashville. “They got their start doing vaudeville posters, and later worked with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. I was there for about three months in 2009: That was the moment I understood I wanted to be a letterpress printer.”

Epstein now designs and hand cranks limited edition posters for musicians and local businesses using linoleum cuts and traditional handset wood and metal type. “We make an official poster for the Union Square Farmer’s Market every year. We’ve been doing that since 2010. Sometimes this work is viewed as more utilitarian than art—I like to think it straddles the line.”

A Union Square Farmer’s Market poster sells new for $25, but in the future maybe there’s another Marblehead tile moment just waiting to happen.