Art or Craft? #3, the Makers Chime In! — Featured Maker: Charlene Virts

(Pine Needle Sculpture Display | Photo courtesy of Charlene Virts)

Tradition and Prejudice: two words that, at least on the surface, seem to have little to do with one another. But alas, they do, much to our collective, cultural chagrin. If one deems a current work of art “traditional,” the pervasive, present-day connotation is that it lacks innovation, blindly adhering to antiquated modes of means and meaning, and thus is not a work of art at all. Prejudice? So it seems. Reverence for tradition? Apparently not.

In the late Middle Ages, tradition was not a bad word, and the wide variety of objects produced by guild members was valued by patrons for both its aesthetic appeal and adherence to tradition. As artisans became separated from artists based upon the latter’s (painters, sculptors, and architects at the time) merit-based appeals to patrons who began compensating them for their talents and innovations, the works of artisans assumed “an inferior status… solidifying the distinction between art and craft that still persists in the Western world” (Laura Morelli, TedEd: “Is there a difference between art and craft?”).

In many non-Western cultures, however, the concept of the artist remained obscure if not entirely unknown. Makers created objects that upheld tradition, bringing it forward to the present day, maintaining what poet and literary critique T.S. Eliot refers to as “the historical sense,” one that “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (Tradition and the Individual Talent). During the 15th to early 17th century as Europeans embarked upon what became known as the Age of Discovery, contact with previously unknown cultures increased, judgements about them ensued and, in many cases, imperial domination followed. As Morelli observes, “When art historians of the 19th century saw that the art of some non-Western cultures did not change for thousands of years, they classified the works as primitive, suggesting that their makers were incapable of innovating and therefore not really artists” (ibid.). Unable to appreciate the preservation of past traditions and resist hierarchical classification, much effort has since been required to divest ourselves of stereotypical assumptions relating to art and the various people who create it.

Despite such efforts, prejudice with respect to what constitutes art continues to the present day. Take for example, my experience as a young painting major at Kent State University back in the 1990’s. One of the pervasive jokes (more of a jeer really) had to do with art major electives like “basket weaving” that no one considered a serious, artful pursuit. The derision was extended to absurdist proportions by inventing a new course: underwater basket weaving. Perhaps by now it’s been replaced with a new elective. 

My recollection of such snide comments and my reaction to their irreverence for such time-honored traditions prompted me to seek out distinguished Fiber Artist Charlene Virts to gather her perspective on the matter. Charlene is a relatively new member of the Artists’ Gallery Sunriver whose exquisite pine needle baskets and gorgeously dyed, handwoven scarves are favorites among gallery goers. Virts chimes in on the arts and crafts discussion below.

ME: Describe your art/craft

CHARLENE: As a child I gravitated to fiber arts of all kinds (sewing, macrame, embroidery, batik), but it was weaving that spoke to me most. I have been weaving for 40 years. I wove saddle blankets when in Northeastern Nevada; clothing in Sonoma, California; and now rugs, scarves and shawls.

Since moving to Bend in 2012 I have found another passion: pine needle baskets. After learning the basics, I have loved taking it one step further and creating free flowing art pieces from sage brush, juniper branches and pine needles. It’s an added plus that all the materials are right here in the mountains and deserts of Central Oregon.

As an adult I’ve always been fascinated with indigenous art and craft: Navajo weaving of the Four Corners area, cowboy art and craft of Nevada’s eastern Great Basin country, and baskets of the Philippines. I’m intrigued that all cultures embellish everyday tools and clothing with art. What is it in human nature that drives us to make everyday implements beautiful?

ME: Do you consider your work art or craft?

CHARLENE: I consider my weaving as craft, trying to make an object that is first of all functional and, in the process, make it as beautiful as possible. I love color and texture and incorporate both into my woven pieces. If the structure of the woven cloth is complex, I limit the texture so as to not lose the weave structure. Conversely, if there is a lot of texture and color in the woven fabric, I simplify the weave structure to highlight the fiber itself.

My pine needle work started out as craft (learning how to make functional baskets) but has developed into art. I am creating pieces that reflect the world around me. One piece, Painted Hills, interprets the undulations and color of its namesake outside of Mitchell, Oregon. Another piece, Tsunami, follows the flow of ocean waves.

ME: How does your work address artistic concerns like those a painter or sculptor considers?

CHARLENE: In my craft of weaving I start with creating a piece that is highly functional (yarn type, size of the piece, weave structure). The challenge is to add design elements that make it beautiful without losing the function.

In my pine needle sculptures, it is all about flow. What colors am I using to accent the structure and maintain the flow? What embellishments enhance the piece rather than detract from it?

ME: Your pine needle sculptures are quite striking, for they are truly sculptures and not simply baskets! Can you tell me more about how you establish the structure, or form, of them?

CHARLENE: I start by collecting possible centerpieces like scavenged wood, antique buttons or slices of gemstone. These centerpieces are always in my view at my work area, and I often rummage through them, looking for one to inspire me. I also have a large stash of pine needles that I have cleaned, dyed and sorted. I play with these dyed needles, combining various colors until a combination strikes my attention. While I’m playing with these color combinations, a concept will come to me (i.e. Painted Hills, Tsunami). I’ll then choose a center to fit that concept and let the piece grow as I’m coiling with that idea in mind. While coiling pine needles around a centerpiece, the structure will tweak or turn due to the nature of the centerpiece and/or the needles themselves. It’s fun to let this happen and work with the new direction. This kind of basketry is called coiling because the structure is formed in one long, continuous strand, prompting the piece to grow in a circular fashion. I keep coiling until the finished piece is both balanced and stable for a wall installation or free standing sculpture.

ME: Fascinating! It sounds like there are many complementary forces shaping the process, including intuition, chance and play.

ME: What is your opinion on the arts/crafts dyad?

CHARLENE: I struggle with trying to classify art versus craft. The two areas blend and flow into each other. If I had to offer a definition, I would say craft emphasizes function. Craft is often embellished with artfulness, but its main purpose is function. Art, on the other hand, is created to evoke a response from the viewer. Its main purpose is to talk to the viewer, create a feeling, an emotion. There is good art and bad art as well as good craft and bad craft. And of course craft can be artful as seen in all cultures around the globe.

To view the incredible work of Charlene Virts, please visit her website,, or the Artists’ Gallery Sunriver,

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