This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World, published in 2022, was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery, which is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s gallery of craft. This book delves into the gallery’s history, but moreover, it explores the changing meanings and roles of craft in America.

Through essays by curators, quotes from literature, and interviews with craftspeople, the book poses many questions about global upheavals like the pandemic, as well as smaller upheavals in the art world itself. I was immediately excited when I began to read This Present Moment when I saw one of the featured artists was Toshiko Takaezu, whose beautiful rounded ceramic forms I’ve seen in-person at my own local museum. 

The title of This Present Moment is originally from an excerpt from futurist Stewart Brand’s 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now, which proposes living life while keeping a 10,000 year clock in mind to put one’s actions into perspective. But an even more pertinent source of the phrase is an art installation by Alicia Eggert, one of the craftspeople whose work features in This Present Moment and the Renwick.

Eggert’s installation — which has been photographed for this book’s back cover — consist of words in pink neon that blink on and off, alternating between highlighting and shadowing certain words so that a truncated quote, “This / Moment / Used / To / Be / The / Future” gives way to the full quotation: “This present moment / Used to be / The unimaginable future.”

This installation by Eggert is a standout in the book, given that it underlines its main theme, which is craft’s changing place in society throughout time. For instance, the curators of the Renwick write essays about improving the gallery’s representation of gender and racial diversity, and artists themselves cite their personal experiences being marginalized in the world of craft and fighting to improve the field’s representation and preservation of the works of people like them.

For instance, quiltmaker Carolyn Mazoomi, whose work is featured in this collection, founded the Women of Color Quilters Network in 1985. Due to bias and prejudice, craft has often historically been overlooked or pigeonholed by academia. In the face of this, This Present Moment and the Renwick itself are doing a great service by potentially introducing people to the field and a diverse array of craftspeople.

This Present Moment features a diverse array of craft, from more well-known forms like baskets and quilts, to less-expected ones like masks to be worn at protests as protection against COVID-19. Even the more understood forms of craft like baskets are often queered with unique styles and materials, such as basket weaver Gail Tremblay’s “When Will the Red Leader Overshadow Images of the 19th-Century Noble Savage in Hollywood Films that Some Think Are Sympathetic to American Indians,” a basket made from old reels of film. (As an essay in this book helpfully explains, to “queer” a form is to subvert expectations and thereby innovate and challenge people’s perspectives.)

The high image quality of This Present Moment cannot be overstated. Every image is clear and large enough to truly convey a sense of the objects as they would appear in-person. Format is utilized excellently — I especially enjoyed the pull-out page. Even the cover of the book is unique in its own right, because there are 50 different colorways of the cover’s print. However, the excellent quality of the collection’s images did not surprise me.

Something that did surprise me was how far this text goes beyond a showcase of the gallery and into a text altogether even more philosophical and moving. A key moment that I return to often weeks later is a quote from carpenter Katie Hudnall about her artwork titled “Nut Case.” “Nut Case” is a literal case, made of reclaimed wood and found hardware, that holds acorns in tiny square compartments. Hudnall collected the acorns during long walks before eventually deciding they needed a “special shelter.”

Reflecting on the fact that oaks produce about 2,000 acorns per year, but only one acorn in around 10,000 becomes a mature oak tree, the artist says, “I think the idea of constant, repeated, tiny attempts for success, with the understanding that most will go nowhere, became a way for me to think about slow progress toward health in my own life.”

I have worked in a museum as a docent, so I can tell that This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World simulates the journey of discovery and learning a museum provides, and evokes a multi-sensory experience that will be a treat for readers. Reading this book and learning more about the diverse array of artists’ approaches to craft will help you see the art that’s all around you.

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