Fine art and functional art have been at odds for centuries, twisting and complicating the very definition of art itself. Similarly, like oil and watercolor, the words "artistic" and "affordable" rarely combine well, especially in such affluent places as Palo Alto.
Bringing these disparate concepts together, however, is a grand goal of many of the artists displaying and selling their work at the Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival, July 9 and 10.
More than 150 artists are expected at this year's event in Rinconada Park, and a full schedule of demonstrations will allow attendees to watch professional artists at work, and even try their own hands at ceramics. Felton glass artist April Zilber noted that in addition to the exceptional quality of the work displayed at the annual festival, the event's format also brings with it distinct advantages over broader art shows.
"There aren't 20 different media, so you get to see the full extent of what's possible here," she said. "There is incredible breadth and depth just within clay and glass."
The breadth and depth also extends to the participating artists. Zilber, who has a Ph.D in biochemistry, spent several years in science before turning her full attention to art in 1992. She said that although her past profession was "intellectually interesting," the laboratory work often became repetitive and tedious.
As an artist, she said, she still performs experiments, but they don't have to reach an expected result to be worthwhile. The aversion to tedium keeps Zilber's focus not on bowls and plates, but on architectural glass and lighting.
"I have to keep it interesting for myself," she said. For her, this means sacrificing some of the functionality that often characterizes clay and glass work.
Walnut Creek ceramicist Cheryl Wolff cherishes the idea that her work can be seen, handled and used on a daily basis. "When you make functional ceramics, you really want people to use it," she said. "Functional ceramics is why I got involved in the first place." Palo Altan Doris Fischer-Colbrie agrees. "With ceramics, you can enjoy the feel, the texture," she said. "It's more intimate, which makes it more accessible." Fischer-Colbrie will be participating in her hometown festival for the first time.
The desire to have their pieces actually used also drives Wolff and others to sell their wares at lower prices than might otherwise be expected for hand-made art. One of her birdhouses -- this one nearly spherical -- is featured in the extensive "Affordable Beauty" line, an under-$100 collection that festival organizers are promoting in hopes of attracting budget-conscious art lovers.
Keeping the work interesting and traversing the functional/fine art line aren't the only challenges faced by today's clay and glass artists, however, nor perhaps the most pressing. In the time since Zilber and Wolff began their artistic careers, the Internet and social media have become game-changers.
Not all who work in clay and glass market their creations online, of course. Fischer-Colbrie said she has been "thinking about it," but hasn't reached that point yet. For many, however, including Sonoma ceramicist lyn swan, the art is also a livelihood -- one she pursues for an estimated 60 hours each week. As such, swan has found it necessary to adapt to the imposition of modern technology. For her colorful tableware, which she describes as utilitarian and playful, swan makes use of Etsy, a popular online marketplace for arts and handicrafts.
"If it comes out nice, you have an instant audience, instant feedback," she said. "Sometimes, I take it out of the kiln, and within two minutes, it's already on Etsy."
That's not to say that swan views her work as an artless moneymaking machine. "When you do what you love to do, it doesn't seem like a job," she said. She does feel pressure to repeat and replicate best-selling items, a process, she admits, that becomes mechanical. In the end, though, since all of her work is handmade, no two pieces are exactly alike.
This, swan said, highlights the importance of shows such as the Palo Alto festival. Since each work is unique, customers gain a great deal by being able to handle each plate and bowl to ensure that they mesh well and stack well, if they wish to assemble a set. For swan, the shows and the online marketing build on each other. "People see my work at a show, and then buy it on Etsy. I think it works really well."
What: Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival
When: July 9-10, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Rinconada Park, 777 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto
Cost: Admission is free.