Craftspeople Must Find Their Own Voice: C.A. Traen

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Fighting Yourself, Ceramic artwork by C.A.Traen, Memphis, USA. Image credit: Artist studio
Fighting Yourself, Ceramic artwork by C.A.Traen, Memphis, USA. Image credit: Artist studio
In an email interview with folkartopedia, she shared her experiences of folk art and crafts of Bihar against the contemporary folk world.

Eminent artist C.A.Traen is teaching ceramics at the University of Memphis and was recently recruited by Laguna Clay Company of California to head a new, soon to be announced educational initiative. According to her statement, published on her website, she creates ceramic sculpture and vessel forms with playful introspection evocative of childhood memories and adult experiences viewed with the fresh wonder of youth.

On the invitation of Upendra Maharathi Shilp Anusandhan, Patna she had visited at Bihar museum for a lecture on contemporary folk craft. In an email interview with folkartopedia, she shared her experiences of folk art and crafts of Bihar against the contemporary folk world. You can read the interview here: –

Folkartopedia: Hello Traen, Welcome. Your name is not very much familiar among folk artists of Bihar, how would you like to introduce yourself?

Cat Traen: I am known professionally as C.A. “Cat” Traen. The name “Cat” is composed of my initials and is how I am known socially.

You had started working in clay in 2001, under the guidance of Mark Burns. That is great. At what point of the time of your art journey you felt that you need guidance to enrich your creative and aesthetics capabilities?

For me, I have always been inclined to draw and create, so it seemed natural that I would attend university to further these skills. In the United States, it is common and somewhat expected for individuals desiring a career in the arts to pursue a degree from a university program. Apprenticeships have become uncommon in creative disciplines in the US and the emphasis on earning a degree has all but replaced this form of formal learning. Granted, there are those who hone their abilities informally, but typically formal academic connections and direction assist in forming a successful professional career.

Artist C.A. Traen stands near an exhibit titled “Solo Chic” featuring her figurative ceramic sculptures at Las Vegas City Hall, May 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. Image credit: Ronda Churchill/Las Vegas Review-Journal

You are not just a sculptor, but an art educator also. How does teaching to younger or upcoming artist plays a role to evolve an artist to be an artist?

Being a “teaching artist”, it is essential to the development of my own skills as well as to the supplementation of my income. By learning how to teach a concept or a skill, an artist can more clearly see their own work from the outside perspective. Teaching also motivates us to set examples and inspire our students, therefore we push our work and take bigger risks for the sake of showing our students what is possible. My own students are taught that they should learn to teach and share their abilities with others for this very reason. Teaching is also social, which fosters essential interactions on the topic of improving craft and aesthetics. Teaching also provides the financial stability needed for the development of my artwork.

Recently you had been to Bihar Museum, in Patna, Bihar as a guest lecturer and expert, in an International Conference and Workshop, Connecting Bihar’s Art and Craftwork with International Community series. How was your experience?

My recent experience in Patna and greater Bihar was magnificent and inspiring on many levels. First, the regard and respect for masters and teachers of craft not only by their students but the community demonstrated the treasured status of traditional craft in this region. A point of reality presented over and again on the topic of how to bring these traditions into the contemporary marketplace set me thinking about how these issues are relevant to the world over. Largely, the distinction between “Art” and “Craft” is at the crux of the disparity of success, both social and commercial. Being an artist that works in porcelain and high-temperature clays, the line of craft and art are blurred and present the opportunity to span both worlds.

In your point of view, what is the difference between traditional folk art and contemporary folk art? Is there any grammar for it?

In general, I would perceive “tradition” vs. “contemporary” to contrast by the way specific techniques are employed. For example, the traditional craft will likely reference stories and imagery that has always inspired these works. Additionally, the techniques of the craft will be employed in “tried and true” ways to a very high degree of quality. Conversely, the contemporary craft will take the techniques and inspirations of the tradition and update / deconstruct / abstract / otherwise change the process to better suit the social issues and technologies available today. As it is still a craft though, successful contemporary craft should also demonstrate a very high degree of finish and quality. The transition between traditional to contemporary exists when experimentation and free exploration begins. Craftspeople must be exposed to the greater world around them to see what other visual languages can inform their own aesthetics and then continue to create, but all the while looking at what makes their craft distinct and specifically their own instead of that owned by tradition.

An artist needs a market for survival. Though the market in America or Europe is very different in comparison with India, please tell us how you have created a market for your artworks or how do you explore a market for yourself?

First and foremost, an artist must create artwork. They need to work at their craft and push their work to make it their own. While making work, artists must also be social. To find and define themselves in a market, artists must put themselves and their work out for others to experience. Answering national and international “calls for work”, competitions, attending workshops, seeking and speaking with other artists whose work they admire are all part of finding the market suitable to an artist’s particular work. It takes much time and continued work to develop a niche career. For me, it was an international opportunity that opened doors to my success. I sought exhibition calls and entered every one I could find. There are many rejections, but the continued tenacity of developing my voice in my work as well as connecting with other artists has helped me gain a foothold on success. Social media, as well as travel, have all helped to further the reach of interconnection for the opportunities. In the meantime, an artist must continue to make new work. It should not become stagnant, it must keep changing and respond to the world around them in the way only the artist can demonstrate.

You have got inspiration from Mithila painting for your artwork, as you had said in the seminar at Bihar Museum if I am not wrong. How Mithila painting affects your art and artistic expressions?

There was a miscommunication in the translation during my lecture. I developed my work completely independently from any exposure to Indian crafts, not until my first trip to India in 2017. I see the remarkable and uncanny similarities of my work to that of several traditional crafts including Mithila and Madhubani paintings. When I saw these works for the first time, it was explained to me that they are traditionally produced by village women and they often tell stories or provide social guidance for women. Upon researching further, I saw that some contemporary craftspeople are taking current female social issues such as “Eve Teasing” and translating them into their traditional work with moxie yet unseen.

The aesthetic comparisons between my work and these traditional crafts are apparent in color, texture, repetition, and even the use of the female as the protagonist; but it is these more contemporary conceptual adjustments the resonate with the deeper symbolism in my own work. Further, since I visited Bihar and was exposed first hand to the incredible power of these crafts, my future works will more directly discuss these connections, both visually as well as conceptually. To me, acknowledging the cross-cultural experience of women further ignites the shakti we share. 

In your opinion, what were the reasons that attracted the attention of the West toward Mithila painting?

For many people the exotic nature and traditional aesthetics of Mithila and Madhubani paintings are intriguing. Additionally, for those Europeans and Americans who are familiar with the actual practice of the craftspeople and how the skills are passed on through generations, there is a certain feeling of feminine power that the works possess that beckons to the power they have latent inside themselves. Aesthetically the works are colorful and intricate yet possess a whimsical simplicity and confidence that can only happen when a skill becomes a finely honed craft passed from master to students over generations. Those unfamiliar with the origins of these types of craft will likely still be drawn in by its visual charm, but if they choose to adorn their home or clothing with these designs, it is likely due conversation on how to more effectively communicate on the meaning behind these works in a way that western viewers can be further drawn into the beauty and joy of this craft.

Do you have any advice for folk artists of Bihar?

The first piece of advice I offer any artisan wishing to develop a career in making is to keep working to refine their handiwork for the highest level of quality. Do not accept anything less than the utmost attention to detail and finishing. This though is what most of the Bihari craftspeople I met are already hard at work doing, which I believe is the most overlooked and most needed attention in American and European artworks.

On the other hand, in Bihar, many had expressed interest in how craft becomes art as well as how to market both craft and art objects for financial success. First, to make art, craftspeople must find their own voice. To do this, they need to view art that is different than their own traditional craft and find how they can use elements that work with their aesthetic, skills, and concepts they are interested in. This takes much time and is a fascinating endeavor with room for trial and error.

Next, after beginning to make artwork that reflects the artist’s voice and experience, I advise showing this work in gallery situations as often as possible. In my experience, this means answering national and international adjudicated exhibition calls as well as forming small, focused groups of artists with like minds and proposing exhibitions to respected regional galleries, then as connections grow, expand to national and international galleries where relevant. These kinds of relationships are essential to success as an emerging artist.

For many, art-making is not sustainable as artists need support to have time to make their work before the work can hopefully support them. For myself and many others, teaching artmaking at the university, secondary, and community levels has helped supplement my income. In regards to finding a market for artwork and/or craft, it all begins with research. The above outline of exhibiting artwork is the first step to finding the market suitable for your work.

Using the leverage provided by social media accounts is essential. Curating social media feeds on all visual platforms to tune to your market includes well-framed and composed images as well as thoughtful and engaging copy. In the United States, Instagram is significantly more popular with younger people and though they may not be potential clients, they are the “buzz-makers” who can help build a career. Besides social media, an elegant dedicated website to either an individual artist or small artist collective shows potential customers how organized and professional the artist is.

Additionally, creating an online store or marketplace that presents the work in its best light with multiple and flexible shipping options is a needed fine detail. Looking at other third-party vendors such as Etsy.com can be fruitful, depending on the work and the following on social media. Other artists and craftspeople establish contracted relationships with specific chain stores to carry their product lines. This could be an excellent option for the traditional craftspeople to be able to “cash in” and profit from the west’s fascination with the exoticism of India. I recommend having a liaison that is familiar and comfortable with both the traditions and needs of the Bihari craftspeople as well as the specialized markets in Europe and the US. At all costs, I strongly recommend avoiding websites like “Alibaba” and “eBay” as they diminish the one-of-a-kind and handmade qualities of the crafts. Seek an opportunity to find smaller volume, specialized high-end retailers who will treasure and honor the products created and fetch higher prices.

You have been in Upendra Maharathi Shilp Anusandhan Sansthan recently. How was your experience?

My experience with the craftspeople and administration of the UMSAS was not only informative but inspiring. The concept of creating exchange opportunities for the creatives in Bihar with those in the United States in Europe offers a foundation to build on the rich traditions the institute strives to preserve. Bihari craftspeople can be provided the opportunity to travel to the west to meet and work with artists to learn new approaches and to develop their own voice in their work. An international collaboration between the groups could spark exhibition and marketing potential that is genuine and organic. For the people in my community, the chance to travel to Bihar and meet the craftspeople and understand the culture could provide much-needed depth and inspire the desire to preserve and revive traditions in their own home regions.

I look forward to continuing conversations on exchange with UMSAS and the Government of Bihar as the potential for meaningful connections could play the part of the catalyst needed to help further the creative development of the folk arts. Thank you.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article or in any link are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Folkartopedia and Folkartopedia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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