Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008

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Filmmakers Sean Fine ´96 and his wife Andrea earned an Academy Award nomination for their powerful documentary, but they want audiences to focus on the children of war-torn northern Uganda.

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The Craft of Editing

The Craft of Editing

As editor of American Craft, Andrew Wagner ´95 wants to tell a few good stories — and find some common ground for two generations of artists

by Doug Royalty


As a teenager growing up in Davis, Calif., about 90 minutes north of San Francisco, Andrew Wagner ´95 played soccer, played the guitar and was big into skateboarding. Really big. “My friends and I built the largest half-pipe in Northern California on my friend´s family farm,” says Wagner, now a 35-year-old professional with both feet on the ground.

It´s a long way from the laid-back college town of Davis, where Wagner surfed the sidewalks and played in a punk band called The Knobs, to New York´s sophisticated SoHo district, where the nonprofit American Craft Council has its headquarters in a converted warehouse on Spring Street. Yet it´s here, down the block from Balthazar, thefamed bistro, and across the street from a MoMA Design Store, that you´ll find Wagner, the editor-in-chief of the ACC´s American Craft , a glossy bimonthly magazine for the arts and crafts community that´s now in its 67th year of publication.

Wagner landed at American Craft in December 2006 after six-plus years at San Francisco-based Dwell , the wildly successful shelter magazine that has ridden a wave of interest in modern architecture. (Some might say Dwell , where Wagner was among the founding editors, created the wave.) Since then, in a corner room off the ACC´s spacious sixth-floor library, he and a small staff have toiled to reorganize, restyle and reinvent American Craft for the 21st century.

Maybe it´s not so far, really, from the late ´80s punk world in California — or the early ´90s scene in New London, where as a Connecticut College student Wagner played in a band called Lucky Pierre and helped put together a (“very, very stupid, nonsensical”) satirical ´zine called Chicken Sandwich . Wagner, it seems, was DIY (do-it-yourself) before DIY was cool.

In recent years the DIY crafts movement — a grassroots phenomenon that takes many of its cues from the ´70s and ´80s punks — has rocked the traditional, clubby realm of arts and crafts even as it has turned millions of Generation Y-ers on to everything from furniture making to macramé to boat building. “The younger generation is hugely interested,” says Wagner. “We´re not treating this as a blip on the screen.”

Wagner, who compares DIY to the slow food movement that came out of Europe in the 1980s, says it´s a perfectly natural reaction to life in our digitized, always-on world.

“It´s all about working with your hands and getting away from the computer,” he says. “Craft offers a way for people to understand the world.”

Now Wagner is working to weave some of DIY´s youthful energy into a magazine that has a long and proud history but, with a circulation of just 41,000, a relatively small base of artisans, crafts institutions and others.

“The DIYers aren´t really aware of us,” he says. “We´re trying to build a bridge.”

Exhibit A: the DIY cover girl (Wagner´s term). The October/November issue — the first one redesigned by Wagner and Creative Director Jeanette Abbink — features a striking photo of a young French textiles and ceramics maker, Nathalie Léthé. The portrait marks a radical departure for American Craft , which had previously devoted its covers to beautiful, if somewhat cold, objets d´art.

“It was not very welcoming,” Wagner says of those covers. “It was a magazine for the collector. If you knew the artist, you´d pick it up.”

Wagner hopes the covers — the current issue features a male fashion model/bead artist — will help lure readers into a magazine filled with pieces that reveal, as Wagner puts it, “the inherent individuality” of the crafts. “We want to bring a face to all this work,” he says.

A sampling from the two latest issues: the British furniture maker who creates one-of-a-kind pieces by pouring molten pewter into holes made in the sand on a beach; an Asheville, N.C., carpenter-craftsman who takes home renovation into the realm of art; and a young woman´s innocent-looking, yet sexually provocative, porcelain figurines. (This is not your grandmother´s crafts magazine.)

The meatiest articles in American Craft focus on architecture or geography — see the tale of a Frank Gehry-designed museum in Biloxi, Miss., devoted to the work of a 19th-century Biloxi potter, that may or may not rise in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Or a story on the vibrancy of the crafts in America´s Portlands (Maine and Oregon).

Wagner says he developed a passion for place while studying environmental psychology at Connecticut College. Not long after graduating, he and three fellow alums started up a magazine, called Dodge City Journal , that explored under-studied cities. It was, he says, “a critical success and a financial failure.” In any case, it put him on a path that led to Dwell and then to American Craft . Today, architecture, landscape and urban design offer a metaphor he finds useful at American Craft .

“The goal with the magazine is to have it be like walking down a great city street,” he says. “You may see some things you love, you may see some things you hate, but you will always be engaged.”

Wagner concedes that not everyone has fallen for the new American Craft . “There are definitely some very vocal, outspoken people who dislike it,” he says, though he adds that the reaction so far has been “3 to 1, positive to negative.”

Wagner himself is extremely positive about his “incredible” job and “amazing” colleagues. And while he and his wife, Heather Bradley, a writer, are native Californians, they have taken to life in Manhattan. “New York is fantastic,” he says. “If anything, there is too much going on.” Plus, there´s a bonus: It´s close enough to New London that he can occasionally hit the old college haunts. Among his favorite spots: Ocean Beach, the Eugene O´Neill house, Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford and the Dutch Tavern (those burgers).

And while Lucky Pierre is no more, Wagner still tries to find time for music. He says he´s the kind of guy who stops listening to a band once it sells more than about 5,000 records, but lately, at Heather´s urging, he has given some groups, such as Green Day, a second chance — and has found a lot to like.

Andrew Wagner, the tempered punk. It´s a sensibility that might just work at American Craft , where craft´s new devotees commingle with its old pros.

You can find American Craft on the Web at http://www.americancraftmag.org . The magazine also sponsors a spring and summer salon series at the American Craft Council´s headquarters at 72 Spring St. in New York.


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