Q & A with Michelle Millar Fisher
November 3, 2022
by Sarah Madeleine T. Guerin
Michelle Millar Fisher is the current Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is travelling the United States on a series of 5 train trips, talking to contemporary artists and artisans as research for her next book Craft Schools: Where We Make What We Inherit.
The American Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th/early 20th century had strong roots in Boston, and embraced an ethos of deliberate design, material integrity, and hand craftsmanship.
Millar Fisher in the Saboteuse Ten Footer - 2021
The following is edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Guerin (SG): Can you help me understand how your project Craft Schools: Where We Make What We Inherit came to be?
Michelle Millar Fisher (MMF): Craft Schools bubbled up in 2020, it really came out of the pandemic moment where I had to operate a bit differently. We really didn't know how we could safely interact with people and the museum staff here got completely decimated. My collecting ethos is an interdisciplinary exploration of “craft” in a boundaryless sense that respects traditions, processes, and material specificities. But it is also open to craft being, as Richard Sennett says, computer programming or community organizing, or parenting, etc. Pre-pandemic I had proposed an exhibition about craft and sustainability, thinking about sustainability in terms of labor practices, human-interspecies relationships, ways of knowing and being taught, as much as environmental sustainability. And I thought, what can I NOW do with that, that's actually possible within the bounds of this new pandemic moment. I had to think of a project that was possible to get off the ground to prove that contemporary craft was still alive and well at the MFA.
I formed something that might become bigger than the sum of its parts at a later date. That's when I came to the question: “Who was the teacher that brought you to your practice?” born from a long-standing interest in the ways in which education functions in this country. I come from Scotland where education is free. I've come to my knowledge through the generosity of others: “others” being the state system which allowed me an education, but also significant mentors and people who have held gates wide open and said, “Here's the way in.” This changed my life. I was interested in thinking about how people come to their craft knowledge and in digging more deeply into the MFA. What had I inherited at the museum? It has a pretty strong studio craft collection, and a strong sense of craft being studio craft, period. And then what everybody else has inherited, which is craft through everything: craft is a way of living, it's an ethos as much as it is a set of materials or practices. And so having that one question, I thought, would allow me to write a contemporary craft history that was expansive. It would allow me to honor what was at the MFA, but it would also allow me to honor what craft means to many, many more people than are currently represented in our collection, or reflected in the exhibitions that we have done to date.
SG: Has travelling around the US unfolded differently from what you expected?
MMF: I honestly didn't know how it would unfold, because you never know until you meet someone what their story is going to be like. I thought maybe there'll be one or two good stories here. But then everybody's story was amazing, and that's the hardest thing: how do I cut anybody from this? How do I make these stories legible to people? But also, how do I not standardize or make them uniform? Because these stories are so heterogeneous. How do I respect everybody's social location and specific position?
I thought it would be fun, but I didn't realize was how hard it is on your body to travel for that long. This has corresponded with a moment in time when I'm trying to have a child. I have become increasingly careful about how I travel now. I used to think I can survive on three hours sleep folded like a pretzel on a train seat. But I have realized that I probably need to be a bit more careful, that I spend several days in a place rather than coming through for 24 hours. And so I have realized that these travels are good, but I'm being more careful about how I balance myself in them.
SG: How has being from another country informed your experience?
MMF: One of the chapters in the book will look at histories of migration across the country and modes of traveling, modes of being able to move, because to move is such a privilege: to be able to choose with agency to go from place to place, rather than being forced from one place to another, or moved without your will. They know I'm foreign somehow; I have to be really careful in this project, because it is a huge privilege to be able to choose to go to these spaces.
SG: The American Arts and Crafts movement has embraced the materials wood, glass, metal, ceramics and fiber, but not leather as such. Could you hypothesize why?
MMF: Snobbery and elitism could definitely play into it. There are different stories and different reasons that emerge from a longer historical arc, but a lot of what became instituted as the five materials came from Aileen Osborn Webb, and the institution of a national craft consciousness when she founded the Museum of Contemporary Crafts and retail at America House. There was a fair hewing to those five materials. It was about consumerism in this fairly limited sense. And so I think that limit, that has also placed limits on what craft histories have been written and exhibited, often has excluded many things, including work done in leather. I hope that will change.
SG: Craft superstar Namita Gupta Wiggers has called you “a stunning moderator.” Can you talk about your method of crafting conversations?
MMF: I have no magic science to it: I research. I'm interested in knowing as much as I can about somebody. On a panel discussion, I will ask people for 15 minutes of their time in advance where we will meet as a group so they are not meeting for the first time on the day of a conversation. For individuals, I will send my questions in advance. I do that with Craft Schools. I like the idea of people being able to have some back and forth beforehand. I want to build trust or get conversation started first. And then with moderating, at the very beginning of a panel discussion, I just say to myself, “don't think about anything else but the people who are in front of you.” I really try to be present in the moment with them, listen to them, and trust that it's going to go in the right way. I always say to them, “I'm here. I'm so excited to do this with you. It's going to be great. There's never going to be a moment where you're going to feel like there's not somebody at your back supporting you. It's on me to make sure the conversation keeps progressing. So you just bring you, there's no need to be nervous. But if you are nervous, you should know that it's going to be lovely.” I try to put people at their ease. And then yeah, really I just listen. And I love it. Who doesn't isn't like listening to stories?