Sandra Alfoldy・In Memoriam
It’s common enough to observe that craft is rooted in place. Less common to say the same of craft scholarship – but that was the case with Sandra Alfoldy. She committed her career to Canadian topics, knowing full well that this might limit her international readership. It’s not that she didn’t care – she certainly wanted the stories she told to be widely known. She saw clearly, though, that craft history is as richly complex and varied as the world itself, no one place more deserving of attention than any other.
Alfoldy did have a global vision. A generous and able editor of other scholars’ work, she created anthologies like Neo-Craft (2007) and Craft, Space and Interior Design (also 2007, co-edited with Janice Helland) to support an international range of voices in the field. Some of her most effective short-form work addressed pervasive phenomena like the corporatization of the artisan; as she put it, “the William Morris calendar and chocolate bar do matter.”
It was in her studies of Canadian craft history, though, that Alfoldy was at the height of her interpretive powers. Crafting Identity: The Development of Professional Fine Craft in Canada (2005), Allied Arts: Architecture and Craft in Canada (2012), and her varied projects on Canadian ceramic and textile work are deeply informed by archives and interviews, curious about the interplay between institutional and individual trajectories, alert to the politics of production. They persuade the reader not just of the vitality of craft in this one nation, but the merits of focused geographical study as a scholarly practice. Alfoldy was determined to understand her own locality. In the process, she set a model for us all.
I only had a couple chances to meet Sandra Alfoldy in person: at a conference in Dundee, and a University Art Association of Canada craft panel in Ottawa. I remember her dynamic and generous presentations, and also that on these occasions she was always very friendly and open, despite the fact that I was probably quite nervous to meet her. Sandra’s scholarship in the field of craft history and theory in Canada has undoubtedly shaped my own perspectives and writing on these topics. Just as significantly for me has been her presence as a role model, alongside other amazing women who have mentored and taught me over the years. As a young writer, finishing my undergraduate degree in ceramics, and newly aware that craft could be approached critically, theoretically, or as a field of historical inquiry, I cannot overstate how vital it was to know that 'craft theorist' was even a job that existed in the world! Knowing about Sandra and her career was instrumental in how I approached my own career and studies, following her path to Concordia for my MA, where she had already done the ground-breaking work of being the first person in Canada to do a PhD in Craft History. Her work making these inroads meant that I, and many other craft scholars in Canada, could follow that path.
My first memory of Sandra Alfoldy is of hearing her present her PhD research on the founding of professional craft in Canada at NSCAD. As the talk ended, Professor Neil Forrest asked me what I thought, and I remember replying that it was wonderful to hear someone talk about Canadian craft history. I had recently started at NSCAD as an MFA student, and by the fall of 2002, Sandra was my research advisor.
As I look at my writing, 17 years on, I can still read her detailed comments in purple pen, full of enthusiasm and insightful questions. The interest she showed in my work came just at the right time and helped me feel that I could pursue an academic career in craft. Once I became her teaching assistant in a Craft and Design History course, I watched Sandra’s teaching methods like a hawk, absorbing her way of bringing texts to life. She got excited, so we got excited, and I was thrilled to be working alongside her. I laughed with the students as she sprinkled her fascinating critique of historical craft theory with gossip about Ruskin, Morris and Wright. She gave me my own purple pen and her handwritten notes on lectures and exams so that I could lead tutorials and grade papers. In my own teaching career, I have tried to bring the same enthusiasm and respect for my students that she showed to me.
I last saw Sandra at the Canadian Craft Biennial Conference in 2017. She was vibrant, full of smiles and energy with time for a quick hug and word of encouragement. At the end of the conference, her closing talk, “Crafting Kindness,” brought the house down. While I feel a great sense of loss, I am sure that she will have a lasting impact on many of us. On learning of her passing, a former grad student of mine thoughtfully wrote to thank me for continuing Sandra’s legacy. Although I can’t imagine higher praise, I wish I could also thank Sandra in turn for her support and mentorship.
I first met Sandra when she was a young graduate student and I was a middle-aged undergraduate pursuing my second degree. In the mid-1990s, there were very few students interested in craft in Concordia’s Department of Art History and the department chair suggested we get together. In a bohemian European café on McKay St., over coffee (for me) and tea (for Sandra), I was introduced to the most vivacious, passionate, articulate and curious young academic craft whiz that I had ever met. She filled my head with new ideas and left me breathless with excitement for the subject. Sandra’s enthusiasm for craft inspired me to pursue graduate studies, complete my PhD and most recently to realize a Postdoctoral Fellowship under her direction. Sandra’s confidence in me is something I deeply treasure, but I was not alone in being the recipient of her magic. On multiple occasions I witnessed her belief in people’s potential as she encouraged so many from all walks of life, and levels of academia and studio practice, to pursue their dreams.
Sandra arrived on the Canadian craft scene at the right moment and was key to building a robust, viable national craft network in the new millennium. While histories were only beginning to be written about the field, and conferences were sporadically held to address key questions, Canadian craft discourse often remained fractured by media, geography and cultures. Sandra dove in, writing seminal texts, developing conferences and delivering papers that addressed the professionalization of Canadian craft, intersections of Canadian craft and architecture, relationships between modernity and craft, inflections of design, gender and craft, and most recently, craft in popular culture. In her academically rigorous presentations, she tempered the weighty matters facing craft with a delivery that integrated wit and laughter. Sandra carefully highlighted Canadian craft objects, makers and contexts within international debates and her curatorial practice brought us to national and international audiences from sea to sea, and around the globe. Canadian craft’s current strong national and international reputation owes much to Sandra’s passion, resourcefulness, keen intellect, rigorous scholarship, creativity, generosity, kindness and sense of fun.
I remember walking with Sandra after one of her lectures at NSCAD. She remarked to me, “We are so very lucky, don’t you think, being able to spend our lives looking at, and thinking and talking about such wonderful objects!”
This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Studio Magazine