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Meet Handcrafted America’s Artisan Peter Handler, Handler Studio

Peter Handler, Handler Studio

In 1969, Peter Handler emerged from Bates College with a degree in Political Science in hand. That same year, he started experimenting making silver and gold jewelry. A self-taught artisan, his pieces attracted buyers, and over time, he built his sales into a successful career. In 1978, he took a break to attend The School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology, working towards an MFA. There the entire course of his life changed when he discovered aluminum as a material and metal machining as a creative process.

Though his vision had expanded as an artist, upon graduation, he still needed to earn a living, so he went back to creating jewelry, but now, he incorporated aluminum with epoxy resin inlays in his designs. Then came another twist of fate that would yet, again change his path.

At a show in Rochester, in 1981, an interior designer perused his pieces, and asked Peter if he ever worked on a larger scale. The first of many of Peter’s unique aluminum tables came to life.

Peter has shown his work extensively throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, Chicago, San Francisco, and in the south, from North Carolina to Georgia to Florida. He’s a member of the American Craft Council, and a founding member of the Furniture Society. He was honored to be a featured craftsman in the May 2000 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Meet Peter…

What drew you to your chosen craft?

I actually started as a self-taught jeweler, and pursued that craft for 9 years, at which point I went to the School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology for my MFA in Jewelry and Metalsmithing, taking four classes as an elective in woodworking and furniture, finishing school in 1981. I returned to doing craft shows after a few years off to attend school, at this point, working with aluminum and epoxy resin, making flat pins 1”x1 1/2” by 1/8” thick with colored epoxy resin inlays. An interior designer at a show in Rochester saw them and asked if I could work bigger. She wanted a 30”x40”x1” table top that looked like one of my pins. Over the next three years or so, I made jewelry of aluminum and resin, as well as anodized aluminum, and table top accessories and decorative jars. At the ACC Baltimore Craft Show in 1984, I brought a black and red anodized aluminum side table to the show, and it was the only thing people really saw in my booth. That helped my make the decision to make furniture. I have never made a piece of jewelry since.

What do you enjoy most about your craft?

The simple answer is that I like to make things….and have since I have been about 4 years old, and thought, into my 30s and in graduate school, that everyone can do that. The bigger answer is that I love the challenge of working with clients, to find just the right piece to make for them. When I make “house calls”, meet with them, I keep them talking to give me an idea of what to suggest and design. And, either working on commission, or designing and making new pieces, never knowing where I will end up. This is the excitement of working as an artist, learning from mistakes, from accidents, and from things outside of my work that stimulate ideas.

Why is it important for people to make things with their own hands?

Some years ago, I was at a Furniture Society Conference at MIT, a few months after the Deep Water Horizon BP explosion. The host at MIT was on his way to DC, as a member of the President’s council investigating the accident. His comment to us: When you go home, talk to your elected representatives, tell them to make sure that we keep shop classes in the schools, that this is what happens when people do not know how to work with their hands. From a personal perspective, when I make something with my hands, it certainly gives me a different perspective on the object. I think this is a more important question for people who are not professionals at their crafts. I know many people who speak with great pride of the house they built, or coffee table, or ceramic bowl they threw and fired. Doing this imparts a sense of confidence and also an understanding of materials that is so critical in a climate-changed world…to respect our resources.

In what ways are handmade goods better than those that are mass produced?

At best, there is a level of personal integrity that goes into the process of making objects. When I make a piece of furniture, I make it to last for generations, to be passed down within a family. There is a level of quality and material honesty that mass produced goods, faced with mass produced price point issues do not necessarily achieve. Many of our mass produced objects, clothes, etc, are never intended for a long lifespan. In a world where we have a consciousness of not being able to infinitely extract resources from a finite source (our home, earth), that kind of disposability is a personal and collective liability. On the other hand, if I am buying a car, a mass produced vehicle will be of a far better quality at a more affordable price than a handmade car would be.

What does the future hold for your type of work?

That is not an easy question. It is not a “business plan” question but an artistic question. The best answer I can think of reminds me of a time I was showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. High schools often send their art students to the show to pose questions to exhibitors. One young woman came to me and asked, “Do you know what you will be doing in five years?” I could not think of an immediate answer; hard to know what I would be doing. I asked her to come back in an hour to let me think about an answer. When she returned, I gave her the only answer I could think of, “If I knew, I would be doing it right now.” In short, as artists, the work we do builds on what we have already done, and we grow, adding vocabulary, and sometimes make new objects that do not come from predictable progressions. So, maybe the best answer I can give right now is that I expect to continue to grow as an artist, and to keep taking risks.

 


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