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When a museum curator in Washington, D.C. was putting together a show featuring artists under the age of 40, he realized they had something else in common. He noticed that all of them could be classified as post-9/11 artists. As that anniversary of the September 11th attacks approaches, NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered what being a post-9/11 artist means.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The exhibition is called "40 Under 40: Craft Futures." As you might guess, we're not talking about the stuff in the Michael's in the strip mall. This show is more crafts meets "The Matrix." The classical white salon in the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery is filled with spiderlike steel jewelry and origami that looks like it came from outer space.
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ULABY: Curator Nichols Bell is gleefully rubbing a stark, dark tapestry. It hums and buzzes in response. This, he says, is the new craft.
NICHOLS BELL: It's about interacting. It's about engaging with your world.
ULABY: This tapestry is woven with charged copper. It uses your body's natural currents to produce feedback. Bell says it's an example of how post-9/11 artists yank you out of your comfort zone.
BELL: Their worldview is defined by the angst, the unease, the trepidation, the difficulties of the 21st century.
ULABY: Bell is 32 years old and he admires how these artists bring 21st century technology to old-fashioned craft techniques. Using everything from metalworks to ceramics, they're exploring post-9/11 concerns: globalism, privacy, sustainable living, war. One artist built an entire fake apartment and blanketed it in a camouflage pattern, but this camouflage is bright red, pink and blue crochet.
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ULABY: Another used real footage from World War II, Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's rendered with software that makes each pixel look like a big, fuzzy hand-knit stitch.
BELL: So, what you're seeing here is black, white and grey stitches representing planes dropping bombs, representing troops jumping out of aircraft, representing ships at sea, representing tanks on the battlefield, and it's all sort of eerie because it's through this odd homespun lens.
ULABY: The artist who thought of this is Cat Mazza. She's 34 years old.
CAT MAZZA: For me, personally, 9/11 made a huge impact and was an impact on this piece as well.
ULABY: Mazza wants this piece to recall the national efforts to knit for soldiers during World War II. Knitting connected civilians to the front lines. These days, people connect to the wars abroad through YouTube videos, hence, the knit pixels. Mazza says even though she's exploring explicitly post-9/11 themes, she's not really comfortable with the label post-9/11 artist.
MAZZA: It's hard for me to frame a generation of artists...
ULABY: As just one thing. But that doesn't bother Anna Von Mertens, another artist in the show.
ANNA VON MERTENS: I am of a generation that came of age artistically post-September 11th.
ULABY: Von Mertens makes quilts - post-9/11 quilts. One's hanging in the Renwick show curated by Nicholas Bell.
BELL: It's a long black strip of cotton with a white line stitched on to it. And what it is actually is a representation of stars in the night sky.
ULABY: This is one of a series of quilts showing the night sky if you looked up during a moment of terrible violence in American history. Bell explains the artist used a software program that shows what the stars would look like from a particular location at a specific moment in time.
BELL: So, one of the wall hangings in the series is actually looking from the World Trade Center towards Boston on the morning of 9/11.
ULABY: The stars bear witness to the chaos we humans create, says artist Anna Von Mertens, and remind us of the weight of our history. Other quilts in her series show starscapes from the balcony of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Memphis hotel room the evening he was shot, or looking north from the U.S. embassy in Saigon at 2:45 AM when the Tet Offensive began. Von Mertens says the hours she spends sitting and working on each quilt stitch a connection to these events in history.
VON MERTENS: I'm speaking about time. I'm speaking about our place in time, and I'm embedding time into the piece.
ULABY: They're quilts and they're also memorials. Curator Nicholas Bell says not every piece in this show literally refers to 9/11 or war, but you can feel in this exhibition a kind of tension. There's also something else: consolation, the kind art and crafts can provide.
BELL: Because it's something people can turn to, that makes them feel better, that makes them feel as if they have more control over their own destiny.
ULABY: Bell says crafts are a way to take command of tools, use your hands, and make something meaningful. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.