Holiday installment of PBS series creates comfort and joy

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"Craft in America: Holiday," which airs at 9 p.m. Friday on WQED-TV, is full of the kind of cheer that's just right for the weekend leading up to Christmas. But its appeal reaches more widely, to the joy of handicraft and to the unique interpersonal rewards that communal celebrations bring.

The program focuses on traditions in North Carolina and San Antonio, Texas, with a side trip to Boulder, Colo. From the opulence of Christmas at the Biltmore House, the 250-room Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, to the San Antonio kitchen of Isabel and Enrique Sanchez, who lovingly make traditional holiday tamales for their children and grandchildren, the emphasis is on people coming together in ways that have been established for generations.

In an age that's rapidly going virtual, the "Craft in America" crew sensed a longing for handmade objects and for the rejuvenating experience of creating something. Unifying a diversity of crafts and participants are the stories of the expressive, warm and generous makers.

The opening sequence has Harley Refsal teaching Scandinavian flat-plane wood carving at the highly regarded John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. He has lived in Norway and grew up in western Minnesota, where "everyone did things with their hands," he says as he coaxes a gnome out of a nondescript block. A professor emeritus of Scandinavian folk art at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Mr. Refsal explains that many Christian and non-Christian holiday traditions had their origin in pagan winter solstice festivities.

While the final touches are being put on the 68 hand-decorated Christmas trees at the Biltmore, hundreds of entries from across the country are arriving for the annual National Gingerbread House Competition at the Grove Park Inn across town. Inspiration for these artworks -- which must be edible and 75 percent gingerbread -- range from the Three Kings to the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine."

In her Boulder studio, Susan Garson constructs an ever-varying array of fanciful, colorfully glazed clay menorahs that are destined to become family heirlooms. Some make their way to a Hanukkah celebration with her congregation.

Finally, viewers join La Gran Posada, an annual candlelight procession along San Antonio's River Walk that represents Mary and Joseph's search for shelter as the birth of Jesus nears. At Garcia Art Glass, Dora Garcia and Gerardo Munoz make sparkling ornaments, and at home Kathleen Trenchard produces elegant ephemeral luminarias by the papel picado (punched paper) method she learned in Mexico.

Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez give one another the gift of time together as they make the holiday treats. "I feel sad," he says, "that the younger generation aren't doing this. They go to the store and buy tamales that are nothing like homemade."

"Holiday" closes with Veronica Castillo, who, with her family in Puebla, Mexico, has received renown for making richly painted and detailed clay tree of life candelabras. As she forms the parts of a Navidad (Christmas) Tree of Life, she speaks to the origin of the tree in ancient Olmec culture.

As each of these featured traditions, objects, foods and activities evolve, the core -- bringing people together to mark a particular event -- remains solid.

Winter garden

Last call for a quiet moment away from the holiday rush and the nasty falling temperatures at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation's "14th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration," which runs through Thursday. Featured are 41 botanical watercolors, drawings and prints by as many artists from 10 countries. The gallery, on the fifth floor of the Hunt Library, 4909 Frew St., Carnegie Mellon University, is open from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. today and Thursday. Admission is free. Information: 412-268-2434 or

Knit the Bridge gifts

Fifteen local artists and crafters, including members of Knit the Bridge Pittsburgh and the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, are holding a holiday sale from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Spinning Plates Gallery, 5720 Friendship Ave., East End. Items for sale will include felted and antique jewelry, crocheted bears, cross stitch mandalas, embroidered pins and booties, wood-turned knitting needles and Knit the Bridge merchandise. Admission is free.

Mimsey Stuhldreher

Artist Fran Gialamas called to my attention the Nov. 22 death at age 82 of Miriam McDevitt Stuhldreher, known to friends as Mimsey. She championed many artists as owner of Blue Sky Gallery in Shadyside, later Blue Sky Art Consultants. In addition, Ms. Gialamas wrote in an email last week, she was "a beautiful person, visual arts advocate and former Associated Artists of Pittsburgh board member."

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.

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