Is there a boundary between art and craft? No, I say, despite what our gut reactions may have us believe. But, when it comes to the expectations of viewers and art markets, there is a meaningful conversation to be had about the subtleties.

Architecture is utilitarian, and so is any art that serves as decoration, memorial or entertainment. Portraits, religious art and ideological imagery all serve a purpose. (And then you get into those fascinating side conversations, like the standards for distinguishing between propaganda and art that supports your own values.)

Medium-specific ideas – like if it’s made out of clay it’s craft and if it’s painted in oil on canvas then it’s art – might be more pervasive, but any Velvet Elvis will tell you they don’t even pass the smell test. The most problematic limitation to the craft-versus-art conversation may be the assumption that craft is trying – and not quite succeeding – to be art. Such a judgment puts the intention on the objects, instead of setting them within a continuum of recognition on our part. We’ll ooh and aah about an ambitious work of fine craft and praise its artistic qualities. We do the same for paintings and sculptures of extraordinary craftsmanship, but we tend to conveniently ignore the light this sheds on the other direction of the art/craft conversation.

Painting has appropriately humbled itself to the level of craft over the past few decades. We saw this with increased interest in older painting media, like casein and encaustic, as well as with new material-oriented possibilities of acrylic glazes, polyurethanes and resins. Looking around Maine, we see that many of the most sophisticated painters have a refined material sense. I could list any of dozens of artists, but in the past week alone, I have seen works by Jeff Kellar, Kathy Weinberg, Brooke Nixon, Ben Potter, Tom Flanagan, Rick Green, Sandy Quinn, Barbara Sullivan and Munira Naqui that illustrate the inclination of contemporary painting to take a serious and sympathetic position regarding painting’s engagement with fine craft.

Folded vase, by Paul Heroux, 10 by 12 by 7 inches, stoneware with glazes. Photos courtesy of George Marshall Store Gallery

The main space of George Marshall Store Gallery now features Paul Heroux’s ceramics along with paintings by Kate Emlen. The combination is lively and handsomely installed, so there’s no urgency to parse the relationship of the work in critical terms. But the longer and closer you look, the more Emlen’s weaker pieces are pushed aside by her strongest few and, more impressively, Heroux’s deeply layered accomplishment comes into view.

Emlen is a good painter and her landscapes are generally appealing, but only three of the 35 or so works really stood out for me: “Dog Island,” a large, loosely painted coastal landscape front and center in which the gray of the foreground rocks splashes about like waves pulled by passages of purple and ochre; “November Morning,” a small scene of a path winding through rolling hills that carves out mounded shapes to either side as it flows away from us; and “Study for Not One Not Two,” a sparkly sharp horizontal forest scene charcoal drawing that works largely because it avoids a compositional design in favor of marks in a largely spare space.

Lidded box, by Paul Heroux, 9.5 by 11 by 5 inches, stoneware with glazes. Photos courtesy of George Marshall Store Gallery

Heroux’s ceramics, on the other hand, get better and accomplish more the closer you look. They initially appear as masterful ceramics – which they are. Less obvious is the sculptural excellence of the divided vessels that basically take the form of standing, open books. These pieces, in particular, also open the door to Heroux’s exquisite abilities as a painter.

It’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of painting on ceramics. We think of glazes, after all, as a craft medium. It’s specialized and deals with things like vitrification when the glazes essentially turn to glass during the firing process. But this is the very same type of issue behind Don Voisine’s gorgeously subtle abstract paintings that donned the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art last year: subtleties in degree to which sections are matte or glossy.

It’s hard to see everything Heroux does because he does it all so well. If you pick up a jar, you might get lost in trying to understand how he can make a lid fit so perfectly. This body of work – jars, vases, chargers and more – forces us to compare the connecting appearance of the objects, which, in this case, is the surface painting by high-fire glaze. Heroux uses each surface of his divided vessels as a separate surface for painting. (If you imagine a standing, open book – that means both pages, both covers, the two edges and the binding, which makes seven outside surfaces, each curved and complex.) Heroux’s works are all soda-fired with glazes. Some feature underglaze decals or photo-transfer overglazing. Some use gold or platinum-based luster. Unlike painting, the transfer process leaves virtually no detectable trace because the surfaces are unified by the firing process. So Heroux is able to leap about and blend his direct application of glaze with his own painting and, apparently, borrowed textures. The result in painterly terms is incredibly complex yet unified in its sense of surface and object. From a sculptural standpoint, this is where ceramics have a leg up on most types of sculpture: The moment we sense brush-applied paint on the surface of a sculpture, things generally fall apart as we disconnect the process of the painted surface from the constructed object. In ceramics, the firing process tends to make the surface an indistinguishable quality of the object.

“November Morning,” by Kate Emlen, oil on paper on panel, 12 by 15 inches. Photos courtesy of George Marshall Store Gallery

Heroux furthers the unification of his works by combining decorative with calligraphic and figurative passages. The notion of book thereby becomes not just a reference but the model for our understanding of the object: pages, margins, surfaces, decoration, illustration, narrative, stories, script and so on. This even puts the empty volume (note the book term) of these bifurcated vases in terms of “contents” – as in, the contents of a book. And these aren’t witticisms on my part or Heroux’s: It is his artistic content. He is taking the meaningfulness of a book with its legibility – symbolic and otherwise – to give us the sense of something revered: the beauty and aesthetics of culturally conveyed knowledge.

I have yet to find the well bottom of Heroux’s symbolic and metaphorical depth. We sense illuminated manuscripts and Persian miniatures. We sense classics and canons, history and culture, stories and knowledge, images and pictures.

Just as paintings can highlight their own status as objects – as does the stroke-driven traditional art of Maine – sculpted and craft objects can make a case for being seen as paintings. Heroux’s work is extraordinary fine craft. But it is also excellent sculpture and gorgeously sophisticated painting.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]