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Behind The NeoCraft Conference 

For four years, NSCAD professor and noted expert Sandra Alfody has been organizing this weekend’s international NeoCraft conference as a celebration and debate of professional craft.

"If you're going to be a feminist, you're going to pee right here with the rest of us. Standing up," one taunting co-worker told Sandra Alfoldy. It was the dead of winter in the interior of British Columbia. She was the only woman among a group of eight men working for the Minister of Agriculture, removing orchard trees with chainsaws. They'd just had an argument about feminism.

"You know, this really isn't my group of people. Maybe it's time to go to graduate school," Alfoldy, now 39, recalls thinking. Turns out the decision she made that chilly day in January, 1993, was influential not only for her own life but on the Canadian craft scene. Alfoldy went on to become the first person in Canada to do a PhD in craft history at Concordia University in Montreal. The craft historian and professor at NSCAD University is also the driving force behind NeoCraft, a three-day international interdisciplinary conference on crafts and modernity happening this weekend in Halifax.

It's long been established that the art-versus-craft debate is dead. Now, it is a matter of craft coming to terms with its own identity crisis and developing its own vocabulary. Alfoldy, who is a bit of a big-wig in the craft scene, has been planning the conference for four years and has high hopes for NeoCraft. She says she's nervous, but her bubbly personality radiates a positive energy that is infectious to all those around her. Alfoldy says the purpose of the conference is to acknowledge and advance the role crafts play in our culture and economy and examine critical theory and history of the crafts.

"My biggest fear was, "Am I going to organize a craft conference that craftspeople don't care about? Am I going to organize a craft conference that only PhD craftspeople are going to come to?' Thank god, it doesn't seem to be working that way," says Alfoldy. The response to NeoCraft has been overwhelming. Much to Alfoldy's delight and fear, all 300 advance passes have sold out, with visitors coming from all over the world including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and India. She sees the conference as a rallying of artisans, academics and most importantly, students. "The more we teach students at a university level about the crafts and the more we send well-educated curators and writers out there who want to do research on the crafts, the more we build up that body of scholarship the stronger all craftspeople become."

The conference is generating quite a buzz at NSCAD and the art community in Halifax. Of the 300 attendees, about 70 of them are students and another 40 to 50 are student volunteers. " is going to open up possibilities in the minds of students. I really think they're going to see more of what craft can be and how it can be spoken about. I think a lot of students attending haven't seen crafts being spoken about in an academic way," says Jenika Sobolweska, the conference's student volunteer co-ordinator.

NeoCraft is divided into five central themes: political economy; cultural redundancy or the genre under threat; inventions of tradition; utopian ideals; the senses and new technologies and global craft. There will be panel discussions, demonstrations and speakers and artists presenting papers on a number of topics. Some keynote speakers include former NSCAD president Paul Greenhalgh, Allyson Mitchell, Léopold Foulem, Janice Helland and Nations in a Circle, a panel examining innovations and traditions in Aboriginal craft. In conjunction with the conference is the launch of the Neocraft: Modernity and the Crafts book on Friday, November 23.

The Canadian Craft Federation declared 2007 the Year of Craft in Canada with the conference as a centrepiece to the many other craft-related events happening across the country this year. Above all, Alfoldy hopes NeoCraft will be a celebration. "Let's go out there and really enjoy. It is the Year of Craft after all. And maybe generate some lively debate."

For the complete NeoCraft schedule, visit neocraft.ca.

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