Tuesday, March 1, 2011

does craft have to be fresh to be good?

OK so we all know that I am fascinated with what is good craft--or fine craft? How is craft different from art--if indeed it is. I mean after all isn't Paul Revere's silver both art and craft? What about Tiffany's windows? Aren't they both? Do we think art is better than craft? And why does the word "crafter" give me the heebee--jeebee's--is that how you spell it?  So many questions. Such fun to discuss. And yes, I am not sure there are any good answers.

Where to begin? I looked at the original definition of the word craft--from the OED--the first definition was strength, power. I like that. Not sure about the second definition of skill, deceit. To me it sounds too "crafty"--pun intended.  But I do like the definition of art, trade and structure, work. I think I may need to get the unabridged version of the OED sometime. But I digress.

What do you think of when you think of craft?  I consider the making by a person of something real and tangible. Skill would be something I would implicitly add as a prerequisite. A sense of sureness would be nice. Usefulness. Something that works as intended. And most important--doesn't it need the spirit of the maker. What else do would you add?

Does it have to be original? Does it have to be fresh? That is the question. Now I am not speaking of someone who makes replica Tiffany lamps. I have seen those--some are actually quite lovely. Nice to think that I could own something that looked like a Tiffany lamp. But it is a reproduction and regardless of how well made it is it always seems a bit lifeless and false. (Yes, I know I can be fussy but...)

Now as you may remember, I was just showing at the Baltimore Craft Show. I saw lots and lots of "craft". What a divergent selection there was. Yes indeed there was someone who made something out of what appeared to be toilet seats. OK. Why, I might ask. Another person glued tiny toy cars onto a manikin and spray painted it silver. Certainly it was a new take. It even appeared to be well-constructed--but was it good craft?

I think of one of the winners of Best Booth in show. Now I won't diss this person by name--that is not my style. But when I read the jurors' comments on the work I felt surprised--to say the least. You can find them on line if you are curious. Yes, I guess the work was "fresh". I assume it sells well. Maybe it even fills a certain niche.The display was stylized and that was part of what the award was for.  But the more I think about it, the more I feel that craft is and should be more than that. It should show the respect of the maker for him or herself and for the viewer and the artist. I think it also should inspire the audience. Maybe I am a traditionalist but for me craft is a way for us to show the best that humans can be.

Let me contrast that work with the fine craft of Daniel Levy. Now for those who don't know his work, Daniel makes absolutely amazing porcelain dining room sets. Platters, bowls, even salt and pepper shakers.  He was across from me at the show so I got to study his dinnerware for days. Just seeing his work during the show made me dream of fancy dinner parties in New York penthouses. It took me to a different life--and I loved that aspect of it.

Look at the subtle details. Yes that is 22 karat gold that he paints on the edge of the plates. The touch of the human hand.

Look at the gold on these bowls--here he has purposefully left an edge. More of that human touch. Or as Daniel says,  his ambition is to "offer unusual, utilitarian objects that have a 'sense of the hand' in each and every piece." wow--doesn't that say a lot?

The wonderful curves in this table setting.I love that greenish edge just peaking through the gold.

Brilliant isn't it. He had lots to say about the importance of craft. The promoters he said at check-in should refer to us as craftspeople. All art--he said--is functional. The distinction should be between functional and utilitarian. Interesting use of words isn't it? Something to think about. You can read more about his work and his thoughts at  http://www.daniellevyporcelain.com

I think of my friend Pat Burling--a rug weaver. She makes her rugs using 48--count them 48 threads per inch. Can you imagine that? And the threads are not all the same color. By carefully selecting the colors she uses she is able to get great feelings of shadows or highlights. Perfectly matched to the room. Look at some of these designs. Again rugs designed to last. And as a craftsperson she is relentless--always pushing herself to do better. To work harder.

See the subtle differences and colorways. Aren't they wonderful? Again the touch of the human hand. The attention to detail. And work made to be utilitarian. Made to last. Maybe in that penthouse of my dreams.  Check out her work at http://www.patriciaburling.com

I thought of my new friends Jerry and Deborah Kermode, woodturners from California. What care and craftsmanship goes into each piece. Indeed they are using salvaged redwoods that were cut down a hundred years ago before loggers knew any better to create amazing turned bowls. Just look at the grain of the wood and the depth that they bring out. A piece to dream about.

When the burls that help create the wonderful edge on the above bowl became hard to find, they created salad bowls with smooth edges like this one.

Yes, the bowl is actually smooth as can be. The ripples that seem to appear are only there because as true craftsmen they know how to let the wood shine through. Isn't it gorgeous? For more info check out http://www.jerrykermode.com This is new work. It can even be considered "fresh" work for them--but it is not designed to shock the viewer only to enrich the spirit of the viewer.

Finally I think of my friend Ian--a talented woodworker who died far too young. At the services for him, they read an essay he had written as to why he was making a particular wooden chest that he envisioned in his house for years as children yet to be born would play near it, perhaps scratch it slightly. But always treasure it as their dreams and his dreams. Watching over them. That chest was on the platform during the service. Enough to make me cry--and I did.  But in the end is what I think craft is trying to do and why we so desperately need it.That continuity with ourselves, our history, our better selves. There is a lot to craft and we should take great care not to lose it.

Or at least that is what I think? What do you think? Am I too idealistic? Too twentieth century? Do let me know?


  1. Thank you for this post. I struggle with the same thing myself. I am a textile artist - shibori (stitched shibori with real indigo), felter (nuno) and weaver (wool/cashmere shawls and scarves, hand painted warp, filament silk weft - all hand dyed). Because textiles are considered "craft" - they are infrequently properly valued (monetarily and aesthetically).
    Here's another - the difference between 'artist' and 'artisan'.

    Thanks again,

    (The word 'crafty' gives me the shivers too...)

  2. Thanks Amelia. You do raise another great question which I will have to think about.