PART 1 | The Introduction


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Part 1 | The Introduction

Ideas on Craft and the Craft School Experience

Ars longa, vita brevis translates to “life is short, but art lives forever,” though its original meaning was more akin to “the life so short, the craft so long to learn.”1 It is here that I begin an in-depth look into the meaning of craft, creativity, and the tremendous conceptual and artistic progress possible in the transformative style of education uniquely found in five of the leading craft schools in the US, including: Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Penland School of Crafts, Peters Valley School of Craft, and Pilchuck Glass School, who have recently joined together to launch a national initiative celebrating the very importance of the craft school experience.

Craft is a loaded, five-lettered word. A verb, noun, and adjective that mean much to many and is often complicated to define as it both intimates and associates with art, material, technique, the hand, and community. It is, undoubtedly, all of these things; but it is, at its crux, a rich field of objects that serve as dynamic expressions of the human experience – icons that offer unique understanding of the world that connects us more deeply with ourselves and with each other.

Recently I asked the directors from several US craft schools, What is craft? As experts and administrators in the field, and quite often makers in their own right, their experienced perspectives were considered, passionate, and frank. Stuart Kestenbaum of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, led the charge with his first thought: “This must be a trick question.” He went on to elaborate, “Craft is a process. Craft is an understanding of materials and traditions. Craft is a way of thinking sympathetically about materials. Craft is about the hand and its tacit and intuitive knowledge.” Jean McLaughlin of Penland School of Crafts took this even further, “…it is invention. It is the intelligence of the hand and body joined with knowledge of materials and skillful use of tools to realize an idea. It is an endeavor that has intrigued humankind for centuries and challenged us to be continually learning from the past to make something for the benefit of our species.” Kristin Muller of Peters Valley School of Craft also relays her interest in the manner in which craft has existed and continues to ripen “within a continuum of humanity’s creative development” – a field rich in tradition, but broad enough for artists to “explore and challenge utility, as well as their own roles as makers and designers.” She sums it up well, “In a nutshell, craft is art you can touch, live with, and ponder; executed with passion, skill, and imagination.”

As a movement, craft is by far one of the most engaging, conceptually innovative, and interesting disciplines in contemporary art. From jewelry to sculpture to installation (and more in-between), artists in this unique category are tackling complex themes in undeniably meticulous and beautifully crafted pieces made from glass, clay, metal, fibers, and wood. Entrenched in history and tradition, craft as a field and topic of discourse is a venerable subject that is often addressed and questioned as passionately as it is created. Which leads me a number of open-ended questions: Is craft defined by material? What is the relevance of technique? How is it valued? Is it art? Should it be separate from fine art? Where does it fit into the critical dialogue, historically and currently? How and where should it be taught? For Part 1, I will dive, albeit shallowly, into the pool in search of some answers.

There is a resounding opinion that craft; in the hierarchy of the arts with fine arts being at the top, is a lesser field, though this is not an opinion I have ever expressed. The arguments both for and against the separation of craft and fine art categories are both questionable and far too charged for my purposes here, and I find Howard Risatti’s analysis sufficient: “The ‘no separation’ argument remains unsatisfactory for both craft and fine art because it ignores these questions; it implies that either it is unnecessary to understand formally and conceptually exactly what is referred to when speaking of craft and fine art, or, on the other hand, that formally and conceptually craft and fine art are exactly the same enterprises.”2 I can agree that no two disciplines are the same enterprise, so I must acknowledge that there are specific features of craft, such as material, technique, and persistent allusion to the artist’s hand that cannot be ignored.

Articulating the non-quantifiable values of the handmade, of the creative process, are clearly found in the materials and techniques situated at the very heart of craft.3 Materials historically associated only with function, and still in some circumstances, lay a secure foundation for our rational understanding of and innate response to works of contemporary craft. Intrinsically precious and intimate, materials such as blown glass, cast porcelain, and woven textiles lure me in, convincing me that I would feel like I would miss these special works even if we’d never met. There is no denying the importance that material has had on defining the field; however, this does not and cannot limit any theoretical or meaningful conversation in determining what craft is, has been, and can be.

The notion that work made by hand is somehow inferior, stemming from the suppression of the skilled hand that earnestly began in the eighteenth century,4 is critical to the history of the field of craft and much discussion in the present. There is a vast difference in understanding how to manipulate a material and being able to actually do so, and so I agree with philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling in that “it is only in technique that art / craft acquires the appearance of truth.”5 I find the insatiable drive to master technique pervasive in craft, unlike other disciplines, which extends far beyond just understanding the complex procedures for preparing the material; but rather a vigorous passion for the substantial mastery and evolution of skill in manipulating a material by hand. Contrary to the idea that aesthetic expression is precluded from physical function, technique in no way refers just to the how, but creatively also influences the why. As such, artists in the field of craft have been and are creating works that are abstractly and intelligently explosive, proving that objects can serve as both physical things and ideas when expertly constructed.

When evaluating an entire movement, it is important to remember (just as it is in the relationship between philosopher and art), when “viewing things from the other side, we must ask whether one [the philosopher] for his own part is suited to penetrate the essence of art and/or to portray it with truth.”6 If nothing else, in material, technique, and the ever-present hand of the artist, I find truth in craft and must mirror its portrayal.

For as many answers it provides, as craft evolves aesthetically and conceptually and its materials expand further into the arenas of fine art and design (something Stuart Kestenbaum feels is necessary for continued growth of the discipline), the list of questions related to it grows ever larger. When these same directors were asked to name ideas and/or topics that they felt are the most relevant to the field at large right now, their answers were anything but tedious. Jean McLaughlin feels “body intelligence, muscle memory, and understanding that other forms of intelligence exist that have not been adequately tapped and she is looking for interesting ways to link craft to disciplines other than the fields/histories of painting and sculpture such as science, archeology, or anthropology.” Kristin Muller noted that now, more than ever, “the context for craft is wide open as we are increasingly moving to conceptual work, sculpture and design are utilizing craft materials into an exciting new territory. Refined utility is also very relevant as makers who are steeped in ancient and traditional techniques are now combining them with new technologies resulting in brand new and exciting possibilities.” Jim Baker, Executive Director of Pilchuck Glass School agrees, “…all of these aspects are very inspiring for our field and our schools. In a way, there is a sort of rebellion taking place amongst our artists and participants as they fulfill their natural urges to express their ideas.” And, well, for any rebellion to take root, you’ve got to have a legion willing to lead the charge – something far without challenge here.

“Those doing soul work, who want the searing truth more than solace or applause, know each other right away. Those who want something else turn and take a seat in another room. Soul-makers always find each other’s company.7 In many ways, the pedagogical approach these five schools offer, can be summed up in one word: inclusiveness. Unrivaled in the fine art world, the craft community displays remarkable camaraderie. Stemming from what I believe is the historical nature of this type of education, of intense and immersive apprenticeships, this manner of rigorous study is transformational not only in practice but also in building relationships and communities. More importantly, artistic risks and experiments, creative exchanges across generations and skill levels, and collaborations across media have become possible; but only within such an adept, egalitarian, and supportive community. Craft’s strength lies in the shared respect of making and the appreciation of the artistic voice among its diverse makers, educators, and audiences. And, I believe, that strength is rooted in the craft school experience.

The Sufi Mystic and poet Rumi, spoke at length about the need for seeking the silence – a chance to taste the core of our being, to go deeper and experience the oil of the walnut rather than just its rattling noise against its shell wall.8 As artists, there are times when one must make precisely these kinds of pilgrimages to (in Rumi’s words) melt, untie the knots, be the unashamed ecstatic by throwing off the cloak of normal [daily life] and becoming the clear and rational lunatic whom the most intelligent human beings will follow.9 Whether it is in methodology, critical dialogue, or simply creating chances for revelation, the craft community and the dynamic collective of schools devoted to this particular type of educational experience offer, in the words of Bill May, Executive Director of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, “unique opportunities to be fully focused and present in a creative manner, resulting in experiences that are inspiring and, at times, life-changing.”

Much like the captivating artworks produced in this compelling field, if I asked even a small handful of people their ideas about or definitions of craft, I suspect I would receive varying responses – some theoretical, some emotional, and some confrontational. So, in an effort to expand my own understanding of craft: its materials, its artists, its theoretical concerns, its cultural significance, and its educational pursuits – this is precisely what I’m going to do. In an upcoming 6-part series, I will be interviewing extraordinary artists from the craft movement who have been shaped by their participation in the distinctive approach of a craft school education – either as a student, an instructor, or both. These first-hand perspectives coupled with viewpoints from the directors of each school, will undoubtedly yield some rousing ideas and, I imagine, more questions worth exploring.

So I end this introduction and begin the series with this: a poignant statement by Fran Merritt, Founding Director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, shared with me by Jim Baker, who also taught at Haystack in the mid-70’s. It is, in his words, “pitch perfect” and I believe an excellent text to begin this in-depth look at craft and the craft school experience.

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Image at top: John McQueen, Tilting at Windmills, 2011, willow branches and waxed linen, 49 x 48 x 32 inches, Represented by Duane Reed Gallery, St. Louis, MO (www.duanereedgallery.com)

Footnotes: 1 The original came from Hippocrates, Aphorisms, I (5th Century B.C.), but here it is quoted in Latin from Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae by Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: function and aesthetic expression (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 85; 2 Howard Risatti, Introduction, 5; 3 Howard Risatti, 16; 4 Howard Risatti, 116; 5 Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, The Philosophy of Art, Continental Aesthetics: Romanticism to Postmodernism, An Anthology (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001), 129; 6 Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, The Philosophy of Art, Continental Aesthetics, 128; 7 Coleman Barks, The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002), 249; 8 Coleman Barks, 195; and 9 Rumi, A Deep Nobility, translated by Coleman Barks, 184

Bibliography: Barks, Coleman. The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002.; Kearney, Richard and David Rasmussen, eds. Continental Aesthetics: Romanticism to Postmodernism, An Anthology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001.; Risatti, Howard. A Theory of Craft: function and aesthetic expression. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007

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This series is sponsored by the National Craft Schools Initiative – five US craft schools who have teamed up to promote the craft school experience on a national scale. For more information about the national initiative, visit www.craftschools.us

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