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Mahogany and cherry nesting tables with maple inlay by Rende Zoutewelle

As an artist/craftswoman, I’ve been watching sadly as craft skills disappear from normal life. Hand written, hand formed, hand stitched objects are the exception to the machine made things we surround ourselves with.  We are geared to  buying inexpensive quick fix products or highly priced design objects to fit with the latest consumer trends. Then we throw them out when the next fashion wave hits.

Handmade things take time to design and make. But they also get better with age and last longer. In his article, ‘Let the artisans craft our future’, (Resurgence Issue 263) artist Grayson Perry says (partly paraphrased):

‘Craftsmanship is no longer central to our quick fix service economy. Craft used to be integral to many walks of life.
People were proud of what they made- it was valued. To be a craftsman in Britain was to be working-class nobility.

 ‘Handmade’ is often  a byword for ‘pricey’ and  ‘local’ means unadventurous or a lack of choice. But what about when the oil runs out and the forests are all cut down and we can’t drive to Furniture Barn and buy a table designed in Scandinavia, made in China with wood from South America for the price of a round of drinks in the pub?’ 

‘Maybe in the future the distinctiveness that consumerism promises will be concentrated not on choice but on customisation’. 

‘Maybe ethical concerns will force us to turn to local craftsmen/women  to give added value to our status-defining objects’.

‘Maybe it will be all right again for local labour to be the major cost factor instead of importers, distributors, fuel and marketing. Read the rest of this entry »

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In praise of a craft economy

February 21, 2011

embroidered denim shirt

A little funk & flash

felt work

Craft love

Several years ago, there was a European project to promote tourism in our area. They invited all the artists and craftsmen to see if, together, we could come up with some ideas for getting funding by developing the arts and crafts more in the region.

The mind-boggling result of the meeting of 400 creatives who attended the first meetings, is that the majority of the professional Artists flatly refused to work together with ‘just craftsmen’ and walked out.
Craftspeople, including wooden clog makers, weavers, potters, etc. were seen as somehow inferior to the artists and they felt that being associated with these crafts would devalue their work.

The stigma around handwork is very strong in Dutch intellectual society. I have run into it repeatedly. Crafts are seen as dabbling hobbyism. Sometimes, when a craftsperson is doing groundbreaking work, she or he can be admitted into the upper art world echelons. But this is rare. Luckily, with the rise of craftivism, crafting (the rise of old craft skills in a hip context), etc, this is starting to change. But very telling is that the Dutch version of Etsy will be called something to the tune of ‘cutesy stuff’.  Sigh.

I have been advocating the virtues of working with one’s hands to produce excellence and beauty for all my adult life. So I find that living in Holland sometimes feels less than craftfriendly.

I was so heartened recently to run into the work of Satish Kumar and others connected with his magazine Resurgence.  This loose community of environmentalists, artists, craftspeople, intellectuals, educators, writers, poets, nature lovers, etc. has a philosophy where the arts play an integral role in leading a whole, healed life. The magazine spends equal time on education, ecology and craft and explores creating small, sustainable local economies based on spiritual values.

Here is a quote from one of Kumar’s editorials in the December 2010 issue of Resurgence:

‘Being an artist is not a hobby: it is a livelihood. Moreover, a craft economy is a truly sustainable and resilient economy: indeed a, peace economy.

The sooner we embrace the arts and crafts as an integral part of our daily lives, the sooner we will be able to address the economic, environmental and spiritual issues of our time. The industrial economy is a growth economy- never enough and never satisfied-  whereas the craft economy is a dancing economy-  always active and always joyful.

 ‘The way to a fulfilled life is through the arts and crafts. They lead us out of consumerism. The practice of arts and crafts is a spiritual practice through which we honour the material world, and while we do that we develop a sense of beauty and generosity in our lives’.

I recently read,   The Elevator Speech by Greg Peters, an article for artists on how to present themselves quickly with a 30 second sound bite. This business technique may have grown from the speed dating trend, where you have to make clear to the person sitting across from you in less than a minute just what it is you do.

Viewed within the paradigm of artists as aspiring business men/women, the article is good. The useful part of the concept is that it gets you clear in some very concise statements about just what it is you do.  And you can communicate it if caught off guard without your cards or in another spontaneous encounter with someone who may be interested in working with you.

In my experience, however, having a prepared statement about what you do has some disadvantages as well. This is especially true for those of us who are active across abroad range of creative work. For instance, I have written a book on creative approaches to activities for people with dementia, I decorate period instruments, and I am a fine artist and graphic designer. OK, that could be a good elevator speech, but it is only about what I Do. And certain aspects of this would be less interesting to one sort of potential client than another.

I tend lately to try to communicate what it is I care about. And then I present whatever projects I am engaged in as an expression of that.

If you are only concerned about presenting what you do well, you are already approaching the other person narrowly- as a prospective client. Personally I turn off when someone is coming on to me just to sell somehing or to get ahead.  If, on the other hand, you genuinely share what your passion is, there is a likelihood that it will connect with the same place in them, and you will meet as people. In my experience there is much more potential for collaboration between two people who share a cause than between two people looking for how someone else can be of use to them commercially.

Also, I challenge the model that artists have to conform to current business marketing practices. I don’t think they work for most of us. We should be using our creativity (and we are!) to create more playful, out of the box, awesome, amazing ways of bringing our creativity into everyday situations.