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Delivered by hand

Often overlooked, craft’s magnitude is best discerned at the scale of the maker

LOST Sep-Oct 2019

By Hand Hy Vee Horizon Full

HyVee Horizon, Lincoln, Nebraska, by Sarah Turner, 2017-2018, 16 x 36 inches, paper grocery bags

Photo by Trisha Holt

This past spring, the Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC)—where I studied metalsmithing, woodworking, and textiles—closed. The buildings and grounds were sold, studios were emptied of equipment and tools, and students and faculty left for other schools and ventures. I was invited to give OCAC’s final commencement address, to provide a hopeful message on a sad day. So I focused on what I believe to be true: Craft knowledge, craft skills, craft endeavors aren’t going away, but they are harder to see—and we’ll have to look in different places.

Detail of Papa Joes, Birmingham, Michigan, by Sarah Turner, 2017-2018, 14 x 37 inches, paper grocery bags
Photo by Trisha Holt

The tricky thing is, to recognize craft, one needs the skills of a craftsperson: to slow down, pay attention, and focus on the human scale. This is the terrain of craft. We’ve seen craft reach grand scales—think of Betty Woodman’s pots turned architectural frieze, standing taller than most of us, or Sheila Hicks’ bright and tightly wound textiles hanging from floor to ceiling—but what is essential is the intense one-to-one relationship between the maker and the material, transmitting knowledge and skill through tools and time. With the speed and scope of worldwide information, international networks, and global ambition, we’re often overlooking the scale where craft is happening, even as it’s all around us.

In rural North Carolina last winter, I stood inside a 1961 Catalina travel trailer and listened to a heavy winter rain. It was a modest but perfectly restored trailer, repaired by a man who had several others in progress. With enthusiasm and pride, he told me about replacing the paneling, using old material to trace a pattern for new panels. The rain gave occasion to see how well he had resealed the louvered windows, tightened crimps in the siding, and carefully fitted each repaired part. The camper was sturdy and sound, and like any other craft object, it came with the stories of its history, a narrative of both its making and its use. Most likely, this man wouldn’t consider his trailer restorations a craft—maybe just a hobby—but it certainly took care and skill, research and history. It was all done by hand, without pretense or fanfare. A person cared about something and set to work.

1961 Catalina Travel Trailer
Photo by Sarah Turner

This is a modest example—one person, pursuing an avocation for curiosity and pleasure. This past spring, we had a world-stage example: the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Faced with extensive damage to its roof and spire, the French government has turned to its Compagnons du Devoir, an organization of crafts- and tradespeople trained in a wide variety of traditional building and preservation methods. Many have been working for years, gathering master-trade experience from across the country, training for projects that need their skills.

Few knew about the existence of these Compagnons before the fire. This is because craft holds a social position that we overlook. As we focus on celebrity, innovation, and the center stage, it’s easy to forget the essential supporting roles. The North Bennet Street School, where I work, focuses on this important position of craft: being of use and service, often backstage. We make and repair violins, tune and rebuild pianos, but we’re not the musicians onstage or in the orchestra. Instead, we’re making someone else’s sound and performance possible. Our bookbinders present and preserve the words of authors and poets, giving body to the ideas of others. We’re the carpenters, not the architects; the jewelers, not the fashion designers. There is a humility to traditional craft—it works quietly and behind the scenes, building the foundations and possibilities.

The Yucca Valley lab offers material-focused workshops.
Photo courtesy of Bullseye Glass Co.

By being connected to use, craft relies on community; this is its natural home. Craft activity rarely happens as a solo venture. Think of where you see it: craft centers, schools, fairs, camps, garages, workshops. These are social places; knowledge is being shared, exchanged, and celebrated. Craft isn’t only about the product—the pot on the potter’s wheel, the textile on the loom. It values systems and networks, and so, it embeds itself all around us.

Craft hasn’t always been happy with this position. It has yearned to be more recognized and celebrated, and to do this, craft has followed the path of art—establishing its position in colleges and universities, museums and galleries, theory and critical discourse. And it has followed the path of design—intersecting with manufacturing, branding, and distribution. But in this quest to be seen as others are seen, craft is in danger of losing its particular strength and identity, putting itself in a defensive position, ambivalent about what it is and what it wishes to be.

As I survey the landscape of craft, I see it thriving in many forms, just beyond the places we might imagine. In the desert outside Los Angeles, a new craft enterprise is forming: The Yucca Valley Material Lab offers intensive material-focused workshops and convenings about glass and other material discoveries. In Oregon, a shared metalsmithing and jewelry studio takes hold as Ninety-Twenty, a collection of fabrication spaces, picking up where OCAC left off. On Instagram, Pots in Action takes the ordinary vessel as a starting point to bring forward stories of ceramics’ history, social position, and simple effectiveness. In Detroit, blacksmiths are making tools and restoring architectural pieces, while weavers form cooperatives and car mechanics labor over vintage restoration and design.

Craft is all these things, and if we focus only on certain modes, we’ll overlook the breadth of its presence all around us. It is the immersive installations of Nick Cave—first trained as a fiber artist—at the Cyclorama and at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. It is the boundary-pushing work of students at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Craft is present en masse at festivals around this city, including the Society of Arts + Crafts’ CraftBoston shows. It’s in the museums, embodying history as well as contemporary ideas at the Fuller Craft Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Craft is deep into communities through the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts and neighborhood centers across the city. And craft is also right beside us—it’s the needlepoint from our families, the boatbuilder in our neighbor’s garage, the masons repairing the buildings in our cities. If we’re worried it’s missing, we simply need to pay attention like a craftsperson: Slow down, and look close at hand.

Photo courtesy of Ninety-Twenty Studios.

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