Before beginning the exercises, we are asked to read, absorb and annotate an article in which Edmund de Waal ‘talks about craft as practice and where he feels it sits within the range of visual arts disciplines’.
Reading the recommended article, I was reminded that quite early in my Level 1 studies, I was profoundly moved by the transcript of a speech Edmund de Waal gave in parliament to accompany Our Future is in the making: An Education Manifesto for Craft and Making developed by The Crafts Council and its members, so my first thought on reading was that it was inflammatory of Grant Gibson to ask Edmund de Waal if ‘he felt he now stood slightly askance of the craft world. If he had, in effect, broken out of the craft ‘lagoon’ As Grayson Perry once described it”. I felt indignant on his behalf. If the author had done his homework, he would know that de Waal gave an ‘impassioned speech’ on Why craft is central, the transcript of which was published in the January/February 2015 Issue 250 of Crafts Magazine. Although, on reflection, I realise a good journalist is entitled to ask whatever questions are necessary to produce an interesting article.
To annotate the article as requested, I had to consider his words and decipher the meaning of his comment which begins
“Craft is the great otherness in our culture. It’s little understood. It’s extraordinarily relevant and powerful. It goes deep into people’s lives. It’s catalytic. It changes the world.”
and continues passionately. I thought about the definition of ‘craft’ as an activity involving skill in making things by hand, or in the singular, skills involved in carrying out one’s work and realised that I feel very strongly that ‘craft is central’. It extends far beyond its well know labels such as embroidery, ceramics or woodwork and I couldn’t agree more with the Manifesto which opens with the words “Craft and making are vital to our society, culture and economy”. This view is echoed by Rosy Greenlees’ comment below which was posted and published September 2014 Crafts Magazine Issue No. 250
Important in and of itself, a craft education isn’t just about creating beautiful objects. It has a vital role to play in wider industry, helps with problem-solving (as Matthew Crawford illustrated in his best-seller The Case for Working with Your Hands), and contributes to general cognitive development. It helps students see that there is more than one way to learn, and provides a sense of agency and empowerment. As the historian and master of Wellington College Dr Anthony Seldon argued in the Evening Standard recently: ‘All young people need an excellent grounding in the arts, creativity and sport.’ Yet if this decline continues then there is no question that the future of British craft will be in real jeopardy. And with it the material skills and expertise required by the film industry, engineers, designers, architects and surgeons.
I feel incensed when I read of a reduction in funding for creative arts in schools and believe a rounded education in creative and academic pursuits is vital. So many talents can’t be judged by academic ability. Often, individuals who find academic work difficult excel in creative activities . Creativity also has positive effects on mental health. Whilst this article is intended as a ‘catalyst to suggest themes and approaches to the creative practice’, it has also reminded me of the importance of craft in society.
The article also prompted me to think about craft in relation to fine art and I was interested to listen to a BBC Radio 4 Woman’s hour broadcast from 19th January 2017 looking at the history of craft and how it was elevated to the rank of fine art. The interviewees, Joanna Norman, Senior lecturer in Design History at Kingston University and Dr. Catharine Rossi, Head of Research, V&A Museum really helped me to put the role of craft in fine art textile practices into context.
Catharine Rossi was asked when craft began to be appreciated as art and responded that the idea of craft defined as a ‘category of making’ dates back to the history of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries with the emergence of another way of making. The factory emerged as mass-produced, paid labour, associated with men and the home emerged as a site of amateur making, unpaid work, associated with women.
Joanna Norman was asked how craft differs from fine art and responded that craft is to do with skill and materials, particular kinds of making in particular materials such as ceramics, wood or textiles. In her view, the difference between the two is in training. From the mid 18th century there was organised training in Fine Art such as painting, but no equivalent for crafts such as ceramics, embroidery or making for the home. There were pattern books and instruction manuals but no formalised training.
In simple terms, I can relate to this, many people have excellent craft skills, some craft their own ideas and some follow the direction/instructions of others. I used to, loosely, fall into that category, fortunate to be able to pick up practical craft skills, such as needlework, embroidery, dress making, free machining but with no idea how to develop my ideas beyond using other people’s ideas or patterns. Following a degree course and learning the creative process is enabling me to use my practical skills to express myself creatively and develop my own style. In turn I feel I can call myself an artist, rather than, or, as well as, a maker, but I firmly believe that craft is central to the process. For me, there is great pleasure in producing a well-crafted piece of work, the basis of which is a good understanding of the materials and related skills. Such knowledge enables and empowers me to develop work to produce new and exciting outcomes.
Going back to the article, de Waal says he “spent a lifetime thinking about porcelain but I didn’t know it”. I feel to get the most out of your chosen material, it is important to get to know it well. I remember reading that El Anatsui commented similarly and believe it is fundamental to explore your material and understand its properties.
I noted the words associated with pottery; fragmented, broken up, shards, patchwork, broken things and the comments, ‘the spaces between things’, and ‘the new way of making with more space between objects’. What does he mean? I need to consider this and come back to it.
I wonder if ‘making is very close to music’ for everyone, as commented in relation to his collaboration with the composer Martin Suckling. I used to play music, but it wasn’t in my soul, perhaps thats why I stopped. I feel as though making art, or the learning and executing of the process is.
It was interesting to note that de Waal increasingly does projects in places that he “really wants to understand and spend time in. Place, it seems to me, is really compelling.”. In developing my artist’s voice, I have become more aware of my individual needs and preferences and it is becoming more important for me to choose places I really want to be in and explore what it is about them that make it so. Closely linked is the recognition that I need to get out of my safety zone to explore and expand what is beneficial for me, as de Waal did when he left Herefordshire and moved to Sheffield in trying to work out “who he was, and what it was to be working by yourself, making something that had some value”.