A Video Guide to Craft

Bird of Paradise Quilt, American Folk Art Museum

The word craft indicates strength or skill.  It also means “to make something with one’s hands.” In this issue of Reinventing Home, we’ve heard makers describe their process.  Now it’s time to show you how they do it.

We begin with a trip to The American Folk Art Museum in New York which showcases work by people whose skills are self-taught or whose craft was passed on through the generations.  Their medium ranges from cloth, wood, and paper to clay and metal. Folk art expresses the identity of a community rather than the individuals.    This five-minute film gives an overview of the museum’s collection and shows the range of items–from samplers to hand-carved whirligigs, flags and quilts to decoys and weathervanes, that we have come to think of as uniquely American. 

Today the term craft can be confusing.  What’s included? What’s not?  And how has our notion of this word evolved?  This two and a half minute film from the American Crafts Council gives a wonderfully broad definition. Over the years, our notion has gotten broader and more all encompassing.  Craft now refers to everything from the way we keep our homes to objects that we consider art.

Next we meet see some well-known makers in action — plying their trade on film, on the stage, in magazines, and in corporate R&D.   The Netflix series Abstract is a binge-worthy feast that runs for two seasons, introducing you to  architect and sculptor Olafur Eliasson,  illustrator Christoph Neiman, costume designer Ruth Carter,  theater designer Es Devlin,  and toy designer Cas Holman, among others.    The mood is both playful and serious, showing how these makers have transformed their disciplines to bring  beauty—and a sense of play—into our daily lives.

For a deep dive into craft as the key to American character, we recommend this  documentary from Smithsonian Museum.  Here, historians explain why craft is central to birth of our democracy.  You’ll learn that the Constitution itself promotes “the useful arts” and why crafts were the life bread of the first colonists (Ben Franklin was a candlemaker, then a printer, then an inventor).  You’ll see how they were revived during the Great Depression by Eleanor Roosevelt and the WPA to showcase American resilience, and how  the Clinton administration celebrated “The Year of American Craft.” This film explores contemporary contributions from Native American women (beadwork, textiles, pottery), the emotional art of Black Veterans, reflecting their experience of war, and the subtle beauty achieved by Chinese-American masters of fine porcelain.

We suggest you follow that up with Craft in America: QUILTS that shows how American women created geometric patterns rivaling the work of the great abstract expressionists. Their work was mathematically complex, and also told the story of American migration, from the colonists to the early pioneers who crossed into the wilderness in the 1800s and the Black communities that moved north after the Civil War.  These moves were always hard on the soul. But as this film shows,  “Quilts can comfort you and protect you. They can even heal.”

Don’t miss this extraordinary film about the Gee’s Bend Quilters, a group of Alabama women who created astonishingly beautiful story quilts. Many of these women are descendants of slaves who labored hard and long on the Pettway Plantation.  Since their work was discovered by curators in the 1990s, it been exhibited to national acclaim at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and The Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Music plays a big role in their narrative. “The Quilters were ready to go home. They sang that song Sweet Chariot,”  one Gee’s Bend maker recalls, describing the hard lives of her ancestors.  

These storytelling quilts have much to say about the way we meet adversity.  “That quilt brought back the nights I was hungry and wanted to go home,” said one man astonished by the way one woman had captured the experience of poverty and oppression, “and here it was hanging in a museum.”

What is it the motivates people to devote their lives to making things by hand?  And for an ever decreasing audience?  In Japan, it far more expensive to purchase a handmade iron teakettle (well over $300) than to buy one that has been molded by machine ($20).  But consider the attention that is lavished on the hand-made piece. The maker begins with a sketch, then takes another two or three years to complete the casting and the finishing. Each kettle is the product of a great patience and concentration.  When it’s finished, it literally glows with reverence. As a master of this craft explains, ” A thing is not interesting if the people who make it are not interested.”

The handicrafts of the American Southwest were promoted by the railroads during the boom in tourism in the 1920s, resulting in mass production and a loss of the old traditions.  This film from New Mexico  public television introduces the work of Maria and Julien Martinez, the famed potters from the San Ildefonso pueblo near Santa Fe.  They made  earth-toned vessels with scenes of the mesa and the Sangre de Christo mountains. Yet Maria  also worked with black highly polished clay and was known for the stark simplicity of her designs. She also helped others to follow in her footsteps.  

“One thing pottery and clay work teaches you is patience,” explains Barbara Gonzalez, who grew up working alongside her grandmother. Maria instructed her how to instill each piece with good wishes for the buyer. “The spirituality of the pot never dies.”

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