By Valerie Andrews
A craft is not a hobby to fill our leisure hours. It’s a commitment to a lifelong discipline, to a dialogue with work that deepens over time and takes some unexpected turns. Consider the evolution of celebrated artist Dale Chihuly. In college, he took a weaving class, learning how to insert glass shards into tapestries. After studying interior design, he began to experiment with glassblowing. Once he finished his a masters in sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design, a Fulbright fellowship landed him in Venice. At the Venini factory on the island of Murano, Chihuly learned the team approach to glass blowing that he would use to create stunning, large-scale work — way beyond what anyone thought was possible in this medium. Throughout his career Chihuly has pushed the limits of his discipline, inventing new techniques, and boldly experimenting with new forms. He drew on other cultures to create his Navaho blanket series and was inspired by Japanese flower arranging in his Ikebana series. In his hands, glass has morphed from a useful and decorative object into major public installations—his enormous walk-through sculptures immerse the viewer in a world of color, light, and fantasy.
The artist has pushed the limits in his life, as well, continuing to blow glass even after suffering the loss of an eye in car accident. After he dislocated his shoulder body surfing, he hired others to hold the pipe. Today Chihuly is an entrepreneur with a workshop and a factory to produce his most ambitious projects. If you haven’t already seen his work, the documentary, Chihuly in the Hot Shop, is a good place to start. And if you’re ever in Seattle, be sure to visit the Chihuly Garden of Glass next to the Space Needle, to see glass transformed into an architectural symphony.
“The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” – Hippocrates
Craft is a dialogue between the beautiful and the useful, the known and the unknown, ending in a leap of faith. A maker—no matter what the material—is committed to the process of unfolding, in constant conversation with a medium that engages the mind, the emotions, and the senses. Some say that practicing a craft is like putting your soul on a stretcher—and if you’re survive this process, you will learn a good deal about the art of living. But it is also a matter of paying attention to the most minute details.
As a journalist, I have spent hours wrangling with the structure of a piece, evaluating every sentence for rhythm and flow as if it were a line of music. Following John McPhee’s advice, I return, over and over again, to the dictionary, reviewing my word choices, until I am certain that I have found the most accurate, and most compelling, way to turn a phrase. And, of course, I read incessantly, apprenticing to other writers. My library card is so dogeared, I’ve had to replace it, while over the years, I’ve spent a small fortune on a reference library. I keep my ear tuned to the latest voice in fiction, and enjoy those who break new ground—Orphan Pamuk, Arundati Roy, Dave Eggers. For masters of style I turn to The New Yorker writers like Joseph Mitchell who described the Native Americans who built Manhattan’s skyscrapers then profiled Joe Gould, a quirky but compelling Greenwich Village character who claimed to be working on “an oral history of modern life.” From Mitchell, I learned the value of exploring marginal people and scouting for stories in unexpected places. For sheer economy of style, I go back to two more New Yorker alums: William Maxwell (They Came Like Swallows, the story of a young boy whose mothers dies in the 1918 influenza epidemic) and “Talk of the Town” reporter Lillian Ross whose description of an encounter with Ernest Hemingway is wickedly delicious. There is always more to learn. After more than fifty years at my writing desk, the literary life remains one of endless challenge and discovery.
Not too long ago, someone told me the story of an 88 year-old tatami maker who had made a thousand mats and finally reached that “aha!” moment where he felt he’d got it right. For most people who devote their lives to a craft—painters, poets, dancers, writers and weavers—it’s not the end result that counts. It’s the long pursuit of excellence and what one learns along the way. We expect to fail time and again, and accept that the end result will fall short of our vision. But then there’s the happy accident when we suddenly achieve our ends in a simple and direct manner. The work just feels complete.
And when that moment ends, we return to the practice of experimenting. Of waiting and not-knowing, approaching our craft again with “beginner’s mind.”
Hemingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” And so we just get back to work, remaining grateful for some glimpses of a higher truth. In those moments, we feel deeply grounded in our own being, and what we do connects us to a greater whole.
As Dylan Thomas observed, “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps…so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.” I’m sure he was onto something. Native American basket weavers always left a break in the pattern so the soul could get out—-and Dutch woodworkers in the Hudson River Valley aligned their mantels, but left a tiny gap—careful not to tempt the devil with perfection. Each craft contains a whole philosophy and gives us some insight as well into the arc of human history.
Years ago, I lived in a 1790 stone farm house with such a mantel and with a fireback so well crafted that allowed me to heat the whole house from the living room hearth. The walls of the building were two feet thick and the floors made from broad oak planks that before the Revolution had been considered contraband, and reserved for the British navy. In this village in upstate New York, comparable to colonial Williamsburg, I learned how masonry and other crafts have played in the shaping of our American democracy.
As Glenn Adamson shows in Craft: An American History, colonists came to the New World with only a few possessions; they had to build their own houses, make their own silverware, pots and dishes, and create their own furniture. The most skilled of these craftsmen became fixtures in our early government—among them the noted Boston silversmith, Paul Revere and the printer, Benjamin Franklin—and their principles of economy, beauty, and balance were central to the formation of our national character.
“Craft has been many things in America,” Adamson writes. “A way of making a living, of expressing creativity, of pushing technology forward. It has a potent symbolic status, one so fundamental that is anchors our everyday speech. We talk about forging links, laying foundations, hammering things out, spinning tales. Conceptually, we knit things together and carve them apart. Craftspeople themselves are often seen as representing the best of America. Capable, trustworthy, and self-sufficient, they are the quiet heroes of our national story.”
Craft, Adamson argues, is crucial to our belief in egalitarianism, in a society where all men are created equal. While that ideal remains to be fully realized, craft has historically been the means for men and women to rise up and achieve new levels of status and security.
Of course, this wasn’t an easy process. Colonial artisans often went bankrupt and were at the mercy of global trends. Materials were scarce and had to be imported. The silver used to make Revere’s teapots may have come from the mines of Potosi, and its slave labor, and mahogany for tables from the rainforest of Honduras. As Adamson suggests, the “Golden Age” of craftsmanship did not feel so golden to those who had to make a living this way. Still, it was a way to make a living, and to make one’s mark, in precarious times. Betsy Ross may have designed the country’s flag, but she worked as seamstress in a local upholstery shop.
Craft was a stepping stone toward freedom for many African American slaves. The surest way to escape the fields, Adamson tells us, was through “learning a trade like blacksmithing, carpentry and boatbuilding (for men), or spinning and weaving (for women).”
Though forced to wear a metal badge indicating their ownership and occupation, these craftsmen were trusted members of the Black community. Many helped to organize slave revolts and many went on to secure their freedom. Frederick Douglass trained in hull caulking, then passed himself off as a sailor on a ship bound for New Bedford, where he became an eloquent spokesman for emancipation.
Craft is living history. The quilts of Gee’s Bend, on display in major museums today, were made by women of Alabama whose ancestors were slaves on the Pettway Plantation. Arlonzia Pettway recalls her grandmother’s stories of her ancestor Dinah Miller, who was brought to the United States by slave ship in 1859. (In this issue, read Sara Evans on how, over a hundred years later, quilts emerged as high art.)
In 1855, Walt Whitman described our growing country in his “Song for Occupations.” showing how the spirit of America was forged by builders and other craftsmen:
House-building, measuring, sawing the boards,
Blacksmithing, glass-blowing, nail-making, coopering, tin-roofing,
Ship-joining, dock-building, fish-curing, flagging of sidewalks by flaggers,
the pump. The pile drive, the great derrick, the coal-kiln and the brick kiln,
Coal mines and all that is down there, the maps in the darkness, echoes, songs, what
meditations, what vast native thoughts.
Yet as craft morphs into industry, the nature of work, and of our national psyche, shifts. We are no longer a country of craftsmen and artisans, who create something beautiful and useful, and follow a process from beginning to end. Makers no more, we are the servants of industry, mere cogs in a machine.
With the rise of factories, we no longer have the gratification of engaging our minds as well as our hands. Nor do our skills—now so narrowly defined—provide a means of achieving financial independence. Our concentration is broken. And as the dignity of craft replaced by “piece work,” we forfeit our creativity and peace of mind.
In the early 1900, labor unions called for a more hospitable, and humane, workplace. Consider these words from the AFL’s founding president, Samuel Gompers, who came from the cigar trade. “The craftsmanship of the cigarmaker,” he said, fondly recalling his apprenticeship, “was shown in his ability to utilize wrappers to the best advantage to shave off the unusable to a hairbreadth, to roll as to cover holes in the leaf and to use both hands to make a perfectly shaped and rolled product. These things a good cigar maker learned to do more or less mechanically, which left us free to think, talk, listen, or sing.” Gompers had “earned the mind-freedom that accompanies the skill of the craftsman.”
In the early cigar factories, there was a wholly different atmosphere—as men and women rolled the leaves between their fingers, they listened to music and engaged in conversation. Often, someone read aloud. Yet as the factory owners focussed on speed and efficiency, work lost its poetry and its rhythm—and we began looking down on those who were dextrous, often to the point of genius, insisting that they forfeit their humanity and behave more like machines. Suddenly we had little respect for makers of any kind —- for millers and mineworkers, seamstresses and spinners, potters and printers, weavers and joiners—and for any occupation in which we rely upon our hands.
Adamson asks if a revival of craft can save America, bringing us back from the abyss of mechanization, and perhaps even countering the disembodiment of our digital age. He reminds us of the dignity of labor, what it means to make things from scratch—whether it’s a chair, a plate or a poem—and shows us how craft provides the basis for a strong community.
In an era when work is overly cerebral and knowledge increasingly compartmentalized, we have begun to experience what some psychologists call the “revenge of the feeling function.” Our jobs today are based on data and the flow of new ideas, on marketing schemes, financial projections and ways of calculating risk. The Information Economy and the coming Metaverse, with its blatant disregard for tangible things, leave a good part of the American psyche adrift. And the energy we once channeled into physical labor—into making products that are both beautiful and necessary—no longer has our attention and respect.
Art in the Making
To explore the heart of craft, we turn to a beautiful new book, Art in the Making: Essays by Artists about What They Do, to be published in October 2022 by The Fisher Press and the John Stevens Shop. This volume has been assembled by Christopher and Nicholas Benson whose grandfather, John Howard Benson, documented the American Crafts movement, a tributary of the Arts and Crafts movement started in England by John Ruskin and William Morris.
In the early 20th century, the John Stevens Stone Carving and Lettering Shop in Newport, Rhode Island printed books on the philosophy and practice of art and craft. Contributors to the series included the typographer Eric Gill, and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Art in the Making continues in this vein, with essays by dancers, singers, woodworkers, blacksmiths, chefs, poets, painters, photographers, composers, type designers, and makers of stained-glass windows. We are pleased to feature seven of these artists in our current issue:
- Dancer Rulan Tangen on embodiment as source
- Photographer Elvira Piedra on stepping into the otherness of art
- Caleb Kullman on moving from anthropology to decorative metalwork
- Mark Luzio, woodworker, on the maker’s motto: “As Good as I Can.”
- Ann Arnold on why she paints
- Victoria Reynolds on how a poem starts
- David Jones on storytelling in the English folksong
Funded by a kickstarter campaign, Art in the Making is democratic to its core—and a wonderful follow up to Glenn Adamson’s overview of craft in America. While Adamson gives the broad intellectual overview, these essays are warm, personal, and engaging—and take us directly to the source.
“Our intent was to outflank the sometimes ponderous interpretations of professional critics and academics, and treat our readers to the direct experience, ideas and motivations of some of art’s actual creators,” says Christopher Benson. “Sometimes long, sometimes short; sometimes serious, sometimes humorous; occasionally political, always philosophical and often irreverent or provocative — these are the outpourings of the genuine, living minds from which art springs.”
The artists featured in this book range from the well-known, like composer Nico Muhly, to those who rarely exhibit their work. The focus is not on material success but on what each person gains from a particular discipline. How a way of working becomes a way of life.
“The vast majority of accomplished individuals working in every creative field, fall somewhere between (the) mythic extremes of fame and failure,” Benson writes. “ For all the dedicated artists and artisans who occupy that middle ground, the measures of our actual success must finally lie in the real quality of the work we do, as we understand it, in the relationships we build within the communities of colleagues, patrons and admirers who appreciate and support it, and in whatever satisfaction we derive from its making.
“This is a book about making art: about what it is, how it works, why it gets made, and above all, how the people who make it understand all those things,” Benson continues. “We will drop the old separation of art from craft at the outset. Despite that they have different aims, these two ways of making things are also — and especially in our technological age — inextricably linked. Art, for our purposes, is thus anything that an individual makes, to a high level of realization, with hands and mind working in partnership.”
Benson’s book shows what it means to pursue a craft in a culture that is often too fast, too preoccupied, and too distracted to appreciate its value. We make sacrifices to follow this path yet we immeasurably enriched by it.
Craft is a sprawling subject, and when planning this issue, we kept adding other features. The following experts consider how craft functions in the home.
In Flush with Ideology, architectural historian Barbara Penner explores the bathroom as place of magic and mystery.
In Life Without the Chair, Galen Cranz proposes alternatives to sitting—and shows how much better the body fares with stools, carpets, divans, and old fashioned squatting.
Artist and writer L. John Harris takes us on a tour of his craftsman house and his collection of hand-made objects, in Villa Maybeck, My Cabinet of Curiosity.
In Spirit of the American City, Catherine Burns and Lisa Diamond chronicle the rise of the Metropolis in the early 20th century, through art and photography.
In The Art of Looking, photographer Susan Fassberg describes discovering San Miguel Allende’s art and architecture in the silence of the pandemic. (Without the usual soundtrack, she “learned how to see.”)
And in A Visual Guide to Craft, we recommend a variety of films about the art of making things.
If you are still looking for a definition of craft, we leave you with the words of St. Francis of Assisi. A laborer is one who works with his hands. A craftsman is one who works with his head and his hands. And an artist is one who also works with his heart.
Valerie Andrews is the founding editor of Reinventing Home. She lives in a cottage that was once a metal worker’s studio, with a working forge.