Craft? What's in a Word?

Is it Craft?  Is it Art?  Does it Matter?

(Or, What’s in a Word?  The Semantics of Craft)

When I dreamed up the word Craftscapade, a light bulb went off—ooh, this is catchy, I like the sound of that, is it available as a website?--I should grab it!   Upon the subsequent development of Craftscapade Creative Retreats, and through interaction with the creative community, I started to second-guess myself.  Unbeknownst to me, was “craft” a dirty word? Would “Craftscapade” bring to mind pedestrian puffy paint and be-dazzled old broads in church basements? And did it matter if it did?  I had no idea.  “Maker” is certainly a more modern word, but “makescapade” just didn’t have the same ring to it.  Believe me, I get it.  As someone who had spent the last 20 years in the restaurant industry and cringes a bit at the word “foodie,” I could relate to how the word “crafter” might elicit the same reaction in artists.    

I enjoy casually making stuff, and as I would never dare think of anything I make as art, I just call it “getting’ crafty.”  Usually with friends, usually with a drink in hand, usually with no other motivation than to create, un-plug, and still my mind. 

But to me, modern crafting goes beyond glitter, glue, and pipe cleaners. It has an indie, DIY and renegade aesthetic.  (We have blogs like A Beautiful Mess, Smile and Wave, and fairs like Renegade Craft Fair and Strawberry Swing to thank for that, and for cultivating and promoting the new maker.)  At the core of it, I believe, is the urgency to detach from technology and re-connect to the art of the handmade, or the craft of skills now lost to most of us.

I love art, I appreciate art, and viewing it makes my heart sing.  Since I can’t express myself in that manner, I strive to learn to make things that are pretty or practical or both, get my hands dirty, and itch an urge to be more creative in the process.  And that’s where craft comes into play.  (Yes, I suppose, in the same manner a foodie doesn’t claim to be a chef but just appreciates food and plain likes to eat.) 

 

Thus, getting crafty.  In this new community I am reaching out to be accepted in, I see a blurring of art/craft lines, especially on Instagram, Etsy and other social media outlets, particularly when it comes to use of hashtags and selling of art.  I was interested in exploring this blurring of lines, and so I reached out to artists in search of what the word “craft” means to them.  The replies I received were thoughtful, sincere, and insightful, ranging from observations on DIY, to art school to anthropology.  Admittedly, I’ll never have the training, vision or heart of an artist, but I know I can learn from them, be inspired by them, and collaborate with them in my love of hosting a good party!

 

From Amanda Tholen Long, Craftscapade’s finest workshop leader and collaborator:

“As a word, craft is one that has had a consistent presence in my life, fluctuating in weight and importance from a pretty early age. I come from a line of women who are great with a needle, who used their skills with fibers not only to keep their hands busy, or as a means to connect with friends, but also as a way to help support their families, through creating functional sellable objects, and teaching others their skills.

                I was introduced to a needle and thread at a very early age, and am as comfortable using these as I am a pencil and paper. I think when I initially think of the word craft, I jump to fibers: to sewing, embroidery, weaving, knitting, darning. Part of this is because that is what I grew up with, another is due to a detour I took, a time in my life where connecting objects and ideas with thread was frowned upon.

                I went to art school for my college years, knowing from the get-go sculpture would be my main course of study. I loved to build things, to put things together, to mix materials, to see every side of one thing. Prior to college I had taken many classes in metalsmithing, in working with clay, in sewing. My proverbial toolkit was full of skills readying me for this next step, and looking back, I was devastated to learn that I had entered a curriculum that shunned “craft”. There was no room for functional, small scale sculpture (isn’t that what jewelry is at the end of the day?), no room for sewing grannies, or for throwing shapes on a wheel. We were there for deep thoughts, and professing all our emotions in whatever non-crafty way we could. (There was such a push and pull during this time in my life- while I was focusing on communicating feelings through fine art, I was also taking a class called Materials and Methods, learning the properties and ins and outs of working with plastics, for example. It was confusing, getting to know a material is the first step towards mastering your craft, right? Not “bad” craft, like grandma stuff, but “good” craft, like an artist who didn’t use the word craft. (In the end, it was all kind of confusing and bubbling over in bullshit.) I look at some of my most admired artists and makers today, and several of them are true craftsmen, masters of their craft. (There’s a gentleman named Timothy Clark who immediately jumps into my mind; he is a furniture maker and is doing the most fantastic Windsor chairs...they are tradition and craft at it’s finest.)

                Fast forward to today. I am an artist. I use a whole arsenal of tools and materials, but always come back to the needle and thread in some capacity. I know these tools inside and out, they are extensions to my hands. They are in my blood. They feel careful and maternal. They help me communicate with other women who are doing similar things. This week alone, I have used the same needle to stitch tiny plastic shapes that are going to become a portrait onto a stretched canvas, to hem my son’s pants, and to put the finishing touches on a wreath for my front door. Weaving seamlessly between art, taking care of business, and craft. Making. Always making. Making it work.”

 

From Catherine Mellinger, collage artist

As for my thoughts on craft, I have thought about this a lot as a collage artist! Also as I myself married a puppet maker. We've often considered with each other and friends where the lines are, and it seems we've come to think of it as intention for one. That the intention and vision and "message" behind the work often shows which side of the line you lean over. I also personally often think that craft often gets pushed to the outskirts with the emergence of DIY (which in itself is fantastic in its own right), but that what has happened is a loss of connection to what "craft" and mastering a craft really means. 

 Craft, to me is connected much more to everyday life and culture, the growing of communities and the passing on of skill between generations; quilting, knitting, embroidery, jewelry making, beading, batik - and often linked Anthropologically to our history. When I think of craft I think of Indigenous leather workers and purse beaders, East Asian carper weavers, Asian embroiders and kimono makers, African batik and mud beading, Mennonite and Amish quilters, Malasian & Indonesia shadow puppet makers, Estonian & French marionettes. When I think of DIY, I think of the movement to allow all of us to recognize and reconnect with the lost skills and skill sharing that our communities and cultures once afforded us - a connection between cultures and communities where we can gather and learn. DIY has afforded us a type of Craft uprising that is really quite amazing to watch and has brought in so much more ecological education to crafting and creating - cardboard, household items, clothes pin puppets etc. It's brought Craft back to the everyday, but also to the every person. Whereas a craft would have been passed on to those shown to be touted as "the chosen one" in the past or to a specific role within a community - mothers, elders, wise men - DIY means anyone can join in. 

 My husband very much calls himself a crafter and not an artist. I very much call myself an artist and not a crafter. But collage is so interesting in it's bridge between the worlds - that many use collage in their craft, but many also use it as a medium of artistic exploration and expression - linking to the history of Dada - Hannah Hoch and Marcel Duchamp, essentially many who formed the bedrock for the Conceptual Arts movement. I use collage to communicate my ideas, to form an artistic communication. But when I facilitate groups, I use it in all forms, and most of the communities I work with connect to collage most easily as craft and DIY first, then we can expand the ideas to art.

 

From Megan Eckman, artist and owner of studio MME:

You see, I was trained as a professional artist. I went to art school, I'm currently producing work for gallery shows right now, and I do think of myself first and foremost as an artist. (The last bit is more for a confidence boost because it's time we all identify with what we wish to be called because if we don't call ourselves that, no one else will.)

 In terms of craft, I'm probably the least crafty person I know. My mother likes to say she was sleeping when talents were passed out so I grew up with art supplies, not craft supplies. I currently don't own any glitter or ModPodge or extra fabric, or anything needed to be crafty. My brain is incapable of looking at a ceramic planter pot and coming up with ten ways to make it have some pizzazz.

However, I've come to terms slowly with the two different words as I had to transition from selling prints of my art to embroidery kits. My main goal overall was to allow other people the space and ability to feel creative and artsy themselves. So now I make my fine art for myself and galleries and use those drawing skills to create fun embroidery patterns for the mass public who desperately needs to tap into their inner artist. 

 All of this is a bit roundabout to your question but I'll try here: Craft is the ability to create for yourself or your family and friends. Your creations aren't intended for gallery walls or art critics. (Lucky you!) Craft comes from the heart and serves to brighten a space, or a life, for the sole purpose of bringing joy to the world.