WAYBACK WEDNESDAY: ART vs. CRAFT: I’m Losing

I’ve decided to publish a blog post on Wednesdays, republishing posts from my now-defunct and hard-to-find blog at Radio Userland.

Hence, Wayback Wednesday!

Yes, it’s just by chance that this blog post first appeared on a Wednesday. 🙂

If you’d like to see the original post (and others!), click on the title below.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

I’m feeling bipolar lately. My mood has been up and down, sometimes all at once. SAYING I need to rethink how to get my artwork out into the world sounds very brave and confident. In reality, I just want to hunker down and run away.Today, in between making horse sculptures for some stores, I followed a link to an interesting blog called “Redefining Craft” which you can see here: http://www.redefiningcraft.com/

I really don’t speak academese, so I skipped through some of his entries until I hit the one for February 8 entitled, “Art vs. Craft: Who’s Winning?” In this entry, Dennis Stevens posts two images, one of a Nike shoe on a stick, and one of a mask by glass artist William Morris.

Or rather, according to Mr. Stevens, “non-artist” William Morris. It turns out the Nike shoe is the image that provokes and enlightens, while Morris’s work is merely a hijack of another culture’s imagery for his own gain.

Wonder what Mr. Stevens would say about my Lascaux imagery?

Oh, well, at least it’s possible that Lascaux IS my cultural heritage. It’s possible some of my ancestors were French.

But I have to admit, I felt a certain dismay that as a craftsperson, I’m in danger of being left on the side of the high-culture highway for lack of having anything potent or portent or important to say.

Doesn’t help that I also recently watched the movie “Art School Confidential” which you can read about here: http://imdb.com/title/tt0364955/

It’s a movie about a young art student at college. He finds his beautiful work is totally ignored by his teachers, his peers and the art world while pretentious, self-aggrandizing crap is revered as “true art”. The kid eventually passes himself off as a serial killer so he can attain his ultimate goal of being a famous artist. (Because as soon as he’s arrested, his paintings sell like hotcakes.)

There’s one thought, and one thought only that moves my heart gently back to its rightful place.

I didn’t deliberately choose any of this (except for one thing.)

I didn’t deliberately manufacturer the message of my art.

Call me lazy, call me shallow, call me a clueless craftsperson or a non-artist. All I know is, ten years ago I felt like I was dying inside. And when I hit the lowest point in my life, I make one of the most important decisions of my life.

I decided to make the stuff that made me feel human again.

I tried a lot of different things and a lot of different techniques until I found the ones that felt…that resonated…the most with what was in my heart.

It just FELT right.

Of course I have great hopes for my artwork. And of course I want people to buy it. And of course I hope to be recognized for making beautiful things.

But I didn’t choose what I do to attain that. It chose me.

All the discussions about art vs. craft, about what makes great art, and who is a “real artist” make my head hurt. They always have.

In the end, I’m left at the end of the day with one question.

Did I make something I’m proud of?

And did I put enough of myself into it that it calls to other people?

And did I do at least one thing to get it out into the world for others to experience?

Okay, more than one question at the end of the day.

But these are the questions I CAN answer.

I’ll leave the more academic questions for wiser people than me to answer.

BOXES

Horse in box

I’m feverishly working on a new presentation for my work. It involves boxes.

A lot of boxes.

I scoured junk yards and antique stores for months, compiling a collection of likely candidates. At first it was hard because I didn’t know what I was looking for. (Let me introduce you to my collection of cigar boxes….)

I had no idea how I would restore them, either. I mean, I had a vision of them in my head–worn, beaten, discolored and encrusted by age and dirt.. But how to get that look? Leave them “raw”? (A greasy, dirty box looks wonderful, but real grease and dirt are stinky and messy.) Paint them? (I’d lose a lot of the writing and markings that make the boxes interesting.) What kind of paint? Latex? Milk? Chalk?

I finally hired a friend, a furniture-maker, to let me work in a section of his woodworking shop. I get to use his tools and supplies, while he guides me through the basics of surface treatments and finishes.

It’s been a nice relationship. And most of all, I’m getting a lot of work done. Nobody can “find” me here, and I work for hours uninterrupted.

P1010324 (318x800)

Soon I learn which boxes work, and which ones one won’t. Cigar box walls are too thin for my purposes, though maybe I’ll find another use for them. Some boxes were promising, but proved to take too much work to restore them. Others that looked grungy clean up surprisingly easily. Some have to be washed and scrubbed, then set out to dry. Others just need a little scrubbing with a brass brush and a couple blasts of compressed air. (Note to self: Compressed air would be AWESOME to clean house with!)

As we work on our respective projects, Gary and I have many discussions on design versus technique. Some boxes are extremely simple–not much fine woodworking technique involved. Sometimes just a few well-placed nails hold everything together. But their dimensions and proportions are beautiful, and the wood soaks up the glazes, paints and wax beautifully.

Some of my favorite small boxes are handmade sets, made for homemade storage chests. They are made from cut-down cheese boxes or slats from fruit crates, painted in gay colors that are now muted and worn. Odd specialty nails act as “pulls” on the fronts. They are simple, lovely and intriguing.

Other boxes look intricate and wonderful. But the quality of wood is poor. Or the box has been cut down badly. Or the finishing is bad, or the “faux aging” techniques are faulty (wear marks that are arbitrary, for example.) Or cheap backing materials are used instead of wood. Eventually, I learn which ones aren’t worth my time to refinish or restore.

A lot to think about from an artist’s point of view. Technique or design? Gary weighs in heavily on design, his forte. His techniques are solid, too, but he believes technique is nothing without exquisite design.

As a juried member of the League of NH Craftsmen and other fine craft venues, it’s tempting to go that route. Easy to judge and feel superior. Sometimes my lizard brain goes there.

But then I remember there’s a place in the world for all. I tell Gary about my dad, who took up woodworking after he retired. He claimed he couldn’t make anything unless someone drew a picture of it for him. He needed measurements and drawings to make his craft. Everything he made was well-made, from good wood. It won’t appear on the covers of any art magazines, though.

And yet, when I look around my home and see the pieces he made for me–a table for behind the sofa, lamp tables, a step stool, a coffee table (why do I always ask him to make tables for me??), I know they are as priceless to me as a Van Gogh.

Something made with love has its own inestimable value.

Unmatched shaman mask earrings, in faux ivory--polymer clay
Unmatched shaman mask earrings, in faux ivory–polymer clay

ART FOR ONE PERSON

HOW DO WE MEASURE THE VALUE OF ART?

Whether it’s for one person, or millions, your art matters.

I belong to a new guild in Keene, the Creative Professionals Guild of New Hampshire. I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘commercial artist’ and I don’t always enjoy groups. But there was good energy in the group, and it was a chance to meet different people, interesting people. I realized some of my writing gigs fit the bill as a ‘creative professional’. So here I am, getting ready for an upcoming exhibit at a local bakery/coffee shop in town, writing press release, advising people on their artist bios and tag lines. (I have a knack. Who knew?!)

I was talking to one of the group members yesterday. Roma Dee is an amazing young woman. Not only is her photography good–she’s really really skilled at capturing what she calls ’emotional moments’, at weddings and in portraits–she’s also a delightful woman whose gentle leadership skills rallied u to put on our first show. Even-handed, even-tempered, ready to laugh at the drop of a hat, she’s been a joy to work with.

We talked about her business, the nature of marketing to a small, time-sensitive, targeted group of people (brides) and the nature of art. (Bear with me here.)

We all have strong ideas of what art is, and like porn, we think we know it when we see it. Modern art forms, and modern ways of marketing it, make the definition more fluid. Is photography art? If so, is digital photography art? What does ‘art’ mean when ‘anybody can do it’? When the materials are cheap, or easily accessible, or not even ‘desirable.’ (Something polymer artists run into a lot. Face it, I make plastic horses.)

Roma talked about this and her chosen career, and then she said something effin’ brilliant.

She said she loves to do portraits and weddings. Yet these subjects do not lend themselves easily to art shows, and galleries. They are often only meaningful for the people involved, but perhaps not for a ‘general public.’

“But,” she added in the next breath, “It’s art to that one person.”

It’s art, but only for that one person. Or maybe it’s not ‘art’ (for everyone), but it’s definitely art to that one person.

So….is it art, if only one person cares about it?

In my mind….YES!!

In our modern culture, we can look to the past for our definition of ‘art’ and even ‘great art’. There are the works–usually painting, or sculpture. Work like the Mona Lisa. (Not to be too flippant, but most of what we consider ‘real art’ is stuff made by dead European white guys.)

Sometimes it can be work of ‘lesser media’ of great historical and cultural significance–that have endured the test of time. The Bayeux Tapestry. Grecian urns.

Millions know them and love them. Everyone agrees it’s art.

If we look to more recent examples, we look to the measure of fame and money. Picasso. Pollack. Warhol. And even more about fame and money, even less about original work, Richard Prince and Shepard Fairey.

When….did fame and money become the only measures of what is art?

When….did artists have to die before they could achieve fame and respect?

When…did we begin to consider how many other people like what we do, to determine if what we make is ‘real art’?

Roma said she did a portrait of a child, and her mother cried when she saw it. There was something in the moment Roma captured, the emotional content, that moved that one person to tears. (In a good way.)

That….is art.

Yes, there’s good art, and mediocre art. Sometimes even downright appalling art. Sometimes it’s popular, sometimes it’s not.

Yes, we all crave to speak to a larger audience. We all yearn to know our work is wanted, valued, admired. We may wish enough people valued our work enough for us to be able to make a living making it.

Yet sometimes, as Roma remarks, only one person will respond to it.

When we make something that resonates with someone, gets past their ordinary-life-defenses….
When it slips in and breaks their heart wide open…..
When what we create, creates that secondary moment–that awareness of something bigger, something special, something powerful, something meaningful….

Even if only that one person feels it….

That….is our blessing in life. To have that gift, and to be able to use it to make that moment in someone else’s life…..

That, in my art-making, is the one moment I live for.

There is also the moment for little chocolate cupcakes with pink icing, but that’s whole nother story. Come to our reception on April 16 and see what I mean.