Volume 14 Number 2
Living Craft
01 April 2001

Hugh Williams looks at what crafts and craftspeople can bring to an increasingly wired-up society.
What is craft? And in what way does the work of the craftsperson differ from that of the artisan or the fine artist?

Essentially craft is about making--and making with one's own hands. Cabinet and wooden clock maker David Bowerman describes his works thus: 'functionally useful, structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing'. Potters, glass blowers and silversmiths would agree.

However not all craftspeople make utensils. Many produce decoration and ornamentation--carvings and mouldings in wood, plaster or stone; stained glass; gilding; jewellery; tapestries and wall hangings. Then there are the more arcane crafts such as the exquisite glass engravings of the late Laurence Whistler.

What is common to most makers is that they work in three dimensions and they work on one piece at a time. Manufactured 'handicrafts' don't count.

But then there is another element--imagination. True craftspeople do not copy--that is the highly skilled work of the artisan. They create.

There are several reasons for the increased interest in crafts. One is undoubtedly the huge burgeoning of tourism. Whether it be Welsh pottery, Turkish rugs or Indian carvings, everyone wants to take something 'of the region' home with them.

Another is the shift in the last 20 years from a modernist approach to architecture and design to post-modernism. The stark, rectangular, concrete edifices of the modernist disciples of the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier allowed for very little decoration. Now a thousand flowers bloom. Stained glass, mosaic, plaster moulding, gilding, stone and wood carving are all back.

A third factor, in Britain at any rate, is fire. From the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties a series of fires partly destroyed some of our most famous buildings--York Minster, Uppark House in Sussex, Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle.

Restoration had three effects on crafts in Britain. The first was financial. Huge resources--whether from insurance companies, government departments or the Royal Household--were devoted to reconstruction and refurbishment. Some at least of that money found its way into the needy pockets of craftspeople.

Secondly, like a revelation, we discovered as a nation what wonderful craftspeople we had. In his book The Great Fire at Hampton Court Michael Fishlock writes, 'We have often been asked whether we had difficulty finding craftsmen capable of carrying out the complex work of restoration. The answer is no. Traditional skills are far from dead.' He adds, significantly for the future, 'In an age when it is often assumed that traditional crafts are fast dying out, it is encouraging that so much of this work was carried out by younger people.'

The third effect of the fires and restoration work was that they made riveting television. Millions of people, many of them for the first time, saw craftspeople at work--and the results of their skill and artistry. Craftsmanship suddenly became high profile.

As a result more people wanted beautiful objects and decoration in their own homes. And with increased wealth many were able to afford them. For millions of people crafts are the most accessible--and affordable--form of artistic experience. The British Crafts Council claims, 'Crafts bring culture into our homes and streets in a way that people can readily enjoy.'

The Crafts Council, the principal organ of advocacy for crafts in Britain, also points up the economic benefits that craftspeople bring to their communities. They encourage employment and tourism. They enliven the environment, through their presence in public buildings and spaces.

But it is in education that the crafts are seen at their most beneficial. To quote the Crafts Council publication Why Do The Crafts Matter?: 'In a rapidly changing world, the next generation of adults must be inventive, resourceful and visually sensitive.' Craft in education, it is claimed, can help bring this about. 'For everyone, and particularly young people, learning by doing and making is the best way to understand the three-dimensional world in which we live... Practical learning by designing and making is a natural, creative human process--vital for the emotional, intellectual and physical development of all children.' And it quotes the old maxim, 'I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.'

If this message is yet to be embraced by the developers of the national curriculum for schools, the news is better in adult education. Already 30 per cent of all adult education classes in Britain are craft-based. It is estimated that 11 per cent of all adults participate in wood crafts, ten per cent in textile crafts and five per cent in other crafts.

The Economist makes the national economic case for such education: 'As computerized manufacturing develops it will be relatively simple and fast to transfer manufacturing skills from one country to another. What is more difficult is to transfer design and innovation skills and for this reason such skills will become increasingly important in the UK economy.'

Away from the heady world of macro economics, what motivates the craftsperson? For some it is the exhilarating challenge presented by the innate material in front of them. 'Problem solving' is what animates one British craftsman I spoke to. 'Lateral thinking,' the reply of another.

For American ceramic artist Janet Hero Dodge, her work reflects her concern for the environment: 'Each decoration has its roots in the visual imagery of the natural world. The decorated surface then becomes a translation of my environment.'

For potter Julie Dickinson in a remote community in Montana, USA, it is 'to express my deep love for God's creation in all its beauty and variety'. Indeed craftspeople of faith I have talked with see themselves fulfilling their function as beings made in the image of God, the designer and maker of the universe.

But perhaps the last word should go to that great advocate of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th century, John Ruskin, who wrote, 'The question to ask regarding all ornament is this: was it done with enjoyment, was the carver happy while he was about it?'
Hugh Williams

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