Thursday, December 10, 2009

Redefining Craft - My Essay on a Lecture by Janet Koplos

Pablo Picasso, found object assemblage

As I finish up the last hectic weeks of the semester, I am trying to find some time and energy to blog, make art and relax. Since none of that has happened recently, guess what, I got a cold. When you are running at full force for as long as I have, it is hard to remember that my immune system cannot keep up. Nevertheless, I am here and ready to share what is the most creative non-fiction that I have written in a while - an essay based on a lecture.

In October 26, 2009, Janet Koplos, Guest Editor at American Craft magazine and Contributing Editor at Art in America was a brought in by the San Diego State Art: Applied Design Department as a guest lecturer. It was wonderful, and I hoped to write about it right afterword. However, life gets in the way of my best intentions, but as luck would have it, I needed to do a write up of one of the lectures that I attended this semester for my Woodworking class. So better late than never!

I believe that this essay can stand on its own without seeing the slide show or hearing the lecture. The topic of CRAFT vs. ART is fascinating and one that every artist will face many times in their life. I hope this essay will stimulate you to comment or just contemplate how this battle of words affects you as an artist.

Redefining Craft by Jaime Lyerly, 2009

Craft. The word by itself brings up images of Styrofoam balls covered in sequins, pompoms and lots of glitter. There are Michaels’ stores, which have “arts and crafts” listed in their title. If you go to there craft section, the above materials will be found, along with colored foam, fuzzy pipe cleaners, googley eyes and assorted other little trinkets that had no where else to be stored. It is a sad day for the word, craft, when its definition is limited to what can be found on the aisle of Michaels. Janet Koplos, Guest Editor at American Craft magazine, Contributing Editor at Art in America, and co-author of upcoming book Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, written with Bruce Metcalf, wants you to look past the initial response to the word, craft, and see that it is no different than the word art. Koplos’ has a unique position as the editor of two different magazines and her role is to help redefine craft. Also by authoring a book specifically on crafts, her role becomes one not just of editor but also one of the defining voices in an area where there appears to be lacking a solid and academic representation. In her SDSU Visiting Artist Lecture on October 26, 2009 entitled "A View of the Maelstrom," Koplos showed a history of art and craft via slides, and defined three main points: questioning our need to separate craft from art; the need for a visual vocabulary specified to the craft being critiqued, and a shift in mentality from craft-exclusive to “craft-proud.”

Through slide examples, Koplos shows how the histories of art and craft have not always been separated as they are today. From the ancient Etruscan pottery to Picasso’s work in clay, found objects and metals, craft has been a part of art making since its inception. Craft is now defined by the art community as use of particular materials such as fiber, wood, jewelry, clay, book and paper-making. However, in these days of mixed media, how can craft be separated from art? Is it function that makes it craft instead of art? It is the intent of the creator? Is it manufacturing techniques? Is it material use only? Is it concept? When does a work stop being craft and become art? When does it go the opposite direction and start as art but then become craft? These questions were not answered by the Koplos, but they loom overhead during the lecture for the listener to answer themselves. By showing art that can be defined as art or craft, Koplos asks us to question why we need to categorize it all. This separation makes the artist have to choose one category to stand firmly in, instead of letting the art establish its own genre and intention.

Another key point of Koplos’ lecture was the need for critics and people reviewing craft-related objects to have their own visual vocabulary to describe the work. For example, according to Koplos, tapestries need address a different set of questions than a painting. Although both a tapestry and a painting may be wall hanging and relatively two-dimensional, they need to be critiqued by a reviewer who is familiar with the materials being used. Someone who is familiar with the applications and limitations of acrylic paint may not have the same qualifications when faced with a tapestry. Each material has its own benefits and limitations which cannot be ignored when critiquing the artist’s work. Koplos advised that we need critics who are willing to educate themselves on craft related materials, so that they can best describe the materials in front of them. By placing painting expectations on a tapestry, we are limiting how the creator can interact with their audience, and ignoring the history of fibers from which this tapestry can ultimately be judged. Taking down the walls between art and craft does not mean ignoring the history of the materials used and the objects relationships with those materials. We need a shift in mentality about art identified as craft, which leads final point in the lecture.

Koplos described in her lecture an artist who was advised by a gallery to delete all references to craft in her Curriculum Vitae. She continues on that this artist was able to project a craft-free image and therefore to get into more exclusive art galleries. Koplos believe that this cleansing of the Curriculum Vitae to remove all traces of the word craft is harming to artists who do not see fit to do so. She finished the lecture by showing some screenshots of the newest movement in the craft world – the DIY or Do-it-Yourself crafters. Websites such as gives people a way to make handmade, one of a kind items and sell them to others over the web. It is the eBay of crafts. Koplos said that the people selling on are “craft-proud” and that is the attitude that fine artists working in craft related mediums should adopt. She does point out that the quality on varies tremendously, since anyone can post and sell items without any formal training or quality control. However the attitude of proudly proclaiming your craft is one of inclusiveness, and is a welcome change from the exclusivity of the art world.

In conclusion, Koplos’ lecture was a fascinating look into a world in which I was only barely familiar. Her slides included many works that I would categorize as craft, such as functional ceramic bowls and works that I would never even consider in that category such as Kiki Smith’s figures or Tara Donovan's swell of white cups. To question what is art and what is craft is inviting exclusivity that is neither necessary nor wanted. Magazines such as American Craft and Niche provide a place for artists to show items that proudly pronounce their craft materials to the world. Can they be art too? Of course, if the creator so deems it. Koplos’ point about needing critics who are willing to look past the word craft and actually learn about the specific materials that are included in that broad title rang true to me. Since I love writing about are as much as I love looking at it, I see this as a call to action. I believe that there is a niche that can be filled by a new generation of art critics who will be inclusive with their writing and they will help redefine the word, craft - one article at a time.

Feel moved to comment? Please do! I am not sure how the format of a typical 5 paragraph essay works for blog readers, but I am trying out something new here. Academic writing is part of my life as a student, so I thought it was time to share. Maybe next time you will only get an excerpt. Now back to my regular scheduled hectic life!

Happy Art (or Craft) Making. Be Craft Proud!

Jaime Lyerly

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