May 14, 2013

The Intersection of Arts & Crafts

I've been immersed in both arts and crafts for as long as I can remember.  It runs in the blood on my mom's side- her mom made watercolors, pen & ink drawings, silk paintings, and anything that captured her fancy.  She was a phenomenal sewer.  She used to tell me how when she was in high school she'd make a new skirt or dress almost every week so she'd have something new to wear out on her date that weekend (she eventually married that high school sweetheart).  Her father also painted, but also could make just about anything.  He made the inlaid wood coffee table in my living room out of a door. He did iron working for fun and made an intricate fireplace grate and tools, a glass table and mirror, a fish tank, and a lamp.  He also made replicas of famous ships like the U.S.S. Constitution complete with all that itty-bitty rigging.  Not to mention enough furniture to fill our basement and then some.  In short, he was a phenomenally talented man.

I've always marveled at all of the things that he could make- people these days can rarely make anything for themselves.  If they can, their works are extremely focused- working only in one medium. Maybe it’s that admiration that drives me to create so much myself.  Maybe it's part of that enjoyment in working with my hands that drove me into nursing.  I love that I have skills and knowledge with such practical and necessary applications.  Skills that in the event of an apocalypse would make me a vital member of the team (maybe I just read a little too much Stephen King- i.e. The Stand).  

I've always bundled my relatives' more "fine arts" pursuits and their practical creations into the same basket.  It took as much creativity and foresight to look at a blot of fabric and see a dress as to look at a canvas and see a painting.  Whether we were seated at an easel or sprawling out of fabric on the playroom floor Onnie would teach me with the same passionate patience to cut, measure, draw or paint.  They take both the physical skills of wielding your tools and the ability to see what could be.  Neither is a more noble pursuit than the other.

I graduated from college with a degree in Biology, but I also minored in studio art (and worked as a TA in both departments).  Art has always stayed a passion since Onnie sat me on a garden stool in front on an easel and that threateningly blank canvas.  In college I did mostly printmaking.  Etching drove me up a wall and taught me flexibility and that it's okay not to be in control.  It will never turn out as you thought when you drop an asphalt-laden piece of metal into acid.  I quickly fell for woodcuts.  I love the stark contrast in the prints, carving out the wood with my own hands, and the way your strokes and the nature of the wood create fine lines on the paper that could never be replicated.  

"Fine Art" has always been harder for me to make on my own.  Give me an assignment or just a deadline and I'll make it with pleasure, but it's always been harder for me to just make for the sake of making.  I think Onnie had the same bug- she was prolific in periods when she took classes, but it often fell by the wayside for months at a time.  

"Crafts", however, seem to have a permanent place by my side.  In high school I would stay up late to finish a scarf I was working on.  In college I often brought projects with me to class- knitting away through my Gen Chem class alongside my friend Tia (a fellow knitter).  I was probably stitching away when I met Joe- he was lab partners with Tia and I.  Projects often cluttered my dorm rooms- whether it was a cabled blanket to cover Bruce's cage, a flannel turtle-shaped pillow for the living room, or a t-shirt quilt for my brother's birthday.  

Since I started grad school my crafting has reached a new fever pitch.  I knit or crochet in the majority of my classes, as I find I listen and pay better attention when my hands are busy.  I do it in my free time as a stress relief, or to feel more productive while giving myself a break and taking in a few episodes of Dawson's Creek.  I often make my own patterns, or more accurately make things up as I go (as with my constellation blanket and Van Gogh blanket).  Joe is unendingly patient as half the couch is covered in yarn and half finished projects, and the basket next to the couch overflows with yarn balls, hooks, and needles.  I started Charm Hour to document my projects- mostly as a reference for when classmates or family members asked, "So what is this going to be?” or "How did that baby blanket turn out?”

A few months ago I was surfing the Art Institute of Chicago when I ran into an old art instructor from college.  When asked if I was still doing art, I fumbled some excuse about how busy I was and said, "but I've been doing a lot of knitting and crocheting".  He looked kind of disappointed and encouraged me to draw more, while his friend said some patronizing comment thanking me for my services to humanity for being a nurse.  When I met up with Joe after I told him how excited I was that I had ran into Chris, my old teacher.  I then told him how I felt kind of awkward and embarrassed that I didn't have anything to say for myself when he asked if I was still making art, and how I felt that they'd scoffed at my comment that I knit and crochet.  I'm pretty sure he might have even recommended I keep drawing after I may have exaggerated my current scope of practice.  Joe, being the ultra supportive boyfriend and sense to my silliness, went off saying something along the lines of, "Why didn't you tell them that you made an entire blanket of a Van Gogh painting by hand?!  How is that not art?!  That takes a ridiculous amount of skill."  

It honestly took me aback a little bit.  Why wouldn't that be art- or for that matter any other "craft".  While at the museum, there was a painter painting a copy of a Georgia O'Keefe still life in front of the actual painting.  How could that be any more art than following a pattern to make a scarf?  Is it just that one's sole purpose is to be hung up and looked at, while the other is to be used?  That doesn't stop art museums from holding old armor or ancient relics that once served a very practical purpose.  Why shouldn't my creation of a blanket be considered just as honorable as if I took that time to sketch out some flowers?  It takes no less skill or creativity.  I pick out the weight and colors of my yarn, the appropriate size hook or needle, and just start stitching. It is no less challenging to take a ball of yarn and create a massive dragonfly than to intricately sketch one with charcoal.  They take creativity, and ability to see the unmade, and years of carefully practiced skills.

Ye Olde Merriam Webster defines art as, "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects".  "Craft", on the other hand, is defined as a "trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill".  As both of these are fairly similar and also used for a wide variety of uses, I tried to seek some further clarification by looking up Fine Art, in particular.  "Fine Art", according to Merriam Webster, is "an activity requiring fine skill, or art concerned with the creation of beautiful objects".  I find fault with the idea that fine art is intended to be beautiful- it can also be intended to be disturbing, provocative, frightening, or offensive- so we won't even go there.   

The only tangible difference in those definitions is that one may seek to be pretty, whereas the other is the act of a tradesman.  But even those explanations fall short, as artists also live off the sales of their creations, and the idea that fine art wants to be beautiful is about as stupid as it gets. 

One of the best artists whose works I have seen recently is Kara Walker.  She creates cut-paper silhouettes of racial caricatures that are graphic, violent, sexual, and traumatic.  It is an artistic hit that shakes your core.  Is it beautiful?  Yes.  But its also horrifying, saddening, and all-to-often true.  She may use old southern-style figures, but it is a commentary on modern America that is startlingly accurate.  And she creates these scenes with little more than chalk, paper, and a razor blade.  

The line between art and craft is blurry and thin.  In my humble opinion, there really isn't one.  Anything made with skills, creativity, and passion deserves equal respect, whether you hang it up on the wall or in a closet. 

What do you think the difference is between art and craft?  
Comment and share your take on this topic.
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