The Democratization of Craft

By Todd Oppenheimer
By Todd Oppenheimer

Earlier this month, some 400 devotees of the arts and crafts spent three days in Philadelphia exploring the meaning of their obsessions, and the possibilities of spreading the faith. The crowd was gathered by the American Craft Council, an organization that, in one guise or another, has been dedicated to the art of making things with one’s hands since 1939.

Today, 80 years later, the significance and challenges in these endeavors are of course very different, but certainly no less pressing. Most of the conference’s discussions were aimed at trying to figure out how handmade work survives in the digital age (or whether we still even need to use our hands for our work to be called craft); how communities can develop healthy “craft ecosystems;” and how women, people of color, and other commonly neglected groups can be welcomed into craft niches that have long felt elitist, exclusively male, or just plain closed.

The ACC conference kicked off with a “speed networking” session. Andres Payan Estrada (left) later presented an “object lesson” built around a cairn made of several found items (broken cell phone, ceramic shard, cigarette butt). After rehearsing his talk the night before, Estrada asked the objects to go to sleep. “We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow,” he told them. photo courtesy of the ACC

“Craft can help us see our shared interests,” said ACC Executive Director Sarah Schultz in her opening remarks. Schultz went on to say that craft, by its inherently local nature, creates communities, and those networks can serve as unusually creative agents of change. This, she argued, allows craft to be “a source of renewal in an increasingly complex and fractured world.”

The implications to Schultz’s remarks echoed through almost every event at the conference. During a keynote discussion, Glenn Adamson—a scholar and curator at the Yale Center for British Art, whose prolific writings on craft have turned him into one of the field’s leading public intellectuals—spoke even more expansively. First, he pointed to one of today’s biggest conflicts: globalism versus nativism. In those debates, he said, localism is generally framed in a way that’s exclusionary, even xenophobic. “Craft,” he argued, “is one of the only ways to define localism in a way that’s positive.”

“When I was growing up I couldn’t find a doll that looked lime me,” said Vashti DuBois, founder and executive director of The Colored Girls Museum. “So I made one.” photo courtesy of the ACC

Judging from the conference’s various presentations, workshops, and local tours, Adamson might well be onto something. During one early session, the audience heard from Alex Gilliam, co-founder of an unusual Philadelphia nonprofit called the Tiny WPA. As its name would imply, the venture was inspired by the great public works projects that were launched, by President FDR, during the Great Depression, and which gave jobs to new classes of artisans and artists across the country, many of whom had never had markets for their work.

Wearing a bright blue Tiny WPA t-shirt, which read, “I am a building hero,” Gilliam rolled out an uplifting slideshow of children, people of color, and elderly citizens crowding into their workshops to build stools that can also function as drums, mobile game carts, park and bus-stop benches, and numerous other items that neglected neighborhoods typically need. Most of these projects are designed, tested, and built outside, on site.

Roberto Lugo, head of ceramics for the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, spun clay as a DJ spun beats at the school’s Craft Mash-Up. “Thank god for all those who doubt, and say you can’t go on,” Lugo said. “Because who else would you prove wrong?” photo courtesy of the ACC

And, Gilliam said, “We want to take building skills back into the schools,” pointing to what’s become a longstanding problem: the disappearance of shop classes (often along with music and art programs) in favor of computer labs.

There is, of course, a growing need for digital technology skills, but that work isn’t for everyone. And even for those who do go into high technology, there is a widespread belief that creativity and insight grow from what we make with our own hands. (Patrick MacLeamy, the former CEO of HOK, the largest architecture and engineering firm in the U.S., once told me that his firm still looks for “knowledge of the hands.”) Gilliam further argued that, for those who have been left out, it often takes community-oriented “maker spaces” to develop badly needed foundations, such as the capacity for teamwork, attention to detail, and faith that society will give you a chance.

A particularly provocative presentation was given at one point by Roberto Lugo, a ceramicist, activist, performer, and assistant professor who heads the Tyler School’s ceramics program. Lugo is a study in contrasts all by himself. He’s heavy set, down to earth, and brutally plain spoken; yet he creates pottery of such detailed, delicate refinement you’d expect to find his work in an Asian art museum. Lugo grew up in one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods, a background that continues to shape his outlook today. “Pray for all that hate you, and live to see you fail,” Lugo sang out as he closed his slide show. “Without them, how else would you prevail?” And he went on. “Integrity is built from feeling pain, not privilege. So when your hurt is at its worse, that means you not finished.”

The glass-blowing center at the Tyler School is just one of numerous workshops in this 255,000-square foot facility. The arts center is integrated with the school’s Architecture Building, which features labs for digital and analog fabrication, three floors of studios, and research labs.  Scott Spitzer photography, courtesy of the ACC

As the ACC event progressed, Philadelphia served as the perfect backdrop for the conference’s message — that craftsmanship’s principles of excellence and creative functionality can be seen throughout many of our communities; and that we would all benefit if a greater range of artists and artisans were brought into its fold. As ACC Executive Director Schultz put it, “An ecology thrives on complexity and difference, and asks us to decentralize our idea of where solutions and decisions happen, and where ideas come from.”

Walking around this old city, which of course was the nation’s first capital, baroque facades, iron gates, and other designs from the old days can be seen everywhere, serving as reminders of an obvious but oft-forgotten fact: This is where some of America’s first master artisans lived, worked, and developed the country’s early principles of craftsmanship.

That artisan spirit still seems plenty alive. The ACC hosted several events at The Clay Studio, which is one of the largest of its kind, and is soon moving to larger quarters to meet Philadelphians’ growing desire to make their own pottery. And, on the gathering’s first night, conferees were invited to a “Craft Mash-Up” at the Tyler School of Art & Architecture, an unusually well-equipped facility that’s part of Philadelphia’s Temple University.

Tyler’s Metals and Jewelry program is the largest in the country, offering 56 bench-top torches; crucibles, centrifuges, and vacuum forming equipment; a computer lab, 3-D printers, electroplating and blacksmithing studios; a wood shop, metal shop, laser cutter, laser welder, and CNC milling machinery. And more. Scott Spitzer photography, courtesy of the ACC

As students down one hall were blowing glass, around the corner others were hammering out fine copper vases and jewelry in the school’s pristine blacksmithing shop; down an opposite hallway, another cohort of students were making textiles and sets of fine silk scarves, which in one case were colored with radiant natural plant dyes the student had created herself. Founded in 1935, Tyler has long emphasized a multidisciplinary approach to art aimed at “socially engaged practice.” The school recently took that mission one step further by consciously blending art and architecture—and, in the latter, emphasizing environmentally sound design. 

Today, Philadelphia continues to promote, and enjoy, the myriad benefits that artistic sensibilities can bring to a community. In 1959, the city became the first in the nation to create a special tax for public art. (The program, evocatively titled “one percent for art,” required any developers who built on city land to donate one percent of their construction costs to the city’s art scape). Over the years, the fund was not always carefully enforced, but it has subsidized a wide variety of work, some of which has had clear social benefit.

The ACC’s presentations closed with a heart-warming discussion, and performance, from a rare duo: Keith Bear (center), a Native American flute-maker, musician, and story-teller from North Dakota’s Mandan-Hidatsa tribe; and Bud Larsen (right), a fellow North Dakotan who restores, makes, and plays a rare Swedish instrument called a Hardanger fiddle. photo courtesy of the ACC

In one example, an organization called Mural Arts Philadelphia has put huge, colorful murals on walls across the city, including some downtrodden neighborhoods that have been suffering from the opioid crisis. In those communities, the murals have helped foster a new sense of hope and creative activity, which in turn have stimulated clean-up efforts.

One local art project apparently discouraged drug users, quite literally, from shooting up. After a local artist built a neon light installation, drug users who gathered on this street suddenly found that the lights’ electric purple hues made their veins difficult to see. So who says the arts lack social impact?

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