Featured image: Mariann Johansen Ellis booth – art festival in Denmark
This is the first post of our Handmade Alphabet Series. If you would like to follow along, please sign up to receive our blog posts by email. It’s in the sidebar. –> –>
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Our topic for the Letter A is Art! This always opens up a can of worms for me because when you think about art and what it is, the discussion can get very confusing… It is often linked with the word “craft” so that people talk about “Arts and Crafts” and to many, “art” is worth more than “craft”, not only in pricing, but also in meaning. Let’s look at a couple of definitions. We’ll look at both art and craft as nouns using the Merriam-Webster definitions.
Art commands a higher price value than Craft.
Somewhere along the annals of history, painters and sculptors captured the imagination of the public and they became more valued than the carpenters, potters, glass blowers, weavers and all of the other talented creators of functional or decorative work. They are the ones who live on in museums, in books, in degrees and they still can ask for more money than a similar work using other skills. This has changed a great deal since the 1970’s, but only through a great struggle for recognition. The 1970’s also cemented the use of the words, art and craft, by flooding the market with do-it-yourself kits. “Can’t paint? No worries! Just match the paints with the numbers and you will have a masterpiece!” I loved paint by numbers!
There were kits for everything and they still command a large portion of the income generated by the business of art and craft. They have also created a product that demands neither much talent nor ability. As materials became more accessible to the masses, it became more difficult to differentiate what was valuable and what was “junk”. There have always been issues of elitism in the arts world and it always boils down to artists needing to make a living and having all kinds of barriers to find recognition, compensation, and ultimately, the freedom to create.
These kits and the accessibility to materials have provided a great service in that they offer a point of entry or play. Most of us who make art quilts started out by learning how to piece traditional ones. But, then we got bored and asked, “What if?” That is the separator, what makes something art. I am learning how to knit right now and don’t consider what I’ve made to be “art”. But, if someday I master the craft and can then ask those questions and jump outside of the patterns I am following, then the art begins…
One Of A Kind
“Art” should not be massed produced. An artist should transform the mundane into something that provokes emotion. Many years ago, I went on a buying trip to Brazil and I visited a village called Caruaru where Mestre Vitalino had become famous for his original folk art pieces that depicted every day life and characters. This was back in the 1940s and 50’s when folk art around the world was becoming recognized and collectible. He could not keep up with demand and soon his family started helping out and copying his characters. Neighbors joined in and competing houses eventually formed, but they all used his designs. When I was there, I bought quite a few pieces and had to negotiate with each “house”. They should have formed a cooperative… I walked and walked and everything was pretty much the same. His son was still alive and I got to meet him, a sad and lonely guy.
As I walked along, I ran into a workshop that had enormous creatures at the door, all in natural clay. They had scales and wings and talons and were like nothing I had ever seen before. Many rose above me in size. I walked in and met a wiry old guy with twinkly eyes who told me these were his babies, visitors from dreams. I asked him if anybody bought them and he said they were too big, too hard to transport, but that every now and then someone would like them enough to figure out how to get them out of there. I asked him what he thought about all of the Vitalino imitations and he said that they were ok, but not for him. He didn’t like imitations. A true artist, right?
Well, all of this becomes complicated when you need to make a living. A few lucky people are blessed with finding that adoring following who will pay anything for what they make. But, most of us have to push our way in and compete with the rest of the market, using whatever tools we have to make that happen. The drying bowls and mugs above are all waiting for Karen Fiorino’s magic touch, Clay Lick Creek Pottery. She often works in series and has developed a distinctive style that in itself, is one of a kind. I was at a friend’s house for dinner and when we were cleaning off the table, I realized that the salsa bowl was clearly one of Karen’s. Sure enough, my friend had been at one of her shows a few years back and picked it up.
Developing a style, even when creating large bodies of work, has value. Karen uses the craft she has honed to transform a simple pot or mug into something collectible. She sells online and participates in local shows. If she wanted to get her work into large catalog houses or deal with wholesale production, she would also have to do what Vitalino did – get help and mass produce.
The Handmade Revolution
Etsy served as the perfect vehicle to make the market accessible to small studios. In its first years, Etsy showcased the best in fine craft and art. It was so beautiful! The loyal base, its sellers, rallied and brought customers who fell in love with the offerings and it grew. And grew and grew. Along the way, Etsy sadly lost its commitment and vision for handmade and although there are still wonderful finds there, the market is clogged with mass produced junk. Like the paint by numbers, handmade became broadly defined to the point where minimal alterations were enough to classify something as handmade. Sew a couple of sequins on a tennis shoe and it’s no longer just a shoe….
This dilution of quality that has happened on Etsy simply reflects the society we live in. We have created a miserable cacophony of waste and senselessness. At the same time, the Handmade Revolution has also advocated for upcycling, using our garbage as a supply, for growing our own food, for simplifying while seeking meaningful relationships in our local communities and online. I enjoy friendships all over the world because of what happened with Etsy and with our industry.
All of these tensions have also confused the language we use to describe ourselves. When someone asks me what I do, I say that I am an artist and usually, that is enough to explain why I am not “normal”. But, in reality, I have not made much art in many years. Most of my time goes to promoting other artists, working on websites or doing chores that might bring in some income. We have many words for people who make things: artist, sewer, potter, wood carver, caner, quilter, etc. But, because the words associated with “craft” were looked down on by the commercial art world, new words were used to separate the elite from the commoner. Titles like Textile Art, Ceramic Art, Fiber Art, Art Quilt, Mixed Media Art and so on all attempt to remove the craft from the intellect. I find it rather elitist, but it has helped categorize types of work that helps describe a certain genre.
But, now I see more and more people completely distancing themselves from the materials in order to fit into the fine art standards. I am very active in the textile community so see this especially there where textiles are now called “paintings” even though no paint is used. Not only does this confuse search engines, it is also a kind of double speak that I find alarming. It may not lead to anything damaging though as the trend these days seems to embrace all materials and recognizing that art truly transcends what something is made of.
The Handmade Revolution recognized that a lot of what our new cottage industries produced might not really be “art”. These people had been “crafters” in the 70’s and were now “makers”. Fair traders talked about their people as “producers”, “artisans” and “workers”. Idea people are the “designers”. Artists are urban while artisans are rural. Such a confusion! Yet, there does seem to be a need to differentiate between the drones and the innovators. I met a Hmong refugee woman once who made beautiful traditional Hmong bags, potholders, etc., and was talking to her about ideas. She said she could only do things that had a pattern and that the person their community worked with was still in VietNam and would send them new projects to do. The leaders and the followers. The artist leads with ideas while the makers execute them.
An area that especially grates me circles around how we present minorities and work that comes from developing countries. Maybe it isn’t even about race or origin, but more about whether one travels with the movers and shakers of the design world. Whether it’s a gallery, studio, workshop, catalog or brand, an automatic assumption devalues work coming from traditional communities. The discrepancy between pricing of similar items boggles my mind. We finally see some pressure against cultural appropriation emerging with a recognition that folk art, ethnic art, tribal art, and so on all reflect traditions and symbolism worthy of respect. The last two decades have also seen partnerships emerge between these two disparate groups that show equality and friendship. Many traditional techniques have been threatened by the challenges these groups face around the world: natural disasters, loss of land, industrialization, poverty and so on. The elite can provide the bridge needed to meet those needs and it is beautiful when it happens!
Art and Crafts Movement
All of this tension in defining art, the language we use, accessing a buying public, elitism and price point belong to that can of worms I mentioned in the beginning. The Arts and Crafts Movement attempted to unwrap some of this by addressing these problems head on. Visual Arts Cork has a brief history on the movement, along with its goals:
The Arts and Crafts movement was a social/artistic movement of modern art, which began in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth, spreading to continental Europe and the USA. Its adherents – artists, architects, designers, writers, craftsmen and philanthropists – were united by a common set of aesthetics, that sought to reassert the importance of design and craftsmanship in all the arts in the face of increasing industrialization, which they felt was sacrificing quality in the pursuit of quantity.
Its supporters and practitioners were united not so much by a style than by a common goal – a desire to break down the hierarchy of the arts (which elevated fine art like painting and sculpture, but looked down on applied art), to revive and restore dignity to traditional handicrafts and to make art that could be affordable for all.
With them, we come full circle and revisit the premise that art is “spiritual” and craft is “ability”. The Arts and Crafts movement emerged as a response to the crap they saw toted as the latest fashion. The Great Exhibition of 1851 (London) generated an outcry: Owen Jones, for example, complained that “the architect, the upholsterer, the paper-stainer, the weaver, the calico-printer, and the potter” produced “novelty without beauty, or beauty without intelligence.” (Wikipedia) Enter Morris:
William Morris (1834–1896) was the towering figure in late 19th century design and the main influence on the Arts and Crafts movement. The aesthetic and social vision of the movement grew out of ideas that he developed in the 1850s with a group of students at the University of Oxford who combined a love of Romantic literature with a commitment to social reform. In Edward Burne-Jones‘ words, they intended to “wage Holy warfare against the age”.
William Morris shared Ruskin’s critique of industrial society and at one time or another attacked the modern factory, the use of machinery, the division of labour, capitalism and the loss of traditional craft methods. Morris insisted that the artist should be a craftsman-designer working by hand and advocated a society of free craftspeople, such as he believed had existed during the Middle Ages.
“Because craftsmen took pleasure in their work”, he wrote, “the Middle Ages was a period of greatness in the art of the common people. … The treasures in our museums now are only the common utensils used in households of that age, when hundreds of medieval churches—each one a masterpiece—were built by unsophisticated peasants.”Medieval art was the model for much Arts and Crafts design and medieval life, literature and building was idealised by the movement.
Sound familiar? They thought it was bad back then…. What would they have said to what we have done to this planet? Filling the ocean with plastic, watching a massive die-off of species, poisoning everything… I think it is a naive dream to think that the Middle Ages was a time of great happiness for the artisan, but I do understand the longing for thoughtful production, for small workshops, and for beauty of design. We have that same call for a simple life today. The message I get from the Arts and Crafts Movement is that anything that doesn’t have intent is not worth making. Just because someone calls something “Art” doesn’t mean it’s any good or worth making… The other truth that I know is that life without art would be a miserable place indeed.
“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” ―
Art as Voice
Throughout the ages, humans have marked their possessions with meaning. Some hunter/gathering group way back in time might have had need of a bowl or a basket, which they then crafted. It served its purpose, but went beyond that with embellishments that might have told a story, held symbolic value or simply looked good. Our human history comes down to us through paintings, weavings, carvings, and words. They reflect the beliefs of the time along with emotional content.
If you look closely at the photo of Frida Kahlo at the top of this post, you immediately know that she is an artist because of her easel. But, her environment also has meaning. It is filled with artifacts, folk art, handmade functional objects. She is iconic in her dress, her style. All of us make our marks as we go along, not only on canvas, fabric, stone, metal or wood, but in how we arrange our surroundings, in what we wear, in the visual cues we give about what we hold dear.
Dennis Brining of Cultural Patina has amassed an impressive collection of vintage ethnographic works from around the world, focusing primarily on Native American art. He also supports Native American schools and artists who are telling their stories.
Rutongo Embroideries / Pax Rwanda supports a group of women in Rwanda who survived the mass genocide that happened there in 1994. Their embroideries show their village life and wildlife:
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” ―
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
“For me, Art is the restoration of order. It may discuss all sort of terrible things, but there must be satisfaction at the end. A little bit of hunger, but also satisfaction.” ―
I’ve touched on a few of the recurring thoughts that spring up for me when I think about what art means to me. Obviously, it is a HUGE topic. What does it mean to you? Any insights that you would like to share? Please leave them in the comments below.
Artizan Made is a collective of online shops. Explore our profiles. Our focus is on handmade home decor and eco-fashion. Most of our members have shops on Etsy or on their own sites and their market items link back to wherever they are. We also have a cart available on the site for those who don’t have one. Interested in joining our community? Go here to learn more! We are always looking for new members.
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Random art from our Market.
Most of them link back to either Etsy or to their websites.
QuickviewArt quilt based on a traditional pattern with contemporary colors and fabrics.$550.00
QuickviewThese quilts are examples of the 3-panel art quilts Rose Hughes has available for sale. Clicking on the shop button will take you to her website where you can see all of the work available.$2,200.00$2,200.00
QuickviewCulturalPatina maintains a large shop on Etsy with over 800 Museum quality products and original art. Our focus is primarily on American Western art, but we also have a sizable collection on Naga beadwork and textiles, along with other tribal from around the world. Clicking on the 'Shop on Etsy' button will take you to that section of our shop where you can see similar works. If this item has sold, you should be able to find something else of the same quality and price range.$3,600.00
QuickviewEver want a pet but didn't have the time to properly care for it? With one of my thread sculpture Betta Fish, not a problem! Each fish, and its seaweed, are made entirely of stitched cotton threads.$75.00
Quickview“Echoes” is a quilted wall hanging pieced and appliquéed using cotton fabric I dyed and discharged. It is machine quilted with free motion and straight line stitching and sewn on a background of black cotton sateen.$400.00
QuickviewCulturalPatina maintains a large shop on Etsy with over 800 Museum quality products and original art. Our focus is primarily on American Western art, but we also have a sizable collection on Naga beadwork and textiles, along with other tribal from around the world. Clicking on the 'Shop on Etsy' button will take you to that section of our shop where you can see similar works. If this item has sold, you should be able to find something else of the same quality and price range.$6,500.00
QuickviewCulturalPatina maintains a large shop on Etsy with over 800 Museum quality products and original art. Our focus is primarily on American Western art, but we also have a sizable collection on Naga beadwork and textiles, along with other tribal from around the world. Clicking on the 'Shop on Etsy' button will take you to that section of our shop where you can see similar works. If this item has sold, you should be able to find something else of the same quality and price range.$4,500.00
QuickviewDiane McGregor designs and makes Castilleja Cotton quilts and patterns that feature nature, animal, and holiday themes. [caption id="attachment_4917" align="alignleft" width="390"] Castilleja Cotton -Diane McGregor[/caption]$100.00$100.00
QuickviewPrimitive hand hooked peppermints are a playful addition to your country decor.$70.00
QuickviewNestlings Series Quilt Art size: 11” x 17” Working from 5 minute drawings this series of nesty images began to take shape. Cotton and silk fabrics used along with embroidery and beads.$180.00$180.00
QuickviewMariann Johansen Ellis creates etchings, linocuts and pillows in her home studio in Denmark. These goat, sheep and cow etchings show some of her farm animals.$49.00$49.00
QuickviewCoiled abstract open bowl--for wall or table$450.00
Quickview"Floating Squares' is a quilted wall hanging machine pieced using artist-dyed and painted cotton fabric and purchased batiks. It is free motion machine quilted. Its bright colors would be great in a child's room.$250.00
QuickviewThese ceramic animals and insects for installation can be used on walls, back splashes, in bathrooms or anywhere else you want an art tile. Surround it with commercial ones or hang on the wall as art. Prairie Mile Tile, Ceramic art tiles by Su Harvey, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. Prices for the tiles range between $38-$298. Commissions welcome.$298.00$298.00
QuickviewRon Stewart paints the American SouthWest in the beloved themes of the past: Cowboys, stage coaches, Native Americans, and above all, horses, his true love. Culturalpatina Gallery owns the largest collection of Ron Stewart's art, including several bronze pieces. It is the official representative of the artist in the NorthEast of the US.$4,500.00$4,500.00