Craft is like ’god’––how, even vaguely, can you say what it is?
Like Bluegrass music, it can travel from front-porch knitting to museum acclaim to the mainstream fame of Dale Chihuly. But perhaps the best example of American craft are the quilters of Gees Bend, whose fabulous, raw, original quilts descend from the ancestral skills and thrift of rural Georgia, and whose fame seems to leave them a little bewildered. Everything is there, the skill, the utilitarian pedigree, and that updating twist by which a humble, rural, god-fearing craft looks brilliantly fresh in almost any setting.
Alas, not always so easy. Vast, institutional efforts have been made to lift craft to the level of fine art and have usually fallen short because of that arcane affiliation with use. Art has an intellectual, stellar air. It is Vladimir Horowitz. Craft is the church pianist. Or so the fable goes.
Still, I’m a maker. Making is my impetuous, benevolent id, animating all that I do. Arguably, it’s society’s too, making up a turbulent chunk of human history from the guilds in Europe to the trade unions in America. Every car and house and garment in America was made, often with skilled or very skilled hands. Think of the tilers at Grand Central Station in New York or the glaziers at Chartres. Of Shakers, indeed most of our forbearers, making their furniture, pots and brooms. Of blue collars everywhere.
Still, what is craft now? The rural potter or the sleek Blu Dot chair? The spirited individual (our ingenious tailor in Elmira for whom every forsaken sow’s ear was dance attire just awaiting a needle), or the beguiling system-mindedness of Scandinavia, or even the sweatshops of Malaysia? The single or the network? The environmental conscience or the algorithms tailoring a sofa in Finland? The human or the robotic?
Who was that indefatigable kid that I was in my twenties? I’d drive or fly forever with an introduction in my pocket, just to visit one of the Cardinals of my trade. I loved their homes, which were usually hand-made too. Sam Maloof, David Ellsworth, George Nakashima, Bob Stocksdale. Resplendent, quirky, Zen-like homes, adorned with their work and that of their friends. Sanctuaries of preposterous skill and forms as enchanting as rain. They took me around their studios; I handled their sacred tools. I was, I still in memory am, bewitched.
There is skill, and then there is matter. Stuff. I keep by my bed a little book by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. It is an abstruse hymnal to the wonders and mysteriousness of matter itself––clay, salt, wood, ink, glass, waiting to be ‘philosophized,’ waiting to be fashioned.
In Chania, Crete, a block from the harbor, wood-carvers are at work in the old Byzantine style, carving the thrones, screens, and other accessories of an ancient, ornamental faith. I learned what every emblem and flower meant. If a deadline loomed, the guys plugged on. By nine or ten, the medieval shop would be as full as a bar, priests, prostitutes and hoi polloi, laughing, chatting, bestowing food, watching each graven miracle unfold.