Does Craft such as this, with its harrowing capitol C, keep us away from Art making? Snipped free of her kids for a few hours a day (she home schools), could she be a contemporary painter of import? Does Craft keep us away from more active, progressive work, such as campaigning or letter writing or, oh, rioting against the banks?
Last week, my daughter and I toured the studio of a woman who teaches children’s art classes. Bella was hoping to find a place to draw during the summer, which thrills me since some of my fondest memories are of classes that I took at the art museum when I was a kid – an activity that, as I recall, was scheduled after swimming lessons and before the Watergate hearings, which occurred in the heat of the mid-afternoon.
The teacher’s studio was sparse, with just a few Scandinavian trappings and some children’s art hung sparingly on the walls. “I teach art in the classic manner,” she told us with a smile that was probably meant to be open but felt a little challenging. “Not craft. The schools teach plenty of that.” I could tell she was working hard not to sound overly despairing.
I don’t think Bella, who is as fond of craft as she is drawing, will be taking the classes, but it was one more salvo for me in a war I’ve been playing in my head between fine arts and crafts. It’s a war that began when I wrote about journals – artists’ sketchbooks, scientists notebooks, and birders’ logs – only to be asked repeatedly about scrapbooking. And it’s a showdown that continues as I write my book about motherhood and creativity. Do I separate the two? Do I need to? Is it truly, as I sometimes imagine, a wrestling match with crochet in one corner and concert violin in the other? Or can everyone play together? There was, after all, an exhibit last year called Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting.
Most of us cook but aren’t chefs. Many of us sing but are hardly of recordable quality. When I think and write about mothers who are artists do I need to differentiate between Artists and crafters? I’m pondering … What do you think? And what is the equivalent of craft in the non-visual arts? Is chick lit to literature as craft is to painting or textiles? I’m not sure.
I’ve also been interested in the gender politics of crafts. There’s plenty of good ol’ progressive politics behind the crafts movement. Trying to sort it all out, I talked awhile back to Priscilla Perkins, an English prof, crafter, and blogger, who said that she makes her kids’ clothes in part to keep them from wearing something made by a kid in another country; and she grows her food and cooks so that they are connected to what they eat. All excellent reasons to craft (and let’s do put cooking in the mix). But, but…. when I look at some of the uber pretty crafting sites out there, I can’t help but feel a bit squeamish toward them. They seem to just be Martha Stewart with a crunchier exterior.
In our conversation, Priscilla and I picked on Amanda Soule because she’s, well, so pickable. I mean, everyone always picks on the prettiest girl in class. Amanda seems nice as can be — I actually have it on firsthand authority that she is, indeed, nice as can be – but that doesn’t make her web site any less daunting. Like Julia Roberts’ mouth or Anna Nicole Smith’s cleavage, it’s just too much!
What’s too much craft? Try this: Amanda not not only threw what appears to be a perfect art-themed birthday party for one of her kids, but she hand-stitched art aprons as party favors for each guest! And weekends at her house are filled not with dashing from soccer to dance, and spare time spent picking up piles of random papers and junk from ever corner of the house while dodging the kids’ whines for computer time … BUT in playing memory games spread out on beautifully aged and scrubbed wooden floors with handmade cards .
The woman inspires awe and a following of thousands. She also, me thinks, casts too large of a shadow on mere mortals, as expressed by exasperated entries by Soule imitators like this: Amanda Soule: You Will Be the Death of Me!
Does Craft such as this, with its harrowing capitol C, keep us away from Art making? Snipped free of her kids for a few hours a day (she home schools), could she be a contemporary painter of import? Does Craft keep us away from more active, progressive work, such as campaigning or letter writing or, oh, rioting against the banks? Again, these are open questions.
But Art is none of the above. It is solo. Away from the family. Not immediately or obviously useful. And, in plenty of cases, unnerving in its content.
There are artists, without doubt, who ride the line between Craft and Art with ease, using each to embolden the other. Of recent fascination is the children’s book author Virginia Lee Burton who wrote and illustrated the design-savvy books Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House, among others. It turns out that Burton was the maiden name of Virginia Demetrios, mother of two and wife of a notable sculptor, who started a design cooperative among her friends and neighbors.
To quote from the Cape Anne Historical Society, which holds the cooperative’s works:
“The Folly Cove Designers were established in Gloucester, MA, in 1938, where they worked together as a guild of designer-craftsmen [sic] from 1941 until 1969. … The leader of the Designers was Virginia Demetrios (1909- 1968). An accomplished artist and a dynamic teacher, Demetrios was well known outside Folly Cove as the author and illustrator of several superb children’s books published under her maiden name. The classes began at the request of one of her neighbors, Aino Yjrola Clarke. In exchange for some lessons in design, Mrs. Clarke offered violin lessons for the Demetrios’ two sons. So in the best tradition of a Yankee swap, the lessons began. In the months that followed, Aino Clarke enthusiastically recruited a party of neighbors who met each Thursday evening in the Demetrios studio.
“The students concentrated on producing decorations to use in their homes – fabrics for clothing, table linen, and upholstery. Meanwhile, Virginia Demetrios concentrated on developing a comprehensive system for teaching design to people who hadn’t any artistic training. She decided to break down a design into its simplest constituents. Once those were understood, mastery of complex concepts would follow more readily. Size, shape and tonality were isolated for consideration in homework exercises; the Thursday classes convened to compare their completed exercises and to work together with their instructor…
“The Designers achieved an unexpected degree of commercial success, selling their work initially from an old barn in Gloucester during the summer. By the fall of 1941, their designs were accepted for resale at America House (created by the Society of Arts and Crafts) in New York. As the handcraft revival continued, they were invited to participate in museum shows and the demand for their work increased.”
Art or craft? Clearly, what started as one thing became another. I love the mention at the end of the “handcraft revival,” since we’re in the midst of another one now. And I guess that whenever such a revival occurs – I’m thinking back to Vanessa Bell’s heavily decorated home and the entire Bloomsbury group – artist and artisan becomes more intermingled, the so-called high and low meet in the middle under the guise of functionality.
It’s particular to mothers, though. Mothers have reasons to craft – it has a practical end — new napkins, clothes, even doll’s house decorations can seem more useful than a poem; it is publicly recognized and accepted, e.g., knitting puts others at ease, performance art less so; it can be done with kids. But Art is none of the above. It is solo. Away from the family. Not immediately or obviously useful. And, in plenty of cases, unnerving in its content.
Photographs of one’s schizophrenic mother – a project by photographer Tierney Gearon that I just came across in a google adventure – are not nearly as inviting as Soule’s knitted baby booties or handmade Valentine’s cards. There’s a lot more there there, in my mind at any rate. I like the bite. But maybe that’s just me. Or maybe I’m just jealous. I wonder what Ms. Burton, er, Mrs. Demetrios, would say?