creativity, Mothering

Craft v. Art – The Showdown

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.

A detail from Freddie Robins’s “Craft Kills,” a comment on the post-9/11 ban on knitting needles in airplanes.
A detail from Freddie Robins’s “Craft Kills,” a comment on the post-9/11 ban on knitting needles in airplanes.

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!

by Amanda Soule
by Amanda Soule

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.

by Amanda Soule
by Amanda Soule

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. virginia-lee-burton-in-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.”

A hand-painted lamp at Vanessa Bell's home, Charleston.
A hand-painted lamp at Vanessa Bell’s home, Charleston.

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.

by Teirney Gearon
by Teirney Gearon

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?

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13 thoughts on “Craft v. Art – The Showdown”

  1. What a great post! Thank you!
    I had to laugh when I saw you mentioned my blog 🙂 I was so stressed ,as you can see!! But luckily it all worked out. I have always been creating/crafting but just lately I have been trying to make more in shorter periods of time and that is what is killing me. I only just learned of Amanda a few months ago,and I am so glad I did! She is so amazing and inspiring! She reminds me I should always be doing more.

    Great blog!Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks! I never quite know blog etiquette, so I hope it was ok. I wanted to hug you when I read about everything you were fretting over!

  2. I’ve never studied such things, or even really thought about such things, but honestly I don’t think there really is a difference between art and crafts. I get the idea that crafts are supposed to be more utilitarian or practical, and art is sort of for its own aesthetic sake. But I would argue that people I know who knit and scrapbook and sew etc. also have the same aesthetic appreciation of what they’ve produced. Maybe it’s just that I don’t get why it really matters? Perhaps I am just an ignorant slob?

  3. Definitely not an ignorant slob. And it probably doesn’t matter in teh grand scheme – definitely doesn’t matter when you’re in the midst of knitting. But I do wonder about whether the crafting craze takes women away from other work, work that is potentially more political. Again, I”m mainly thinking aloud as I prepare to write a book about motherhood and creativity. Thanks!

  4. You know this may be peripheral, but I think the craft movement is maybe more about community for a lot of women than about creativity. Around here anyway knitting, scrapbooking, and quilting all seem to be group activities. We seem to have a plethora of “stitch and bitch” groups in this relatively small town. Sometimes I wish I did do some sort of craft because I am envious of the circles of women who get together for a common activity.

  5. Hi Jennifre–

    I love reading your work, and how it makes me think about my own life and work. This one stirred me in a couple of directions.

    I tend to think of craft projects as having instructions that can be followed to result in a product. Art for me is more about having an idea/concept and finding a way of making the idea real, to communicate something about the relationship between self and world that can be shared with third party viewers. I can knit if I want to, but I’m a much better painter!

    I don’t think of art as being better than craft. Just different in purpose.

    I know in my own work as a painter some of the choices I have made about what and how to paint have been fueled by a need to provide for my family– not only economically, but also in terms of doing work that explores important ethical issues that I wanted my children to consider.

  6. this topic can be a super hot potato, and i admire your approach to it – by raising the questions rather than proposing the answers. for my own selfish reasons, i try not to get involved in the art vs. craft debate, and staying away from that has given me the freedom to make what i like without having to worry about pushing it into a classification. to me, creating is creating. but i imagine the answer is different for everyone.

    excellent article!

  7. This essay stirred a lot up for me. I like the comment by Tilly Woodard. The question of whether craft is considered art has more to do with intent than materials. Fiberarts Magazine does a great job blurring the lines between craft and art. Tilly brought up another interesting point when she mentioned making artistic decisions based on financial considerations. What about artists that churn out images as a means of supporting their family? Is that more craft than art?

    Another point that I find hard to navigate around is the idea of art making as a solo activity. I think the idea that a real artist needs to remove themselves from the everyday world is patriarchal. I’m thinking of the difference between Jackson Pollock toiling away in his private studio versus Judy Chicago struggling to create her art at the kitchen table with her kids underfoot. I’d love to have a private studio and hours to myself, but as a mom I know that I can make art in ten minute chunks while caring for my child, too. If I thought I’d could only be an artist if I had the time Jackson Pollock had, I would just give it up.
    I totally love this discussion–it really is a rich topic! I can also attest to Priscilla’s sewing abilities…she really is an artist!

  8. FOOD for THOUGHT: I once interviewed the artist Miriam Schapiro who was behind the Woman House project in LA in the 70s along with Chicago. She told me about being a painter in the 40s and 50s in NYC with the likes of Pollack and Krasner as friends. Her husband, a less well known painter in the longrun, got the extra bedroom for his studio, while she had the dining room. When the male painters walked through her studio to get to his on visits, they often disparaged her for taking up family space. Schapiro is also well known for her “Femmages”, which use found woman-made crafts, such as lacework.

    Regarding intentionality, another blogger picked up on this, too, Carrie, and has good t houghts: http://voodoonotes.blogspot.com/2009/04/art-vs-craft-redux.html

    I can’t tell you how helpful this all is to my thinking on the subject! Thank you!

  9. Thanks for the link to Voodoo Notes. I love the description of art as an itch that has to be scratched. You can’t walk away from it like I did with the baby hat I started knitted for my friend’s son who is turning 5 this year!

  10. Really well thought out. I tend to go with the “there is no difference– except how we recognize these things culturally.” But in a way that’s everything. Art is what people say art is. But, I am willing– and often recognize “great art” in craft all the time. And I’ll keep doing it too!

  11. I’m wayyyy late to the game here, but this is a fascinating, totally thought-provoking topic…and one I think about a lot in between binding books, breastfeeding, letterpress printing, going to the grocery store, etc. As the child of a fine artist myself, I definitely consider my work more craft than art, but there’s always wiggle room, I guess. I think the question of following and acting on creativity as a mother when, let’s be honest – our time is not our own – will always lead to a healthy, lengthy discussion. Somewhere in the middle of the work and the need for community and the need for isolation there seems to be a very personal answer for each of us

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