A few years ago, not long after I moved to Gabriola, a friend of mine stood in my weaving studio and said, “You should just be glad you are not an artist.” He was reflecting on his own struggles as a painter and installation artist, somewhat bitter about his lack of recent art practice and a career that had taken off and then faltered mid-air when his ability to produce new work waned in the face of family responsibilities many years ago. As far as he could tell, making “things” was a fine hobby, but it wasn’t nearly as important or torturous as making art. Or at least that’s what came across to me. He wasn’t in a great frame of mind at the time, and so I didn’t let him know that his words landed with me as an insult. Not because I consider the work I do “art”, but because the delineation between art and craft is something I have struggled with ever since I first started putting fabrics and yarns together to make clothing and household goods, but especially since learning to weave a few years ago.
Last night, in my twice-monthly creative process group, the art versus craft distinction came up in conversation. Although I have wrestled with these terms on and off over the years, I haven’t thought about it for awhile. I make things, useful and beautiful things, and I don’t worry too much about how it gets categorized. While there was once a time when I was insecure about my “right” to make art (write, play music, experiment with textiles), I now realize that just the act of doing is what matters to me and how others regard it isn’t as important as it used to be.
Even so, I surprised myself in the conversation when I said, “It’s up to me to identify where I fall in the lineage of creation – artist, craftsperson, maker. I define that. No one else does.” Because it wasn’t just that I said it. For the first time in considering this question I felt it right down to the bottom of myself and I think that’s because of where my own process of inquiry has gone in the last few years. Which is, from making things as replicas (using a known pattern to make a piece of clothing as an example) to designing my own textiles to weave and learning more about structure, form, and colour in order to do so. Although I am taking an online course which requires the weaving of prescribed samples right now, I’ve come to realize that I’m happiest when I’m weaving something of my own design process. Weaving samples is a means to an end in terms of learning about structure, and it’s good for my learning – but I’m only interested in it as a way to expand my understanding and repertoire for projects I will go on to design later.
Some might say – well that there – is the definition of art versus craft. To go from replicating to innovating is the core of what art is. But what if I’m innovating to make fabric for a tea towel? Well, then we’re back in craft land because art, by some definitions has no end use whereas craft does and so on. Some people suggest that art evokes emotion whereas craft doesn’t – but I hardly see that as true when I think of the range of emotional responses I’ve had to so-called artisinal goods in my lifetime (I once cried over a dessert of spruce-tip ice cream, so evocative of the forest of my childhood it was).
When art versus craft comes up casually as it did in my studio a few years ago, it seems to be code for “your work isn’t good enough to be considered.” To which I ask – considered by who? Perhaps my work will never hang in a gallery, but that’s true of many people who engage in classical art such as painting or sculpture. Perhaps my work has an end-use, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t start with open inquiry or from a place of emotional resonance.
Even so, I prefer the term craftsperson because it is less loaded, less snobbish and exclusively held. It denotes exactly what I value: the honing of one’s tools and skills against the resources of the world around us. An artist does this as well, of course – and again, we collapse the separation between the two. It’s not really something I’m caught up in these days though, mostly because I’m so content in the work I’ve set out for myself lately that there is no time or energy for fretting about what people say or think outside of my studio.