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.
These posts may be of limited interest to some who read this blog, but since I use this space to document my own process, I will be posting “Summer Textile School” updates for the next couple of months.
To recap: I am spending the next 12-15 weeks with an intensive textile focus using study materials from The School of Sweet Georgia for Natural Dyeing and Jane Stafford’s School of Weaving for Colour and Design experimentation. In July and August I have taken additional days off work (mostly every Monday, with some others thrown in here and there) to spend focused time in the textile studio.
Each week I will find some time to post my activities here, with photos of what I’m working on. This is as much a record for me as anything.
Dye space and materials
Rhubarb leaf mordant
Yesterday I posted an open letter about the failures of reconciliation in Canada that left me feeling vulnerable because I was using my voice as a civil service worker and union leader in a really public way – something I don’t normally do. The original draft of the letter was very angry, but I toned it down in the final version to increase its accuracy and also the reception of it. I was talking online with my friend Sharai about it afterwards and she said, “I think anger is great for the fuel to get things started. To get the fire lit, so to speak. Then it’s important to get the flames under control so they don’t scorch everything around it and it keeps us warm and secure.” Which is a brilliant way of thinking about it if you ask me.
On Facebook and other social media I don’t do a lot of “hell ya” petition sharing or public outrage. Occasionally it creeps in, but as a street-protester/community organizer from way back, it feels too easy to click and share – too performative over anything substantive. A click and share takes up our attention, but not our time. It demonstrates that we care, but not enough to put our bodies in the way. Of course some people do both! But since I’m doing less of the latter these days (my volunteer time being focused on advocacy through my union position) I am acutely aware of the hollow feeling of click/share activism.
Although a public letter is only one step above clicktivism, yesterday was an exception to my general position on performative action. Following the news of the Kamloops Residential School gravesite, the fact that the Government continues to fight claims of cultural genocide in court, and the lip-service being paid to reconciliation, I figured it was time to at least add my voice, a voice that represents a few hundred people, to the growing chorus of shame at the lack of government action on reparations. I didn’t write that letter because I thought anyone in the government would care much. I know how letters to ministers get answered (by people like me who have a block of key messages to draw from). But I hoped that in doing so, I would encourage other non-Indigenous folks to at least take a moment to think about what decolonization means, and to write a letter of their own. One letter isn’t listened to, but tens of thousands are.
Although I felt some discomfort about posting the letter, it went away as soon as I had done it and realized that there was no risk to speaking my mind at all. I’m not sure what form I imagined that risk would take, but all shadows of it evaporated after I had posted online. Since then it’s been shared by my union, and a number of friends all over the place – so apparently it did strike a chord with some people, as momentary a gesture as it might be. It seems insignificant in the face of the terrible colonial legacy in Canada, but even worse to say nothing at all.
The California lilacs in and around my yard are in full bloom and buzzing with bees from five in the morning until 9 at night. A sure sign of summer on the horizon even it looks like June-uary might about to roll in for a bit.
These last couple of weeks have been very textile-y as I got my outdoor dye studio set-up last weekend, wove fabric for four tea towels off my loom, and put together a belated Mother’s Day gift (I’m seeing my mom for the first time since February this weekend). I’ve also decided to create my own “Summer Textile School” out of Sweet Georgia and Jane Stafford courses – and scheduled Mondays off work in July and August to bring some focus to advancing my learning this summer. There will be much weaving, dyeing, and probably even some sewing as I allow myself more time and space in the studio over the next sixteen weeks.
Last Friday was a Comfort for the Apocalypse drop and marked issue #20! That is 20 mini-essays and 20 recipes, not to mention all the other bits and pieces I include in the newsletter. Though I keep feeling the pull of a longer/larger writing project, it seems that all I can sustain at the moment is short pieces – so I’m going to keep working on those as I stick with the monthly email and the blog.
Despite not feeling quite ready for the post-vaccination shift, we are starting to open things up around here and will be hosting our first house concert (outside, in the yard) near the end of June. I sent out notification about it today, and have already had quite a bit of response on the RSVPs, which tells me that there is a lot of interest in getting out and about safely in my community. I am hopeful our vax rates will continue to go up as more young people are eligible, and have started hearing about local folks getting their second shots in the next couple of weeks — according to the BC health app we should be eligible for ours by the end of the month!
Despite the re-opening, we intend to spend our summer really close to home because this is our favourite time to be here. In addition to being around for Summer Textile School, we will be hosting house concerts and our annual long weekend party (within all local health authority parameters), and I hope to get out on the water lots and make day trips to see family and friends on the big island. I have one trip away with a friend – to Cortes – which will be a nice scenery break. In the fall Brian and I have a plan to go to Saturna, and we will do some kind of outdoor trip with friends in early September. Our world has gotten a lot closer in the last year and I am perfectly fine with that continuing on, but a few more social occasions are welcome.
The last few days have been pretty warm, making me realize that I might not really be up for running in the summertime afternoons. I’m either going to have to run first thing in the morning, or switch over to more weight lifting, especially if the summer turns out to be hot and smoky as it winds on. For the next couple of weeks I am going to try adding one more strength-training day, with some interspersed cardio to see how that feels – running on dusty roads and trails wasn’t really doing it for me this week. The strength program I follow just switched training block focus and I am feeling really strong in my power lifts again. This summer might be a good time to start pushing those numbers upward again. I am going to start going to the gym one day per week again, just to get access to some of the equipment we don’t have at home.
This weekend we are heading down island to see parents, brother, niece and nephew for the first time since February – which feels like a ridiculously big deal after so many months. I’ve got gifts and baking all ready to go, and tomorrow morning we will be off for an overnight with some errands sandwiched in between the visits. Perhaps this will give me more to write about next week as I am fresh out of new insights this afternoon!
Yesterday I received an invitation to a June 2022 wedding in New York, one that was delayed due to the pandemic and is now rescheduled. Though I knew it was coming (my friend had told me on a phone call), it still felt shocking, and I couldn’t tell whether the tension that followed came from a place of anticipation (the novelty of a different vista!) or fear (omigod, I can’t ever get on a plane or go to the US again!) I expect it was a mix.
I clicked yes on the e-post RSVP, but I won’t make the actual decision and reservations until sometime next spring. With new variants kicking around, it still seems impossible we will ever travel further than our bioregions again. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be all that sad about it. Travel is the thing I’ve missed least in the last fourteen months, even as much as I’d like to see faraway friends and family again.