Sunday, 15 July 2012

Traditional craft meets contemporary art.

As part of The Knot Just Macramé Fibre Festival which Cultiver is supporting, I was invited to speak at the opening Fibre Forum on the topic 'traditional craft meets contemporary art'. Though I find speaking in public pretty nerve wracking I agreed to take part and even nominated myself as first speaker (mainly so I wouldn't have to sit through everyone else's amazing talks with a major case of the jitters). I thought that as this can be a pretty contentious issue and one that is particularly relevant to the shop, that I would share with you all what I had to say.

As we've been asked to consider this topic as it applies to ourselves, I feel it is appropriate to give you a brief personal history and an understanding of what drives me to make. I we up in a family of resourceful, and thought they probably wouldn't say it themselves, creative people. I learnt to sew with my Mum and my Great Grandmother. My Mum was self taught and had learned to sew out of s desire to make her own unique clothes and my Great Grandmother had been a professional seamstress who had sewed great coats during WWII and also used her skills to clothe her family. With the addition of my other two Nanna's, the traditional crafts I was exposed to included embroidery, knitting, crotchet, pottery and macramé (just to name a few). Sewing for some reason was the craft that particularly resonated with me, though I did try my hand at all the others and certainly appreciated these women's skills and their prolific making of clothing, blankets, toys and more which served decorative and functional uses in our homes and clothed and entertained their children, grand children and great grand children.
The other hugely influential habit and I guess craft practised in my family was that of taking old, unwanted items and modifying them to give them a new purpose and an altered and unexpected use. Long before the term UPcycling was coined, my Pappa was using old fence posts to make book shelves and picture frames and my Dad was transforming bits of scrap timber into rickety go carts and cubby houses and my Nanna would spend months altering and 'modernising' her old dresses into new dresses which were not as well received by her visiting tom boy grand daughter as she deserved.
I've never studied art or fashion, my love of making and transforming clothing has come from the influence of the productive family I was lucky enough to grow up in. I guess this lack of formal arts training is one of the reasons I'm reluctant to speak at these types of events but as craft and contemporary art is such a huge part of my life, particularly since opening Cultiver, I felt I should gather my courage and share my perspective with you.
I really wanted a solid understanding of these terms 'craft' and 'art' so I delved into a little research to try and define them and this is what I came up with.
Craft - is most often used to describe functional and utilitarian objects and items skilfully made by hand. Traditionally the makers of craft items were referred to as craftsmen (or women) though nowadays we are more likely to refer to them as artisans.
Art - is used to describe creatively produced works, which provoke an emotional and spiritual response in the viewer. An artist is a person who engages in art or a person who expresses themselves creatively and innovatively through their arts practice.
Personally I feel it's a pretty fine line between craft and art particularly traditional craft and contemporary art. I really feel that the term 'craft' is often used nowadays derisively to describe things like children's activities and scrapbooking. But let's not get onto that debate here, rather let's look at traditional craft and how I recent years the craft movement has gained momentum, propelled by uniquely skilled independent designers and artisans who are pushing the boundaries and testing the limits of traditional skills and materials. This recent revival has taken a couple of different directions:
  • Production of objects made from scratch using traditional techniques to create contemporary products and
  • Production of objects recycled from previously owned or abandoned items, reworked or UPcycled so they gain an improved style and function but retain a memory of what they were.
One of my favourite practitioners of modern craft is crotchetdermy artist Shauna Richardson who creates life sized animal sculptures in wool. With a background in conceptual art, she attempts to find new ways to explore the 'anything can be art theory' by creating works that combine uncomfortable themes such as accessible objects, nostalgia, traditional craft and realism.

Crotchetdermy animals by Shauna Richardson

This theory is being practised the world over by highly talented artisans who have laboriously and passionately experimented with techniques and materials to produce high quality, modern, desirable objects. The objects, whether UPcycled or made new are imbued with a history, vision and feeling that distinguishes them from mass-produced items. Consumers too have played their part in this revival of traditional crafts, due to their desire to find products that have meaning, singularity and the mark if ther maker upon them. This is something I've particularly noticed in the shop - our customers are seeking products that are unique, that can't be found everywhere else and that help them express their individuality.
From the perspective of crafting and making - every time I sew I reference back to the skills of the women who taught me and when I sew with pre-owned materials like old bed sheets, embroidered table cloths and discarded shirts, an element of nostalgia is present in the finished piece. Another reason I believe it's difficult to make a clear distinction between craft and art is the response to such UPcycled pieces. When someone sees a shirt made from the same Star Wars bed sheet they slept under as a child or a dress created from an embroidered tablecloth like their Nann might have made, there is an immediate emotional response to that piece. Maybe it's 'why the hell did you cut up that awesome sheet or destroy that beautiful tablecloth'  but usually it's wonder that something they looked at as one thing has been transformed into another and a piece they can wear and carry a memory along with it. It's not just the UPcycled pieces in store that engender such a response - artist brooches, knitted toys, jewellery, bags - I've witnessed emotional responses to all these hand worked pieces. I think it's a combination of things - a recognition of the mark of the maker upon each object, a realisation of the skill and intent that has gone into their creation, a connection to a previous generation of craft practitioners and a longing for a time when everyday objects were handmade.
In conclusion I would just like to say how exciting I find this reawakening of traditional craft and it's use and recognition in contemporary arts practise. I'm thrilled to be a part of this movement and to have the opportunity through Cultiver to build connections with local makers, provide a space to share traditional craft skills, promote and sell contemporary craft objects and support such an event as The Knot Just Macramé Fibre Festival.

Holding onto the mic for grim death.
Thanks Sharon Draws for the pic. 
So I survived the whole speaking in public thing. I'd love to know your thoughts on this issue.

x Bec

for some inspiring further reading check out The New Artisans - Olivier Dupon


  1. Well done Bec, I like your personal story about craft and art and salute your courage in presenting a public talk! Go girl! :o)

    1. Cheers Kate, I really was holding onto that mic so tightly so no one could see how much my hands were shaking.

  2. Excellent speech Bec, you expressed it wonderfully and were passionately brave. I really get what you said about the 'immediate emotional response' to an upcycled item. And it IS exciting to see people like you who are younger than me loving and 'doing' handmade.

    1. Thanks Anita, I was thinking a lot about your pieces when I wrote that x B