Tag Archives: Crafts

What is Creative?

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According to a recent government think-tank craftspeople can no longer be considered ‘creative’. Given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries they ‘classified’ a craftsperson as a ‘manufacturer who follows fixed procedures to produce articles by hand’. No creativity required! Having spent most of my life working in what I consider to be ‘creative industries’ I’m appalled, especially when the same report praises desk-dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants for their creative input. At a stroke my status is downgraded to unimaginative; lacking innovation, artistry or aesthetics. But hasn’t there has always been an element of snobbery towards makers who actually get their hands dirty?

I was brought up on the premise that it’s exemplary to make things by hand. When I studied at Art College William Morris remained the oracle and he believed that losing respect for the past meant the future was in trouble. Making is in our genes – from making food to making clothes, mankind learned hand-skills in order to survive. But hand-skills are developed through creative intellect passed down from master to apprentice, and Morris challenged Victorian industrialists for failing to recognise this fact.

For some archaeologists the humble sewing needle marks the most crucial advance for prehistoric societies. This simple tool allowed our ancestors to finally crawl out of their caves. Needles meant clothing fashioned from raw animal skins could be made to fit. And clothes that fitted made winter hunting expeditions more endurable. Better diet meant survival rates improved and life-spans extended, enabling clans to pass greater wisdom and experience onto the next generation. The beautiful paintings left in caves remain the only evidence of their life stories. And of their instinct for creativity.

It took thousands of years before primitive societies discovered how to farm in such a way they could sustain life without the need to wander. And it was no doubt during this period a wider range of craft skills were perfected. Whether making vessels to store water, or weaving textiles or tanning leather to make clothes, people were discovering how to manipulate whatever materials they discovered in order to improve their lives. Perhaps that’s why the current government boffins think crafts lack creativity, because we’ve been using these processes for a very long time. But even if societies did have to produce everything required to sustain life there’s nothing to say they didn’t enjoy the process, people who work with their hands are nothing if not resourceful.

Each stage of early intellectual development can be credited to a breakthrough in manufacturing techniques brought about by craftspeople. Without skills honed from manufacturing hand-crafted products the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Blame glassmakers on the island of Murano for the invention of spectacles. And Guttenberg was apprenticed to be a jeweller, that’s how he learned the techniques necessary to ‘create’ moveable typefaces.

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It might take a given set of procedures to make a product by hand, but craftspeople are perpetually innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and it’s in their nature to explore and experiment. But an experienced craftsperson does not separate the workings of the hand from the workings of the mind. There is no such distinction. Neither do they baulk at getting their hands dirty.

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Momentous Times

In the King household the year 2015 is going to be marked by ‘milestone’ birthdays and ‘special’ anniversaries. I should probably be anticipating these occasions with great joy but I wish it was possible to slow the pace down, just a little.

When my daughter was at university, studying psychology, a professor suggested she should write her obituary – To make you aware of what you want to be remembered for.  I thought that was very dark indeed – almost like tempting fate but, for me, birthdays have exactly the same effect. Inevitably I wonder how many more ‘milestone’ birthdays will there be? I’ve tried to ignore the fact that 2015 has already begun but before we get close to celebrating I want to reflect on my reasons for having reservations.

Twenty years ago, with another ‘milestone’ birthday looming, I decided it was time to take a break from pushing my academic boundaries. I’d spent four years studying with the Open University and absolutely enjoyed the challenge but was finding it increasingly difficult to find a balance between my goals and those of my husband and two children. I wasn’t good at half measures and every spare minute was dedicated to reading and research, especially at weekends. At the time we lived ‘over the shop’ and our bespoke craft business had been expanding steadily. With an increased clientele came the need for me to be more available, more hands-on. And our children were growing up, they would soon both be teenagers and I wanted more time for us to do ‘things’ together. In short I felt guilty.

Then, during the first week of that year, life was sent into turmoil when my son fell ill with pneumonia. He’d been suffering from tonsillitis for weeks but the morning I opened the door to his bedroom and found him too sick to respond my instincts went into overdrive. I rang our GP immediately, telling him I was coming to the surgery whether there was an available appointment or not. I scooped my ten year old into my arms, laid him in the back of the car wrapped in a blanket, and drove like a fury into town. David was prescribed three different antibiotics for the next month, but he recovered. And just to help his recovery we took him ice skating.

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Ten years later another ‘momentous’ year loomed. Our business had expanded, everything seemed rosy. We rented a villa in Spain and invited my sister-in-law and her family to join us. The idea was to celebrate together in the sun (except our son couldn’t make it because he was training in Poland) prior to the ‘occassions’ in November. Without trawling over particulars the effective event was that one day my husband nearly drowned while helping to save two little boys and their father from drowning. A vicious rip-tide nearly wiped away our future. Thankfully everyone survived with only minor injuries (and twenty-four hours in a Spanish hospital) but the drama of that day sits in my memory as clearly as any movie and our lives were changed in the knowledge that everything could so easily have turned out differently.

Spain 2005 near disaster

Each of these events led to a tidal change in our lives, driving us towards new goals, new directions which were ultimately more demanding but immeasurably enriching. So forgive me if I approach this year tentatively. I have good reason. And I refuse to make any resolutions, but I’ve written the obituary, just in case.

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Creative Hands

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Apparently craftspeople can no longer be considered as creative according to the latest government think tank given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries. As someone who has spent most of her life working in crafts based industries I am confused. This change of status is based on the idea that a craftsperson is a manufacturer who does not apply any ‘creative input’ when making their wares, we merely follow a set of procedures. However the same paper gives the status of ‘creative’ to desk dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants. Could this be down to a kind of snobbery about people who work ‘with their hands’?  

 

My brother-in-law was a town planner. He taught at East Anglia University and during his career researched and wrote several ‘white papers’ for the government. He was one of the team responsible for the Chelmer System of town planning which is used throughout the world but he would never consider his profession as creative as that of his brother Michael, a designer jeweller. In fact Dave considered his work scientific, always based on solid research.

 

Perhaps it is inevitable that as society develops a sedentary lifestyle it loses touch with the source of its wealth, the core of its culture. Without the hand skills employed in making crafts the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Guttenberg, acknowledged as the first printer, began working as a jeweller, and it was through his knowledge of manufacturing techniques he discovered how to make moveable typefaces and eventually print books at a fraction the price.

 

The first techniques to be learnt by any jeweller are the means of working metal. Precious metals require a huge variety of basic skills, such as drilling, milling, sawing, carving, chiselling, and grinding. Many hours of practise are required to become skilled in methods of cutting metal before proceeding to more advanced applications.

 

Lost wax casting was used by the Egyptians. An expendable mould is formed around a model that is also expendable, the main substance used being wax or a composition in which wax is a major ingredient. This can be removed from the mould with low heat without damaging the mould. In its place is left a void or mould cavity that is then filled with molten metal which replaces the wax and takes on its former form. Guttenberg realised a new use for an ancient technique and ‘tah-dah’, he kick-started the Reformation.

 

Archaeologists and anthropologists tell us that fibre technology preceded textile weaving which in turn preceded metal technology probably by thousands of years. It is not surprising that some of the skills gained in using fibres transferred to metalwork, fibres used in basketry are round in form, such as reeds and rushes, or flat strips, as in plant leaf strips, or wood. I believe it is the character of craftspeople to be constantly exploring new methods of making, to experiment with different concepts and designs, but they do not separate the work of the hand to the workings of the mind. A true master does not need to make such distinctions.

 

 

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Creative Hands

My husband is a jeweller and for thirty years we have run a small Cumbrian gallery, complete with manufacturing workshop, where precious jewellery is produced and sold.

Recently an elderly gentleman marched through the gallery door and demanded to see The Jeweller. Our young assistant was reticent, particularly as it was her job to look after the customers without disturbing the workshop.

– He’s very busy. Something urgent has to be finished before lunch.

The man was determined.

– It won’t take up much time, I’d just like to see if he’s a real jeweller.

The jeweller, being duly fetched and not in the best temper introduced himself politely.

– Show me your hands.  The man said. – Only last place I went to the so-called jeweller’s hands were white as snow. He may ‘ave been a craftsman but I could see those hands hadn’t done a day’s labour.

Dumbfounded my husband put out his hands. Thirty years at the bench have taken their toll, the grime of polishing compound set into needle-saw scars, nails blackened from working the metal.

– Aye, you’ll do. The man said. I can see you’re a real craftsman.

With that he proceeded to order a special hand-made ring.

 

          Although we specialise in jewellery it is probably true of any craft that the hands define the maker. If you studied a potter’s hands, or a weaver’s, their ‘battle-scars’ would differ from those of a cabinet-maker or jeweller yet the hands tell a unique story because every craft has its specific methods and tools. A maker performs a wide variety of processes, any of which can leave their mark. Some are transient – most dyes fade in time – some everlasting, generally signifying a failure in that unique hand to eye co-ordination.

Craftspeople use their hands as an extension of their imagination. The object he or she makes may be entirely functional but it is still made to be loved. For many makers the desire to create is as intrinsic as breathing, and as necessary.

When we speak of a piece being hand-crafted we hope it will be enjoyed for the quality of its making but modern craftsmanship is complicated by so many different definitions it’s hard to pin down a simple response. When does a work of craft become an art form? A craftsman is a manufacturer so whatever he or she makes has to represent beauty of purpose, whereas a work of art does not have to have any purpose other than to entertain.

Being ‘hand-made’ is implied as a definition of quality, a nod of respect towards the maker, but it is only in relatively modern times that a ‘craft’ has been presented in the same light as a work of ‘art’. Traditionally craftsman remained obscure, even when their work was highly respected. And many gifted craftspeople would prefer to keep it that way, and let their work speak for them.

During Victorian times the concept of craftsmanship became synonymous with the ideas of John Ruskin. His writings inspired William Morris to form the Arts and Crafts Movement, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him…..Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them….” (The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin)

In many respects our ‘computer age’ is similarly threatening the status given to objects which are ‘hand-made’. Many people have no concept of the time and skill it takes to make something by hand, no patience for processes which are not instantaneous. Happily there remain customers who still believe in the words of William Morris and his band of gentle revolutionaries, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

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What happened to craftsmanship?

ImageI attended art college during the seventies and graduated as a designer when there was still enthusiasm for crafts based industries, in England anyway. The idealism of William Morris endured in our education system, the belief that something hand-crafted from good and true materials would always hold more intrinsic value than anything a machine churned out. Thirty years on I feel this view has emasculated. There is a strong sense that anyone who works with their hands, regardless of skill, is somehow inferior.

 

Medway College of Art and Design was founded (in Rochester, Kent) on the beliefs and aspirations of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Teachers were chosen because their abilities were exceptional and every course was anchored in practical learning. For example the student jewellers made jewellery ‘at the bench’ under the tutelage of craftsman from the best workshops in HattonGarden. It wasn’t by chance the department cleaned up most prizes at the annual Goldsmiths Awards in London and was heralded as the best silversmithing and jewellery course available worldwide.

 

Working on the assumption that being taught by experienced professionals encouraged the best possible working practises the college had an outreach programme which permitted children (from the age of eleven) to attend Saturday morning classes. As a child I was fascinated by all things hand created and enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with many different arts and crafts (embroidery, millinery, figure painting, model making, textiles, sculpture) before finding design was my speciality.

 

During the thirty odd years I’ve helped run a small jewellery business I’ve seen the status of real craftsmanship slide to an all time low. Not only do people lack any concept of how long it takes to perfect the necessary skills they don’t seem to value that input. And the media doesn’t help. Television implies renovating a houses or garden can be done almost instantly so why not the making of a ring?  

 

Are we no longer spellbound by a craftsperson’s mastery? Is there no sense of aesthetic pleasure in discovering something of beauty emerge from basic materials such as metal, clay, wood or stone? There is a theory amongst historians that the products created by a society reflect its wellbeing. I have always been inspired by works of fine craftsmanship just as I am by so-called works of art but I feel the erosion of status for hand skills doesn’t bode well for our future.

 

 

 

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