Issues in Craft

ART IN CRAFT MEDIA is the phrase to describe my work.  I use superseded technologies (potters wheel, wood lathe, sewing machine) and humble materials to pursue questions of form and surface design.  I also use drawing on paper, oil paints, photography and digital photo enhancement as tools for investigation.  I would say that my interests are post-industrial, rather than postmodern.

CRAFT is simply the technology of art.  ‘Fine Craft’ can be work in which the excellence of the technology elevates it to an art.  All art needs competent craft.  And, most art requires a question that goes well beyond the technology to make it.

FORM is the sea in which one swims with all fine crafts.  While 2D artists obsess about image, we are always moving in a 3D world of shape, texture, weight, and back/front, top/bottom/ inside/outside questions.   I worked with a painter once who was excited about making goddess figures from archeological drawings.  I went home and made figures that stood.  He brought his over for me to fire in the kiln, and they were all bas relief carvings that required a flat support behind them.   He saw the drawings as images;  I saw them as  forms.

Although quilts are generally flat, they are often viewed from above, as with rugs or other textiles.  This gives them a different sense than easel paintings, which have a clear top/bottom orientation.  Quilts are somewhat more like maps, for example, which can be understood from many vantage points.  I think that calling small quilts ‘wall hangings’ generally limits them to the idea of a painting done in fabric.  Something is lost in the approximation to painting.

GIFTS come from the process of quilting.  Applique is the most obvious–pieces of the background come out of the quilt.  These pieces can be used to build another quilt.  Quilting is the most traditional form of recycling fabrics, so the process of using up the gifts hearkens back to a time when every scrap was precious.

LINE in quilt-making is very much like lines used in a drawing, or a map.  The mind responds to lines in drawings and maps by following the lines.  The quilter sees the line, and follows it with stitching.  The quilt lines add the final level of scale to the work, by drawing the viewer into the most detailed part of the quilt.  Line plays a role in three dimensional work by defining curves and edges.

LEVELS OF SCALE create a rich visual and tactile experience.  As we draw closer to artwork, our perception shifts from the ‘wholeness’ of the work to smaller levels of local symmetry and local contrast.  At each level of interest, the mind creates a center of interest that organizes the available experience.   For a quilt, the levels may be discovered as you approach and touch the work.  For a ceramic or wooden vessel, it may be lifting, turning, comparing inside/outside, or finding detail in the glaze or grainlines of the work.

INFILLING becomes successful when it achieves the impression that it is effortless.  This is why engineering a design field seldom works as well as just ‘eyeballing’ it.  There is a lovely bowl in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center which is decorated on the inside with lots of little squares.  The artist has been dead for a thousand years, but you can sense the way that she just started with the first square, and then worked outward toward the rim.  They are not arranged in concentric rings, nor entirely uniform in shape.  They get a little larger as they approach the rim.  They don’t bump up against each other, and you can’t guess which ones came first, and which last.   This same impression arises from well-fitted quilting stitches.

I have been making Zentangles as a kind of guided doodling.  It helps develop awareness of contrast of value and scale, both important to all types of decorative infilling.

MOTION in the work is not movement.  Motion has more to do with a lively sense of balance, as though the piece was ready to get up and go somewhere.  For vessels, we sometimes identify ‘lift’ as a lightness in the foot of a piece that casts a tiny shadow between the vessel and the surface where it sits.  That is an aspect of motion.  Asymmetry may create motion, by shifting the balance of shape, line, or color. Wood is good practice for making off-center forms that still have enough balance to stand steady.  Diagonal lines famously (Bernard Leach) show growth.

MOVEMENT: All artists working in craft media learn to accomodate the stubborn resistance of materials to the design intention.  Wood was a living thing, with tension and memory built from uneven distribution of moisture and stresses in the tree.  When turned, it reverts to its own nature quickly, with cracks, or slowly, as it ovalizes.  Learning the will of the grain is a primary challenge for the woodturning artist.    Ceramics particles have their own wayward behaviors which create distortions initially upon drying, and then, more dramatically, in the chemical and physical transformations of the fire.  Quilting began as a technique to stabilize layers of fabrics of different types (backing, batting, top), which will shrink at different rates when washed.

We sometimes want to create the illusion of motion in the work, as part of the process of creating life in it.  Learning to work with the movement inherent in the material is a life-enhancing step.  The ovalized natural edge bowl, for example, combines the skill of the woodturner with the tree’s own way of drying differently in the vertical and the horizontal dimension.  It is no longer as round as a lathe-turned object, nor as heavy as a chunk of wood.  It has become something entirely new.

Inside/Outside; wrong side/right side: Unlike traditional easel work, art in craft media often works with the challenge of inside and outside surfaces.  In pottery, for example, the potter begins with care to the inside of the form, and then trims the outside to conform to the internal volume.  Woodturners work in the other direction, turning the outside, and then hollowing vessels to follow the outside curves.  In both cases, the inside/outside differences are part of the experience of levels of scale, as well as a part of the perception of the wholeness of the object.

Sewing can also address the challenge of fitting a two dimensional surface onto a 3D surface.  This creates the ‘wrong’ side of the form which carries the evidence of construction.

The interface between inside/outside or wrong/right side creates tension in the work that works like the idea of edges in painting to illuminate and define the piece.

In a class with Linda Colsh, I learned that painting fabric scrolls and manipulating them while wet creates movement in the paint between layers.  This was an exciting new way to find movement in surface design.

NEGATIVE SPACE:  Good designs have good shape, both for the foreground and the background areas.  Carving printing blocks is a fantastic exercise for shaping the negative shapes.  The areas that are carved away come to the forefront of my attention as I remove them, providing a better perspective for the overall print.  I started out with white line printing, where everything is the positive (printed) space, but cutting more of the block away has been a revelation.   Because woodturning is a subtractive medium, the negative space is often just–well, space.  Quilting, however, needs attention to negative space that goes beyond infilling.

Superceded Technologies:  The sewing machine, potters’ wheel, and the wood lathe have been superceded by other industrialized processes.  This makes them available to the artist to produce thoughtful work in short production runs.   In a sense, most of the ‘fine crafts’ are the gift of these human-scale technologies in a time when they can reach their highest and best use.

Wholeness becomes the objective and the test of the goodness of the work.  Like a Mozart composition, there must be exactly the elements that are needed to complete the piece, nothing more nor less.  Decoration, for example, works when it provides ‘extra binding energy’ to hold the work together in harmony.  It is extraneous if it distracts from the goodness that is already present without it.

It has taken a while to gain confidence for reworking pieces that fall short of wholeness.  Very often, there is an area of life in a quilt that benefits from cropping.  In much of my early work as a quilter, I did not understand the role of the boundary (border) in the overall design.  I put the borders there because quilts had borders.   Cutting them off has often significantly improved the composition.  I have also learned to adjust some pots by refiring them.  For example, changing the unglazed portion to a black underglaze can decrease contrast and add to the overall wholeness of the form.   Chris Alexander’s suggestion that a boundary should be equal in area to what it encloses is a fantastic way to understand when the boundary is right.  I haven’t achieved that yet.

Note:  I have formed my sense of these issues from reading  Chris Alexander’s Nature of Order, D’Arcy Thompson – On Growth and Form, and Walt Whitman’s description of the purpose of ornament in the introduction to Leaves of Grass.