The word “craft” elicits many images in peoples’ minds, from plastic canvas and popsicle sticks arranged into predictable objects of dubious originality and bead kits assembled into Christmas ornaments to expertly knit socks, hats, and mittens, jewelry and home decor wrought from metal, and wood turned, shaped and polished in such a way that the bowl appears to have been captured in the wood from its beginning and released by the endeavours of the craftsperson.
The very fact that craft encompasses this wide of a range of skills, materials and artistry, from the expert and elite to the low-quality and inept, is the reason for which I no longer call what I do craft. I have no real problem with the word “craft”, as most of the work of highly skilled professional craftspeople fits that definition. No, the reason for which I eschew it is its overly general nature. I don’t think craft is a specific enough word to describe the highly skilled and refined nature of the work turned out by members of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. Yes, we make craft. No, a word that describes what people do with kits purchased from Wal-mart is not adequate to categorise our labours.
Fine craft is a step in the right direction. The additional word not only raises the expectations of quality in the eyes of the public, but also correspondingly makes them more aware of the skill level involved, the artistry present and hopefully the professionalism of the craftsperson.
“Craftsperson” is another interesting term. For some reason, the lowering of “craft” to its current level of expectation hasn’t completely dragged “craftsperson” down with it. I suppose it has to do with the fact that people “do crafts” as a hobby, but craftsperson is quite evidently doing their work on a more time-consuming basis. That said, I actually prefer the term artisan. It’s basically French for “craftsperson”, but the inclusion of the word “art” effectively enhances the emphasis on creativity and originality, while retaining the flavour of craft through the creation of something with a practical application. An artisan endows the practical with beauty. While it’s certainly true that many expert craftspeople or artisans do work in traditional materials and patterns, preserving the cultural heritage of a region or people, they continue to make modifications and variations within their work. A good artisan or craftsperson can’t help but continue to improve and create, regardless of the strictures of the framework in which they craft their creations. While fair isle patterns may look similar to the casual eye, the possibilities of colour and design are virtually infinite in the hands of a craftsperson. Combine that eye for design with technical skill and adeptness and a sweater evolves into a wearable work of artistic beauty.
Within each field, of course, there are variants of terminology. Some people might call me a quilter. I rarely use that term because I often leap back and forth across the boundaries of the definition of “quilt” on a given piece of work and, frankly, I don’t want to have to defend myself against people who say, “that’s not a real quilt.” I’d rather be able to do whatever the piece dictates with impunity, answering only to the question of, “does that technique hold up artistically and structurally?” I do make “real” quilts, but most of the time I’m a fibre artist.
These nuances occur in various fields. Woodworking, pottery and ceramics and metal working all have subcategories that reflect a more specific style of shaping a medium.
If you’re thinking of turning to making money as a craftsperson, stop and think first. Are you “crafty” or a “craftsperson”? Is what you do of a high quality and skill level? Is it original? Are your materials of good calibre? If you make a solid, good product and are keen on developing it for sale, be honest about what you want to be. Don’t sell yourself short as a maker of cheap crafts, if indeed you are of artisanal quality. At the same time, don’t call yourself a craftsperson if you make Christmas tree ornaments from kits at Wal-mart.
If you are set on refining your work as a professional artisan, seriously consider joining your local Craft Council, arts council or craft-specific guild. Many have Standards of Quality for individual fields that provide guidelines for what constitutes “high-quality” in your chosen field. Before you decide to produce en masse, enter fairs, solicit shops and market your wares, work through the standards provided. Submit pieces for examination by those who assess such things. Listen to their feedback and reflect upon suggested modifications to your techniques, materials and finishing/packaging.
Next entry on crafts: Standards of Quality and how to use them!