The Urge to Make

20131111-011728.jpgMy last post was a lament over lost arts, over how much of our craft / art heritage we lose over time. Reasons are myriad: failure to document, failure to generate interest, bad teaching. There are reasons related to cost, dearth of materials, lack of time. We can also talk about need. We simply don’t need many traditional craft products like we once did. Tastes change, new technologies replace old ones. Once, we relied on horse travel and we had a need for blacksmiths. Horses were replaced by cars and now we have a need for mechanics. Once you could find a blacksmith in nearly every town. Today, how many do you know?

What fascinates me is that we still have blacksmiths at all. We still have people who make bobbin lace, who paint china, who weave seats with slices of cane. Why do people do these things when they could simply go to the store and get a length of lace or a teacup or a chair? In my post, I said there was value simply in the doing. I still think this is true, but it can’t be the entire answer. If it was just about experiencing satisfaction in the doing, then we could stop at taking out the garbage, making the bed, and dusting the lampshades–all those mundane tasks that need to be done: we could do them and feel satisfied and we wouldn’t have to take up rare craft at all.

DSCN1360I’ve been pondering this for two reasons. A friend of mine recently asked me why I knit. The way he put it suggested to me that he thought knitting was simply about the amassment of sweaters, gloves, socks, and scarves. At the end of my life, I could look at this pile of garments and feel good–or maybe superior?–over the sheer size of the wool mountain I’d built. Clearly, this guy doesn’t knit, but he was sincere and his question struck me. It had never occurred to me that someone could not see the value of knitting. He thought it was about accumulation, like collecting records or paperweights.

Yarn stashes aside, knitting has very little to do with collecting. It’s visual, it’s tactile, it’s practical. Beyond this, simply ask any knitter: you’ll hear about self discovery, meditation, self-expression, the challenge of learning, and the joy of creation. It’s this last idea–the joy of creation–that struck me as I was engaged in conversation with another friend about the ornamental clothing of the Masai. Why do we embellish clothing? Or more broadly: why decorate? A thing can just be a thing. It doesn’t need rhinestones to make it purposeful. The rhinestones do not add to a thing’s utility. Rhinestones are extra. So why add them?

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If we want to look at this from an economic standpoint, the answer is clear: decoration adds value. We pay more for decorated things. Part of that value is reflected in the artist’s time and materials. Talent also adds value. We pay premiums for well decorated things and even more for well decorated things that are scarce.

But what if you remove the market? It turns out that people still decorate. Even with no economic incentive, people will still make things beautiful. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. I’m thinking here of the thousands of people who–right now–are tinkering away at their craft without any hope of selling what they make. In fact, selling their work may never even enter their minds.

One might say that we decorate as a form of self-expression. Okay. But this cannot be–or shouldn’t be–the only reason. As proof, I submit my poetry students. Years ago, I used to teach creative writing to college students. In writing workshops, students share their work with each other and offer critique. Every semester I had students who would say, “It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand my poem because I understand my poem and I wrote it for me.” To which I would ask, “If you only write for yourself, why are you in this class?” If we write a poem that’s only meant for our eyes, then the poem can stay in the diary forever. Once we go public, even classroom-style public, we are writing for a reason beyond ourselves. We have pushed beyond our solipsism. We share what we decorate because we long for communion.

It is only in communion that we know who we are. It is only in communion that I see myself reflected in something bigger. Craft takes us out of ourselves. This is why I’m worried about the loss of our craft /art heritage. If I have to go to a museum to understand what a craft had to say about its people, that means it is no longer a living source of communal understanding. It speaks, but from out of the past. Or–my even bigger fear– it could be quite relevant today–but somehow we lost our connection to it. We failed at passing it down because we didn’t write about it enough, we didn’t expose enough people to it, we didn’t teach it well, or we just plain forgot. Maybe we even thought it was someone else’s responsibility.

Lament for Lost Art

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My dad, Max Ranft, made his living as a fine artist.   He really lived it.  He had a studio.  He taught life drawing.  He sketched on every scrap of paper.  He taught me how to draw.  He taught my brothers. He set up his easel in the snow.  He trekked through the forest preserves and churned out landscape after landscape after landscape.  Before he got his job at J. Walter Thompson, he traveled the Midwest doing church murals.   And he is one of the only people I ever met who knew–I mean really knew–how to draw the human figure.

Pop in 2003
Max in 2003

He hated working from photographs, whether he was painting a portrait or a bridge.  The light isn’t real.  The shadows aren’t real.  The colors are not real.  Whatever he was trying to convey was not containable in a snapshot.  He needed more than that to say what he had to say.

I remember when I finally got it.  He was painting, I was sketching.  I could see him from where I sat, measuring, looking, mixing, adjusting.   We were out there for hours, a beautiful spot by a lake.  The birds, the sunshine, the sound of leaves against the wind.  I realized my father spent a good deal of his life observing nature.  I thought he was just the guy I saw at dinner.  You know, eating.  Getting mad at world news.  Fixing the gutters.  But what I realized by the lake was that what was blue or white to me was not to him.  He’d cultivated a way of seeing, a way of knowing the natural world that most people don’t know.  He knew stuff, unique stuff, and he was trying to pass  this stuff along to me.

Today he has Alzheimer’s.   Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about lost arts.

If there’s someone in your life with Alzheimer’s, then you already know what I’m going to say.  Everyone’s personal or family disease is important: it makes its own strong and particular mark, it takes you down paths you don’t think you can walk.  Alzheimer’s–I’ll venture to say–is one of the more stranger ones.  What is it–what!–that allows him to play chess (and win) but not remember what he said five minutes ago?

Not long ago, we had a visit from the great nephew of my dad’s teacher, Louis Grell.   Richard is doing research on his relative for a book and my dad was one of his closest pupils.   (If you’ve ever been to the Chicago Theatre on State Street, you’ve looked at the murals inside–those are Grells.)  My dad revered Grell.   Mister Grell, as he called him even well after he died.  I grew up with stories about Grell and the impact he had not only on my dad’s art, but on his thinking.  It’s all lost.  My dad couldn’t recall anything significant about his apprenticeship to this man.  And no one in my family had written anything down.

Winter Scene Painted from Life
Winter Scene by Max Ranft, painted from life

You think the stories you have in your youth are the stories you’ll have your whole life.  They are the stories you live with, that shape you, that make you who you are.  If you forget a detail, no matter.  The storyteller will tell the story again.  You can have the story back in all its vivid detail any time you want.  Or so you think.

So much else is gone, too.  I’ve been wracking my brain to remember what he taught me about the color of clouds, about how to paint a sky, about how to measure the human form.  What was I supposed to do with half tones?  What exactly was I supposed to look for when the weight was on the opposite hip of a figure at three quarter turn?  What did you mean when you said to soften the shadow?  These are the stories I heard every day of my youth.  Of everything he taught me about art, I internalized only maybe ten percent.  The rest is gone.  Just gone.

This sudden and desperate sense of loss has made me frantic about the lost arts of our world.  Where does all the knowledge go?  Who is keeping track?  Who’s writing it down?  Better yet, who’s practicing it, making it present?  Here are a few on my current watch list (in no particular order):

  • Embroidery
  • Bobbin lace
  • Tatting
  • Basket-making
  • Dark room photography
  • Fresco painting
  • Chair caning
  • Stained glass
  • Wood carving
  • Book binding
  • Life drawing
  • Calligraphy
  • Blacksmithing
  • and, of course, hand spinning

Maybe you know some people who practice these arts.  Maybe you practice some of them yourself.  But let’s face it.  These crafts are endangered.  My list has a decidedly Western bent, but that’s the culture I know.  Please send me more and I’ll add them.

Spinning Wheel
Another Lost Art?

Recently, someone said that she struggled with deciding when to consign an art to history.  This really took me aback.  I don’t want to lose any of these arts to history.  But then I thought how many people I know who are looking to buy a hand-tatted collar.  Zero.  Who wants a hand-carved bed?  Who needs their books rebound?  There are reasons we don’t practice these crafts like we once did.  But, gosh–is that the reason to let them go?  Zip?  Gone? Disappear forever like my father’s memory?  Maybe I’m too emotionally invested here.  If I am, talk me out of it.  But somehow I don’t think so.  Besides all the practical use I get from my spinning wheel, there’s another reason I make yarn by hand.  I do it, damn it, because there’s value in the doing.  Like my father standing in the forest, under the sun, measuring, mixing, creating what only he could create out there that day, there’s a knowledge in the doing that only comes from doing.  Do we really want to lose that to history?  Really?

Fiber Artists at the Fair: A Sampler

Hooked Rug
Hooked Rug from the Foxy Lady Rug Hooking Guild

As soon as you walk in the door of Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair, you see the colors just beyond the gate and hear the noise.  You realize that this is a big show and that it’s probably going to overwhelm you and that you don’t care.  It’s exuberating when you set out into the vendor booths because you know it’s all ahead of you: hours of joy.  The more you lose yourself in this world, the better.  This is why you work hard all week.

I had the pleasure of attending the MFFAF this past weekend with my cousin and her daughter, a beginning knitter (and as of Saturday, a spindler, too).  Not having children myself, this was the first time I’d had the pleasure of seeing a young person take an interest in a craft I love.  I had little to do with her taking up knitting, but it was a singular treat to be present as she discovered firsthand what the world of fiber arts has to offer.

The MFFAF is a good show to make your first because it showcases fiber artists along with musicians and knitters, crocheters, quilters, spinners, and rug hookers.  As I’ve said before on this blog, we can’t lose sight of the artists.  They inspire us and–I firmly believe–we inspire them.  Just like my cousin’s daughter who has newly taken up her needles, I, a knitter of some twenty-two years’ experience, draw inspiration from her excitement over the new world she’s entered. As she discovered that she already knows all the stitches it takes to make a sweater, I was reminded that there are still many ways to push my own skills.  No doubt the fiber artists who entered their work at the exhibits felt the same way when they saw so many hundreds of fair goers crowding the booths, enjoying their work, thinking up new projects.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Felted Tunic by Cynthia Boudreau
Felted Tunic by Cynthia Boudreau

Cynthia Boudreau fashioned this Felted Tunic from Nuno silk and merino wool.  She used the wet felting technique to mesh the wool to the silk and then added beads.  Besides the design, which reminds me a little of Monet’s waterlily paintings, I love the shape and presentation, which reminds me of Japanese kimonos.  I wish you could see firsthand how light and refreshing this piece is–like a breeze.  Here’s more about Cynthia:

Principal plans return to her roots as an artist – The Doings La Grange.

Two entries in the handbag exhibit caught my eye.  To gain entry, artists had to construct a handbag by riffing off an older pattern–this year’s pattern was from 1945.  Click the link for a picture of the pattern and exhibit details.   You’ll be astonished at how different these entries are from the original.  But believe me: all the entries were wildly different.  In fact, in all the years I’ve been attending, no two bags are ever alike, like–not even close.

The beaded purse (below), entitled Dancing Abundance, by Marianne Biagi, was made using an altered peyote stitch.  Biagi describes, “I don’t have a plan.  I design as I go, letting the colors and shapes of beads guild me.”  And this I love: “I finish when the art tells me to stop.”

Dancing Abundance by Marianne Biagi
Dancing Abundance by Marianne Biagi

The reverse of this bag is in a different color scheme, which is equally beautiful.

Beyond color, texture plays an important part in Biagi’s work.  Her beaded art deserves a more careful look.  Here’s an article I found that provides more pictures and background information on this artist from thecity1.com.

Another piece that needs mention is Boa Bag by Judith Reilly.  It’s a knitted and crocheted piece that uses Reilly’s own handspun wool along with commercial novelty yarn.  I love the colors as well as the creative use of mitered squares.  (Modular knitting is great for free-form knitters and satisfying for anyone who only has a small amount of time to knit each day.)  Equally inspiring is Reilly’s description of how she created it: she started with the beads.  In her words, “I thought they’d be a nice echo of the diamonds on the top of the bag.  Then I found the perfect colors in the roving. . . and the rest is history.”

Boa Bag by Judith Reilly
Boa Bag by Judith Reilly

Just like Biagi, Reilly’s approach reminds us that we don’t always need a pattern or plan.  What we need is to be open to inspiration.  Fairs like the Midwest Fiber & Folk Arts Fair help us all–hobbyist and artist alike–find ways of pushing our craft and our skills.  As important as it was for my cousin’s daughter to attend as a new knitter, so it is equally important for longtime practitioners to refresh ourselves, see the latest trends, and connect with the vibrant community that makes up the fiber arts.

Artisanal Flowchart Postscript:

Incidentally, all four of these pieces featured above are artisanal (did you expect anything else coming from me?).  They all express the artistic vision of the fiber artists who made them and they all possess utility: they can be used.  Will they be used is another question.  Sometimes the potential for use is enough.

Food Fails Flowchart

photo by Alex Anlicker

Not without hesitation do I send food through its inevitable course along the Artisanal Flowchart.  We love to eat–especially if it’s good.  And it so often is.  I do not except myself.  I mean, what would life be like without my mother’s rouladen, each rolled-up beefy morsel drenched in flour, not to mention the delectable gravy it makes. . . gravy that must be poured liberally over both the meat and the homemade spaetzle.  Oh, sweet heaven!  Her recent foray into Moroccan food has left us all wishing she’d give up gardening and reading and all other earthly pursuits to do nothing but cook.

And it’s not just my mother’s cooking that sends me.  There’s a little Indian grocery store near my workplace that makes the best samosas I’ve ever had.  Just last week they served up dish that looked like rolled up cigars made of golden pasta–I didn’t catch the name–that I fear I’ll never taste again, so delicious was its every bite.  I could eat Indian food every day of my life, but then when would I fit in all the other wonders of world cuisine?  Don’t even get me started on Ethiopian or Hmong or Cuban or countless, countless others.

And so, dear readers, what I’m about to say may come as a shock: no food is artisanal unless it exists solely as art, never to be eaten. . . need I even mention the travesty that would be?

I will leave it to you to follow food’s course along the Artisanal Flowchart for yourself.  You will, no doubt, get stuck where I got stuck.  For food to be called artisanal it must possess both utility and artistic expression.  I can’t think of a single food that does this.  Certainly bagels don’t.  Nor lettuce.  Maybe fancy cupcakes made by a small-scale bakery?  Maybe?  Let’s not forget that an artisanal cupcake–an artisanal anything for that matter–must express the inner artistic vision of its creator.  The fancy cupcakes I’ve seen are just that: fancy.  And if you can’t eat them because they’re so beautiful, then they’re art, which is another matter entirely.

Then there’s cheese.  I’m a cheesemaker myself, so I know that the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée has its categories and that artisanal is among them.  To them, I say touché.  You have defined your system and stuck to it.  More’s the better for you.  In my system, a cheese must express artistic vision and I’ve never seen a single cheese that does this.  One can admire a cheese for its form, its aroma, its bloom, its texture, its taste.  You can sample this year’s Brillat-Savarin or Forme d’Ambert and pronounce it ambrosia.  But it must also speak as art, and this it does not.  

I harp on this, my friends, because art makes a difference.  We cannot put a cheese or a bagel next to a handmade textile on display at a gallery and call it the same thing.  And why should they be?  Let them each have their glory as the things they are.  Why must we search for success anywhere else but where we are?

Ah, but this is an age-old problem for people, too, n’est pas?

A Fiber Fair that Values Artists

Modular Shells

If you work with fiber, you may very well enjoy the fiber show circuit that starts in Spring and lives on strong into late Fall.  We all have our favorite festivals.  I like to start the season every April with the Moonspinner’s fiber fest in Stephenson County, Illinois.  Its down-to-earth approach reminds me of the practical side of my craft.  Beautiful things can also be useful things.  By the same turn, a practical life can also be a beautiful life.

On the other end of the season, my grand finale is always the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival the second week in September.  I book a hotel and stay all three days.  By the third day, I’ve blown all my money and am contriving ways to make one last purchase.  I always promise that I will not, under any circumstances, buy another fleece.  Oh, sorrowful weakness.  I usually have a fleece in hand by noon on Day 1.

Both of these shows favor spinners.  You can certainly get yarn and felting supplies, among other things, but they offer a great variety of fleeces, roving, and equipment.  For an urban spinner, these essentials are hard to come by.  Between these two shows in mid June is a different sort of gathering, unique–at least in this area–because along with all things fibery, it showcases fiber artists.

The Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair is this June 22-24 in Grayslake, Illinois.  Now in its sixth year, this fair is a knitter/crocheter/quilter/spinner/rug hooker/felter/folk craft fair.  It has always made welcome the work of local fiber artists alongside all the vendors and classes. Because you need both, of course. The one feeds the other and back again.  Artists need ways to connect with the community because good art cannot exist in a vacuum.    It needs to be in dialogue with the community so that art and the viewer can exchange meaning. The fiber artist and the fiber enthusiast need to support one another in a synergistic relationship; both sides are equally important.  The organizers of the Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair understand this, which is why I love to attend year after year.

And did I mention the live music?

Testing the Artisanal Flowchart Using Musical Instruments

Now that we have a working definition of artisanal (see the flowchart tab above), let’s put it to the test with a series of examples.  Our first test case is musical instruments.

The primary question is of skilled craftsmanship.  If the instrument maker is a master luthier or even produced through the collaboration of skilled craftspersons we can proceed.  Quality is implied (and perhaps should have its own space on the flowchart.  A master craftsperson could produce a poorly made instrument, which would disqualify it immediately from the artisanal tag.)  If the maker is a neophyte or if the maker has not achieved a high level of skill, we stop.  The instrument, no matter how beautiful, cannot be artisanal.

The second step is about mechanization.  Most musical instruments are produced using tools.  If, however, they are produced using an automated process that allows us to mass produce our instrument, then again, we stop, for we know that mass production precludes us from creating anything artisanal.  An artisanal instrument must be made fully by hand or as nearly by hand as possible in these modern times.  Here, now, we remove any mass produced guitar, piano, mandolin, drum, etc., by major manufacturers.

In some music circles, the question of automation is a hot topic.  Just how much automation can we abide before the instrument is no longer entirely hand made?  Can we, for instance, allow a machine to cut the general shape of a hollow body guitar that will later be refined by a master luthier?  The question of where to draw the line is a fascinating one, but not to be drawn here.  All we can say is that the automation must not allow mass production.  Once it does, we are off the flowchart.

The next question is of utility.  This one is easy, for all musical instruments are meant to be played and therefore have use.

Now, is the item meant to exist as part of another item?  A musical instrument is the end product made from other materials like wood, metal, and laquer, so we can stay on the flowchart.  If we were considering only a part of the musical instrument, like the piano soundboard, we would bump ourselves off the chart, even if it was beautiful and handmade by a master craftsperson because it cannot function by itself.  It’s meant to function as part of a larger whole.

And so, we come to our final question, one which separates our group of instruments into two classes, one very large and one very small.  Does the musical instrument express the artistic vision of its maker?  This is the most important question, for the word artisanal has art at its root.  An artisanal object must have dual purpose: both as a useful object and as art.  So much of what claims to be artisanal has no artistic quality at all.  Do not confuse artistic with beautiful.  They are not mutually exclusive terms.  Not all art is beautiful.  Not all that is beautiful is art.  Therefore, for a musical instrument to be artisanal, it must be more than a fine specimen of its class.  It must express something that comes from within the artist.

Let’s run a Steinway concert grand piano through the chart and see what happens:

  1.  Made by master craftspersons?  Yes.
  2.  Mechanized?  Yes.  Automated?  No.
  3.  Utility?  Yes.
  4. Exists as the end product?  Maybe.
  5. Expresses the artistic vision of its makers?  A tough one, but ultimately, no.  Beautiful, yes.  Breathtaking sound, yes.  Clear, impressive, among the best in their class : all yes.  But do they exist as art?  No.  They exist to make art.  The only exception could be a special Steinway created to exist apart from the others as the unique vision of a single craftsperson or group of craftspeople.  If this instrument exists, then it could be considered artisanal.  I will leave it to you to tell me if it does.

Bagels and the Long Tail

It finally clicked.

Thinking over the bagel issue last night (see the post for May 3), I remembered an article I read in 2006 by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine on the Long Tail.  As Anderson describes, the Long Tail is “an entirely new economic model,” one that focuses on niche markets instead of big hits that appeal to mass audiences.  Although his article focuses on the entertainment industry, the Long Tail has sufficiently entrenched itself into our economics that its effects can be felt in myriad sectors.

The cause (or some might say culprit) is the internet.  Shelf space is no longer an issue.  We are no longer limited to what a store can carry.  The internet offers us every obscure purchase we want.  Want everything recorded by ragtime musician Eubie Blake?  You’ll never find it in the store.  No problem.  Go to the internet.  Want a pair of authentic Swedish red clogs with a handmade wooden sole?  (Yes, please.)  No problem.  Order direct from Sweden.

The Long Tail might explain why Marc Fintz of Davidovich Bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts are fighting over the word artisanal to refer to their bagels.  Instead of getting my bagels at my local grocery store, I can get fresh New York bagels from Zabar’s in Manhattan shipped to me in Chicago overnight.  New York bagels direct from New York!  No wonder Fintz wants to call his bagels artisanal.  He needs to distinguish his New York bagels from all the others you can buy, both in the store and on the internet.  No wonder Dunkin’ Donuts wants to claim it, too.  Dunkin’ Donuts never had to compete with Zabar’s or Davidovich Bagels or a thousand other bagel makers before.  Because consumers are now used to the Long Tail of choices, today they do.

This phenomenon explains so much of what we see in the marketplace today.  As Anderson writes, “everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them.”   The more niche the market becomes, the more producers will strive to distinguish themselves from one another.  So, artisanal is nabbed from the artists to sell bagels and corn chips and lettuce, which aren’t even art.

By the way, Anderson expanded his article into a full length book: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.  Available at an internet near you.