The entire series, Disappearing Acts, in the Guardian is good information for anyone who cares about craft. It hits exactly the points we’ve been discussing on this blog recently but does it 1000 times better and with great pictures. (It helps to have funding and a talented staff!)
My 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.
I’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?
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.
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.
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.
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):
Dark room photography
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.
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?
This blog started as a rage against the misuse of the word artisanal. As anyone interested in American craft knows, this word has been bastardized by corporations to the detriment of true artisans honing real skills. It should only be used for handcrafted items, and I thought this blog was a way to protect that usage.
Wrong. That ship has sailed. Long ago.
I found I had more to say as a practitioner of craft than as a gadfly of language. I’m an urbanite practicing a craft that depends largely on rural capacity to raise, produce, and market my raw materials. I can’t even find most of what I need in the Chicago area. I must go rural. And much like the city kid who suddenly realizes where her food comes from, I’ve found great benefit in knowing what makes my yarn possible.
The Internet makes this rural dependency easy to ignore. What can’t you buy online? I could easily purchase everything I need in a few faceless transactions every year.
But spinning is tactile. It’s present. It’s immediate. It’s not a craft of intangibles. I could buy my fleece online or I could go out and get my boots dirty. I could–gasp–leave the city.
While this flipped dichotomy is not wholly unique (again, think of food production), it is unusual in a modern landscape that provides almost everything for the urban consumer within a few minutes.
The intersections of these flipped worlds–the urban handspinner and the rural materials producer–is what interests me. Towards that end, this blog will never be about my latest project. You won’t read details about why I only knit 8 rows last night. You won’t get updates on my latest random thoughts. What you will get are articles that touch on and around the relationship between urban practitioners of an ancient craft and rural producers of the raw materials we use.
It seems to me this is a largely contemporary phenomenon worth thinking and writing about. I hope you’ll join me.
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.
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:
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.”
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.”
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.
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?
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.