Editorial 5.1

Table of contents for 5.1

The pleasures of craft work are often said to reside in its immediacy: the direct access to materials, the handling of tools, and the sense of accomplishment. Even watching a demonstration in person can be an absorbing experience. Yet texts about craft, including this journal, must necessarily present secondhand the process of making. Language alone simply cannot account for craft’s scope of experience. Drawings, paintings, photographs, films, and virtual simulations, all in their own ways, would seem to fill this evident gap, transmitting the reality of skilled work in something closer to its fullness. However, they usually fall short. In the representation of process, such images create a new, different level of material reality, one that needs to be analyzed in its own right.

In this issue we concentrate on the phenomenon of “showing making,” a phrase proposed by Dutch scholar Ann-Sophie Lehmann. When welded together, these two verbs suggest the complexity of craft-in-representation, which always involves a dynamic interplay between artisan, artifact, tool, and image. Each of our contributors examines instances of such convergence. Three articles are drawn from a conference held in 2009, which was organized by Lehmann with Nico de Klerk at the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (EYE), supported by the Meertens Institute (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). Lehmann’s own theoretical overview presents a methodology for the study of “showing making,” and then applies it to the example of hand-colored Japanese photographs. She demonstrates the recursive logic of these images, which offer a kinaesthetic pleasure to the viewer while also constructing a self-referential impression of a craft formed at the intersection of traditional painterly skills and new technology.

The papers by Victoria Cain and Irene Steng, also drawn from the 2009 conference, illuminate two other contexts in which photographic images extend and transform the meaning of craft. Cain focuses on an intriguing case study: the preparators who made dioramas at the Natural History Museum in New York City in the earlier 1900s, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. These workers’ skills recall those of taxidermists, propmakers, and scientists, but had a specificity and theatricality of their own, which were exploited enthusiastically by the museum in its programmatic   and promotional activities. Cain situates staged photographs of the preparators within a broader range of images of craft process circulating in the interwar period. Her argument is that these decades—often thought of as a period fascinated with machines and technology, to the exclusion of handwork—were in fact saturated with such pictures. This widely shared “craftsmanship aesthetic,” she writes, offered an ameliorative or reassuring counterpoint to narratives of technological progress that were equally current at the time. Cain’s article can be set alongside Ezra Shales’s analysis of the Empire State Building (published in our July 2011 issue) as a major contribution to the understanding of modern craft in interwar America, outside the boundaries of the incipient studio movement.

At first, Stengs’s article, on the representation of kingship in Thailand, could not seem more different. She shows how the carvers and gilders who make sculptures of the Thai rulers operate in relation to popular photographs. Another example of “showing making” arises in her discussion of live demonstrations that are conducted in markets and temple complexes. This performance of craft takes its place within a diverse image-scape which has as its goal the consolidation of national identity. Perhaps it is only through the unstated relation of these various representational registers that such an impression of unity could be achieved. Henrietta Lidchi’s discussion of Native American jewelers also involves the analysis of a single craft from multiple angles. Historic photographs and live demonstrations again play a role in her account, as do written texts, oral history interviews, and Lidchi’s firsthand observations of the Southwestern markets in which iconic silver and turquoise jewelry is displayed and sold. The article is exemplary in its juxtaposition of past and present, showing how the tools of anthropology can be brought to bear on both history and the present day.

In her manifesto on “showing making,” Lehmann alludes to the oft-used phrase “the social life of things,” originally formulated by Arjun Appadurai. She insists that this biographical model needs to be extended to include the making of objects, and to this we might add historical precedents—the crafts of the past that make present endeavors possible. A biological or familial metaphor is at the heart of this issue’s Statement of Practice by boatmaker Gail McGarva. She has dedicated her life to the replication of open-sea working vessels, vernacular designs carrying strong associations with particular stretches of the British shoreline. McGarva refers to her lovingly made copies as “daughterboats,” a way of capturing the generational rhythms of craft succession. Given her interest in such legacies as the taproot of contemporary communities, it is perhaps no surprise that she makes her boats in public and invites others to watch, and even participate in the building process. This is another example of “showing making,” this time to the same community that developed and supported the regional product in the first place.
Finally, we include a primary text that is not a description of craft process, but rather a spectator’s response. The author is the indomitable Margaret M. Patch, who, despite her relatively advanced years, went on an extraordinary, round-the-world-ineighty- days-style tour (though it took her a bit longer than that) in the early 1960s.

Her mission was to compile a list of the leading contemporary craft reformers, activists, and developers in advance of the inaugural conference of the World Crafts Council, held in New York City in 1964. As she traveled, Patch paid close attention to cultural differences in practice and attitudes to skill. The previously unpublished text we include here was written early in her journey, and compares the craft cultures of Japan and India. Patch had a high regard for the artisans she found in both places, but was dismayed at the low status of those she encountered in India. This prompted her to reflect on questions of aspiration and recognition that had implications for craft anywhere, including back home in the United States. This is one example of the way that “showing making” can be an invitation to consider one’s own act of looking, and hence position in the politics of skill.

The Editors
The Journal of Modern Craft

Introduction to 4.3

Our sibling publication at Berg, Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture, has done a wonderful job over the years in exploring the many cultural, aesthetic, and technical aspects of its specialist subject. Here at the Journal of Modern Craft, we are equally aware of the rich history of textiles, and the unique part they have played in contentious debates about production, skill, and gender in the modern era. The cotton mills of England, the garment factories of New York, and the lace workshops of Ireland were all primary targets for reformers in the nineteenth century. Craft revival was in large part an attack on such exploitative industries. Though that impulse crossed over many media, it was the arts of the loom and the needle that were perhaps most highly charged in regards to process. The gendered organization of textile production has also been a continuous theme in the analysis of modern craft. Spinning, sewing, and needlework have particular associations with female skilled work, whereas the loom has a mixed gender heritage. As a result, woven textiles have received more serious attention than has needlework.

In this issue, we feature six essays that chart the fascinating course that textiles have taken since 1900. The geographical focus is on the USA throughout, with the semi-exception of Mallika Shakya’s carefully observed anthropological study of artisanal garment-making in Nepal. Though her article is saturated with national, local, and even intimate person detail, Shakya shows that even this seemingly remote locale has been reshaped according to American markets, as well as the sourcing of materials and skilled workers from across Asia.

This contemporary view into the daily experience of the global textile trade makes an interesting bookend to Sarah Archer’s essay on the Greenwich House Pottery, a settlement movement organization in New York City that is still active today. Though the GHP obviously made ceramics, lace-making was another important undertaking, and one that resonated particularly for some of the recently immigrated artisans who worked there. Archer shows how this Arts and Crafts-era organization was marked by a divergence of political views among its leadership, suggesting the complexity of craft reform at this date.

Alexa Griffith Winton’s study of mid-century weaver Dorothy Liebes, and T’ai Smith’s essay on the “architectonic” textiles of the late 1970s, are two major contributions to the history of fiber art, and the American studio craft movement in general. Much changed between the emergence of Liebes as the archetypal “designer-craftsman” and the development of tectonic, structurally oriented work by such figures as Gerhardt Knodel and Warren Seelig. In fact, this intervening period of transformation is at the heart of the recent book String Felt Thread, by our own exhibition review editor Elissa Auther. Our two essayists provide valuable extensions and modifications of the insights in Auther’s book, and also bring to life the way that Liebes, Knodel, and Seelig thought through (as well as about) their processes and materials.

Also in this issue, we feature a pair of Statements of Practice that are profitably read side by side. Alejandra Echeverria is a professional denim designer, and has worked for large brands such as Gap. She discusses her own skills, as well as the large and complex world of prototyping and mass production that she must negotiate to do her work. At the other end of the spectrum is Raleigh Denim, which is tiny by comparison (and serves a high-end rather than a mass market). Designer and co­founder Victor Lytvinenko gives us a view into this small business, which is completely based on “traditional” skills and tools that were developed for garment factories nearby in North Carolina many decades ago. Oddly, the evident differences between Echeverria’s and Lytvinenko’s work seem less striking than the similarities: both care deeply about the detail of the jeans they help to make, are technically knowledgeable about fabrics and sewing and machines, and are keenly aware of the importance of craft skill in their work, and the work of those who execute their designs.

Finally, this issue features a Primary Text that steers us away from textiles and into the much-neglected topic of skilled repair. Great science fiction has a way of ventilating contemporary anxieties, and Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Variable Man” (1953) is no exception. Set in the year 2136, the story takes place on the planet Terra, in a technologically advanced society that has lost all basic hand skills. When Thomas Cole, a handyman from the year 1913, appears on Terra in a time-travel mix-up, he becomes the most hunted man on the planet. That Dick should offer 1950s sci-fi addicts an unexpectedly profound discussion about tacit knowledge might seem surprising. But handymen and jacks-of-all-trades appear in many of his major novels—for instance in The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Martian Time-Slip (1964). Philip K. Dick left school early and never went to college. He was, nonetheless, an intellectual, a brilliant autodidact. But, paradoxically, his youthful heroes were the repairmen at University Radio, a record store in Berkeley, California. He saw genius and artistry in these tinkerers who could mend radios, record players, and the first TV sets. And he was prescient in predicting a world dependent on goods and systems that we mostly cannot fix nor even fully understand. We have almost got there.

The Editors

The Journal of Modern Craft

Introduction to 4.2

One of the consistent preoccupations of this journal, over the course of its first ten issues, has been the politics of production. One of our guiding principles has been that the frictional qualities of craft – the difficulties that arise in acquiring and applying skill in labor – are an explosive and unpredictable issue within modernity. An important corollary to this idea is that the way skill is represented and discussed can itself be a political question. Much is at stake in the discourse surrounding craft, and one index of this fact is the many conflicting claims that have been made on its behalf.

This issue features three articles that address this theme. Together they tell an interesting story of continuity through the twentieth century. At the early end of the chronological spectrum we have Adam Trexler’s in-depth study of A. R. Orage, a figure who ought to be as well-known as Ruskin and Morris, but who has remained somewhat obscure. It is easy to understand why. Not only did he go in for currently unfashionable theories like Theosophy and Nietzsche’s principle of the superhuman, but his writings depart from (and sometimes attack) the hallowed principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. To make matters worse, as Trexler writes, his ideas are hard to situate along a familiar left-right political spectrum. Orage’s emphasis on guild structures and higher consciousness can seem bewildering: simultaneously radical and reactionary. Yet precisely because of this unfamiliarity, his ideas feel surprisingly relevant today. To help readers come to grips with this important figure in craft’s historiography, in addition to Trexler’s examination of his intellectual trajectory we offer a reprinted text by Orage, entitled ‘Politics for Craftsmen.’

Ezra Shales’ study of the Empire State Building carries us a few decades on, to the interwar period (often thought of as a depopulated valley in craft historical terms, caught between the twin peaks of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the post-1945 Studio Craft movement). It may be surprising to consider a skyscraper as a handmade object, but as Shales demonstrates, that is exactly how it was presented at the time. A rhetorical appeal to artisanal values was crucially important to the triumphal rhetoric of the Empire State Building’s financial backers and key spokesman, including bricklayer-turned-master-politician Alfred E. Smith.

If Orage were alive today, he might very well love steampunk – not only because that subculture refers back to his own Victorian and Edwardian moment, but also because this contemporary DIY-based subculture operates through precisely the combination of collectivity and hyper-individualism that he favored. Up-and-coming craft theorist Ele Carpenter gives us a report from the front lines of steampunk, showing how artists use its apparently eccentric, science fiction-derived imagery to create persuasively critical works at the intersection of the physical and the digital.

Finally, in this issue we are pleased and honored to feature a Statement of Practice by Robin Wood, the chair of the Heritage Crafts Association. Devoted to the preservation of threatened artisanal skills in Britain, the HCA is politically active in a way that, again, cannot be easily located on a left-right spectrum. It is equally ecumenical in its self-imposed mandate. Wood wants to celebrate the full range of skilled labor: not just pastoral crafts like pole lathe turning (his own craft) but also light industrial trades like blade-making. Though his viewpoint is perhaps closest to Morris’s, one suspects that he would have found much to discuss with Orage, and it is certain that he would have been fascinated by the plumbers, hoist operators, and asbestos handlers who helped erect the Empire State Building. It is just such unexpected discursive connections, over space and time, that this journal aims to foster.