Introduction 4.1

It is an honor to include, in this issue of  The Journal of Modern Craft, an interview with Dame Antonia Byatt.  This statement of practice, transcribed from a conversation that we had with the novelist last year, introduces several themes that run through the other contributions in these pages.  The most obvious link is with Elizabeth C. Miller’s discussion of  “slow print” in the work and thinking of  William Morris. Byatt’s most recent novel,  The Children’s Book, sensitively examines the ethical and personal considerations that attended craft at the end of the nineteenth century. Miller and Byatt alike are interested in the fragility of these hopeful ideals (Morris’s death is briefly noted in The Children’s Book as a symbolic loss of innocence), and also their continuing resonance today.

Yet Byatt is also supremely pragmatic, and suspicious of falling too deeply into an idealized dream state. In the interview she offers a lovely example of utopianism gone astray, on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:  “We were going to have a new Elizabethan age and people were going to write verse plays, Shakespeare was going to come back, and energy and color and beauty were going to return to Britain. Buildings that had been painted green, cream, and a certain dirty brown were suddenly painted a very hopeful pale blue.  This was before the Clean Air Act and they very quickly became dirty.”  This is the sort of observation  —grounded in hard, sometimes unpleasant, material facts—that gives her fiction its grounding.

Sarah Fayen Scarlett’s article on the craft of patternmaking looks at a similar down-to-earth movement. She examines the career of American furniture-maker Charles Rohlfs (who, interestingly, began as a Shakespearean actor), pointing out that he could never have realized his magically ornate chairs and desks without long experience as a carver of patterns for a stove manufacturer—a professional training he later tried to hide. Here is one idealistic Arts and Crafts maker whose skills were nurtured within the context of industry. Fayen Scarlett argues that we should take this lesson to heart, not only paying attention to the craftspeople who work in factories, but also the part that their often-invisible skills play in shaping our mass-produced environment.

Joshua Stein also argues for the relevance of craft in an unexpected production context: computer-assisted architectural design. He applies the theories of David Pye and (a writer perhaps less familiar to our readers) Manuel De Landa to show how architects can shift across vastly different scales—from tabletop models to full-scale buildings—using digitally-fueled craft as a connective tissue. Stein finds in this method a way to invest even indirect operations with “material intimacy.” It is a phrase that Byatt might like. In the interview, she vividly describes the process of inventing her characters with her body:  “I sit there and I think their fingers with my fingers.  And if they get hurt I feel it.” It is a suggestive parallel with Anselm Stern, the beguiling puppet-master in The Children’s Book, and also with Stein’s architects, who try to invest their structures with tactility through remote control.

A final inclusion in this issue of the JMC is worthy of note: our primary text, an excerpt of Jean Baudrillard’s 1973 book The Mirror of Production. Here we have a writer who is definitely not reminiscent of Byatt—her carefully observed, empathic humanism finds little place in his critical theory. Interestingly, however, this passage shows him engaging in his own puppet act, manipulating craft for his own theoretical purposes. Baudrillard presents the artisan as a figure who inhabits a symbolic realm, outside of modern productivity. His target is orthodox Marxist thinking, which treats all work as exchangeable labor—rather than as an irreducible experience unto itself.  Against this conception Baudrillard offers a vision of craft that is completely contained within community and materiality—which are, in fact, two primary concerns of Byatt’s. Readers might be surprised to find some common ground between these two powerful, and very different, thinkers. But then, for both, common ground is what craft is all about.

The Editors
The Journal of Modern Craft

Table of contents 4.1

Tools of Trades: Articulating Sculptural Practice

Introduction to the issue 3.3 by Jon Wood

This first special issue of the Journal of Modern Craft is dedicated to a greater understanding of how contemporary and historic sculptors articulate their use of tools, making sense of their relationship to them and explaining the roles they play in their practice. It has its genesis in both a Henry Moore Institute Research Fellowship and a conference session. In 2008 Jyrki Siukonen was awarded a one month HMI fellowship to work on a project, using the Institute’s resources, which he called ‘Silence: Sculptor at Work, or, Articulating a Philosophy of Tools’. Discussions between us and colleagues about the different ways of thinking and talking about the intricacies of sculptural practice led to us formulate a session together for the AAH (Annual Art Historians’) conference, which was held at Manchester Metropolitan University in April 2009.

Having the art historians’ conference as the forum for this session was especially important to us as our conversations in Leeds had regularly focused on the different approaches and languages that come out of art practice compared to art history. Thinking between and across them, the session asked how manual work and its philosophy have been understood by artists themselves as well as writers. It asked what could be learned from each other – between the studio and the study, so to speak – what connections could be drawn between different kinds of ‘manual thinking’ and attitudes to making. The session comprised presentations by both artists and art historians (which was in itself relatively unusual for an AAH conference) and across the two days we heard about different ways of articulating historical and contemporary sculptural practice: about different kinds of tools, hands, studios, schools and different kinds of artistic knowledge. The majority of papers dealt with twentieth and twenty-first century sculpture, but there were contributions that examined the articulation of particular sculptural practices in the 18th and 19th centuries. By bringing together historians and contemporary practitioners we aimed to open up discussion of the different aspects of sculptural ‘tooling’, both inside the studio and beyond it. Alongside papers by artists Edward Allington, Elizabeth Presa and Cecile Johnson-Soliz (who sadly couldn’t join us on the day), were contributions from Jyrki Siukonen, Tomas Macsotay, Ann Compton, Christina Ferando, David Getsy, Nina Gülicher, Janice Hitchens, Peter Muir and, finally, JMC co-editor Glenn Adamson, who concluded the two-day session with a paper called ‘A Dirty Shame: Guilty Pleasures in Contemporary Studio Practice’.[1]

The Journal of Modern Craft seemed an interesting place to publish a selection of these conference papers because the questions our session raised about ‘sculpture’ go right to the heart of what we might indeed mean by ‘sculptural practice’ today – questions which have an equal urgency for our understanding of ‘craft’. In the post-conference discussion session, we commented on the often unfortunate fate of the words ‘sculpture’ and ‘craft’ in the minds of many commentators today, seen as either too elitist and recherché, or too ubiquitous and lacking in aesthetic merit. In keeping with this, we decided to select papers from the session that connected most strongly with this double relevance, whilst also including texts that reflected upon the tools and languages of sculpture making, addressing the different meanings of materials, processes and non-verbal ways of articulating sculptor’s practice.

The shift from discussions of academic sculpture and its traditional separation of invention and execution toward what were believed to be more ‘direct’, ‘honest’ and ‘expressive’ working methods, (from Auguste Rodin to Constantin Brancusi, for example), resulted in major changes in understanding of both studio practice and sculptural rhetoric. Modern sculpture practice could be promoted as an independent, solitary and even meditative exercise. The language of sculpture making that this generated, however, coexisted with other pedagogies, manuals and textbooks of the day, as well as with other art critical and historical accounts of sculpture. The backgrounds to these issues are addressed in the first section of the journal, in the texts of Jyrki Siukonen, who provides an introduction to the journal, and those of art historians Tomas Macsotay, Nina Gülicher and Ann Compton.

These historical changes in sculptors’ vocabularies – material, visual and conceptual – challenge us to ask how manual work and its philosophy have been understood by makers themselves, and by those who have taught and studied it – and also by those who continue to do so today. In keeping with this, the journal concludes with three texts by contemporary sculptors – Edward Allington, Cecile Johnson-Soliz and Krysten Cunningham – each of whom discuss the meanings and languages of their sculpture and of their processes today.

Jon Wood is an art historian who specialises in twentieth-century and contemporary sculpture. He coordinates the research programme and curates exhibitions at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

[1] Adamson’s paper has been published as ‘Analogue Practice’ in Michelle Grabner and Mary Jane Jacob, The Studio Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Editorial Introduction to 3.2

Craft is local, rooted in place. This powerful assumption has informed a wide variety of discourses: vernacular and folk art studies; turn-of-the-century romantic nationalism; architectural theory (notably Kenneth Frampton’s idea of “critical regionalism”); and the contemporary anti-globalist movement, in which DIY craft serves as an insignia of independence from what is vaguely called “the system.”

The problem is that “place” itself is a constantly shifting term that is not confined merely to static physical geography. Recent scholarship on the concept of the global emphasizes that overarching, transnational movements are built through (and in turn inflect) local cultural agency. To study this mutuality, metaphors such as the network, the narrative, or the imagined community have been proffered. So have distinctive methodologies such as the micro-history, in which a person or object is used as a lens through which large-scale movement can be brought into focus. The writings of the postwar Marxist theorist Henri LeFevbre have been influential in this context. His project was to understand how place was a means through which capitalist modern culture produced and reproduced itself. The seemingly neutral medium that we traverse is, in LeFevbre’s account, always politicized, always filled with ideological content. We cannot help making space into place, and place makes us in turn.

In light of such theoretical accounts, the certainty that one often encounters in discussions of craft’s rootedness seems badly in need of revision. This issue offers several contributions to that effort. We lead off with a short report by our own Digital Editor, Kevin Murray. In past months, he has been building the Journal of Modern Craft website into a lively forum for scholarly exchange. His discussion here, in the same spirit, summarizes the results of a “south–south” conversation held in Chile recently, at which Australian, Asian and Latin American craft specialists convened. Murray’s probing consideration of this debate introduces themes that will reappear throughout this issue. As he suggests, being faithful to tradition is never easy, and sometimes not even preferable as a way of empowering “local” craftspeople.

This issue’s articles by Lily Crowther and Suzette Wolfe Wilson show how the study of craft upsets our geographical instincts. Crowther argues that the early twentieth-century British studio craft movement found its most hospitable milieu not in the traditionrich rural landscape, or the innovative city center, but rather the much-despised suburbs. In her case study of Camberwell, a residential area of South London, the very characteristics for which craft is usually seen as an antidote—homogeneity, consumerism, and institutionalization—were precisely the variables that permitted studio practice to thrive. Wolfe Wilson’s study of contemporary activity in Jamaica shows us that craft is not necessarily compatible with a healthy relationship to an underdeveloped environment. “Traditional” making is not necessarily sustainable, as it exacts too great a toll on the island’s limited timber and mineral resources. She argues that it is only through an informed, globally aware strategy, in which local materials are used in a manner fully cognizant of the possibility of imported substitutes, that Jamaican craft can be rendered truly sensitive to its locality.

Patricia Ribault’s Statement of Practice for this issue offers another method for studying craft and place: the technique of comparison. Though primarily a theorist, Ribault has a background as a glass blower, and has completed residencies around the world. Her article is a prime example of passionate argument drawn from direct experience. She juxtaposes three dramatically different situations in Italy, Afghanistan, Tunisia, all of which present their own challenges for glass production. Like Wolfe Wilson, she argues that even in the most hallowed craft sites, “tradition” cannot be regarded as sacred and inviolable. Curiously it is Sadika Kamoun, an artist and impresario working in Tunisia—where there is no recent history of glass-making to speak of—whom Ribault sees as having achieved the most successful relationship with her surroundings, through a creative mixing of techniques and tools picked up through her own global travels.

The issue also includes several contributions that concern craft’s role within design practice. Often, in collaborations between designers and artisans, the latter are considered to provide local depth and authenticity. (The designer, presumably, provides cosmopolitan sophistication and knowledge of international markets.) Again, our authors suggest it is not always so simple. Both the innovative Droog Collective, who re-branded our concept of Dutch design in the early 1990s, and the contemporary “digital guilds” described by Amanda Parkes and Leonardo Bonnani, center on a more recursive relation between conceptualization and craft skill, in which the latter seems to be the most innovative element within the design process.

This topic is also explored in depth in this issue’s Primary Text, an extensive survey of leading designers’ attitudes to craft circa 1959, taken from the pages of Zodiac magazine (an organ of the Italian product design firm Olivetti). As Catharine Rossi notes in her introduction to the text, “Craft offered both cultural legitimacy and a means of production to designers in the context of a rhetoric of industrialization that fell down when confronted with reality.” As we read the various designers’ views, we cannot help but notice how much geography informed their ideas about “cultural legitimacy.” What Italy or Scandinavia had to offer to international markets, for example, was entirely dependent upon their national skill bases, as much as some designers may have hated the idea. The Zodiac texts were published exactly half a century ago, but the questions they raise have never been more pressing.