Bodging Milano by Stephen Knott

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

Down a small in lane and up a mud track in deepest Herefordshire, a white canvas structure emerges from Clissett Wood: an unplugged greenwood furniture ‘bodging’ workshop that hosted ten prominent designers during the wet week of March 30th – April 5th 2010. The designers had cut themselves off from the infrastructure of their respective studios, with straight edges, electrical power and machinery swapped for hand-made tools, local wood and fingerless gloves, in imitation the of bodging techniques of countryside carpenters.

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

‘Bodging Milano’ resulted from a collaboration between artist and designer Chirs Eckersley; Rory Dodd of Designersblock, a London-based organisation that provides a platform for the exhibition of contemporary design through international design shows and festivals; and Gudrun Leitz, founder and chief instructor of a week-long greenwood chairmaking course in Clissett Wood. This connection was established in July 2009 when Chris Eckersley spent a week making a hand-made chair in Leitz’s outdoor workshop, an interest prompted by his experience designing the Arden range of contemporary greenwood Windsor chairs for the bespoke furniture company, Sitting Firm, whose manager David Green was also with the designers for the week.

This year Eckersley returned to Clissett Wood with nine designer friends, and, with the exhibition platform of the Spazio Revel in Milan secured by Dodd at Designersblock, engaged in a week of making greenwood chairs using traditional techniques under Leitz’s instruction. Her methods echo the processes adopted by Philip Clissett, the nineteenth century Hereford greenwood furniture maker who inspired figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, including Ernest Gimson. The same attraction that led Arts and Crafts figures to Clissett led to the fruition of this project: to get away from the machines and tools that define modern production and become familiar with the manually powered pole lathe (constructed from pieces of wood from the forest itself), shave-horse and an array of hand tools.

The influence of William Morris’s elevation of good workmanship was evident. Leitz straightforwardly admitted that the course was run according to a specific philosophy that stresses sustainability, quality craftsmanship from local raw materials, manual skill, and the retrospective reconstruction of folk traditions.

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

So how did the metropolitan designers mix with the bodging techniques? I arrived one day before the deadline to finish, and the workshop was a hive of activity, with the practitioners pushing tired limbs in an attempt to finish on time. All the processes – including cleaving, lathing, steaming, shaping, sawing and assembly – were powered by hand, a physical exertion that was taking its toll. The tools demanded a great deal from the human body. The pole lathe, which the designers learnt how to use on the first day, not only required repeated pedalling but also the need to cup the wood in the lathe with your hand to offer it up to the blade of the chisel. This offered greater manual control over the turning process and an intimate relationship between the body and the machine, but more muscles were involved in the making procedure than might be expected in a conventional machine powered workshop. This cohered with Leitz’s philosophy of making the body a craft machine, rid of all the technicalities the mind mulls over. But the consequences included aches and pains, too.

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Designers were not only encouraged to be closer to the tools, but also to the material, selecting a piece of locally grown ash, cleaving it, and then shaping it into the integral elements of the chair. The Windsor chair is defined by the fact that legs and backrest are fixed into the seat. With greenwood this is done through mortise and tenon joints which, after being joined together, are dried. The mortise contracts around the tenon, locking it firmly in place. Steaming is done onsite too, with a kiln and steaming jig used to keep the bent wood in shape. Smoothing with sandpaper is forbidden because it obscures the grain.

Designers responded positively to the new experiences of using manually-driven machines and hand tools, and to the close connection between labour and the material. However, the lack of a straight edge in the haphazard workshop meant geometrical designs were hard to achieve, and uneven chairs resulted. For practitioners used to the accuracy of computer machinery this caused particular problems, relating to Pye’s hypothesis on the workmanship of risk: with hand tools there is greater likelihood of a misplaced intervention, which could ruin the desired outcome.

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

When asked how the designers were different from the normal clientele of furniture maker enthusiasts, Leitz replied that they approached the course with ‘an image in mind’. For her this made the week more demanding, as the participants, with specific knowledge of furniture making, wanted to achieve a particular result. This was obvious to me while I was there: I only managed to grab a few sentences from her during a rushed tea-break before she had to go back and consult the makers.

The products that resulted from the week’s endurance were whisked away to Milan a week after. Like Clissett’s handmade chairs that made it to Heal’s in London in the early twentieth century, the chairs of these designers may well ignite a romanticism attached to local production and craftsmanship amongst a metropolitan crowd. In addition to this direct output, the bodging course provides a lesson in the value of craftsmanship without power machinery. But however pleasurable, interesting or eye opening this experience in the woods may be, it does not constitute a viable modern day production strategy. As David Green from Sitting Firm mentioned, his £8,000 machine can cut the same seat bottom in 30 seconds as it takes his hands to make in a day. These realities of production seem to limit’s the experiment’s scope. But using a different set of tools, materials and skills does have the potential to renew or reinvigorate furniture practice.

Stephen Knott is a doctoral candidate at the Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum, writing on the theory and practice of amateur craft.

More images can be found here.

Tasmanian Renegade Craftivism let loose in the public realm: Crochet Yarn Bombing and Knitted Graffiti

Now that I am based primarily in Tasmania, it has been a pleasure to visit the cosmopolitan “mainland”, over the past few days. For example, I have just had a teatime chat with Dr. Dorothy Jones (b. New Zealand, based South of Sydney NSW; Jones writes on the links between postcolonial novels, needlework; she was a pioneer in gender studies 1970s-90s). Jones introduced me to some of the interesting critical concerns in the 2009 Joanne Turney publication entitled The Culture of Knitting [since 1970], ISBN 1 84520 592 8. Jones and I also spoke animatedly about the international Yarn Bombing and Knitted Graffiti ‘Craftivism’ movement!

So, for my final response to the theme: Revivalist or Renegade, I ask the reader/other bloggers, Is ‘Soft’ Crochet Craftivism an effective public art ‘sub-culture’ strategy-for-social-change? Does craftivism work to achieve goals for the environmental movement, Tasmania’s primary concern-of-the-day? Many citizens in Northern Tassie have been garnering national, if not international, press by rallying against the nebulous processes of implementation and the negative impact of the proposed pulp mill by Gunns Ltd. Corporation on the ecology of the Tamar Valley. Some of my art students and craftivism colleagues have been involved either directly or tangentially. (see Banner photo image).

Photo provided by Aaron Lyall

Photo provided by Aaron Lyall

Melanie Kershaw

Melanie Kershaw

Even though artist-designer Melanie Kershaw is a staff member of Tasmania’s Wood Design Centre , she wanted to speak out against the logging. We spoke at the end of November. She went about making a seemingly innocuous crocheted hand grenade object (shown here). Kershaw said to me that she was responding to Melbourne Craft Cartel ‘s nation-wide ‘woollen weapon stockpile’ call (last August), which hopes to present a ‘vicious-yet-gentle and lovely’ community-engaged opposition statement to Gunns, as well as a Pro-Wilderness Society message. Visit Craft Cartel’s message to join “Save-The-World: Bang, Knit, Purl, KaPow!” campaign (fun, cartoonish tutorials included)!

Around the same time of year, Kershaw created a sedate ‘gratuitous’ crocheted-hamburger-object for the annual Tasmanian Design Award. When I asked her whether she was worried about public perception and, therefore, perhaps a type of sentimental ‘erasure’ of her ideas or serious intentions, (because of the almost-absurd incongruity between her 2 concepts)? Kershaw simply stated:

I like the medium of crochet, but I do not want to do knee-blankets, bed jackets and doylies… I learned this inherited skill from my mother and she learned from her mother…They used to sit around drinking tea calmly and talking about ‘the garden’ – how the roses are coming along and that sort-of-thing… But I wanted to do something meaningful; something contemporary in an ‘old-style’ medium. These two artworks operate in different genres, and that is ok.

I was a bit jealous of Melanie’s last remark: an off-handed au-fait enjoyment in her practice and in her ‘right’ to indulge in either ‘high fine art’ or ‘low-political public art’ practice if and when she chooses. This would have been an ‘open-ended luxury’ that might have worried high-brow ‘Fine Art’ artists of my generation. Creating, and ‘going public,’ in two widely-differentiated genres would have entailed considerable deliberation in ‘serious’ women painter and sculptor predecessors who would have been aware that their ‘gendered’ idealistic or political pursuits and ‘crafted’ concerns could be critiqued and ‘read’ as superficially decorative (lacking a depth of integrity), fluffy, sentimental or, even, simply dismissed as ‘mad’.

Kershaw’s sentiments about her art being ‘either’ are echoed in variously defined ‘knitting culture’ books out there: either the light-hearted: It’s my Party and I’ll Knit if I want to! by popular self-help writer, Sharon Aris, an entertaining adjunct to Joanne Turney’s serious academic epistle which positions knitting politically and historically within postmodernism and consumer culture, since the 1970s. (Turney is a senior visual and material culture lecturer at the U.K. Bath School of Art.)

A hasty visit to the Victorian and Albert Museum website helps position contemporary craftivism in terms of nineteenth century progress. Under the search terms ‘Knitting and Crochet,’ the website has approximately 15 entries and an Acknowledgement section. I reviewed ‘The Emergence of Crochet and Knitting in American Popular Culture from 1840 – 1876: The Hook and Book’ which links these crafts with the rise of Victorian ideals of ‘useful and silent’ femininity, and consumer, leisure culture (e.g. time freed up for more fanciful pursuits, because of the invention of the sewing machine in 1860, which made straightforward sewing and dressmaking less laboriously time-consuming).

When I left Dr. Jone’s home, after tea about the text and textile arts links, I ran into ‘Grace’, outside the Art Gallery of NSW. Grace, who stated that she is ‘not necessarily an artist’, holds a quiet day job: – that of The Gallery Attendant of Kaldor Public Art Projects, Art Gallery of New South Wales – at the site Tatzu Nishi’s artwork, directly in front of the gallery.

Grace responded to my question, ‘What are you knitting?’ by saying that she was a ‘Yarn Bomber!’ Grace was not concerned with the seeming obviousness of her task-at-hand: knitting. Grace was more concerned who she was – her identity as ‘a subversive avant gardist’, a Craftivist.

Therefore, I ‘read’ Grace as an unintended ‘performance artist’ who had subversively inserted herself, as Actor/ Actress, into Nishi’s artwork, and, therefore, I saw her as a subversive ‘Craftivist’. She was certainly a part of my journey, as a viewer, into Tatzu Nishi’s two-part site-installation, entitled ‘War and peace and in-Between’, in which he re-shaped the large-scale figurative 1923 bronze (public art) sculptures by Gilbert Bayes: ‘The offerings of Peace’ and ‘The offerings of War.’ Grace was sitting at the entrance of one of the two ‘housing-boxes’ scaffolding. By ‘doing knitting’ Grace was ‘speaking to me’: her activity allowed me to re-think the position of the lowly paid female domestic in and amongst two large-scale male creations. Performing quietly in the corner, at the entrance to Nishi’s domestic, but grand, bedroom, Grace’s silent protest was made-visible by her craftivism. Nishi’s art already comments on the domestic versus public juxtaposition, together with his concept of ‘The Colonial Grand Narrative made post-colonial.’ Yet, in my eyes, Grace empowered his artwork by performing the miniature. Therefore, her subtle craftivism made her role-playing in-situ more outrageously symbolic against-the-presumed-social-order-of artworld policies and procedures. If artist Nishi is asking the viewer to imagine a ‘fresh’ perspective, I suggest he might want to take a leaf out of Vanessa Beecroft’s provocative portfolio and re-imagine ‘Grace’ (as legitimate Performer) in his and Baye’s “rightful” bedroom (Installation versus Sculpture-on-Pedestal) setting? At the same time, I would ask Grace to re-define herself, as Artist-Provocateur and both Careerist/Home-maker .

I wonder where protest Craftivism will take contemporary art, when viewed, not only in ‘fun’, ‘youthful’ and ill-defined public settings by anonymous makers, but when Craftivism-for-social-change sets itself within high-brow contexts such as the seriously-minded ‘High Contemporary Art Practice’ at traditional museum locations around-the-world.

Endnote

Forbat, Sophie excerpt from 40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects Art Gallery of NSW, ‘Bending Perceptions: Everyday Scenes turned into Surreal Experiences’ in ‘Look’, 12/09 – 01/10.

What’s the role of skill in the D.I.Y. community?

The roll of skill within the D.I.Y. craft community is varied from self-taught to well-trained makers. My personal belief is that the foundation of D.I.Y. is that there are no rules. Based on this opinion, there is no imposed system of ranking in regards to where you went to school or who you studied under. To be a part of this loose creative movement that continues to grow and change over the years, you simply have to participate.

Photo by Photo by Kerianne Quick

Photo by Photo by Kerianne Quick

Faythe Levine teaching students to embroider at the University of Champaign-Urbana, 2009. Photo by Kerianne Quick

This makes it very difficult to define and talk about what is going on within our community, especially when talking about topics such as skill and quality. I often like to remind people that D.I.Y. is not just an aesthetic, but for a lot of us, D.I.Y. is a lifestyle, a decision making process that overflows into all of our daily choices.

This past September I spoke at the American Craft Council Conference “Creating a New Craft Culture”. What I didn’t realize when stepping into the conference was that a large part of my presence there was to define and surprisingly to me, defend D.I.Y. craft. When making my film Handmade Nation, this was not my agenda. My number one goal was to produce a film about the people around me making amazing things, focusing on this incredible supportive creative community. In a way I have found myself a permission giver to many. I am more than thankful that I have been able to tour, talk and educated about D.I.Y.  I have found that it is difficult for me to defend something that I am fully immersed in, and actually feel like doesn’t need defending. As I stated in my talk at the conference to 300 ACC members, educators, curators and students “Whether you like it or not, it’s [D.I.Y.] there.”

Dying workshop with Kathi from Chicks on Speed

Dying workshop with Kathi from Chicks on Speed

Dying workshop with Kathi from Chicks on Speed at "Viva La Craft"in Hamburg, Germany where Handmade Nation premiered, 2008. Photo By Faythe Levine

I have realized I do walk a fine line. First and foremost, I promote, some would even say preach, that making something with your hands is empowering, powerful and in my opinion political. I truly believe that in this day and age if people are turning off their TV’s to make a creative decision, even if it’s one I am personally uninterested in, it’s a positive exciting step in the right direction for humanity. Here is the tricky part; I am a very selective curator and collector. I constantly tell people that their work isn’t “good enough” or the “right fit” for a project I am working on. I always end rejection with a positive note “good luck on your creative path” or suggest another show or gallery that may be interested in their work. When I lecture I always try to let people know I was turned down for 95% of my grant applications for Handmade Nation and still get rejections from film festivals weekly. One persons opinion only goes so far, only means so much.

After the past three years of interviewing, traveling to shows, galleries, boutiques and doing Q&A’s and lectures I am thankful for everyone I have met. My community has doubled, maybe tripled in numbers. This has allowed me to become a hub of networking. I recently had a friend ask if I knew of anyone who did custom velvet painting, I did and passed along the contact information hoping she would get a commission. D.I.Y. is about community, sharing and support. The most frequent feedback I get after a screening of my film is “I am inspired to go home and make something”.  That is what it is all about, not just the over saturation of owls, deer, apples and uncountable piles of cuteness that one can choke on at an indie craft fair. And with that said, most people have a sweet tooth and are always looking for more, just not this collector. I am in search of the strange, weird and oddly beautiful.

To summarize, staying focused, setting goals and moving forward. These are the skills that D.I.Y. are based on.

On The Midway at ArtScape booth by Stefani Levin

On The Midway at ArtScape booth by Stefani Levin

On The Midway at ArtScape in Baltimore. "Things To Put On Your Face" booth by Stefani Levin, 2008. Photo By Faythe Levine

In my next blog entry I look forward to discussing the demographic for Handmade Nation, and if there ways of expanding it, as well as my opinion on the future of D.I.Y.