When sculptors craft

Theme for issue 3.3

How comfortably does craft fit within the history and practice of sculpture? Why is the crafted essence of sculpting so often ignored? And, more positively, what ideas and narratives about sculpture might be generated by accounting for it in terms of craft?

Image: Cecile Johnson Soliz finishing Warm, a sculpture that functions as a wood-burning stove, in Castellamonte, Italy, 2007.

5 thoughts on “When sculptors craft

  1. I am currently enrolled in Craft Lab, a course taught by Donald Donald Fortescue, at California College of Art in San Francisco. We are making tools and Donald asked us to post comments on articles in the Journal of Modern Craft. I choice The Statement of Practice – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer by Edward Allington.

    I found Edward Allington’s prolific descriptions of hammers eloquent and deeply informative. I was captivated by his analysis of how hammers harness physics at the intersection of the hands, the mind and materials. I used his statement, “Tools are a mediating mechanism between aim, both literally and conceptually, a material and an action” as systems thinking to make tools to cast large paper funnels. Combined with his reference to Richard Serras conceptual use of verbs as ‘tools’, my hands were set in motion.

    aim: big [graduate school] focus: [march 9th review]
    conceptual: [receive – nurture – process]
    material: abaca pulp
    action: support, filter, press, cast, suspend, circulate, release, light

    Although my mind did wander during the breadth and depth of descriptions, they sparked a brainstorm on an improvisational tool to felt wool. The aim is to compress and tangle the wool fibers into a dense matt. When done by hand, it takes hard labor to impose adequate compression and friction. As I day dream, I wonder if the principle seen in the dead blow hammer where a cylinder contains lead shot might deliver extra compression to the wool fibers? What if the “heavy blow” was delivered along the length of a fluted tube? The answer, after an initial prototype. most likely would be yet another prototype. Who knows if it would work?

    The series of questions in the first paragraph is where I lingered. “Do children or adults know or have an understanding of how things are made?” As well as the rebuke that children must “understand that the world we inhabit is a product of labor.” I ask, “What transpires when “labor” does not accumulate in things?” Today, America’s primary labor is consumption of services. As a population of consumers whose energy demand stresses the ecosystem, the refrigerator Allington references, is an outdated tool. If we aim to achieve a zero carbon footprint, do the children of today have the conceptual tools to redesign a cooling device that reduces reliance on an inefficient electrical grid? Shall we work to prompt creative education and hope the next generation of children is as passionate as Edward Allington?

  2. I’ve been working with graduate students in the Fine Arts and Design at the California College of the Arts (CCA) this semester in a studio seminar entitled ‘Craft Lab’. There is a long and all-encompassing course description but the elevator spiel version is – CRAFT LAB WILL PREY UPON THE WEALTH OF TALENT APPEARING THIS SEMESTER AT CCA AND CREATE NEW WORKS AROUND THE RUBRICS OF TOOLS AND VESTIGIAL TECHNOLOGY. JOIN US FOR A SERIES OF MEETINGS, READINGS, DISCUSSIONS, LECTURES, EXPLORATIONS AND CREATIVE LAB SESSIONS.

    We’ve been reading a big chunk of the latest volume of the Journal of Modern Craft together and each of us is writing a personal response to some of the articles in Vol.3, #3. Some of which will appear on this forum in the next short while. Here are some of my first thoughts.

    In our initial discussions I’ve been struck by the discourses on ‘joy’ and ‘silence’ provided in the two articles by Nina Gülicher and especially Jyrki Siukonen.

    I’m pleased that neither paper strays into the noxious realm where ‘work speaks for itself’ and both obviate the reprehensible position that craft somehow is essentially anti-intellectual. A perspective argued succinctly but I believe erroneously by the late Peter Dormer in his oft quoted essay ‘The ideal world of Vermeer’s little lacemaker’ (John Thackera, ed. Design After Modernism. Thames and Hudson 1988). Dormer writes “absorption in the craft tasks, the losing of one’s self in the activity and the temporary absence of other thought, amounts to a banishment of skepticism.” And Dormer has already established, at least in his own mind the “the public does not look to the crafts or craftspeople for speculation, skepticism, questioning of assumptions, too much innovation or challenge. Nor it appears, do many of the practitioners themselves.”

    I found Dormer’s article personally offensive when I read it for the first time over 20 years ago. It seemed to take many preconceptions and stereotypes about craft and art practice for granted without allowing for any ‘speculation, skepticism or questioning of assumptions’ – maybe that was a symptom of the ‘craft’ of writing. Admittedly Dormer’s article was written at the height of the hoary ‘Art-Craft Debate’ and Dormer himself wrote on the subtler intelligences revealed through hand work and repetition later in his later book The Art of the Maker (Thames and Hudson, 1994).

    I applaud Siukonen for his effort to find another meaning behind the silence of craft and sculptural action. In his recognition that silence is both a place from which creativity wells and an attitude towards intellectual debate that distances a viewer from direct visceral experience of a work. Interpreting Heidegger ‘the tool-made work points not only to it use and what it is made form, but also to its maker and user: “The work is carved into him, he ‘is’ with the work in its becoming”…. Working with tools serves as a particular way of bringing forth something about human being-in-the-world.’

    I love the apposite quote form Melville (especially, as I am a huge fan) in describing the Pequod’s ship carpenter – “His brain, if he ever had one, must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers.”

    In reference to silence as a position with respect to discourse Siukonen quotes both Brancusi “Theories are nothing but meaningless specimens. It is only actions that count” and David Smith “There were no words in my mind during its creation and I’m certain words are not needed in its seeing.” Siukonen concludes enthusiastically – “Having said all this, I might want to return to my studio, cherishing the hope that the original stuff at the bottom of the work wishes to remain material, manifest, yet shadowlike and forever in escape of exact uttering”. Me too!

    Similarly, ‘joy’ seems to always be suspect in an artist’s practice. Angst, passion, struggle, and depression seem more seemly somehow. Once again Dormer spoke to this in ‘the little lacemaker’ “people argue that craft workers are fortunate to have occupations in which they can ‘lose themselves’. Other observers are more critical of crafts work. They believe that the craft life can cause complacency and that too much balm can close the mind down”. Why I wonder is a deep satisfaction seen as antithetical to creativity and rigor? Gülicher talks about ‘joy’ as both a state of mind and a source of creativity. Quoting Brancusi, again, “It is not the things that are difficult to make, but to put ourselves in condition to make them.” And quoting contemporary perspectives on Brancusi, “He has no use for the word ‘master’ or the word ‘force’ in connection with art. The words ‘hero’, ‘enjoyment’, … ‘ease’ suit him better”. Brancusi says it most succinctly – “You must always work in joy”.

    I was surprised that both writers took Brancusi as their baseline sculptor. Was Brancusi the last ‘sculptor’ whose actions could be looked at this way? Is this the point where the common lineages of craft and art and design diverged and started evolving along different paths towards there current cultural niches? Surely there are more recent sculptor’s than David Smith whose practice has parallels with craft? Or was Smith working in that last moment before the verbalized, theorized, authorized ‘concept’ came to dominate both art and, soon afterwards, craft practice?

    I’d be interested in thoughts from the Forum!

  3. Pingback: When Sculptors Craft – the Journal of Modern Craft | Donald Fortescue

  4. Thank you for raising some interesting questions. I will have to check out the essays and other readings that you have referenced.

  5. My good friend Donald will know that I won’t be able to to keep out of this discussion!

    To answer your question about Brancusi I would point to such contemporary artists as Katsura Funakoshi. In fact the commerce-driven ghettoisation of art, design and craft in the west never really spread to the east and the value of the craft process remains there in many sculptors such as Kimio Tsuchiya and Shigeo Toya as well as in architects and designers. And who understands material better than Anselm Kiefer in his vast canvases of meticulously applied layers?

    Throughout many years of making I have produced all of what would be commonly called art, design,craft and architecture. But I have assiduously tried to avoid being categorised. I believe there is only one creative process and it comprises the three component processes of art, design and craft, all of which words I see as verbs. Whatever you are doing, you have to follow the creative process through all three parts to be effective, even though you may favour one more than the others. So, in carving one of his sculptures, Brancusi would have initially worked through the art process to develop his vision, his ideas, what he is trying to say, from the wide horizon of cultures enveloping him . . . say, the concept of a purified form that expresses an idealised bird in space. Then he works as a designer to refine the form and its composition, to choose the appropriate material and engineer any junctions. Finally the craftsman executes the carving, his intuitive feel guiding the chisel though the material, that haptic knowledge that only results from countless repetitions, his “brain that has oozed into his fingers” (glorious phrase!!). Of course it is not really linear, rather each process informs the others in a spiraling loop towards the idealised centre of realisation.

    If this full creative process is not followed then the component parts get disconnected and ghettoised. If designers do not first work through the art process to generate their vision, their forms, their vocabulary, what do they have to work with? Only the forms and vocabulary of others, resulting in derivative unoriginal work which ends up all looking the same. If they have not also worked through the craft process they will have no ingrained understanding of material — you cannot design what you do not know how to make. This separation results in the meaningless, vacuous and self-referential ‘art-for-art’s-sake’, similarly in design and craft.

    Recently I discovered one of those ‘fearful symmetries’ that make your spine tingle, revealing the deeply embedded patterns of nature all around us. We all know that our brains are divided into two hemispheres which are almost able to function independently, as some stroke victims have demonstrated. The brain has evolved like this to give us an immensely powerful tool where the two halves work in tandem. The right hemisphere is connected, outward-looking, spherical, intuitive, empathetic; and the left hemisphere is disconnected, inward-looking, linear, rational, analytic. So, long ago as we wandered the savannah, our right hemisphere would have been keeping a wide overall awareness of all around us. If a possible threat was perceived in the distance, its details were handed over to the left hemisphere where it was deconstructed and analysed out of context. Then it was handed back to the right so that a course of action could be devised, based on the current context. Thus we have a three part process: outward/intuitive — inward/rational — outward/intuitive. This perfectly mirrors the art — design — craft creative process!! In other words, this creative process uses the full potential of our remarkable brain in a balanced way, as it has evolved to work. It is only when we loose that balance that things start to go wrong. Because the left has no sense of greater connection it sees things only in its own terms; it thinks it can give all the rational answers that are needed and becomes a self referential hall of mirrors. So it does not hand back to the right hemisphere. In that way we have become disconnected from nature and are loosing our ability to emphasise, seeing things only rationally. And craft becomes marginalised, because craft is intuitive, connected, embedded and empathetic.

    As the years of one’s life pass, the potent physicality of youth gives way to a less material, more reflective and metaphysical state. I spent many years in my own studio workshop making my own furniture. It demanded a lot from the body which is starting to feel the wear. Now I employ others to do this so that I can concentrate on ideas. I don’t miss the making — I can still experience it vicariously through my craftspeople. And anyway the experience is still there: if I am designing on a computer, deep inside me the fibres and nerves of my body know what the wood can and can’t be asked to do. As I write I experience precisely the same emotions as I used to when making, leaning back and looking upward to locate an idea, leaning forward and down to arrange the parts of the idea so that they work as a coherent whole, and fitting the words neatly and seamlessly together like stones in a wall so that they feel just right. When I succeed, I experience the same immense and enervating sense of satisfaction as if I had physically made something. That is the creative process.

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