Day 1 @ American Craft Council Conference

It’s hard to believe a month has passed since more than 315 architects, designers, artists, collectors, educators, writers, editors, museum professionals, retailers, students, and enthusiasts — including myself — convened for the American Craft Council’s conference “Creating a New Craft Culture” in Minneapolis, October 16 & 17, 2009.


It is a pleasure to think about all the presentations and ideas again after some time, even though I’d hoped to post sooner. Nevertheless, I hope you will find my comments worth reading, and that you will share your own, whether you were there too or not!

Note: the ACC has podcasts of the presentations on their website – download them for free right here. I have pictures posted on Flickr, too.

The main themes that emerged over the two days and 12+ sessions collected around the contours of multiple intersecting craft communities and many craft cultures. In essence, the conference turned out to be a search for common ground and an appeal for us all to relax about boundaries and aesthetics long enough to see that there are a lot more similarities than differences within the mix that we call the craft world.

Richard Sennett delivered the keynote address about craft in the technical world. He argued that as technique is the realm of the craftsman, technicians of all stripes may be considered “craftsmen,” by which Sennett means people who make things well for its own sake, those who don’t take shortcuts. He offered an example from his book, The Craftsman, of a computer programmer, a context not usually considered by those who work in more tangible media. He spoke of craftsmen being engaged with finding problems and seeing what kinds of opportunities and possibilities open up when problems are actively sought out instead of attacked and solved. In this respect, posited Sennett, modern capitalism works against craft, in the way that in today’s work place rewards for quality are missing and emphasis is less on process than on cold hard results. Craftsmanship suffers and opportunities for discovery are overridden by the single-minded pursuit of results.

I felt Sennett’s perspective that tacit understanding and subjective knowledge is erased when mediated by a machine (specifically when architects use computers rather than pencils to design) to be somewhat dated. I prefer Michel de Certeau’s point of view in The Practice of Everyday Life that the consumer/user doesn’t just passively receive output from the machine (i.e. the TV), but rather through one’s use of the machine we manipulate or adapt it to our needs, thereby maintaining a certain agency that Sennett seems to overlook. In any case, the upshot of Sennett’s point is that it’s no good for anyone when systems become too closed, when for example the computer understands an answer but the designer does not. In such cases, technology removes us from the process of making and disconnects the head and the hand. Indeed. This idea of a closed system would be picked up again in the concluding session when Sonya Clark spoke importantly of the ills of monoculture.

Elissa Auther followed, offering a history of “Lifestyle and Livelihood in Craft Culture.” Although Auther started with the familiar story of John Ruskin, William Morris and the Roycrofters, she related the ideals championed by this craft old guard as anti-establishment and reflective of a craving to restore honesty, morality and wholesomeness to one’s work, ideals that also inspired many late 20th century, and even more recent, craft practitioners.

I was less familiar with the stories she told of 1960s and 70s-era craft cultures, such as Pond Farm where the idea was not to keep a finished pot that one threw, but rather to embrace the experience of transformation through making. She referenced M.C. Richards and the notion of wholeness and centering, the sense of overcoming boundaries, the craft ideal as lifestyle vs. organizing one’s day in the service of capital. She mentioned Tom D’Onofrio and the idea of life as a work of art. Told of the Consanti Foundation and Arcosanti in Arizona offering intelligent lifestyle change with communal living arrangements and an ecological angle. At Pilchuck, she said, originally participants had to build their own shelter before they could start working in the glass hotshop.

She then unknowingly spelled out my holiday wish list, citing Olivia Emery’s Craftsman Lifestyle: The Gentle Revolution and other publications of the countercultural revolution promoting the “art of authentic living” and the notion of asserting one’s authenticity through daily lifestyle choices. And then she spoke of how the age of “greed is good” started the trend of mainstream culture co-opting countercultural ideals for commercial interests, in other words, “a corporate flattening of countercultural themes.” With the recent emergence of craft’s online communities, especially Etsy, the line between craft for its own sake and craft as commerce begins to blur. I wonder how this most recent revolution in craft will play out in eyes of the craft historians of the future.

Next came a roundtable discussion on “Craft in the 21st Century: Identity, Choice, Meaning,” with moderator Sandra Alfoldy and panelists Claudia Crisan, Thomas Patti and Michael Sherrill. The discussion’s highlights included potter Michael Sherrill’s articulation of the “humble power,” humanity and warmth imbued in handmade things. Glass artist Thomas Patti pointed to the assumption that DIY is somehow corrupting craft compared with how things were in the 1960s when “we wanted everyone to be doing it. Now everyone is doing it. It’s what we wanted! But now there’s this feeling of needing to filter and stratify.” Sherrill underscored Patti’s point, adding that anytime there’s making going on, whether mature or immature, high or low, it’s a practice and good for our culture and for craft more broadly. Claudia Crisan, who makes edible adornment and runs a bakery, spoke to the question of how she identifies with labels such as “craft” and “artist.” She said she sees no difference, “but ego comes in the way when fine art is talked about.” My favorite point: what’s so threatening about DIY? “It’s like wanting civil rights and yet being homophobic.”

“Mixed Taste,” Adam Lerner’s fascinating lecture pairing, followed, with a curator from the Minneapolis Historical Society speaking on Prairie School Architecture and a local butcher speaking on Meat Fabrication. Based on a program he runs at The Lab in Denver, the idea of putting two unlike speakers together is designed to enable discussion of subjects while disabling what he called the pretension around them. It was so interesting to think about the relationship between the craft of butchery, the idea of local consumption and slow food relating to local architecture. I was thrilled to see a confluence of craft and slow food, a connection I’ve been seeing and advocating for years. As the butcher said, she is seeing that people are literally hungry for things that are hand crafted. Lerner is a genius.

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin came up next, a soft-spoken storyteller with a high-impact message about crafting a business and trusting the knowledge of your roots. Chanin possesses a rare combination of poetry and business sense, and in her talk, “Marketplace and the Personal: A Story of Thread,” she shared her inspiring belief in slow succession over rapid change and showed many pictures of beautiful sewing. She told of how paying attention to verticality in terms of sustainability and social responsibility helped her grow her business, communicated her spirit of generosity and inclusiveness, and showed us how her style has led to a successful high fashion business. And, she pointed out, for those who cannot afford her clothes, she also sells patterns, feeling no threat from having her design “secrets” laid open, “and when they try they see how hard it is,” she adds wryly. (And while many presentations relied a lot on visuals, her talk would work particularly well as a podcast.)

Faythe Levine closed the day telling her story of making the documentary Handmade Nation. Levine characterized DIY, relating it to the indie and punk music scenes where the “no rules” ethos has a strong, unifying appeal. She related the making of the film to a DIY endeavor, something I could relate to as I always saw Greenjeans to be heavily DIY/handmade/some sort of massive craft project. (Faythe’s talk also reminded me of the fact I’ve still not reviewed the documentary, and also – and this is in no way a slight – how I still don’t understand why I feel so little connection to the DIY scene, as much as I relate to so many of its aspects. But that’s a all topic for another time, hopefully soon.)

Levine has been taken up by the studio craft community and others as a representative of the DIY movement, and so often has to entertain questions that don’t seem to be as compelling to her as they might be to the askers. Such as how one is supposed to measure good/better/best, as one person asked. I only wish there had been a full screening of the film during the conference – I need to see it again!

Stay tuned for Day 2 coverage….


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6 Responses to “Day 1 @ American Craft Council Conference”

  1. kerin Says:

    Hi Amy…

    you can have my copy if you like…I was actually very disappointed, as I felt that there wasn’t much question asking at all….just folks documenting what they do….I was expecting more “meatiness” re: DIY and why they do what they do, and more impetus as to what DIY is , its roots, etc etc….

    lemme know where to send it and its yours! 🙂

  2. aesbklyn Says:

    Kerin, do you mean the documentary or the book? I have the book, but would LOVE a copy of the doc if you have it! Thank you! – Amy

  3. kerin Says:

    documentary!….lemme know where to send it….

  4. aesbklyn Says:

    Kerin, I tried emailing you my addy but it got bounced back. Would you mind emailing me and I’ll reply? Thank you!

  5. Day 2 @ American Craft Council Conference « found curve Says:

    […] found curve « Day 1 @ American Craft Council Conference […]

  6. kerin Says:

    Amy, I emailed you at your old greenjeans address! 🙂

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