Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

Day 2 @ American Craft Council Conference

November 16, 2009
Link to Day 1 Coverage (posted 11/14/09)
Free podcasts of the sessions can be downloaded on the conference blog.

conference2Rob Walker kicked off Day 2 of the American Craft Council conference in Minneapolis with his talk “Handmade 2.0.” Coming to craft as a journalist and culture critic, Walker views craft as a social movement and a niche market. In reference to the conference’s title, “Creating a New Craft Culture,” he said that he’s not sure if there is “a craft culture,” but maybe “craft cultures,” plural. I also liked how Walker described DIY/craft/handmade as “making goods speak to power.” To me he seemed to be putting his finger on the pulse of the weekend.

Walker also talked about marketing trends, debunking the notion that consumers will pay more for authenticity, ethics and quality. He spoke of thinking in terms not only of your story as the maker, but also of how consumers are also making their stories as they shop. He closed by offering his perspective that having multiple versions of what craft means is just fine because the variety of meanings provide multiple entry points to discovering craft. And that is a good thing for those in the craft business. (He also mentioned something called The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving in 19th century Minneapolis, which I have to investigate.)

Julie Lasky followed with “Men in White,” a very cool presentation on the birth and evolution of the image of the designer. She traces designers’ sartorial style and self-image over time, from the well-dressed upholsterer of the turn of the century to the 1960s man in a white-lab-coat, to the black turtlenecked duo in the round-rimmed glasses of the present day. My favorite example that she presented was a clip from a 1954 film called Executive Suite in which a handsome furniture designer who works for an old family business takes a stand during a board of director’s meeting, condemning them for permitting the production of shoddy goods in the interest of higher profit margins. Interestingly, at the end she mentioned she’s not sure how much longer this category of work will be called “design.”

Next, Robin Petravic told the story of Heath Ceramics, the venerable, decades-old California institution that he and his wife took ownership– or perhaps stewardship – of recently. Petavic spoke of how, as designers, he and his wife felt a resonance with the hands-on, practical imperatives of Charles and Ray Eames. They wanted to make a change professionally and discovered Heath Ceramics was for sale, and it became the place where they could be more hands-on while still being designers. He talked about new forms they have created, and the old practices they preserve. They’re still doing old forms too. Petravic showed images of on-site production space, which to me resembled a bakery. As a story of harmony among craft, labor, design and business, be sure to catch this whole story when it comes on the ACC conference blog as a podcast.

Lydia Matthews took the podium after lunch for her talk “New Models of Marketplace” to articulate the ethical and ecological aspects of craft, which always resonates with me. She spoke developing a sustainable practice, and described how economic systems operate through various kinds of capital including social, cultural and ecological. She referenced Tony Fry and the intriguing idea that objects and things have ethics. She thinks we (as a craft community) could be more inventive in how we contextualize craft as well as be more conscientious about how things are sourced. She gave examples ranging from the Bamboo Bike Project to the Counterfeit Crochet Project, doing a great job connecting the dots of the many principles and values that comprise what we call craft. If I can get a copy of her last slide, I’ll post it – it’s very close to the map in my head when I think about craft.

Garth Clark gave the final talk of the conference, delivering somewhat of an evisceration of the craft world’s institutions (especially the ACC) – he has become known for his pull-no-punches assessment. Yet he also conveyed a renewed affection for the spirit alive in earnestly handmade work, sparked in him at Burning Man, surprisingly.

The main part of Clark’s lecture centered around contrasting two craft spheres, one which he refers to as “the palace” and the other “the cottage.” He described the years of 1980-1995 as “craft’s Versailles’s period,” an era dominated by high-priced, “pointlessly virtuosic” ojects d’art sold in rarefied venues to rarefied collectors. He contrasted this sphere to the cottage where, in his description, most crafters work and in which, he claimed, few in the ACC seems to care about. He advocated that we (the crafterati, if you will) become more engaged and concerned with grassroots making than mere aesthetics, and argued that paying attention to “the cottage” is what craft needs now more than anything. He pointed out that craft rooted in the cottage is what Eileen Osborne Webb had in mind for the American Craft Council to begin with.

Some in the audience thought Clark’s acerbic comments hurtful and unfair – and yes, he is rather like the craft world’s Simon Cowell — but I appreciated Clark’s ability to stir up the room, and took his comments with a grain of salt, appreciating the humor as well as noticing several important truths.

Sonya Clark (no relation to the prior speaker) concluded the conference with “Craft as Subject, Verb and Object,” a roundtable session based on a survey she conducted over the weekend. Garth Johnson, Lacey Jane Roberts, Andy Brayman and others joined her on the dais to share their reactions to survey results. (I will post the survey results if I can get them for you.) Her session made the point nicely that we are a composite of all that came before us both as individuals and as a community, and advocated that we do a better job of embracing our diversity.

Throughout the conference time for questions from the audience interspersed the sessions. One good question that came up twice and didn’t get adequately answered related to the fact that too often the only qualifying statement about why someone has selected a work of craft to use as a given example is that “it’s great” or “it’s beautiful.” Likewise, sometimes “she’s awesome” or “he’s great” are the sum total of qualifiers for a referenced artisan. I’ve thought the same thing and want to engage this matter more. I think there are clues in Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking Through Craft.

Another audience member asked, as craft proliferates without boundaries online, what should be done about “good/better/best?” This isn’t a bad question – aesthetics are a part of the larger conversation, but they are a part people didn’t seem ready to engage at the time.

Another question came up during Roundtable 1: What’s so threatening about DIY? One person said, “It’s like wanting civil rights and yet being homophobic.”

Several audience members tried to engage the subject of women and feminism in craft, but it never gained traction. This would be a good topic to follow up on next time. I wonder if there are any women’s studies scholars working on this topic?

The craft community seems to be craving engagement with more delicate topics like aesthetics and socio-economics. And the conference as a whole conveyed a sense of many craft communities meeting, getting more familiar with one another and finding common ground. I look forward to the conversations continuing!


Day 1 @ American Craft Council Conference

November 15, 2009

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….

Pictures from Minneapolis and the American Craft Council Conference

October 21, 2009
Detail of communal weaving by Kathryn Pannepacker

Detail of communal weaving by Kathryn Pannepacker

I have uploaded my pictures from the ACC conference and my afternoon exploring the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Park.

Not done writing up notes to share with you, but hopefully this glimpse into the weekend will tide you over!

I will say quickly that the conference was stimulating, engaging, and a great time for community building and bonding. I’m so glad I got to go — and present! — and will share with you more observations soon.

Look at the Flickr slideshow here, or if you prefer just the set page.

Going to Minneapolis for “Creating a New Craft Culture”

October 12, 2009

Spoonbridge_and_Cherry_Meet_Minneapolis_54924This coming Friday is Day One of the American Craft Council conference in Minneapolis. I just looked over the list of attendees — wowzers, what a crew!

The first conference I went to in 2006, a year after starting Greenjeans. I knew hardly anyone. I was going just to listen and absorb and learn, and report on it for Greenjeans Blog.

This year there will be lots of familiar faces and I’m going as a presenter — how much can happen over 3 years! But I’m still going to listen and learn — there will be a LOT of food for thought served up, to be sure.

Hopefully I’ll also meet some folks I only know through craft’s online community. There are many coming whom I admire and would love to talk with. Exciting!

I plan to explore the city a bit on Sunday. The Walker Art Center is on my list. Where else should I check out in Minneapolis — any suggestions?

Will be reporting here after the conference, natch. If you’re coming, safe travels and see you there!

Open Studios at Brooklyn Navy Yard – Saturday

October 7, 2009

This Saturday, Oct. 10, the Brooklyn Navy Yard opens its gates to the public for its annual open studios event.

It’s a great chance to explore one of the most mysterious areas in NYC, as well as to meet the scores of furniture makers, sculptors, and other artists and craftspeople who work in former military complex on the waterfront.

Evite_BNYArtsCheck it out!