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….


Everything But a Unicorn: Jack Early at Southfirst

November 6, 2009

“[Jack] Early’s new installation is really a lyrical self-portrait, executed with patience and seasoned ability. In ‘Ear Candy,’ with its aesthetic appeal as well as substance, Early has created a deep surface through which to re-enter the world.”

Read the whole review on Hyperallergic!


A view of the Jack Early installation, photo by m. river via Flickr. Used with permission of the photographer.

American Craft Council Moving (Mid)west

November 6, 2009

Yesterday the American Craft Council officially announced it will be moving its operations — and its amazing library — to Minneapolis in July 2010.


For 66 years the ACC has been based in NYC, but in order to reduce overhead costs a midwest move was decided to be the most strategic option to ensure the long-term health of the organization.

While I think it’s a shame for NYC to lose this important craft institution, Minneapolis seems like a good choice — last month’s ACC Conference was held there — and hopefully spending less on rent will allow the ACC to do more great programming and outreach.

You can read the announcement here.

Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo

October 30, 2009
sam small

Sam and his son, the future NaNoWriMo writer, David.

I think it all started in 2003 when my friend Sam Hallgren sent me a NaNoWriMo tee shirt. I was reminded of this when I saw a new interview with Sam on the NaNoWriMo Blog today.

I was in grad school when Sam hipped me to NaNoWriMo (which stands for National Novel Writing Month) and I dove into the challenge of producing a full 50,000 word piece of unedited, mostly stream-of-consciousness fiction within the 30 days of November. I did it and wore that tee shirt with pride until the seams literally came apart. In fact, I remember wearing it the day I handed in my thesis.

The next year I did the NaNo again, finishing something even better, although still bad, that my sister read and found offensive (because the “fiction” wasn’t always all made up). My life as a marathon novelist was going great.

I made it only half-way through in 2006 before my time cramped up and I had to drop out. I’d had to skip the year before altogether what with starting Greenjeans and the wedding and all.

However, my character in 2006 has stayed with me ever since I dreamed her up in the days preceding the start of the challenge, November 1, 2006.

Three years later, although I’m busy as hell and already on the computer all day, I’m dying to know what this character is about and what she’s doing, and so I’m feeling compelled to log in and NaNoWriMo again. Besides, Sam’s doing it again too, and he has a kid, so what’s my excuse?

I am allowing myself a caveat: I’ve decided to do a half-NaNo this year, shooting for 25,000 words and FINISHING my story instead of starting afresh and going for 50k.

Maybe I’ll post some excerpts here as I go along… maybe that’s what Found Curve is for… (’cause I’m still searching…)

Anyone else out there taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge this year?

Knitta – Call for Submissions for New Book

October 22, 2009

Kniting tag spotted in Minneaspolis

Kniting tag spotted in Minneaspolis

Attention knit taggers!!!

Knitta Please has announced an open call for submissions. From their Facebook status update: “Knitta is working on a gallery-style book of knit graffiti projects around the world. If you’d like to submit a photo of your work, please email for more information about guidelines and specifications. Thanks!”


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.

Craft: Still a Dirty Word?

October 16, 2009
Jenny Hart's embroidered "logo" for the recent documentary Handmade Nation

Jenny Hart design for Faythe Levine's documentary

My first piece for the new art blogazine Hyperallergic posted last night!

The teaser: In an age of DIY transformations, Etsy domination and artisanal homemade chocolates sold at hip flea markets, is CRAFT still a dirty word? Brooklynite Amy Shaw reflects on her years of experience in the field and thinks about the world of craft in general.

It’s great timing, what with the American Craft Council conference happening right now and all. (More on that later… I’m sooo tired tonight and might not post ’til tomorrow.)

Read the whole article right here….

Congrats on the launch, Hrag!

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!

Good News – CPSIA Exempts Natural Products from Toy Testing Requirements

October 10, 2009

FRI-P-HelicopterLast year I posted a call to action on Greenjeans Blog about the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), a law hastily passed by Congress in response to the lead paint problem with toys coming from China.

There was great outrage at the law because it would have required all makers of toys and products for children to have their stuff tested, at considerable expense, no matter how small-scale and conscientious their operations. We were worried for our favorite toymaker, Frank Ridlely (whose Helicopter toys is pictured here), along with the thousands of other small workshops and home-based children-focused enterprises.

Today I received an update from Ridley. He writes, “It now seems that the Commissioners of the CPSC have decided to apply a
little common sense and exempt certain natural products, such as wood, from lead testing. This means that we can sell, and you can resell, our product line of naturally finished wooden toys without fear of violating the law.”

Great news! You can learn more about it here:
Check out this link, page 7, Table B.

Thanks for the update, Frank!

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!