The Last Temptation of Craft

The last temptation of craft

Now that craftsmen have found the stage, it is important that they know the music, else the stage become a platform and platform a soapbox. There are two simple expressions that can explain one simple truth as regards the final seduction of the crafts: “You can’t have it both ways” and “If you sleep with dogs you wake up with fleas.”

As important galleries, collectors and museums awaken to the sleeping giants of clay, metal, wood, glass and textiles, the sweet morning light may not last beyond midday. The praise heaped upon craftsmen will lead many to assume that anything well made is a work of art (The Emperor’s New Clothes complex). Also, the converse is true – anything severely dysfunctional is art (The Fox and the Crow complex).

We as craftsmen stand in history like everyone else. What we make and how we make it must be judged in comparison with those before us. Can the most functional of craftsmen today compare their works favorably to the splendors of French Art Nouveau? And can the more inventive craft sculptors rightfully display their works alongside Rodin or Brancusi? The answer is obvious- for some yes, for most no: Albert Paley, yes; Rudy Autio, no.

And then there are those who think that a dinner plate holds equal sway with the Burghers of Calais. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways. Moreover, if the flattery of collectors and gallery owners leads you to believe that it’s appropriate to have your work in both the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog and in the Everson Museum, you will eventually end up with some strange bed bugs.

So much of the last temptation of craft had to do with respect, the lack of it and its misplacement, that it seems appropriate to end with a story illustrative of this basic human need.

A young man in his early twenties decided that more than anything in the world he wanted to be a potter. After studying ceramics in college he took an apprenticeship deep in the American Midwest, Wisconsin to be exact. There he swept studio floors, loaded kilns and mixed glazes for another potter, a pioneer in the field who earned, after 25 years, the right to be called a master.

The young apprentice worked day and night, jour apr’s jour, to learn all he could about the potter’s art. As his skill grew, so did his pride, and he remembered what an earlier teacher had said: “Give yourself two years and get good or get out; the last thing the field needs is more garbage”.

Now it happened that the callow but determined apprentice found himself alone in the studio one afternoon. The master, having taken the day off to be with his family, left a list of things to do, including a thorough clean-up of the studio and surrounding grounds. “Olaf is coming”, the note concluded.

After completing his chores, the young potter set about his own agenda – the bowl form. Of all of his burgeoning talents, the bowl was his favorite. By lunchtime he had thrown eighteen bowls and decided it was time for a break. Two ham sandwiches and three cups of coffee later, it was time for more work.

Coming down the lane from the apprentice cabin, the potter noticed a pickup truck with “Olaf’s refuse” written on the side. It was heading for the studio. The young apprentice rightly concluded that this was the sanitation service of the entire village. Olaf himself was at the wheel. A taciturn Swede Olaf didn’t say a word as he picked up the week’s trash.

The cash register was locked, the master having locked it himself earlier in the week, and the young apprentice had no means of paying the still silent Olaf. He thought, “I’ll give him my best bowl as payment and then maybe he’ll say something”.

When Olaf had finished loading everything into his truck the young potter presented old Olaf with the finest bowl he had made. Olaf took the bowl and tossed it into the back of his truck saying, “You’re supposed to put all the garbage outside.”