Monday, October 23, 2006

After the Conference: An Overview (or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the word "craft")

First of all, welcome new readers! If you'd like to see what this blog is about, click here for a hyperlinked list of highlights.

What an intense, stimulating, and mind-opening couple of days it has been! I returned home last night from the American Craft Council's conference "Shaping the Future of Craft," and though I'd only been gone since Thursday, I feel as though I've been on a long retreat. For me, the conference was a sort of mental and social craft boot camp where I met scores of new people, learned a great deal about the history of American craft and the thinking surrounding it, and absorbed tons of new-to-me ideas and perspectives. It will take time to process it all, and even longer to integrate some new ideas into Greenjeans, but today I wanted to record some first reactions and offer an overview of the experience.

The conference, held in dubious downtown Houston at the well-serviced and persistently air-conditioned Hilton Americas, was attended by 250 of the country's craft leaders -- practitioners, educators, curators, writers, collectors, dealers, and others whose vocations deal with craft. (That's me, Amy Shaw, at the left, in front of the faux-draped walls. Thanks Andy B. for taking my mug!) Organized around seven excellent panel presentations and a number of elaborate sit-down meals (including a deeelicious Texas barbeque), the two-day affair ran a dramatically broad gamut: from keynote speaker Martin Puryear describing his uncertainty about speaking before a craft-minded audience since he isn't a craftsman but a sculptor, to David McFadden, Director of the Museum of Arts and Design (formerly the American Craft Museum) arguing that we live in a post-disciplinary age in which all the arts are now integrated and we must therefore move beyond the baggage-laden words art, craft, and design.

Some people spoke in simple terms about materials and processes, and others spoke in the mind-bending language of scholarly theory extending the notion of craft to distant strata. No matter what the message, though, everyone spoke with passion, reflecting a great deal of care for the matter of craft, even if there seemed to be as many ideas of how to frame that subject as there were name badges.

And when it all got to be a bit too much, we’d take a break and go into the lobby for coffee and to admire the real stars of the weekend: the fabulously costumed young attendees of the anime convention being held next door! (See photo at top.)

Overall, the conference successfully provided a forum to shake things up and re-examine assumptions. Those attending could raise issues, argue positions, learn new approaches in thinking, build fellowship, and open their minds. There was even distribution of a manifesto! Things sometimes got marvelously heated, and as with a good class there never seemed to be enough time to hash out all the angles. I think we all left hungry, and that is great. In a nutshell, the ACC did a brave and valuable thing creating this conference, and I think most everyone there is grateful to have had the experience. I know I certainly am. (Thank you a million times again, Miss Lily Kane!)

In forthcoming blog posts, I plan to address a bunch of issues and ideas raised at the conference including:

:: The notion that the word "craft" may be more successful when used as verb instead of a noun
:: The relationship, if any, between craftsmanship and craft
:: What comes first: the idea or the work?
:: Why does Egyptian or Asian pottery qualify to museums as "high art," but not contemporary pottery? What's the difference between old and new craft?
:: Branding and the craft economy
:: How does craft impact community, geography, ecology, politics, peace/war, and economy? How can craft be harnessed as a force for change?
:: Craft and the notion of heterotopia
:: Craft as slow activism and a means of resistance
:: How can one make a living with craft?
:: Does craft have any boundaries? If so, where do we draw the lines?
:: What about beauty?
:: How do we keep craft from being mediocre fine art?
:: The ability of a single craft area, like lace-making, to gather multiple issues (gender, socioeconomic, labor, geopolitical, etc.)
:: Craft as inherently collaborative, radical, and subversive of the status quo

Despite numerous suggestions that this question is a moot point, I am also still interested in the question "what is craft?" and will continue exploring it as well. I think it's a relevant question, and the answer that such a question holds no meaning does not satisfy me at all. I think the definition of craft is plural and multifaceted and perhaps at times contradictory, and I think "craft" is strong and malleable enough to be such.

My mind is abuzz and I can hardly wait to write more, but this is enough for now. I will close with one final thought offered by Andrew Maydoney over drinks with Dennis Stevens and me Saturday night after the conference closed. It's a point that wasn't really addressed during the conference itself but I think resonates with anyone who is drawn to craft, no matter how it looks or where it is made or seen:

Craft is a way to reconnect with our senses and thereby with our humanity.

That isn't the whole story, of course. But it certainly is the beginning. And it might also be the end.

Dennis Stevens & Kiwon Wang (jewelry maker) at post-conference reception

Andy Brayman (The Matter Factory), Alleghany Meadows (Art Stream, Harvey Meadows Gallery), & Sam Harvey (Harvey Meadows Gallery)

Andrew Maydoney, Carolyn Alper (ACC Trustee), & Kiwon Wang at the post-conference reception

The crowd settling in for more listening

1 comment:

David Richardson said...

Thanks for the list of issues Amy. I haven't even looked at my own extensive notes - too busy reading the blogs. Nice to meet you in Houston and hope to see you in Brooklyn sometime.

David Richardson

blogging for the Furniture Society at FS After Hours