Writing: Isi Williams
‘I just don't think of craft as art.’
This was said to me about a week ago when I asked the person to critique my work, I think my exact words were ‘oo, do me!’ following us both discussing a friend’s work. I had been working on hand dyeing and spinning wool to weave with, which to me was a very exciting process. I do not know what I was expecting the answer to be when I asked him to critique me and really I was not offended that he was not a fan of my work. However, I was a bit surprised at that sentence. What surprised me more was that, as I was responding to him (a.k.a., telling him that I thought he was wrong), I started to realise how highly political that sentence is.
Craft is defined in many different ways but the general consensus seems to be that it is a skill of making or doing something with one’s hands. This to me seemingly describes art. Art is a skill of making and, if we strip it down to the basics, art is normally made with an artist’s hands. But of course the word ‘craft’ is not just a definition, it is a cultural word and it is mostly a word to historically describe women's art.
I recently attended a panel discussion which saw Richard McVetis, Forest and Found, Julie Arkell and Stewart Easton discuss the London art scene and craft’s place within that. What they all agreed upon was that, since the Anni Alber’s exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, the craft art they were making had shot up in value and interest. Anni Albers was an early 20th century artist who started with painting and continued it into her twenties where she studied under an impressionist painter called Martin Brandenburg. However, when she decided to finally go to art school (Bauhaus no less) the only workshop available to women was a tapestry workshop. Despite those restrictions put upon her, she flourished; pouring her painterly creativity into textiles and creating incredibly visually interesting pieces.
What strikes me about the story of Anni Albers is that it is not uncommon. Women have historically been cast out of artists circles and restricted in their creative outlets, sometimes even by law. Therefore, what is common is that women turned to domestic arts which, I would argue, today is represented by the word ‘crafts’. Things such as knitting, weaving, darning, embroidering and mending. The Tate Modern were ground-breaking by giving Anni Albers a solo show at a leading gallery in London. What they were doing was really breaking down what constitutes art and declaring (in Anni Alber’s words) that craft ‘may rise to the level of high art’.
The refusal to accept work made by craft makers into art circles can be linked to this idea of craft being inferior. This is again mainly because it is historically linked to women. Another crucial reason is that it is seen as inferior because it is made by normal people, people like me and you, and has never been appreciated by people in places of authority. In my opinion, giving the work less value also makes it more powerful. It is grass roots and it is the art of the people which became more of a statement with the flourish of craftivism. This is a recent phenomenon of craft being used by people, mostly women, to voice their opinion in a new way and bring art to activism.
The rush of popularity towards craft can also be seen as a response to the fast fashion and expendable culture that our generation has grown up in. We have grown up as ‘generation plastic’ and we are starting to see the effects of this on an international scale. What we do in our home and in our cities can affect what happens to ecosystems and even the atmosphere all over the world. Craft is something that directly challenges this system of dispensable items. It encourages the maker to use what they have and to fix what is broken. I think this idea is really accessible and coming back into popular favour - more of us are taking up knitting, crocheting and embroidering and men have a larger participation in craft.
I am sure that most people who are crafting in their homes may not feel this large shift in favour of crafts but as a textile artist, I feel it almost everyday. People’s opinions of my work seem not to be opinions of my work but opinions on craft. If someone does not like craft, they seem automatically to not look at my work, to not even consider or read it as an artwork. However, the progression of crafts is reaching a new level, where its place within the art world is becoming more elevated and people in places of authority are noticing more of the work we are creating. So take up knitting, crocheting, embroidering or darning and support sustainability, save the planet and do some craftivism!
*Image 1 is of my own work
*Image 2 is Anni Albers – Intersecting (1962) (crop)
*Image 3 and 4 is work made by Celia Pym
*Image 5 is Sheila Hicks - image of Campo Abierto (Open Field) (2019)