Pin Cushions by Deborah Fisher.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Fisher

Six years spent in art school, four in undergraduate and two in grad school, made me never want to have a discussion about art versus craft again. This topic came up constantly when I was in school, especially in the fiber programs I was a part of. I spent those years making mixed media conceptual objects with a fiber sensibility. Basically, my work was art made from a variety of traditional craft materials. The art world thought of it as craft, while the fine craft world said it was art. The conversations grew circular and by the time I eased myself out of the whole thing about 10 years ago I was fed up with it all.

Since then, I balk whenever the topic comes up. I just want to make things, not analyze them. Still, I cringe at the use of the word ‘crafty.’ I grit my teeth at other parents talking about making ‘a craft’ at a birthday party and the like.

The word craft is used for everything from the work of highly regarded makers, such as Faith Ringold and Beatrice Wood, to hobbyists who sew, knit, make pots, turn wood, hammer iron, to the awful foam stickers that appear for the before-mentioned birthday party ‘craft.’ While none are less valid for what they are, there is a big difference.

And with that comes the devaluing of the sublime, and the minimizing of what we hold dear. So, why don’t we have different words?

My daughter went to a serious creative arts camp this summer whose core values were creativity, curiosity, grit, and craftsmanship. They specifically chose the word craftsmanship instead of craft because of the association with ‘arts and crafts’ that is often linked to summer camp. Art. Craft. We have two words to describe the entire world of creating with our hands?

The Difference Between a Princess and a Fairy.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Fisher

One word is simply not sufficient to hold all of the ideas that we associate with the word craft. Words do matter and it seems that we don’t have enough of them. It is in our nature to want to name things, so what other words could we use?

A quick search tells us that craft is defined as an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill or, skill planning, making, or executing. The word art is actually used within the definition of craft. All of this is hazy – maybe it is specificity that we need. A search for synonyms brings up words such as cunning, deceit, and fraud. That just seems to make things worse.

The Craft Industry Alliance newsletter linked to an American Craft Council article on the new television show “Making It.” The article itself comments on the use of the word craft. ”Offerman and Poehler referred to ‘crafting’ and ‘crafters.’ If we did that in American Craft, we’d get hate mail; the creative people we feature are ‘artists’ or ‘makers.’” This from a long standing, highly respected organization and magazine with the very word Craft in its name.

Tender (parts).

Photo courtesy of Deborah Fisher

Words show respect and it always seems that artists are held in higher regard than craftspeople. It can’t be the suffixes that create the issue. The artist certainly gets more respect than the crafter, but craftist is just awkward. If you are a maker, it is likely you have been called arty or artsy, as well as crafty, compared with Martha Stewart, or verbally patted on the head with a “well, it keeps you busy” type phrase.

A writer friend of mine, with nearly 20 published fantasy books for all ages, has the same problem. She thinks this is all about gender. Of course, in our work it is nearly impossible to escape the issue of gender, whatever gender you are. Recently, I received an email from a well-regarded art center showcasing a new exhibition of the work of Joel Otterson. In describing his work, they say, “Otterson’s art objects become hybrids of paradoxical forces such as high/low, hard/soft, and male/female. Objects from museum collections are juxtaposed with materials from personal home collections, presenting the viewer with dichotomies between art and craft, domestic handicraft and sculptural methods.”

If we can wade through all the ‘art speak,’ it seems that high, hard, male, and art all go together and low, soft, female, and craft all go together. I clicked through to the artist’s website. The artist’s statement says, “Utilizing practices such as sewing, and quilting, traditionally associated with feminine craft making, Joel turns these humble materials into muscular art. The artist blurs the line between high and low culture, art and craft to create poignant sculptures, which are both utilitarian and de-constructivist sculptural objects.”

Tender (heads).

Photo courtesy of Deborah Fisher

So, humble, feminine, low culture, craftmaking materials are turned into muscular art. The actual work aside (which is really quite interesting and beautiful), I feel beaten and exhausted by these words minimizing, yet again, who and what we are.

For myself, I have tried different names on for size. Artist, designer, craftsperson, maker. But maker, while it fits me just right, is terribly vague for the general public to grasp. So lately I find myself saying I am a ceramic and textile designer. I’m not happy with that either, but I am at a loss for what else to say. It also brings up more internal questions. Why do I say ceramicist and ceramic designer instead of potter? Am I really a textile designer, a sewing pattern designer, or a sewist, sewer, or seamstress?

The sad truth is that there is a hierarchy to words. What do other professions do? There are chefs, cooks, sous chefs, home cooks, bakers, pastry chefs. That collection seems to work well enough for them. The terms create an understandable picture of something that is named.

When we work with our hands, we are creating beyond words. Why should we need to use words to explain our work when it speaks for itself in more ways than words can? But that just doesn’t fly in a world where our work is minimized, disregarded, and dismissed. We need more words.

tools for if you are Afraid of the Dark.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Fisher

Travel Set.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Fisher

Deborah Fisher

Deborah Fisher

contributor

Deborah Fisher is a designer of handmade things, object maker, and idea generator. She makes charming sewing accessories, kits, and patterns, including handmade ceramic and wool pincushions. Deborah has a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. You can find out more about all of her projects on her website: fishmuseumandcircus.com and @fishmuseum on Instagram.

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