In today’s fast-track, high-tech, drag-and-drop world, what inspires a person to choose a career in craft? More importantly, how do they go about acquiring the knowledge and necessary skills? What makes an established professional give up everything, mid-career, to take a 180-degree turn to the arts? What educational choices are available for people of all ages and stages of life who yearn to learn a craft?
Before you can create, you need to know how to create. There are those who are self-taught, and we all probably know someone who is. But there are also institutions with formal programs that bridge the gap from avocation to education, in high school, college, and at the university level, as well as apprenticeships and craft schools.
If you look for fluff in the curriculum of craft, your search will be futile. As with the great academies of the Renaissance, applying thought to materials demands a thorough grounding in the science of the craft, learning and perfecting the ability to work in a chosen medium. And, of course, the obvious: the artist’s ability to translate her or his creativity into objects both beautiful and meaningful.
Consider the Kansas City Art Institute, where professor Cary Esser goes beyond teaching skills and techniques to prepare her students for a career in ceramics by mentoring them as they evolve from raw talent to professional artists.
Cary Esser teaching her student at the Kansas City Art Institute
Truth be told, today’s trained and talented craft artist needs to be, in more or less equal parts, scientist, mathematician, and creative person. There are laws of physics, mathematical formulae, and chemical reactions to be reckoned with, mastered, and applied. And, in the challenge to achieve one’s creative vision, the craft artist is, more often than not, an inventor of process.
While historians believe the most beautiful books were the 15th century’s illustrated manuscripts, today’s practitioners of book arts achieve high levels of artistry on their own terms with limited edition works precision-created using computers, laser cutters, and unconventional materials – even old-fashioned printing presses.
Julie Chen, Personal Paradigms, Sibila Savage photo
Julie Chen, like many craft artists, came upon her skills serendipitously, intrigued by the medium’s language, equipment, and materials. Her “books” are often constructed as shells or boxes, or designed as playful sculptures meant to be assembled; each containing embedded messages to be discovered.
Chen works like a conceptual artist, allowing an idea to determine its form and content. To read one of Chen's books is experiential, at once literary and sculptural. "You could have pages, but they didn't have to be flat,” she discovered, “and they didn't have to behave like normal books." With that as her compass, she developed her own processes to deliver on her special vision.
Tom Killion, Bolinas Ridge Sunset, 2009
On the opposite end of the book arts spectrum is Tom Killion. Using a traditional hand-cranked press for his Japanese-style wood multi-block and lino-cut prints and books, Killion draws his inspiration from the California landscape and Mt. Tamalpais in particular, much as the Japanese master Hiroshige revealed the essence of Mt. Fuji. Killion’s process is nothing new; indeed, it is its very adherence to a centuries-old way that sets it apart from many imitators.
Looking forward while keeping one foot firmly planted in the past characterizes the North Bennet Street School. Founded in 1885, its original mission was to train people for employment in the crafts. Under Pauline Agassiz Shaw, the idea was to enable Boston’s immigrants to adjust to a new country through the skills needed to obtain gainful employment. And while helping new arrivals to America is no longer its criteria for admission, developing craft skills for employment is. Learning and perfecting the processes of cabinetry, violin making, bookbinding, and jewelry making, are just some that have taken their place in the craft catalog.
While there have been apprenticeships with master craft artists dating back to pre-colonial days, and can still be found today, the main responsibility of inculcating a process esthetic falls to our established schools of craft. Ever since Alfred University opened the doors of its New York State School of Clay-working and Ceramics in 1900, they have been our petri dishes of creativity, providing and sustaining an environment where process and imagination germinate and feed off each other.
Violin in-process at North Bennet Street School.
Schools, colleges, and universities offering craft programs will be found in remote corners of the least-populated states, and plunked down in the midst of the metropolis. Craft at the Cranbrook Schools start with Grades 1-12 and go through the college years. Rhode Island School of Design – RISD – proudly offers multiple craft curricula alongside architecture industrial design and digital media. In Honolulu, Punahou High School offers its students the only full-blown glass program at that level in America. And you’ll find world-class craft programs at American institutions such as Otis, California College of the Arts, and the School of American Craft at Rochester Institute of Technology.
Workshops – and places in them – are much in demand every year, in up or down economies. Waiting lists are common for seasonal sessions at Penland, Haystack Mountain, Arrowmont, and Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, to name but a few. Night schools and Y’s – even informal groups of friends – provide entry-level exposure to the personal satisfaction that can come from engaging in a craft. And provide the first step to a further commitment by young and old.
One Y in particular that fulfills this mission is located on the upper east side of Manhattan – the 92nd Street Y. Here amateurs, lifelong learners, and even professionals have been studying side by side during afternoons, evenings, and weekends for 75 years. Home for returning soldiers who took advantage of the GI Bill after World War II, the Y’s programs are often a step in process from amateur to full-fledged craft artist under the tutelage of New York’s most accomplished professionals in ceramics and jewelry making.
A children's shop class at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
And then there are the students of Dave and Roberta Williamson at Baldwin-Wallace College who comfortably straddle the Williamsons’ worlds of memory and process, as they learn fine jewelry making while being cognizant of (and drawing on) objects that recall a personal connection. Field trips to antique stores and flea markets – even personal voyages through items in their own homes from relatives of generations past – reveal remembrances of times past. When combined with the techniques the Williamsons impart, the students are left with a superb knowledge of their craft, coupled with a unique look back into their own lives.
Dave and Roberta Williamson, Insect Collection
Individually and collectively, America is rich with resources that afford an opportunity – be it for four years, six weeks, or a weekend – to learn the ways and whys of craft. Complemented by teachers who convey processes that have stood the test of time and represent new additions to the canons of craft.