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, Santa Cruz from the Pogonip, 2002
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.