Many know curator and writer Glenn Adamson as a voice at the forefront of critical craft scholarship. With books such as Fewer, Better Things (2019) and exhibitions such as “Crafting America,” opening this month at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, he aims to help us all better understand craft’s integral and complex role in American life. With his new book Craft: An American History, available from Bloomsbury Publishing in January, he dives into history to study the central role makers played in the formation of our country’s identity. From his home in upstate New York, he shared what he learned while researching this expansive topic and what Americans, in this time of great change and social upheaval, can learn from our country’s interwoven craft histories.
What inspired you to write this book?
I suppose you could say it’s a book that I always expected to write, even when I was first getting into the field, or if I didn’t write it myself, I felt that it needed to happen. It’s striking that there hasn’t been a synthetic narrative about American craft from the beginning of the country to the present.
My sense was that the literature on American craft has been incredibly fragmented and that it would be very helpful to have a single narrative, even if people could then use it to talk about what is missing or respond to it critically.
Do you think that’s because handwork has been undervalued in America?
I might have thought that before writing this book, but actually I think it has been valued—just in different ways by different people, and they haven’t talked to one another. The most obvious example would be labor unions and the studio craft movement, which, obviously, has been synonymous with the American Craft Council and its history. It is beyond surprising that the ACC and labor unions have had virtually nothing to do with one another. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, maybe starting with class, and, of course, the art orientation of the ACC in the immediate postwar decades. But even so, you have to ask, how is it possible that the ACC never thought to form strong and lasting links with unions, which organized and thought of themselves entirely in terms of skill?
But if you go back in time, you see the same divides, often along divisions of immigrant versus nativist populations, and very much according to the politics of race and gender. The advocates of Black vocational education at the turn of the 20th century, such as Booker T. Washington, could not have had less communication with the leaders of the arts and crafts movement even though they were working exactly at the same time and to some extent to the same purpose. I wanted to write a book that considered all of these major narratives and showed how they were reacting to macroscopic historical forces.
That feels quite relevant considering America’s divided and divisive culture today. What was it like to discover so many parallels across people, movements, and time?
Craft is one of very few cultural phenomena that is shared across a wide section of the American population—regardless of political party, regardless of geography. Being “pro-craft” doesn’t necessarily commit you to a particular side of most political questions. It crosses over a lot of cultural battle lines, and I find that fascinating.
Was there a heyday for American craft?
Several, but of course it depends what you mean by “craft.” Before the industrial revolution, it was the only way of getting most anything done. In that sense, the heyday of American craft was up until the late 18th century. Many people have felt that the colonial era was a kind of halcyon, utopian, time – which, of course, it might have been for a few people, but not for most.
But then you have these other peaks: notably, the arts and crafts movement; the postwar studio craft movement, which then blurs into the counterculture; and then the last 20 years or so.
Craft is one of very few cultural phenomena that is shared across a wide section of the American population—regardless of political party, regardless of geography. ... It crosses over a lot of cultural battle lines, and I find that fascinating.
So would you say we are experiencing another peak right now?
Yes. But what you’re seeing is a peak in craft’s symbolic capital, rather than a peak in terms of craft’s actual prevalence in culture. It’s more like there’s a spotlight shining on it. You’re getting a much higher level of awareness and mediatization, but that doesn’t usually change the fundamental economic position of craftspeople.
One way to understand craft’s symbolic potency is that it is both critical and positive at the same time. It’s very often construed as a remedy, a corrective response to the industrial revolution or to various forms of social incohesion – or even of capitalism itself. And yet, as much as it has that oppositional stance, craft also can be understood as a generative, life-affirming, psychologically healthy, integrative force. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find too many parallels, where something is understood in terms that are simultaneously critical – very much “against something” – and also, kind of cuddly. [Laughs] To be critical and cuddly at the same time, that’s quite strange. If you’re a historian, just noticing the vibration that happens because of that duality is very interesting.
I’m thinking, too, of another duality: that craft is often seen as static, of the past, historical – and yet, it’s always been incredibly innovative and forward-thinking.
Absolutely. That’s something I talk a lot about in the book. It takes a lot of innovation to support a tradition, because traditions (to remain intact) have to navigate change. So even when you think it’s something that seems very backward-looking, such as the colonial revival, what you’re actually seeing is modern, novel, and inventive.
Likewise, if you think about something like prototyping in a factory, where you have a lot of craft skill being applied to something that’s explicitly forward-looking, those skills rely on a whole set of accumulated, inherited bodies of knowledge and, therefore, are going to have traditional traits as well. The kind of backward/forward, past/future orientation of craft is often very complicatedly self-involved.
How did you go about researching this book?
I was quite worried about that because it felt irresponsible—almost reckless—to try to write about so much history at once. But I found these seams of research, almost like seams of coal, that I could pick my way along. There are separate histories for separate trajectories—very strong literature on the labor movement in America, for example, or how amateurism is interwoven with gender—the “domestic accomplishments” of 19th-century women, for example. So there were these big freight trains of literature that I could jump on, and then it was basically a matter of crisscrossing them. I think that’s true of any big synthetic history: You’re essentially standing on the shoulders of people who came before you, most of whom looked at more focused case studies.
How did you organize the text?
I decided very early on that I was mainly writing about four groups of people: women (across class and across race), Native Americans, African Americans, and the white working class. The reason I chose those four groups is they make up the majority of American craftspeople over the long term. Also, they have had an urgent relationship to craft because craft has been the way of them literally keeping body and soul together.
A great example would be a pre-Civil War enslaved person: If you could somehow acquire skills in that situation, then you would literally be able to add decades to your life expectancy because you wouldn’t be worked to death in the fields. Anything that we experience today, in terms of what skill could bring to your life, just pales in comparison.
One way to understand craft’s symbolic potency is that it is both critical and positive at the same time.
What did you learn by reading so many research materials from different perspectives? Did it cause any shifts in your understanding of history?
So many. I’m trained as an art historian, not as a “regular old” historian. Learning about the politics of artisan communities of the 19th century, regardless of race, was a new thing for me, but I ended up writing a lot about it. Also, seeing the subterranean connections between things that I thought I did understand. An example is that Rosa Parks was effectively radicalized into the civil rights movement at Highlander Folk School, then a white-run, Appalachian craft school in the Southern Highlands. Today it’s called Highlander Center.
That’s fascinating. Can you tell us more?
In the postwar period, although it did retain a certain amount of activity in the revival crafts, this school also became one of the proving grounds of the civil rights movement. Parks was attending what were essentially small-scale political rallies there, and she was doing that just months before she went to her singular protest on the bus. She was a seamstress as well, so I was also very interested in her as yet another of these rebellious artisans. I was interested in the idea that Paul Revere, Rosa Parks, and the people who made the pussyhats are all very similar: Artisans using their own status and connections within the craft community to lift up their voices in various ways and fight against oppression.
And then there were other topics that were new to me but connected in interesting ways to things I knew well. I had curated a whole exhibition about Peter Voulkos in 2016, but it never occurred to me that close to his Southern California studio were the progenitors of the hot rod movement, whose work was being described in the same way as his ceramics: transcending function to become sculpture. I don’t think anybody’s noticed that parallel before, and that’s the kind of thing I was looking for throughout the book.
What do you think past craft movements can teach Americans today?
I think it is, again, in that area of cultural connection and shared ground. Craft is a way for individuality and community identity to be aligned because to master a trade takes years, and it’s in your body. So, just in terms of capability, knowledge, identity, it is very individualistic—to the point that it becomes tacit, instinctive. It’s so inscribed into you that you couldn’t even explain how you’re doing it. And yet, at the same time, it’s a badge and emblem, a passport into communities. Those could be geographic, like the town served by a blacksmith, or they could be quite dislodged from space, as in the more dispersed maker communities we now see online.
The intrinsically important thing here is that craft involves a strong sense of pride in individual accomplishment and, at the same time, a feeling that you’re part of something larger than yourself. I feel like that’s something we’re struggling with as a country—to balance the individual and the communitarian. Craft is a great way to do it.
We live in the age of social media, which is perhaps best defined by how quickly short statements and slogans are dispersed. The problem is that they often don’t reflect the complexity of thinking behind them. Is craft a possible remedy for that?
Yes, in the sense that craft is slow and expansive in time. But also, craft takes place at the scale of a whole life. So if you’re thinking about a way to find value that’s different from social media or other online platforms and their speed of delivery – that instant gratification – craft is almost a perfect example; you get the greatest value from it after years of investment. There might be certain achievements that you get along the way, after a month or six months, but it’s only when you actually have achieved high levels of skill that you start to be able to truly express yourself. And you learn so much about yourself in the process. I’m not speaking from personal experience because I’ve never invested that kind of time in a craft, but it’s very clear, when you talk to people who have, that it changed them utterly. They dedicated a large part of the short time they have on this Earth to their trade. What could be less oriented to the kind of reflexive, unthinking Twitter culture that we all inhabit?
Craft becomes this way of having a strong sense of pride in your individual accomplishments and, at the same time, a feeling that you’re part of something larger than yourself. I feel like that’s something we’re struggling with as a country—to balance the individual and the communitarian. Craft is a great way to do it.
What is one of the biggest takeaways from the complex history of American craft?
It’s funny, because when you write about a subject of this size, it starts to feel very narrow. You’re thinking, “What about Canada and Mexico? Why am I drawing this artificial line at the northern and southern borders?” And certainly, the story of American craft is very powerfully shaped by the story of immigrants and immigration. If you don’t understand what was happening in—take your pick—China, Scandinavia, Africa, how can you possibly understand the story of American craft? It’s just a tiny slice of global craft history, which probably could not be written in its entirety by one person. America is very porous and connected to other places.
Like seemingly everything else about America, it’s also fundamentally a story about race, and then, to a slightly lesser extent, a story about other forms of power divides, like gender and class. I think of Ken Burns’ documentaries—Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War, The Vietnam War—they’re actually all stories about race. And craft is, too. The whiteness of the American Craft Council’s history is pretty dismaying, when you think about it in that context. But it shows that craft indexes the same existential, spiritual, political problems that have bedeviled the country from the beginning. How could it be otherwise?
What did you realize about craft today from studying its history?
Because our publication date was pushed back slightly, I got to add a couple of pages about the pandemic. What struck me was how similar it is to previous moments. It reminded me of the way that craft was positioned during the Civil War. Even something as unprecedented as the pandemic has deep echoes back in time to anxieties about in-dustrial capacity, the symbolic versus practical uses of crafts, the idea that amateurs in a time of crisis step up and put their hands to work – all those things have precursors.
Recent events also made me think in a different way about the recent DIY-oriented maker movement. I learned about efforts happening in San Francisco maker spaces to create PPE masks and other forms of protective equipment. When you need a dispersed, highly skilled workforce, the maker movement is kind of ideal. It was able to rapidly shift into action and deliver handmade face shields to hospitals in very short order, in a way that the federal government wasn’t able to. It is also a reminder of how dangerous it is not to have any flexible, skilled manufacturing on your doorstep, which is obviously the case in a lot of America.
Another thing we’re seeing now is that everyone’s being forced back into their homes, and suddenly craft becomes this psychological anchor for people, like the sourdough bread-making and knitting going on everywhere. I, myself, have been making yogurt from scratch for the first time in my life. It certainly has a salvational element to it.
After writing this book, what role do you think craft might play in America’s future?
I think that the pandemic is going to lead to even more emphasis on local, autonomous, self-reliant makers in all sorts of areas: food supply, architecture and building trades, and the object-making fields that we all know and love so well. Surely, sustainability is going to have to be a part of that conversation.
Longer term, I think it’s hard to say because we just don’t know what the severity of climate change is going to be; we don’t know if there’s going to be another pandemic, even before we’re out of this one. There’s a presidential election coming up. There are a lot of turns in the road ahead, but I think craft will always be a partial solution—certainly not the full solution—and something we can rely on.
Do you think it’s easier to understand value through a well-made object than it is through a slogan or a motto?
Right. It’s easier to appreciate difference when it’s presented to you in the guise of craft.
That makes me think about how objects often serve as symbols for ideas and events, and thereby affect our understanding of history.
Yes. I think of [fiber artist and 2020 American Craft Council Fellow] Sonya Clark’s Unraveling project, in which she invites people to join her in unraveling a Confederate flag and sorting the threads by color. She’s taking a charged symbol and literally unpicking it. In a metaphorical way, she gives you a sense of what it took to make that symbol as potent as it is today and how hard it is to undo.
There’s this funny thing that she always says about the project: A participant will be standing next to her, unraveling the threads, and say, “Wow, this is really difficult.” And Sonya always responds, “Yeah, isn’t it?” It’s a material metaphor for the difficulty of both constructing and deconstructing powerful symbolism.
Who should read this book?
Well, I really want people who didn’t already care about craft to read this book. That’s my number one goal. I wanted to show that craft is a part of the histories that people may know already and to help them look differently at those histories.
For people who do already know something about craft, it helps to see the bigger picture; obviously, not the whole picture, because nobody could provide that, but I hope the book shows every reader that the things they care about already have precursors and counterexamples. The book gives you a road map for all of that. But I hope people don’t stop at reading at the end of the book. I hope they follow the footnotes. I hope they look into the artists I talk about, that they read more, that they go to the digital scans of Craft Horizons magazine [the precursor of American Craft] and read every single page because everybody should. Craft: An American History is meant as a starting place, not stopping place.
Craft takes place at the scale of a whole life.
As Sonya Clark says, “craft is like air,” meaning that it’s so ubiquitous you might not notice it—except when it’s suddenly gone. It sounds as if you want to help a broader public to recognize the craft around them. It may make up the atmosphere we live in, so to speak, but all too often we aren’t aware of it.
It’s hiding in plain sight. I also wrote about that in Fewer, Better Things, encouraging people to just walk down the street and ask, “How did all this stuff get here?” It can be totally transformative to find out. And the same is true of craft’s presence in American history.
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