The Making of Masters

The Making of Masters

Masters Illustration

Illustration by Federico Jordán

I have great respect for the black belts at my karate studio, and not just because respect is the order of the day in karate. (If a black belt critiques your back kick, the correct response is “Yes, sir,” even if the critic is young enough to be your grandchild.)

No, I respect these martial arts masters for the long, rocky road they have traveled – a journey, if my own brief experience is any indication, peppered with discovery and determination but also frustration and uncertainty. I’m a green belt; I’ve been at this painfully incremental learning for a year. The black belts have known a decade or more of it.

I thought about this as my colleagues and I crisscrossed the country interviewing the new inductees to the American Craft Council College of Fellows for this issue. Every other year, the ACC honors a handful of craft masters, outstanding artists who’ve worked in their mediums for at least 25 years and represent the best in their fields.

From our interviews, I’ve learned a lot about what mastery is – but also what it isn’t. For anyone who’d like one day to be a master – of karate, of fiber art, of anything – the Fellows’ insights are enlightening.

For example, mastery tends not to start with a bolt from the blue, a road-to-Damascus revelation of one’s true mission in life. Many of the Fellows stress the role of accident and luck in their careers. Recalling her first job, master weaver Sherri Smith says, “If I had been hired by somebody who printed fabrics instead of wove, I might have led a different life.”

Mastery doesn’t mean being in complete control of one’s art, either, as Anne Currier points out. The master ceramist was packing up a 40-year-old work for a show when she noticed a striking similarity to a more recent piece on the wall. “I like to think there is some evolution,” she says, but that isn’t what she saw. “Oh my God, Currier, you’re doing the same damn thing!” she realized, surprised to find she’s been riding the same, compelling visual wave for much of her career.

Nor does mastery mean feeling settled. After decades spent perfecting her art form, master ceramist Andrea Gill is still not convinced of her purpose. “I don’t know what my life’s work is,” she says. “I am always still questioning.”

What is mastery? From our Fellows, I’ve learned that it’s a kind of ordinary perseverance, day by day by day. “It’s just getting up in the morning,” Currier says, and resolving, “OK, go do that, go work in the studio.”

“I just show up and work,” says glass master Dante Marioni. And over time, that consistency has paid off. At age 48, he can “show up here in my glassblowing studio and just make what I want. It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty lucky.”

Mastery, wherever you are on the journey, means putting one foot in front of the other. And, as our Fellows exemplify, that can be the path to a pretty spectacular lifetime.