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Opt In: The Power of Craft Thinking

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 1

Opt In: The Power of Craft Thinking

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 1
Craft Horizons first issue cover

This new journal, American Craft Inquiry, makes its debut at a moment of crisis and change, just as Craft Horizons did. In a divided country, what can we learn from the example of our predecessor?

In November 1941, a small magazine was produced from the headquarters of the Handcraft Cooperative League of America on East 54th Street, just upstairs from its retail shop, America House. The magazine’s cover suggested a mystery inside: With the league’s emblem, a stylized American eagle, perched in the upper left-hand corner, the central graphic feature of the cover design was a large, swirling red question mark. The first article addressed asked its new readers directly: “Do you know our name?”

This was the first issue of the long-running magazine that would eventually be known as Craft Horizons (1942 – 79), published today as American Craft magazine. The unorthodox approach of its debut runs contrary to most accepted wisdom of marketing and publishing today; instead of a focus-group-tested graphic identity, a coherent cross-platform brand, or an indelible editorial point of view, this intriguing publication opened its first issue by asking its readers for help:

This newly born child, our first effort at a publication, is nameless. Purposely so. We want our readers to feel it is their child as well as ours, and who doesn’t feel that they at least have a right to participate in the naming of their infant? Shall it be just plain Bulletin or Magazine or something fancy and “highfalutin”? Let us know.

It was a good question, one that reflected both the fast-changing reality of the war years and the post-war period, as well as the belief of the American Craft Council’s founder, philanthropist Aileen Osborn Webb (1892 – 1979), that craft should be participatory rather than isolating. In a sense, she wasn’t just asking how the magazine should be, but also how America’s craft community should take shape in the face of the country’s myriad challenges. It’s fitting, then, that this new journal, like its forebear, is making its debut in a fraught moment, as a highly controversial new administration has taken the reins of a politically polarized nation and our leadership role in the international post-World War II order has never looked more uncertain. It’s useful to remember that Webb came to craft not as a collector or a hobbyist, but through politics. In the 1920s, she was a vice chairman of the Democratic Party. During the Great Depression, she established a group in Peekskill, New York, called Putnam County Products, which helped local artisans sell their wares. In her unpublished 1977 autobiography, she explains: 

If it had not been for my prior political activities, I would never have been asked to serve on the Putnam County organization, which tried to stem the tide of unemployment. These were bad days. Veterans selling apples in the streets of New York, and strong men coming into the small office in Carmel, New York, and shouting as they banged on the counter, “I don’t want charity, but a job.”

There was nothing romantic or pastoral about it. Rather than idealizing craftsmanship, she recognized in her neighbors a kind of suffering born not just of poverty but also of joblessness, the feeling of being helpless, even irrelevant. Giving those veterans and counter-banging men a way to earn income, rather than charity, Webb created something like a hyper-local Works Progress Administration for the Hudson Valley. Friendly with the Roosevelts, she was a connector of people and a problem-solver, and steeped in her family’s adherence to a practical and unshowy form of noblesse oblige. From here, she established in rapid succession the Handcraft Cooperative League of America, then America House in 1940, then the magazine that would become Craft Horizons, then the American Craftsmen’s Educational Council (which would become the ACC), then the School for American Craftsmen in 1944, and finally the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1956 (now the Museum of Arts and Design). All of these enterprises, school, council, museum, and magazine alike, are structures in and upon which connections between makers, thinkers, curators, patrons, and writers can grow.

That first issue of the magazine has Webb’s can-do spirit all over it, and she drew from her rarefied circle to offer practical and inspiring content to her new readers. Society interior designer (and a director of Handcraft Cooperative League of America) Dorothy Draper penned a short essay called “What the Decorator Would Like from Arts and Crafts.” (What they “would like” turned out to be bright colors, objects sold in pairs, and much bigger table lamps.) Edgar Holger Cahill, the national director of the Federal Art Project of the WPA, contributed a lovely piece called “Unity,” in which he called for an embrace of the idea that fine art and craft were different manifestations of the same creative force that underlies human civilization’s greatest achievements; he singles out London’s Tate Gallery for special praise, noting how despite having been bombed, it continued to buy the work of contemporary craftsmen during World War II. There’s a practical article on how to market handicrafts by Alfred Auerbach, the editor of Retailing Home Furnishings, a roundup of local guilds called “Craftsmen: Meet Your Neighbors!,” and from Marjorie Johnson, a dreamy essay on raising Angora rabbits in Vermont to make yarn.

Craft Horizons first issue

As yet unnamed first issue of Craft Horizons, 1941

ACC Archives

The most provocative article in the issue, “What Is a Craftsman?” came from Richard F. Bach (1888 –1968), an associate in industrial arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An advocate of craft therapy for veterans and arts programming for underserved neighborhoods, Bach believed that craftspeople should embrace new techniques, materials, and industrial processes rather than being put off by their novelty. He was excited about the possibilities that industry afforded the arts, and he entreated his readers not to eschew larger-scale production facilities, conveniences like premixed slip or glaze, or the use of assistants just because the cherished, medievalized image of a craftsman (a dubious inheritance from our Victorian predecessors) suggested that makers should work alone in a picturesque, candle-lit, pre-industrial setting. Electricity, steam and motor power are all tools, Bach argued, and no barrier to craftsmanship, which, rather than the literal making of an object by hand, he defined as control over the making of an object beginning to end. “It would be well to remember that a craftsman is not a holy hermit of art,” he writes, “bound to wear a halo in the hereafter because he is a craftsman.” Bach’s message complements Webb’s desire to use craft practice to address community-wide problems that are bigger than any individual. Holy hermits can only do so much on their own.

Though we’re used to encountering things like glaze recipes, YouTube tutorials, knitting patterns, and how-to instructions as didactic materials in which the flow of information only goes one way, it’s useful to consider that “how-to” can also be posed in the form of a question. How can we make the richness of craft’s history and contemporary practices available to as many Americans from different backgrounds as possible? How do we use craft to connect with people whose politics make us want to run for the nearest exit and become devout holy hermits? How do we keep our focus on the work that sustains us when the country seems to be unraveling before our eyes? This rhetorical stance, the willingness to turn certainty into inquiry, “how-to” into “how to?”, is one way that we in the craft world can respond to tumult and upheaval.

Neither the Putnam County Products, nor any of the craft-related initiatives that followed, were genteel hobbies: they were Mrs. Webb’s response to crisis. During the Depression, she saw poverty and crippling market conditions and believed that offering philanthropic support, not just in the form of money but also in the creation of a network of patronage, was a concrete way that she could leverage both her wealth and social influence to help those in need. In turn, in the first issue of her new magazine, asked her readers for ideas, and return, it offered them articles offering their insights about what the marketplace wanted from makers, how they could think and talk about their work, market it, and how it could sustain them financially and personally, even spiritually.

One of the open-ended questions posed at the ACC’s “Present Tense” conference in Omaha in October 2016 concerned the role of the craftsperson in public life. Knowing that many are drawn to craft’s soothing and meditative practices, it has long been (realistically or not) a symbol of retreat, both literally and metaphorically, symbolizing an imagined simpler time and offering a respite from new technologies and present dilemmas. In times of crisis, do we have an obligation to effectively emerge from retreat – if indeed we were there to begin with? Or is our value in the fact that we keep going, undeterred? In American Craft Inquiry, emerging as our country enters uncharted waters, we will offer a sustained response worthy of our heritage by using language as a craftsman would, with reverence for our material, accepting Mrs. Webb’s invitation to exchange wisdom and ideas. We will problem-solve together, never assuming that we know the single way “how to.” Problem-solving, like all compelling endeavors, begins with inquiry.

As I write these words in the second week of the new Trump administration, the rancor is palpable. This new president, whose conflicts of interest, demonstrated racism and misogyny, and contempt for democratic norms have been on full display since his campaign began, is by turns lauded and vilified by the citizens of the country he now leads. It is fair to say that educators, craftspeople, and artists fall predominantly (but not exclusively) into the critical camp, and the vivid colors and textures of an array of craft practices, from sign-making to puppetry to knitting and crocheting, have been appearing each day on our computer and television screens. Activists – many of them sporting knitted pink “pussy hats” – marched in record numbers on Washington, DC, New York City, and scores of other cities and towns across the country and the world. The #J20 Art Strike inspired cultural institutions such as the Queens Museum to close for the day, while others, like the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Contemporary Art, were offering free admission or special programming designed to foster meaningful conversation and buoy spirits.

Meanwhile, alarming headlines appear daily: The Trump administration would like to abolish the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; tens of thousands of Americans – scores of artists and craftsmen among them – stand to lose their health coverage thanks to the administration’s desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act; and families all over the world have already been affected by the executive order banning entry into the United States by citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations. (At this writing, there is a temporary stay on the ban.) Though we seek art in part because it offers a counterpoint to the challenges and frustrations of daily life, it is impossible to separate the mechanics and institutions of the arts from politics when our colleagues, families, and friends bear the impact directly.

All of this raises the question of whether museums, colleges and universities, galleries, maker spaces, and craft organizations can credibly toe the line of neutrality. Even for the most actively non-judgmental among us, “neutrality” in the face of obvious bigotry is difficult to justify. Most of us with close ties to the American Craft Council – inasmuch as it is American – are not just crafters, writers, thinkers, or artists – we are also citizens. During the formative years of the ACC, just prior to the end of World War II, American colleges and universities began incorporating craft practice into their curricula where the landscape of instruction had been dominated by apprenticeship and vocational programs, guilds, and small studios. This dramatic shift was powered by the support of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, and in addition to transforming the cultural footprint of craft, it also introduced it into a lively intellectual ecosystem.

In the Classical world, the disciplines that formed the basis of a liberal arts education were those believed essential to successful participation in public life, which was the right and duty of every citizen – every free (libera) person. While craft techniques and other practical skills were largely the domain of ordinary people and slaves, skills like rhetoric – the art of public speech – and a knowledge of economics, politics, history, and philosophy, were considered indispensable intellectual training for a life of civic engagement. The United States is sharply divided politically and economically, but we are not subject to classification as patricians and plebs. Craft can lure us into a soothing disconnection from the anxieties and complexities of our lives, and indeed, we need for it to do that. But citizenship and craft are also complementary. We need not opt out of public life, debate, disagreement, and even protest in the interest of pursuing our common interests. There may be Americans on opposite sides of the political spectrum who have only one or two things in common, and one of those things may well be a love of yarn or woodworking. We should use those commonalities not to “craftwash” and paper over our differences, but to inquire and engage. In a recent blog post, Betsy Greer, the author (and phrase-coiner) of Craftivism: The Art and Craft of Activism, elegantly summarized the feeling of beginning something with the clear knowledge that a project will be difficult, and a long time in the making: “to stitch is to start.”

Sarah Archer is a writer and curator based in Philadelphia, and American Craft Inquiry’s contributing editor.

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