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"The Things We Make, Make Us"
"The things that make us Americans are the things we make. This has always been a nation of builders. Of Craftsmen. Men and women for whom straight stitches and clean welds were matters of pride...As a people we do well when we make good things and not so well when we don't. This was once a country where we made things. Beautiful things. And so it is again."
- TV Commercial for 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Look around you - stop and listen. How many times a day do you see or hear a reference to something being "handmade"? What about "crafted" or "craftsmanship"? Now consider this: Many of these references are coming from industries outside the purview of craft.
At the American Craft Council Convening held at Penland this past October, we asked participants to think about this position of craft in our culture. The diverse group of artists, gallery owners, academics, curators, writers, and craft enthusiasts who gathered were asked to consider the "brand promises" of the field and to ponder its values, traits, and attributes.
The session opened with a showing of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee commercial quoted above. It's a timeline of images portraying America as a nation of makers - from highways to cars to skyscrapers to clothes. As these images slide by, a rugged-voiced narrator says, "the things that make us Americans are the things we make..."
If we, as a field of makers and people interesting in making, were asked to examine where craft stands in the eyes of the beholder or to articulate what craft's "brand promise" is, what would it be? The Convenings participants came up with a lengthy list of associated words and phrases, including honesty, integrity, ageless, meaningful, distinctive, embedded knowledge, a personal experience of making, shared connection, creative problem solving, "human connection, human scale," and "invention, innovation, integration."
The idea of branding, of course, can trigger negative associations. (What is branding? Is it even applicable to craft? Is craft the "anti-brand"?) And yet sectors of the craft world have done it well: The group discussed the indie craft scene as a study in embracing branding. Indie crafters are seen as "vibrant, accessible, young." The culture doesn't take itself too seriously, and has low barriers to entry - the opposite of how the Penland group described their experience of craft. Notably, indie craftspeople have taken control of their own image. They think long and hard about their individual identities, and, perhaps most interestingly, their brand is not imposed by anyone but themselves.
On the whole, the people at the gathering agreed that craft does have meaning - otherwise companies like Jeep wouldn't be using the concept to sell cars. And craft absolutely has something to give back; it's just up to craftspeople and craft enthusiasts to let that be known. To find ways to tell more stories about the all interesting stuff that is happening in field right now. And to communicate that things can be made in a different way – and that that's a good thing.
Want more? We've got you covered. Read the previous three installments from the ACC's October Convening at Penland: