Modern Craft and the Philanthropic Endeavor
Modern Craft and the Philanthropic Endeavor
From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 2, Issue 2
If craft can be defined as highly skilled handwork, then it has two forms of practice in the 21st century. The first is characteristic of intensive hand-eye performative labor at low wages in industries yet to be completely automated. The second pertains to producing and restoring luxury goods for wealthy consumers, or merely for one’s own pleasure. Certainly, the rich variety of crafts and craft production fall onto a continuum stretching between these poles, yet from the perspective of those seeking a career in craft, all are constantly subjected to pressures exerted by low-wage labor and mass production. Despite our familiarity with these distinctions in matters of utility and taste, we often ignore the sociology of crafts and makers in the reproduction of these objects and values. This failure to appreciate the role of craft labor creates a dilemma for the philanthropist committed to the perpetuation of handwork traditions. What sense does it make to encourage careers and foster aptitudes in a precarious trade if the maker cannot survive in a global economy? What outcomes can the philanthropist expect in funding crafts devoted to the nearly exclusive production of bespoke goods for consumption by millionaires? Are we betting on the promise of recognition and a more fulfilling lifestyle for those inclined to handwork? Is it perhaps an even higher-stakes gamble to bet on the future of craft as creative labor freed from the tyranny of markets? Or are we reinforcing an economy of personal dependency, a return to the days when craftspeople required commissions by wealthy patrons?
As the co-founder of a philanthropy committed to the exclusive mission of perpetuating crafts traditions in America, I will draw on some recent experiences to illustrate this dilemma and, I hope, engage a debate about the way forward.
INTRODUCTION: AN EXAMPLE OF TRADITIONAL CRAFT
“We need the International Yacht Restoration School to teach these skills to young people. Who else will look after our beautiful boats?” asked a woman speaking to approximately 150 guests at the New York Yacht Club. Located in Newport, Rhode Island, the school’s curriculum features a two-year course in wooden boatbuilding and restoration, in which students learn the basics of yacht design and how to handle traditional materials using tools of the trade. Each year the school acquires six salvaged 12-foot Beetle Cat sailboats to be rehabilitated by students, working in small teams under the guidance of experienced marine engineers.
IYRS also offers courses in marine systems and composite technology, but it was the school’s wooden-boat building and restoration component that led our foundation to solicit their proposals for annual tuition support grants. The refurbished Beetle Cats are simply beautiful, their reconstruction apparently flawless to the uninitiated eye. The school auctions them for about $17,000 apiece to raise money for the next class to follow their peers into the craft. No matter how skilled they are, boatbuilders can almost never accumulate the necessary capital to purchase their own workshop. Instead, they become craftsman-laborers, maybe someday building their own dream boat over weekends and holidays. Always there will be more journeymen setting out, driving wages down to subsistence levels. Despite these boat builders’ unparalleled expertise, they usually remain hired hands whose fortunes fluctuate to the syncopated rhythms of Wall Street’s midwinter bonuses. Nevertheless, the invigorating salt air, the sound of creaking wooden joints, the aroma of a freshly planed board, and other sensations continue to beckon young people to a quest of self-actualization through boatcraft. And today the Ddora Foundation is supporting those young people with tuition grants to the IYRS.
Similar enchantments constitute the allure of other crafts, from the Promethean heat of a blacksmith’s forge to the perfume of dried flax hackled into linen thread. Masonry, timber-framing, cabinetry, violin-making, basketry, weaving, bookbinding, pottery, woodturning, and stonecarving – each activity has its own appeal, which we set out to discover and support in chartering the 501(c)(3) Ddora Foundation in 2007, a foundation designed to support endeavors in the fine and applied arts.
With our professional backgrounds in the fine arts and anthropology, our staff marveled at the artistry of, for example, the Gee’s Bend quilters of Alabama, with their cooperative methods and repurposing of worn-out clothes into heirloom textiles embodying the culture and history community. These quilters epitomized to us the meaning of modern craft, creating as they did possessions of immense beauty and personal memory. Although these unique pieces were sold to collectors and featured in museum exhibitions, the bidding and commerce could not detach them from the souls of their makers.
If similar crafts were to continue to thrive in the shadows of mass commodity production, we knew we must identify those worthy of support from the philanthropic community. To get the ball rolling, we visited crafts schools to observe students and their instructors at work, assess their needs, and solicit proposals for support.
Among the craft traditions we researched and funded over the years were Appalachian crafts, Mardi Gras Indian beadwork, Rumford fireplace construction, New England cabinetry and furniture making, colonial masonry and building arts, violin-making and repair, Byzantine bookbinding, wooden boatbuilding and restoration, and Swedish textile arts.
We encountered, however, mostly puzzlement and incomprehension from arts consultants at other arts philanthropies, which were mostly interested in the performing arts. Moreover, large foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, NEA, and the NEH tend to support media technology to the detriment of handwork. Technology entrepreneurs favor digitization of the arts and the introduction of electronics into their production and promotion. Today, a passionate instrument maker is more likely to get a grant for writing code to synthesize woodwinds than for learning how to construct an oboe.
Nevertheless, we ultimately got help from the Association of Small Foundations (ASF), an executive of which introduced us to an attorney experienced in the nonprofit world, the late David Seaman, whom we eventually invited to join our foundation’s board.
Another source of valuable advice came from Bruce Payne, executive director of the Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation, who had helped launch the Rubin Museum of Art dedicated to the collection, display, and preservation of the art and cultures of the Himalayas.
Given the prospect of finding original crafters comparable to the Alabama quilters, he surmised that if they were organized at all, they would probably not be qualified to receive money from a nonprofit. The solution, Payne counseled, was for us to use our funds to help craft groups incorporate as nonprofits.
THREE ATTEMPTS TO SUPPORT TRADITIONAL AMERICAN CRAFTS
LOW COUNTRY BASKETMAKING
Dale Rosengarten, an anthropologist who curates the Special Collections in the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston, and a connoisseur of Low Country basketry, organized a site visit for us in 2009 to Charleston, South Carolina. These local basketmakers are descendants of the Gullah people, escaped slaves who settled in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and preserved some African cultural and linguistic traditions. Coiled basketweaving was part of the cultural life imported from Africa and adapted to local conditions and materials, including the use of sweetgrass (seagrass) and bulrush reeds.
From the mid-20th century until recently, individual basketmakers sold their work from small booths along Highway 17 running north of Charleston. There are also about 10 basketmakers who ply their wares in the old colonial market in downtown Charleston. The craft is dominated by women, the most famous of whom, Mary Jackson, received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Her work is collected by local museums and prominently showcased at the Charleston airport.
Jackson’s career, however, is an exception to the precarious existence of contemporary Low Country basketmakers. Their work is time-consuming and the raw materials have become harder to cultivate. Prices for their baskets are therefore very high, and they find it impossible to compete with sellers of imported knock-off baskets in downtown shops.
We traveled to South Carolina hoping to understand how the foundation might assist in perpetuating the craft. Rosengarten introduced us to some of the basketmakers and brought us to a board meeting of their nonprofit group, the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association. Their discussions focused on the problem of beach erosion and the dwindling supply of seagrass. We asked about production, quantity, sales locations, and prices. Competition for tourist dollars at the downtown market is quite stiff, we learned, and there is apparently an unspoken hierarchy among the sellers. Making things worse, the Great Recession was threatening the very existence of this craft. The basketmakers feared that their children would not take up a practice with so little economic reward.
Rosengarten also arranged for us to meet with representatives from the McKissick Museum (University of South Carolina) and the Avery Center for African American Culture (College of Charleston). Two strategies for collaboration emerged from our conversations. We could support institutional efforts at Avery or McKissick that were several steps removed from the actual manufacture of Low Country baskets, or we could channel money to the makers by supporting their extended community. Rosengarten wrapped these two strategies into a single proposal, suggesting that the foundation might underwrite a series of educational programs at the University of South Carolina and simultaneously two summer camps for children, one run by the basketmakers’ nonprofit, the other by the Avery Center. Interspersed throughout these projects would be basketmaking demonstrations and instructions for eight- to 12-year-old children. While modest in financial terms, the proposal was overwhelming in its scope and expectations and left questions about its intended audience. Essentially, the foundation was being asked to fill a gaping hole left by government neglect and social disempowerment. If this was the price of resuscitating basketmaking culture, then our mission was too narrowly defined and our treasury too limited to meet the goals established by the community.
Not wanting to abandon the quest altogether, we countered with a proposal to create and endow a faculty chair in Low Country basketry at the College of Charleston. The foundation would provide an annual salary for a position, to be filled on a rotating basis by peer-selected basketmakers in consultation with Rosengarten and the Avery Center. We would also build a basketmaking studio open to all students at the university. This formula, we hoped, would function as a direct grant to the craftswomen and satisfy the mechanics of grant administration and reporting through the agency of the university. The one-year rotating appointments would help basketmakers qualify for faculty benefits, thereby guaranteeing each recipient and her family nearly three years of health care coverage. Finally, we hoped that by offering a course in Low Country basketry to the entire student body, we might spark a demand for more courses in Gullah culture. Given our limited resources, we thought this was an economical plan designed to address the basketmakers’ basic needs while satisfying our mission.
The response was negative. The Avery Center was unwilling to ask the college administration to create a faculty position for individuals who may not have baccalaureate degrees. Also, there was some concern about safeguarding the exclusive lines of craft transmission within the Gullah community.
The idea of excluding access to craft knowledge on ethnic or racial grounds posed a moral dilemma. Can a social group lay claim to a given craft and allow it to disappear by refusing access to outsiders? We did not think this was a wise policy. To counter inequalities in teaching and disseminating knowledge by withholding one’s own knowledge seemed antithetical to the foundation’s very mission of crafts preservation. We were disappointed to be unable to help stave off the extinction of a 300-year old Low Country tradition. Beach erosion has cost the weavers a free, common source of the once abundant seagrasses they used to weave their baskets. An interstate superhighway, I-526, built for tractor-trailers and through-traffic, has isolated the community and left its roadside stalls to fall into disrepair. These worthy examples of vernacular architecture once served as open-air workshops that invited tourists to pull over, browse, and negotiate a purchase. Now they appear dilapidated and forlorn, sporadically occupied by the older weavers. Even if their grandchildren have acquired the craft, they understand there are no longer enough motorists to sustain their work, and there is no craft revival on the horizon.
MARDI GRAS BEADWORK
In 2012, foundation members traveled to New Orleans to research the craft of Mardi Gras Indian beadwork. Mardi Gras “Indians” are black carnival revelers, who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel. Collectively, their organizations are called “tribes.” The elaborate costumes worn during Mardi Gras and Second Line marches reflect a possibly Creole tradition of indeterminate origin. Participants have reinterpreted Native American beadwork as the signature of uptown tribes, distinguished from downtown tribes whose fashions are adorned mainly with feathers.
Uptown beaders work year-round on their costumes to compete for the title of “the prettiest” during the raucous Mardi Gras ceremonies. Behind the pageant lies a season of intense and often secretive crafting to develop original themes for the ceremonial dress of chiefs and their retinues. Absent public sponsorship, individual beaders invest considerable time and expense in quest of the prestige associated with winning or defending the “prettiest” title.
New Orleans is a rich setting for the exercise of such performances, when the working poor can assert their membership in the city’s cultural order. Competitive dressing designed to overcome social anomie has been characterized by one anthropologist working in a similar setting as the “political economy of elegance.”2 Chief lineages such as Yellow Pocahontas, established by the late Tutti Montana, maintain their exalted status by transmitting the craft through the generations. Montana’s modest house in Tremé has become a private museum in which his widow curates a rotating displaying from among dozens of his beaded costumes. Their son, Daryl Montana, has his own workshop and is always in the thick of Mardi Gras Indian competitions.
Like many other New Orleans traditions, however, the craft suffered a heavy blow from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although Mardi Gras continues to thrive, we learned that residential displacement, the breakdown of public education, and youthful infatuation with high-tech gaming threaten the craft’s future. We spoke with Daryl Montana and Chief Walter Landry of the Black Mohawks about the difficulty attracting young people to learn their craft and eventually funded them to jointly conduct a Mardi Gras Indian summer-intensive workshop under the aegis of the Xavier University arts department.
The results were disappointing. A separate grant from the Arts Council of New Orleans did not arrive on time, forcing us to shorten the program from 12 to six weeks. The proposal anticipated recruiting about 20 youths from 10 to 14 years old, but attendance was so sparse that administrators had to fill the workshop with children of the Xavier faculty and staff. This confirmed our trepidations about experimenting with community-related craft projects.
TRADITIONAL HAWAIIAN BARK CLOTH
Yet another example of the obstacles we have encountered in offering support to independent crafters arose when we looked into supporting the production of kapa, traditional Hawaiian bark cloth. Our interest was sparked by reading an obituary for Puanani Kanemura Van Dorpe (1933 - 2014) “who helped revive the ancient Hawaiian art of kapa cloth-making and became a leading authority on the subject through many years of exhaustive self-study and experimentation.” Kapa production had disappeared entirely from Hawaii until Van Dorpe learned the methods during an extended residence in Fiji during the late 1960s. She then spent a decade studying the prized collection of kapa at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum and experimenting with production and dyeing techniques. Van Dorpe also commissioned local artisans to fabricate traditional kapa tools. Credited for single-handedly reviving this lost tradition and inspiring a new generation of kapa-makers, Van Dorpe was declared “a Living Treasure of Hawaii” in 1991.3
The obituary led us to Fred Kalani Meineke, Van Dorpe’s friend and collaborator, who had guided her research in the Bishop Museum. His initial response was quite positive, and he told us he would be meeting soon with indigenous apprentices and artisans to encourage them to apply for research and teaching grants from the Ddora Foundation. A month later he told us that he had distributed our information. But the subsequent absence of any follow-up applications testified to outright resistance to the influences of external groups on the craft. It appeared that even with the assistance of Meineke, it was problematic for a few devoted craftsmen to suddenly acquire recognition and cash from the mainland. What type of social disruptions might that provoke in the small network of Puanani Kanemura Van Dorpe’s apprentices?
CONTINUING EFFORTS TO SUPPORT CRAFT
While we still continue to research worthy craft traditions, our foundation has decided in the meantime to concentrate on soliciting grant applications from select American craft schools. We have conducted preliminary site visits in each field to determine which programs are relevant and have robust enrollments. We have also participated in weeklong training sessions, one in Appalachian basketry at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, and another in Rumford fireplace construction at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, Vermont.
JOHN C. CAMPBELL FOLK SCHOOL
Operating since 1925, Campbell is an example of the Danish folkehøjskole (folk school) movement dedicated to preserving rural traditions in the face of industrialization. Craft offerings include basketry, jewelry, metalwork, woodturning, textile arts, and blacksmithing. The catalogue has evolved into a Whole Earth cornucopia of crafts offered in classes ranging from weekend intensives to nine-week residencies. Students range from college-age to retirees. A work-study program (groundskeeping and kitchen work, mainly) and a scholarship endowment provide tuition supplements for eager yet cash-strapped crafters.
Following discussions with the director, we began inviting grant applications to benefit work-study students, hoping that this group would be made up of younger learners embarking on alternative careers in craft. We are collecting longitudinal data to understand if scholarship recipients are able to find employment geared toward their chosen craft. With sufficient demographics, we hope someday to gain additional support from larger foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller.
Three years later, enrollment was still trending toward older students, including middle-aged work-study grantees, a trend we interpreted as a reflection of the uncertain economic recovery. Although we do not minimize the desire of middle-aged and older persons to learn craft, we continue to be more interested in supporting young people, who often are at loose ends career-wise and thus exposed to tremendous risk of failure without the protection of a social safety net.
We proposed to redress this demographic and economic imbalance by funding a two-year outreach experiment to promote the school at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. The folk school set up a booth at the festival, with videos of its craft classes. An expert woodcarver demonstrated his skills, while catalogues and raffle tickets were distributed in exchange for mailing information. The results were dismal: from a thousand sign-ups each year, the school received only a handful of follow-up inquiries and no applications for enrollment.
YESTERMORROW DESIGN/BUILD SCHOOL
If the John C. Campbell Folk School stands for the conservation of traditional, pre-industrial American crafts, Yestermorrow Design/Build School is on the cutting edge of a neo-counterculture. It has no problem attracting millennials.
Located on a 38-acre campus in Vermont’s Mad River Valley, the Yestermorrow School began about 30 years ago as a reincarnation of the nation’s first design/build program at the now-defunct Godard College, an original hotbed of Whole Earth activism. It has since become a crossroads of eco-conscious building arts and engineering led by professional ecologists, architects, and students. In addition to its design/build programs for ultra-green, sustainable dwellings, Yestermorrow’s curriculum teaches woodworking, masonry, and metalsmithing. To better understand how design/build relates to traditional craft, we signed up for a weeklong course in Rumford fireplace construction. Renowned for the heat-producing efficiency of its shallow depth, the Rumford fireplace is based on an 18th-century design popular throughout the American colonies until after the Revolutionary War. New England’s premier Rumford expert, Buzz Fervor, has built or converted hundreds of fireplaces according to this design. We were joined in the class by Tyler Kobick, a young architect, and Gerald Marchildon, who journeyed from Saskatchewan to learn how to build a Rumford in his own home. The owner of a two-story house in nearby Waitsfield had agreed to donate his residence and materials for this project. All that was necessary, besides Fervor and Kobick’s skills and tools and our labor, were a few hundred dollars’ worth of cement, cinder block, fire brick, a ceramic flue, and some large slabs of soapstone. Operating from a collaborative sketch of how the fireplace and mantel would look in the living room, we began construction in the basement and worked up to the fireplace, flue, and chimney. Despite the autumn chill and constant rain, it was an exhilarating experience of craft at its improvisational best. Although cosmetically still incomplete, the fireplace was burning a warming fire within a week’s time.
In subsequent discussions with Yestermorrow’s administrators, we emphasized the foundation’s commitment to the sort of hands-on training offered by instructors like Fervor. Several months later, we received a grant proposal requesting funds for curriculum development. It explained that some of the school’s courses were now incorporated into degree programs under an agreement with the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and asked for the foundation to support prospective faculty for new graduate-level courses. It offered few specifics, while creating the impression of an ever-expanding curriculum.
In the absence of requests for scholarship assistance, we concluded that the school had little trouble filling its rolls with full-fare students. Yestermorrow’s proposal neither raised ideas about supporting more local craftsmen like Fervor nor committed to follow-up reporting. It appeared we would not be collaborating with this school either.
THE THADDEUS STEVENS COLLEGE OF TECHNOLOGY
The Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology offers two-year associate degrees and certificate programs in the industrial trades. Although not exactly a crafts school, its mission and history attracted our attention. Located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the college was founded in 1905 with a bequest from Thaddeus Stevens (1792 – 1868), a Civil War-era congressman and prominent abolitionist. His bequest read, “They shall be carefully educated in the various branches of English education and all industrial trades and pursuits. No preference shall be shown on account of race or color in their admission or treatment. Neither poor Germans, Irish, or Mahometan, nor any others on account of their race or religion of their parents, shall be excluded. They shall be fed at the same table.”
As interpreted by the current college administration, the school is dedicated to educating Pennsylvania’s “economically and socially disadvantaged as well as other qualified students for skilled employment in a diverse, ever-changing workforce and for full effective participation as citizens.” Modern technology dominates the curriculum, but the college also has programs in carpentry, masonry, metalwork, and cabinetry, all skills fundamental to the building trades. The senior capstone project unites carpenters and masons with fellow student-electricians and -plumbers to construct a single-family house, each one added to Lancaster’s stock of affordable homes.
This combination of basic skills and community spirit seemed like an agenda worth supporting if we could find a way to elevate the level of engagement in traditional crafts to balance appreciation for handwork compared to flashy high-tech pursuits. As if to demonstrate its practical-minded views, the college proposed awards to graduates who showed potential in the field of legacy crafts. In collaboration with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, our foundation now offers stipends for summer apprenticeships in historical preservation at numerous sites throughout the state such as the Daniel Boone Homestead and the Hamilton Mansion.
One apprentice, who engaged in preservation work at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Trust, voiced tremendous satisfaction in his newfound appreciation for the craft embedded in the buildings nestled within the inner-city playgrounds of his youth. Even in the context of Pennsylvania’s museums, the skills essential to maintaining a craft are often reflexive in the sense of restoring the objective past while remembering the source of one’s own personal narrative. Exercising this craft on the masonry and woodwork of an 18th-century house is certainly not geared toward reproducing its original features, but rather an interpretation using contemporary tools and materials. Similarly, the apprentice craftsman discovered a formula for personal development, and his sense of place and accomplishment therein, that would never occur in the most skilled interaction with high-tech robots.
CONTINUING EDUCATIONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Our foundation also supports students at several other craft-related schools:
THE NORTH BENNET STREET SCHOOL
The North Bennet Street School in Boston continues established traditions in cabinetry and furniture making, violinmaking, piano repair, bookbinding, jewelry, and locksmithing. Its students enter a flow of craft seemingly unbroken since the Industrial Revolution. As at many of the city’s other venerable educational institutions, students receive a superior education at North Bennet. Graduates won’t necessarily land their dream job, but collectively their efforts are important to the city’s reputation as a center of creative thought and research. It might, in fact, be wrong to describe the North Bennet crafters in terms of filling a void in a taskscape; rather, it would be more accurate to say they have muscled their way from obscurity back into the urban framework.
The resurgence of craft here is certainly facilitated by the surrounding affluence. Boston provides a robust market for finely crafted furniture and cabinetry; its well-endowed orchestras and renowned music schools are natural settings for luthiers and piano technicians. Similarly, its university libraries and rare books collections will always require the skills of expert bookbinders and preservationists.
The brownfield factory cities to Boston’s north and south, such as Lowell, Brockton, and Fall River, don’t fare as well, however, with populations struggling for subsistence wages in service and retail jobs. It would be folly to speak of a craft revival in towns where many people must choose between paying the rent and paying for health care. It is not so crazy, however, to encourage young people from these communities to use craft as an escape route, a more accessible career path. Craft is less exposed to the “tyranny of meritocracy” imposed by high-stakes testing and the college loan industry. At North Bennet, we found a sense of humility and a sanguine approach to the learning and practicing of skills.
VÄVSTUGA WEAVING SCHOOL
Vävstuga Weaving School lies 130 miles west of Boston along the old Mohawk Trail in the village of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Its founder, Becky Ashenden, spent her early adult life learning traditional weaving techniques in Sweden. She has translated dozens of books and instructional manuals and now teaches her students on imported looms. The refined textiles emerging from her workshops are made from flax that’s grown, processed, and spun into linen thread on her farm.
Her house and adjacent studios are crammed with different models of looms, a collection based on the evolving proficiencies of her students. Some examples were displayed at the 2014 Handweavers Guild trade show in Providence, Rhode Island, where we met her and began discussing a collaboration. It soon became apparent, however, that we could not provide funding to Vävstuga or its students because it operates as a for-profit school and retail center for looms and other weaving supplies.
Instead, we offered to help Ashenden incorporate an independent nonprofit organization that would be devoted exclusively to a 16-week intensive weaving program. A year later, Fabric of Life Inc. accepted its first scholarship students. Its Väv immersion program offers students more than a simple skill, exposing them to the full aesthetic and cultural traditions of Scandinavian hand weavers. Ashenden hopes her students will someday pursue professional opportunities in museum work, production weaving, textile retail, and teaching.
PELLETIERI STONE CARVERS ACADEMY
A more recent inquiry led us to Chris Pelletieri, a stonecarver who apprenticed for almost a decade with European master carvers at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. When work on the cathedral’s western façade was completed in 1997, the workshop closed. Owing to a lack of funds, construction on the 105-year-old church was halted, and the new generation of stonecarvers was left to fend for itself. Pelletieri found work restoring billionaires’ mansions and eventually got a prestigious commission from Robert A.M. Stern Architects to design and construct an archway at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. “I was confident,” he explained, “that if I hit a home run for them, they would recognize the value and be back for more.”
The cathedral allowed him to use its idle workshop for the Marist College job. Not long after completing his project, however, the cathedral demolished the stonecarvers’ shed to make space for a high-rise apartment building. By 2014, Pelletieri had lost his workspace, and work wasn’t coming in. Three years later, we found him working in a shabby freightyard loading bay in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Undeterred, he has created the Pelletieri Stone Carvers’ Academy as a 501(c)(3) organization. Yet questions remain: Where he will find workspace? Who wants to become a stonecarver?
THE ARENA OF CRAFT
So what was our purpose for undertaking this odyssey in craft? There is no road map for a sustainable philanthropic intervention specific to craft in the 21st century. Craft schools, loose-knit guilds, informal circles, associations, and even museums make up a vast, hard to govern territory populated by a diversity of enthusiasts, ranging from weekend hobbyists to accomplished practitioners. Then there are the studio crafters, who aspire to become solo exhibitors in fine art galleries while selling their wares at seasonal fairs and on the internet, the designers who inject craft into luxury commodities, and the artists who imbue their works with craft techniques. Finally, there is the newest constituency of makers, whose computerized tools introduce another dimension to design and execution using both traditional and non-traditional materials.
Human labor in the age of intelligent machines, so aptly theorized by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, is a struggle involving the unconscious as much as energetics.4 Who owns our imagination? What determines its contours and limits? Are we struggling against the naked instrumentality of machines, they ask, or against the social dynamic that assembles us into an army of fleshy robots?
The pages of American Craft magazine offer some perspective on these questions, illustrating what one might reasonably construe as a desperate attempt to defy machines. But without an adequate concept of the space where craft is performed and its location within wage labor, philanthropists cannot gauge the impact of their contributions. If we are simply trying to compensate for the decline of vocational training as an alternative path to employment, then our efforts to offer scholarships or establish workshops will never fulfill the need created by the abdication of public responsibility to this form of education.
Our mission, however, lies elsewhere – in promoting craft understood as a pursuit distinct from mass production and somewhat removed from commerce. As described in the preceding itinerary, we view craft as culture expressed in handmade things that have meaning both for those who make them and for those who possess them. In other words, we seek to foster the perpetuation of skills necessary to create objects – small, medium, or large – whose embodied social and esthetic values cannot be separated from their use-values.
1. Kathryn Marie Dudley, Guitar Makers, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
2. Jonathan Friedman, Cultural Identity and Global Process, (London: Sage Publications, 1994), pp. 146-66.
3. “‘Living Treasure’ Helped to Revive Kapa-Making,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser (5 November 2014).
4. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Félix Guattari, The Machinic Unconscious, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011).