"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Considering Craftsmanship

It’s humbling to admit that I’ve been in this field long enough to recognize myself as an artist/teacher people think of as established. That’s a weird feeling when you know you are still learning all the time. But it’s true, and it brings with it a certain set of realizations that are slightly uncomfortable because they’re hard to talk about without offending someone. They’re the elephants in the room.

I’ve been reading a great book entitled Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B Crawford. A white collar think tank guy, Crawford chucked it all to open a bike shop specializing in vintage motorcycle repair. He surveys historical twists and turns in the gradual separation of skills and labor into blue collar and white collar jobs, and in the process makes a strong case for the intrinsic value of learning to do something well. To choose to practice fine craftsmanship.

“Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the idea of the new economy (current social trend) is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.”

That pretty much sums up one of the concerns I have about my field – that is, textiles and surface design. What about refinement? What about craftsmanship?

Don’t jump my case. There is a huge indy craft movement out there – if you aren’t aware of it, check out Handmade Nation, or spoonflower.com or just Google indy craft movement and see where it leads you. This is GOOD. Making SHOULD be taken back from an elitist art world that's been pushing the self-serving notion for about a hundred years that most of us aren’t artists, won’t ever be artists and shouldn’t even try. A little bit of rebel energy is exactly what we need here. Every human's birthright is the flush of pleasure and adrenaline that accompanies the experience of making. Let’s just take art out of the equation entirely. It’s only a word anyway.

We all have to start somewhere. Yes, students copy teacher’s work. It’s a basic step in the learning process. Yes, some people never get past derivative, and some people never get past pre-packaged commercial products – paint by numbers, embroidery kits, and quilt books that dictate where and how much fabric to buy in order to copy the pattern to the letter. The proliferation of pre-packaged kits for children is horrifying. And what a shame. Because self esteem comes from jumping off into the creative unknown. Even if it doesn’t work out perfectly, it’s still yours and it’s still ok. And you can do it again. And get better. It just takes practice.

Consider. We are fortunate to live in a time and culture where we can have and do just about anything. Magazines arrive daily, packed with new approaches, fun things to try, new twists on old materials. Go, go, go. Collect them all and win a prize. Try this – you’ll be finished in an afternoon. And then try this – it’s fast and easy. Fast and easy. Fast and easy. Yikes.

I want thought. I want practice. I am a teacher. I see myself even more clearly as a guide. I don’t want to shut down anyone’s creative impulse and I don’t want to shut down the fun. But I’d love to slow things down.

And I do want to keep focus, and craftsmanship and refinement in the picture.

Consider. Anyone who writes for the public and/or teaches has a huge responsibility to monitor the levels of self-interest that fuel an essay. So I’ve thought long and hard about whether it's fair to be critical of the fun and easy approach. Isn’t it ok if it gets people started? Won’t people eventually long for depth and breadth in their process?

Maybe. I've realized it's not for me to judge. But it is for me as the public guide I espouse to be, to stand firm in my belief that refinement is good. Finding your own visual voice is good. Learning to do one thing really well is excellent.

Remember the old adage – "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the handsome prince?"
Gee just writing that phrase gave me the creeps. It’s so sexist and dated. But the basic premise is true. Human beings have preferences and until you try out a lot of stuff you don’t really know what your preferences are. But once you do know what they are, there is merit in sticking to them. It’s the basis of good mental health to know your center and honor it. That might mean sticking with one thing and getting good at it. Going for the achievement of something really fine, just for the enjoyment of the challenge. Something perfectly crafted in an imperfect world.


  1. I also found food for thought in Shopcraft As Soulcraft, particularly his writing on failure as the path to success. The learning process that leads to fluency involves false starts and dead ends. I love that Crawford emphasizes that people who are skilled, fluent craftsmen still have to make mistakes and eliminate them to reach the path to creative solutions.

    What I find most difficult, in a world You Tube clips and 3 hour classes, is how to convey clearly: You're allowed and expected to make mistakes so you can learn from them so you can develop fluency with materials and techniques so you can make the kind of mistakes that lead to original ideas.

    But then, as you say, it's an imperfect world, so I'll keep working to craft how I can convey that message. Thanks for the post, and the inspiration.

  2. I guess this is one of those questions where you have to find the balance that works for you. I am not one of those who fusses over exact points, but I'm OK with someone who does, as long as they are accomplishing everything they need to. Perfectionism can be a way of avoiding taking risks.

    Fast and easy has a place, especially if you are making "use them up quilts" for your family to snuggle under, or drag on a picnic. I'm OK with this, if it suits your purpose.

    On the other hand, I really hate going to a show or gallery, and seeing work that is supposed to be artistic that is put together so poorly that you wonder if it will stay together till the end of the show.

    What I really like to see is a piece of work that shows the imprint of the makers hand and heart, and that serves their individual needs well.

  3. It has taken me some time to respond to this one, and I may need to write once more to figure out what I'm trying to articulate. There is a place for fast and easy--something my grand-daughters can complete and feel accomplishment. Dipping one's toe in the water, perhaps. But to grow we must pursue and see refinement in our chosen work. And one wouldn't select a particular field based on something fast and easy. One would recognize that refinement, for lack of a better word, the articulation of a thought, an idea, an image. Time and effort are required to create something of value, which may be craft or art, I don't worry the words too much, though I prefer art myself. Developing refinement embodies time, care, skill, knowledge, experience, and one can never become too proficient. There are many paths to be examined and assessed and attempted. One may be the one for you but not for me or the next person. Finding our own path takes refinement so we can recognize our own work in the marketplace or the quilt show or... But another sensation I greatly appreciate is pride. I am learning and growing and trying new techniques (and still not attempting some!), making my art more and more refined and polished and precisely akin to the image in my head--sometimes modifying as I create and surpassing the initial idea. But I think pride in one's work, based in real effort, time, knowledge, experience and growth is a valuable feeling. I realize I have rambled and instead of refining what I've written, I'm going to let it stand for now and not lose the impulse in editing. I'll read it again tomorrow. This is a great conversation--thank you!!!

  4. As you know, I have some ambivalence about this too! The lack of quality and focus on quick + easy is part of why I developed the Slow Cloth principles. Why not make things well? I'm always surprised to encounter people who are so disdainful and contemptuous of "doing things the right way" (whether it's writing, making something with fabric, or anything else) and I'm never sure if they're being defensive or honestly believe there's no point in learning how to do things well.
    Lovely, lovely blog, Jane! And I'm thrilled that the book is doing so well. Congratulations on both counts.
    Elaine Lipson