Craft—Why We Make Things and Why It Matters
Posted on April 26, 2019
Authentic has always been the term I’ve preferred for Maine; a place where life is lived how it should be, connected to the land and what can be squeezed from it and its waters with hard work and bare hands. It is a land of fisherman, hunters, lumberjacks, farmers, artists, and craftsmen. It’s a world where farm to table isn’t a trend, but a way of life. Maine is authentic, because the rhythm of life is real and meaningful.
On a recent exploration of a bookstore in Camden I came across two books that spoke to me on this subject, one by Maine furniture maker, Peter Korn–WHY WE MAKE THINGS AND WHY IT MATTERS, The Education of a Craftsman and a coffee table book HANDCRAFTED MAINE by Katy Kelleher and Greta Rybus.
Schooled to become a lawyer, Peter abandoned his father’s planned corporate path to find himself on Nantucket in an old abandoned barn making furniture in the early 1970’s, when the craft (like so many crafts) had all but disappeared. Peter discovered himself through the making of things. This was a real self-transformation- of body, and of spirit and mind.
Peter not only found the making of objects self-affirming, but as a cultural necessity. He saw craft as a societal and cultural memory made up of markers, for every time an object was created it passed an empirical knowledge through the object to the next generation of creators as a continuous conversation through history.
Peter explores the notion that with the loss of craft, society has been left undernourished, constantly trying to fill the void of meaningless occupation with consumption. He equates the nature of work with the nature of a good life.
At one time, there was no distinction of importance in occupation; those who “made” provided for both themselves and their communities. In the 14th century the Renaissance separated the artist from the craftsmen—art from making—beauty from utility. This was known as the Cartisan Divide; a separation between mind & matter. This division placed the arts in the realm of the mind, and the “applied arts” became a lesser reflection of that of the body.
In the 18th C. we, as human fabers, graduated to the industrial age. The divide between those who lived by the making of quality, one-of-a-kind objects by hand, and of those who joined as minions in mass-producing factories, would become a cultural chasm that would consume our world.
Social thinkers such as John Ruskin and Robert Morris countered with what became know as the Arts & Crafts Movement and the first use of the term “Craft” as we know it today.
The Arts & Crafts Movement had three major themes- the applied arts, the vernacular and the politics of work. Applied Arts became the medium of the movement, a way to create quality goods that would compete with meaningless mass-produced goods.
Without pleasure in work, man would turn to consumerism (capitalism) to fill the void created by an empty life; thus, the idea of creating quality things of meaning was the only path to the psychological health of a better citizen.
Korn states that by working with the head, the heart and the hand one is transformed. “Like a magician, or a god, I found a way to transmute thought into matter”, and unlike other artist, “a craftsman fashions tangible matter –wood, clay, metal, glass, fiber; today almost anything– into enduring objects.”
Korn goes on to say, “Craft is especially fulfilling since its materiality anchors the craftsman’s understanding – the stories, ideas, and beliefs through which he structures his identity, organizes experience, and makes decisions in reality” It is in this reality, that the craftsman creates an object that “embodies” meaning, or a sense of “spiritual continuity.” A handcrafted object carries meaning that a mass-produced object could never possess.
Korn states that a work may reflect a particular aesthetic related to a movement or time, bringing with it “a thick cultural narrative of style and meaning.” Secondly, it possesses a physical impression in its details; the beauty of the wood, a dovetail corner, a shape or form, a finish; “each transports a silent freight of information.” Thirdly, the emotional fulfillment the object brings to its owner that which only gains personal meaning over time.”
As farmers, potters, furniture makers, chefs, brew masters, fishermen, artists, weavers among others who forge a living through their living cultural transformations in craft, the people of Maine are truly authentic. They are connected—to each other and to their past. They have learned from those before them how to make and will teach those after to do the same—giving true meaning to all they do and to the lives they live—what I believe Peter would call the “Good Life.”
*All photos marked with an asterix in this post are by Greta Rybus from the book “Handcrafted Maine” written by Katy Kelleher