A Word to Start an Argument With

Renowned furniture designer and author, David Pye, once said of the word craft: “(it is) a word to start an argument with.” What an insightful statement, obviously made by one who has argued over the word. Anyone referring to my vocation as simply a “craft” always made me cringe as if the word itself was disapproved of as less than art or design. I grappled with where the stained glass trade fits into the discussion. Is it a craft, or is it an art? I never wanted to be confused with a “crafty hobbyist.” Recently, I concluded that the medium of creating stained glass windows is an (architectural) applied art, and those making the stained glass windows are craftsmen skilled in working with art glass.  I embarked on a reading journey to learn more about the true word “craft” and its history. Over the summer and into the fall, I read two books on Craft, hoping to understand the term and context better.

Tell someone today that you are going to school for art, and they will probably reply with, “How will you earn a living?” Conversely, tell them you want to become a computer programmer, and you’ll probably get a nod of great approval. Our society tends to look down on those who work with their hands for a living.  At best, earning a living working head, heart, and hand in this world is difficult.

The first book Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, was written by Alexander Langlands. Langlands, an archeologist from Great Britain, delves into the simple word Craft, its origin, and its complex societal meanings. I am quirky; I enjoy books that explore the history of everyday items and the associated words we use. I am certainly a big fan of author Mark Kurlansky’s books on simple items such as Salt, A World History, Cod, A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, and The Big Oyster, History of the Half Shell, to list a few in my library.

The Anglo-Saxon word “craeft” was distinct from our modern word “craft.” The original context described one as adroit, skilled in his practice, with deep connections, and an acute understanding of their environment, keenly knowing one’s materials. This is the condensed version of a longer explanation.

Conversely, in modern terms, the word devolved into the demeaning word “crafty” as one who is cunning, shiftless, and engaged in skullduggery. My childhood image of crafts was making a crudely crocheted or woven potholder for my mom at church camp. Today, a more romantic image is associated with those crafting artisanal cheese, bread, or craft beer microbrewers and whiskey distillers.

The second book on my list was by historian Glenn Adamson: Craft, An American History. The author is the former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. He begins the American craft journey, starting with colonial America through the studio art movement, hippies, and Hobby Lobby. In both books, in the past, those involved in the essential crafts were regarded as financial leaders and pillars of their communities. Their product provided necessary items for life. Think of the wheelwright, potter, furniture maker, and blacksmith as all essential to agrarian life. Glenn Adamson states, “Whenever a skilled person makes something with their hands, that’s craft.” What we now consider ‘fine art’ from the Middle Ages was regularly referred to as ‘craft.’ Whether sculptors, painters, or poets, all were considered craftsmen. Chaucer penned, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” Referring to his own works and mortality.

Both authors discuss the craftsmen’s commitment of time to their craft—the incredible amount of one’s life invested in producing their product.

Throughout history, master craftsmen would recreate their skills through their apprentices. They taught the apprentice to produce the repetitious parts of the process, freeing up the master craftsman to work on the more crucial creative aspects of their work. I am certain every artist engaged in the repetitive, mind-numbing aspect of their work dreams of a faster, more efficient way to produce their work. Throughout history, craftsmen, so connected to the intimacy of working in their craft, have invented creative methods and time-saving machines to produce their products. Think, if you will, of the fabric industry and Eli Whitney’s simple cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the production of cotton thread by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber. Couple this with the invention of the power loom by Edmund Cartwright. These are just two examples of how craftspeople working in their trade invented machinery to save time, ultimately ushering in the Industrial Revolution.

During the Industrial Revolution, some craft-based businesses were eliminated. Some craftsmen were now relegated to working in factories and on assembly lines, a step down in society’s view and a drop in status. They lost the social standings they once had in an agrarian society that relied on the essential crafts produced by these artisans. Machines were now producing these items, and the artisans became another cog in the factory wheel. Industrialization essentially killed crafts.

In response to the 1860s Industrial Revolution, William Morse, John Ruskin, and others founded the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe and, years later, crossed the ocean to the United States.  The Arts and Crafts movement’s founders were some of the first major critics of the Industrial Revolution. Disenchanted with society’s impersonal, mechanized direction in the 19th century, they sought to return to a simpler, more fulfilling way of living. The leaders of the movement believed that the bond established between the artist and his work through craft was the key to producing both human contentment and beautiful items that would be useful on an everyday basis.  Morse believed that craftsmen should be allowed to make an entire item from start to finish, not just pieces-parts used for assemblage in a factory.

The Arts & Crafts artists are largely associated with various decorative arts and architecture. In the end, this movement’s irony was the industry they criticized; only the titans of that industry could afford these labor-intensive products produced by the Gilded Age craftsmen. As John Ruskin believed, the wealthy protected the poor and supported those producing crafts by purchasing their products.

Industrialization changed how people view work. Today we seldom derive value, meaning or find satisfaction from skillful manual work. Most people cannot afford to buy items that have been solely handmade by a well-paid artist/craftsman. The world doesn’t usually value skilled trades. Consumers expect widespread, mass-produced, imported affordability of manufactured goods over locally handmade items.

Stained glass is one of the few crafts that, over the centuries, has not been mechanized. Admittedly, there have been improvements, such as the steel wheel glass cutter and electric soldering iron. Nonetheless, the tools of our trade are humble and rather basic. We have produced stained glass windows in the same fashion for many years with little change.  Like other crafts, we are engaged in this industry with an investment of our time to produce our art. As it was yesteryear, it is today. Labor is still the largest aspect of our work.  I doubt we will ever replace the skilled eye-hand coordination it takes to cut out a stained glass window or produce mosaic wall art. Though we are not part of the essential agrarian crafts of the past, we are part of the studio craft movement. A movement that requires an investment of our time in producing that which we love, our craft, our livelihood, our calling, our art. We, as studio owners, have successfully built businesses that bridge the gap between craft and capitalism. We are entrepreneurs, skilled artisans working in our craft.