Homemade Christmas presents……….the meaning of craft.

There has been quite a debate going on in the media this year about homemade Christmas presents: should you or not?  I suppose it was an inevitable response to a recession, everyone is looking for ways to cut spending and the shock of looking at the list from your children is enough to make anyone blanch.  On one hand it seems that current economic conditions are a wakeup call to us about the way in which we have constructed our consumer society; the seemingly endless cycle of mass production, mass consumption and a throw away attitude to what we consume may have run its course.  I hear a lot about the need to reconstruct our economy on a different basis though I have heard a great deal les about how we are going to do that.

On the other hand the debate over homemade presents sparked off a number of lines of thought for me.  Over the years I have been the victim, I use the word with care, of a number of homemade presents, indeed one relative was notorious for them.  However some of the things that I remember most clearly about my childhood and some of the things that I treasure as an adult have been, for want of a better word, homemade.  I have written before about the spectrum of meaning that the word craft encompasses, from the “Mrs Joyful prize for raffia work” (thank you Joyce Grenfell) to the perceived boundary between art and craft.  The meaning is tugged to and fro between the most basic handmade objects which have little to recommend them except the earnest intent of the maker, the contemporary craft scene where validation as a form of art with all the status that is implied by the epithet, and the sublimely skilled artisan craft practice which has no such pretensions but aspires to perfection.

The problem that we are left with is that there are objects whose production requires little skill and almost no craft practice in their making.  At the risk of offending I mention decoupage, if you have not come across it I am sure that Wikipedia will fill you in.  I am sure that somewhere in the world there is a decoupage practitioner who has done for the craft what Grayson Perry has done for ceramics but in my experience the vast majority of the work produced under this heading is as meaningful and stimulating as painting by numbers.  There is something rewarding in the process of making when an almost mindless persistence is the only required attribute.  I have to say that I feel the same about matchstick modelling; the burning question in my mind is, “Why?”

I suppose what this is leading me to is something to do with intention.  If I cast around for something that I can do with little or no prior skill or learning in an effort to keep my nearest and dearest happy because I have given them something, then I suppose that is one step away from insulting.  If on the other hand I use the craft practice that I have acquired over many years and at some cost in terms of application, to produce something of  enduring value, and if in the course of the designing and making you have been the object of my thoughts then perhaps that is a different situation all together.   I know that when I am engaged in making for an individual or for a group that intertwined with the decisions, the thought processes that accompany the making are reflections on how the object will be received and regarded in the short and long term.   Perhaps this is just a reflection of my own insecurities but whenever I make I am also making for my teachers and mentors, those who have shaped my craft practice over the years and whose opinions I value; how would they react to this piece, what would they say, what would they notice about it that perhaps most people would not?

I read a comment on a short video about a Japanese craftsman which observed that his desire for his pupils to surpass him in his craft was perhaps culturally specific; my reply is that for any teacher deserving of the name this is a completely normal desire.  I am thrilled that some of my pupils have surpassed my skills and immensely proud to have had a slight hand in showing them a direction in which they could travel.  Let me put it to you this way; imagine what it would feel like to have taught Jonathan Ive design technology.

At this level craft has an embodied meaning that no other present could have.  Perhaps for this reason a teacher of mine told me that in times of recession fine craft should do well.  When the profligacy of consumerism is challenged people start to invest in value; value for money and long term value.  (it is a sad reflection on our society that hand crafted antique furniture in solid timber is selling for less than mass produced and poorly designed items that will be landfill in a few short years.)  Most designer makers find themselves caught in the middle of this divide.  I met a potter a day or two ago whose chief love was throwing and sculpting fine garden features.  Most of these made to commission and the result of considerable thought both about the making and the client.  He also makes jugs and bowls whenever he is going to a craft fair as these will sell readily, perhaps leading to a more significant commission.  At this level the meaning embedded in the object becomes anonymous, though still present.

I want to conclude with some memories of handmade presents that I treasured.  One, a hobby horse made by my father using photographs of a real horse that we knew.  One of his many skills was photography and it was a simple matter for him to produce a right and a left side of the horses head by reversing the negative in the darkroom.  The wood work and leather work that went to complete the horse were easy for him.  Two other toys were made for me by my grandfather; a wooden submarine carved in wood and lovingly painted with a solid brass keel to keep her upright, I can still remember the specific green ans grey paint colours as well as the noise the keel made as I slid her down the side of the bath to launch her.  The second a fairly simple steam roller, again in wood with sheets metal additions.  As a maker and as  a father I can now appreciate the skill and the emotion that went into those toys.  Handmade Christmas presents?  Yes please.

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