Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Report, Part 2: "Why We Make Things and Why It Matters"

Last week I shared my enthusiasm for Peter Korn's book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters:  The Education of a Craftsman.  I quoted him on the creative impulse and the joys of making things with our hands.   There is so much wisdom and insight in Korn's book that I want to spend some time this week considering what he has to say about the challenges of the creative life.

Peter is acutely perceptive and brutally honest on the subject of his struggle to make a living solely by crafting furniture: 
[T]he desire to work alone and apart is self-defeating.  There simply isn't enough time in a week to put in sufficient billable hours at the bench and still do all the other work that a successful business requires--maintenance, purchasing, bookkeeping, marketing, customer relations, and so forth.  Furthermore, working in isolation doesn't foster the substantial engagement with community it takes to cultivate a local market for custom-made furniture. . . .
Success was also limited by intrinsic properties of the material with which I was working, which was my own self  [emphasis added].  I was, among other things, not well suited to marketing my work, perhaps because it felt too much like self-promotion, perhaps because it entailed so much rejection. 
Many of us who are solo makers struggle with this.  We are told we need to spend at least 50% of our working hours on marketing and business tasks in order to be financially successful.  When your medium is an inherently slow one, like woodworking or weaving, this can seem an impossible goal.  You won't have enough work to market in the first place if you don't spend more than 50% of your working time actually making things!  And while we may feel confident (most of the time) about our artistic skills, many of us are untrained and out of our depth on the business side.

Peter Korn has an interesting take on the old dilemma of how much to "sell out" one's personal artistic vision in order to make work that responds to popular tastes.  He says this tension is a "healthy phenomenon" that imposes "the discipline of relevance" on the artist.  Korn says while the market is not perfect, and doubtless great artistic work is ignored every day, "commerce is our most effective mass-distribution system for the material expression of ideas."

When I first began to offer handwovens for sale, I quickly learned that simply following my own whims as a weaver, my own color preferences, pursuing my own bliss at the loom, would not necessarily result in work with a place in the market.  I have to keep firmly in mind what other people can wear, can use, and are willing to pay for.  I weave with a lot of neutral colors because they are versatile and "go with everything."  I actually enjoy finding the sweet spot where my own creative inspiration intersects with what my clients want to buy and wear.  It is good to work within limits. 

In the final analysis, making craft is deeply soul-satisfying in ways that few other human activities are.  Rather than being merely consumers in the world, we are producers, creators, meaning-makers.  Peter Korn writes: 
It is a given that, individually and collectively, we think our world into being.  The question is:  How do we choose to go about it?  Do we passively assemble our narratives from a cultural smorgasbord?  Or do we test the recipes of others in our own kitchens?  Do we take responsibility for some small portion of the world as we create it?  My experience is that steering a proactive course--making the effort to think for myself--has been the wellspring of a good life.  . .  .
Making art or craft and sharing it with others is one way of resolving the existential dilemma we all face--how am I to be human in this world?  Or, as poet May Sarton puts it,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Newest tapestry in progress--my initials mpe are the only imagery woven so far.


No comments:

Post a Comment