Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Amateurs and Pros, part 1

American Craft magazine October/November 2015 issue cover

There was an interesting article in the October/November issue of American Craft, entitled "Who's Afraid of Amateurs?"  You can read the article HERE.   Writer Monica Moses interviews Cynthia Fowler, an art historian who chairs the art department at Emmanuel College in Boston and has been researching craft hobbyists.  Fowler had some thought-provoking observations for those of us interested in craft, whether we are professionals or hobbyists or something in-between.  It turns out I have so much to say in response to this article that I have split this post into two parts. 

Fowler considers whether training is what distinguishes professionals from amateurs, or the ability to sell one's work consistently, but she notes that many successful professional craft artists are self-taught, while formally trained ones may be unable to sell their work.  So formal training and the ability to sell one's work are not really helpful in making distinctions.

Fowler points out that professional studio craft artists (such as those featured in American Craft magazine or at the highly regarded ACC shows) are leery of being lumped together with hobbyists.  Fiber artists are particularly leery, given the ways in which their medium has long been marginalized by a critical and scholarly establishment that privileges art by (white, male, Western) painters and sculptors. Fowler invites us to question "what interests are being served by maintaining a highly regulated boundary between the two categories" of professional and hobbyist craft, and who is excluded when one category is considered worthy of art-world attention and the other is not.  This is an excellent point, closely related to the old debate about where to draw the line between art and craft, and while it's an important question, it's not what I'm most interested in today. 

In the American Craft article, Fowler goes on to point out that professionals and amateurs actually have a great deal in common, starting with a deep respect for their materials and processes and a desire to grow in their own creative skills.  Indeed, many (most?) craft professionals likely started as hobbyists.  I made quilts as a hobby for a few years before I decided to take the next step and go to graduate school for formal training--and I found out about that grad school program at my local guild meeting of "amateur" quilters!  My current guilds, the Chattahoochee Handweavers Guild, Southeast Fiber Arts Alliance (SEFAA), and Tapestry Weavers South are a lively mix of professionals and amateurs, and we all are constantly learning from each other and supporting each others' efforts. Any line that might exist between hobbyists and professionals is a pretty porous one in the fellowship of these groups.

In fact, the classes I am currently offering through these guilds and, I'm excited to report, at next summer's national weaving conference, Convergence, are aimed at those makers who may straddle the line between hobbyist and professional.  My students are fiber crafters who want to go beyond simply acquiring new techniques to understand more fully and control more effectively the fundamental elements of the design process.  If you are a fiber artist who is hungry to learn concepts and approaches to design that you can apply to whatever medium or technique you may be exploring, look HERE for descriptions of my current classes and HERE for my 2016 schedule. 

So, to return to the article, if both hobbyists and professionals are committed to honing their skills and growing in their creative abilities, perhaps this distinction between hobbyist and serious craft artist is simply an academic issue after all?  A manufactured divide?  Fowler stopped me in my tracks, though, when she said this:
"Craftspeople who achieve the status of [Lino] Tagliapietra ['often called the world's greatest glassblower'] do so in part because they engage questions in their work that interest the world of art and craft."
Hmmm.  What does it mean exactly to "engage questions in [one's] work that interest the world of art and craft"? This is where I'd like to pick up the discussion next week.  If this topic interests you, go ahead and read the two-page article HERE.

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