Arts and crafts
“Do you think Mike would have put up a scaffold and painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling on his own hook? Not a chance… the Pope paid him a good penny for that job. The creative inspiration, the ‘art’, came later.”
Thus did David Swinson, an Uxbridge artist who happens to be a supremely gifted gold and silversmith, illustrate the life of a professional artist. A successful artist, he said, one who makes a living at it, is lucky if she spends 30 per cent of her time doing original work, pursuing a vision. The rest is devoted to reproducing and promoting past work, or carrying out custom work or commissions. It’s a proportion that has come down through the centuries. Bach, or Shakespeare, or Lucy Maud Montgomery, were well familiar with it. Maud constantly lamented the time she spent wrestling with her publishers.
I thought of this as I researched last week’s story on two young artists from Art in the Park. Isabel, the potter from Haliburton, sold almost a hundred pieces over the two days, and considered her first Art in the Park a success. Rebecca, the oil painter from Jackson’s Point, was also happy with the weekend. She sold three small paintings, a bunch of gift cards, and may have a commission in the offing. Not surprisingly, she still works as a server to make ends meet.
One difference, a traditionalist might contend, is that Isabel is not really an “artist” at all. The pieces she sold were “functional,” meant for day to day use in the home. That makes her a “craftsperson.” Isabel also does sculptural pottery, meant just to be looked at, but she didn’t bring any to the event, which is much more a marketplace than an exhibit.
Rebecca, on the other hand, advertises herself as a “fine artist.” The art school she attended, Queen’s in Kingston, doesn’t even teach the ceramic or fibre arts, only drawing, painting and sculpture. OCAD in Toronto does teach them, but puts them in the basement, says Isabel, who soon rejected the idea of going there. Instead, she chose a school in Haliburton which exposed her to just about every medium known, on an equal footing.
What exactly is the curatorial difference between art and craft, I asked an old friend who now curates contemporary art at the provincial gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It depends on the time period, it depends on the viewer, it’s all wrapped up in gender bias, elitism and many other factors, she told me. “A tale as old as time.”
But David Swinson reminded me that in medieval and Renaissance times, painters were on an equal footing not only with potters and weavers, but with other tradespeople like butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. They all belonged to guilds, and served apprenticeships.
“This snobbishness about the crafts,” he said, “only goes back a few centuries. And I’ve never encountered it much among the artists themselves, mostly in the institutions, the art schools and the big galleries. Things have relaxed a bit, but still, if you’re a famous artist, you’re going to be at the AGO or the National. If you made pots or quilts, you’re probably going to a museum instead.”
David’s observation rings true here in Uxbridge. The Studio Tour, up in just a couple of weeks, is run by the artists themselves, and as far as I can tell, has never made a distinction between sculptor and potter, painter and weaver. David and his partner, Megan Jones, also a jeweller, were on the tour for more than two decades.
My Newfoundland friend recently put together the first-ever art history of the province, and was immediately faced with the fundamental question, “What is art?” And the question goes way beyond the visual sphere. Singers, dancers, theatre lighting designers, all deliberately call themselves artists, and properly so, I believe. But even if you exclude the “performing arts” from the study of art history, what about architecture? What about film? Is it any less a “visual art” than painting, just because it moves?
I’ve studied a bit about ancient civilizations, on both sides of the Atlantic. And whether they were Egyptian or Greek, Mayan or Haida, objects made by human hands were rarely meant just to be “functional.” Urns, bracelets, battle shields. They had totemic significance, they were designed to elicit admiration, even awe. And I feel the same way about Isabel’s ceramics. She could make them much plainer, much easier to reproduce. But she has spent many hours not only on the process, but on making each piece individually beautiful. I don’t just enjoy eating from her bowl, but relishing the intricacies of its design as well. She, I believe, is very much an artist.