Thursday, 28 November 2013

Craft or art....?

I was reading on Jarrod Stonedahl's blog today, where he talks about what he does in terms of whether it is art or craft and the nature of those two terms. It is a question I have heard raised before and one I will hear again, I am sure. Others have added their thoughts - Peter Follansbee, Robin Wood, to name but two. It made me think, and I enjoyed the process of thinking - it's not something I get to do as often as I'd like. I began to write my thoughts down with the intention of posting them as a comment on Jarrod's blog, but when I tried to cut and paste it in I had exceeded the allowed character count, so thought I would put them on here instead.

Please don't think that I think I am some kind of oracle and have the definitive answer to this question - I don't and what follows are just my thoughts and musings. Indeed, I really don't think there is a definitive answer and anyone who thinks they have it is just kidding themselves.

The debate between art and craft is largely a question of semantics. Language is not objective nor transparent, and meaning not fixed or self evident. You can no more proscribe the meaning or definition of a word than you can stop it changing and evolving. If this were not so, then there would be no Oxford English Dictionary – or any other etymological dictionary for that matter. When I was studying grammar at university, the subject was dominated by the eternal wrangle between those traditionalists and fuddy-duddies who wished to proscribe grammatical usage, saying that one way of speaking was inherently ‘right’ (always their own way, incidentally) whilst another was inherently ‘wrong’, and those who believed grammar was a functional tool to aid and support clear communication, that the way people spoke and wrote was correct as it reflected popular and contemporary usage. Is grammar there to school people to talk correctly, or is it there to describe actual speech? Similarly, should language constrain us or serve us? Do I have to keep harking back to antiquated definitions in order to define myself or my craft? Not if I don’t want to – what I make is what I make and no amount of labelling or defining it can change it one bit (nor improve it, unfortunately).

As a teacher who teaches poetry, I have to tell my students that there are no rules to what constitutes a poem, other than, perhaps, some vague notion of poetic subject matter. That’s not to say there never were rules to writing poetry, of course there were throughout history and across cultures and nationalities, but an Elizabethan sonneteer cannot tell Ogden Nash his writing was not poetry because it did not match his own definition of a poem. A writer of quintains cannot deny Homer’s epics are poetry because he used more than five lines.

When I talk with my students about race and the names we use to describe them, I try to explain that it is not for us, of one race or nationality, to choose the label to impose upon another – it is their right and there’s alone. It would be wrong for me to call Native Americans ‘Red Indians’ because that is the convention where I come from, if they would call themselves Native Americans. Equally, it would be wrong for me to call them ‘Native Americans’ if they would rather be known as First Nations.

I guess what I am trying to say is, who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to call someone an artist just because that is my opinion when they would call themselves a craftsman; or for me to call them a craftsman if they prefer the title artist? Who am I to say what someone has produced is art, if they say it is craft, and vice versa? You asked is the body design of a car art? If the guy designing it says it’s art, then who am I to argue with him. When Damian Hurst stuck half a cow in a glass box and said it was art, there were a lot of wealthy impresarios who were falling over themselves to agree with him. Personally, I didn’t get it but my personal response to the piece did not negate that of those who loved it. And I think you can extend this idea even further – I know I greatly simplify Barthes’s notions of ‘the death of the author’, but basically, once you have created something and put it out there for the public to enjoy, it is then their interpretation of the thing that counts. Why you made it, what you were thinking when you made it, what you wanted to express – it all becomes irrelevant and subordinate to the notions of the recipient. Unfortunately, that means that your canoe, though you consider it craft, if someone else considers it art, is art. You might not like it, but that’s the world we live in – there are no constraints other than those we put on ourselves. The idea of restricting people or their work based on archaic social notions or antiquated definitions that are as slippery as an eel and just as impossible to pin down, just doesn’t work anymore, which is why this debate will go on and on, round and round in circles, endlessly, never settling on any one answer or definition, and being batted back and forth by one opinion to another.

Let’s not under sell ourselves or fall into the trap of pigeon-holing ourselves (or allowing others to pigeon-hole us) – I make spoons; I craft them from wood with my hands and hand tools. In my book that makes what I do craft and makes me a craftsman. If anyone wants to disagree with me, they are welcome to, just so long as they keep it to themselves. When I craft my spoons I consider the design and aesthetic qualities and try to appeal to people’s taste in what looks beautiful. That is an artistic process and I think that makes some of my work art and me an artist. Again, disagree if you wish – it won’t stop me carving nor trying to make something that looks beautiful. As for all the ‘status’ stuff, whilst I accept that such perceptions exist, I think they are generally notions that are impressed upon us, by those who would categorize and ultimately restrict us and that they belong to an industrial history that I for one am glad to be able to move away from, along with notions of Empire and class. My parents and grandparents lived believing themselves to be ‘working class’, just because someone more privileged who wanted to look down on them said that’s what they were and labelled them as such. I refuse to class status, just as I refuse to have anyone else label what I do or what it is I make – because it is what it is.

And of course, this is all just my opinion, just as if anyone disagrees with me, it is just theirs.

No one can say my poems are not poems because they don’t rhyme.

Saturday, 23 November 2013


A while back I watched a short video of a talk by Gabriel Branby, CEO of Gransfors Bruks AB. In it he talks about how he turned Gransfors around from a failing company to what it is today. One of the things he mentioned was the idea that the products should come with some kind of information about them. I think the quote was: 'less mass, more information'. For this reason every Gransfors axe comes with a copy of their axe book.

This is a 36 page booklet, which provides information about their products, but also about axe use in general.

Another Swedish axe company, Wetterlings, provides a similar booklet with their products, though on a much smaller scale.

I've always wanted to create some kind of booklet to include with the products that we sell. In the past we've made a little information leaflet with some information about who we are, how we make our products and how to care for them. This week I sent a bowl off to it's new owner and included the first version of our little booklet. It's very humble in comparison to pretty much anything, but it's a start and hopefully our customers will appreciate it.

And here's the talk by Gabriel Branby if anyone's interested.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Just nice stuff.....

My copy of the new Niwaki catalogue arrived in the post this week so I thought I'd share it with those of you who have not yet discovered the joys of this company.
Niwaki are an England based company who, as the name would suggest, sell a range of Japanese tools, predominantly for the garden or ornamental topiary (including bonsai) and I came across them a couple of years ago when looking to buy a folding pocket saw. There were a few to choose from, but the main contenders were the good old Bahco Laplander saw, which seemed to be the preferred saw of the bushcraft community and the Silky Pocket Boy, which was a good £10 dearer, but had received some good reviews (I think I had read about it on Robin Wood's site).
The Laplander and Pocket Boy folding saws - both great tools.
And it was whilst looking for the Pocket Boy that I came across the Niwaki site, and fell in love.

What with, I hear you ask? Well I shall tell you - the ethos, the aesthetics, the playfulness, the family values behind the company and, of course, the tools themselves. I know very little about Japanese tools, but from what I have read and seen myself, they are generally excellent quality and I love the fact that a tool that does the same job as a tool I am familiar with and grew up recognising, looks entirely different from the way I would expect them to look. Take these Japanese rip saws, for instance:

 Nothing like a western saw. And it makes me smile to think that somewhere in Japan there is a hobby craftsman, looking at British tools, admiring their foreign lines and thinking exactly the same thing.
 Here are a few pages from the Niwaki catalogue.

After browsing the site and imagining myself a landscape gardener for a while, I ordered the catalogue and it has been coming ever since. It's worth a look so go to their site and order your own - it's always nice to get something cool and quality through the post.

A little while later, I read something on line about a traditional Japanese peasant knife called a Higonokami.

Having been fascinated with knives all my life and especially with the knives of the working people, I looked into these very simple but incredibly sharp friction folders, read a little of their history and thought, I have to have one - they are right up there with the classic French Opinel folders

and Algerian Douk-douk knives.

If you are interested in the story of the Higonokami knives, have a look at this article on British Blades:

I think they are wonderful and the easiest way to get one, I would suggest, is through Niwaki where they begin at £16, while the original Higonokami, made by the last surviving craftsman of the Miki corporation, is only £29 - not a bad price for either since they are laminated blades. Don't get me wrong, they are very basic knives and as suggested in the British Blades article sometimes need a bit of finishing, but I love them and if you love someone who loves knives and tools and whittling, then they will love them too and I think they are a great stocking filler and a pleasant surprise for Christmas morning.
Here is my Higonokami with the very soft leather pouch I made for it - I added
the lanyard too.

Now, anyone who owns a friction folder will know that there is a danger that the blade will fold up on you in use so what I would like to do (one of the many jobs I've been intending to get round to but keep putting off for ages) is to turn a nice handle into which it can then be inserted in the open position, like the classic barrel knife that used to be so popular in this country, but that you now can't get anywhere. Here is one that Julian picked up from a car boot and very kindly donated to my collection.

I had never seen one of these until a few years ago but am lead to believe that during the war years their was barely a working class lad in this country that didn't have one. I can't believe they ever went out of production - they're genius.

As it happens, my friend Dave gave me a nice piece of American Walnut this week that just might do the job of a handle for my Higonokami. Watch this space.

By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a douk douk (without first going to France, where incidentally I was unable to get one last year despite looking specifically for one, or Algeria) I'd be thrilled to hear from you.

Scrub that - just looked on line and they sell them on the Heinnie site, here:

Sunday, 3 November 2013

About time

Sorry, it's been ages since I've posted. Richard called me yesterday to ask what's been going on and considering I've been off on half term, where are all the posts? Well sadly, I haven't had much time for making recently. We've been doing a lot of DIY on the house and I spent the first four days of half term in Belgium on a school trip to see the WWI battlefields. I did get to do some stuff though starting with this sycamore bowl.

I have to say that this is a complete rip off of a beautiful bowl by Jim Sannerud. Please don't check out the original as it makes mine look rubbish.
On Friday my mate Nick came around with some big slabs of oak that he wants to plane down. I've not had much opportunity to work with oak, but this stuff is great, the smell is amazing. I'm going to help him with this, and he's assured me that there's plenty left, so I'm hoping to bag me a log that I can convert into a joined stool.

Nick has also just bought himself a lathe, so I offered to show him some of the basics. We put a chunk of sycamore on and he had a bit of a play. When he left I turned his test piece into this candlestick. If I get a chance I'll make a few more to go with it this week.