Michael Puryear

Instructor Michael Puryear finishing a bamboo lamp during
his class on using bamboo and rattan as environmentally
friendly materials for furniture making.

Questions, Mostly, About Craft and the Whole World

One of Penland's summer 2006 sessions was devoted to the theme of craft and social conscience. The theme played out differently in various classes-some of them directly addressed political content, some focused on recycled or sustainable materials, others used craft as a vehicle for creating social networks or exploring personal transformation. To unify the content of the session, the school invited documentary photographer Ralph Burns to serve as the session host. His role included moderating three lively, open discussions, which stimulated many other conversations in the studios, the dining hall, and the coffee house.

Penland also invited writer Jonathan Lerner to participate in the session and write something for us. Rather than ask him for a journalistic report, we invited him to take it all in and respond in whatever way made sense to him. The whole session was based on this question: What is the connection between craft and the larger social context? Gathering people around that question raised a lot more questions. Jonathan is a good listener and out of this experience at Penland he wrote the following essay, which brings some order to the inquiry that took place.

"To be an artist is to be both blessed and cursed," says Jonathan. "You probably work in solitude, yet you hope your work will affect others. You are hypersensitive to contradictions in the world around you-a source of creativity, but also of pain. Your finely honed skills of eye and hand can bring you peace and satisfaction, but your exquisitely active mind can force you to confront disturbing questions that have no ready answers.

"I wrote this piece using the second person, framing the questions in terms of 'you,' because I'm a writer, not an artist. But the issues for artists have corresponding manifestations for me. I work alone, am sole proprietor of my freelance business, and must make endless compromises about aesthetics and politics, for financial and psychic survival. And I spend perhaps a teensy bit too much time obsessing about my work's value for and effect upon the world. I also realized that all I could really offer was a synthesis of the questions asked during those provocative two weeks."

Laurencia Strauss

This altered player-piano roll was part of an installation by
Laurencia Strauss, who was a student in Laura Vickerson's
class titled Site/Space/Surroundings.
friendly materials for furniture making.

Would you kill a species to craft a masterpiece?

If a tree falls in the forest, it's probably an act of nature. If a tree is felled, it might be a crime against nature-if it's a threatened mahogany, say, in the Amazon. And if a tree is cut by a destitute peasant, clearing space for subsistence farming? Isn't destitution a crime, even if clearing rain forests might be one too? Striving for subsistence can't be a crime. Can it justify one? But what if the peasant uses the mahogany for shelter? Or what if he burns it to cook supper? What if he is one of thousands, each cutting a patch, shrinking an ecosystem, depleting a biodiversity reservoir? "Ramification" means "consequence," but its Latin root means "branch," as in tree. If a tree falls, or is felled, the ramifications can extend far from where it crashes.

Materials for craft may be exotic, like mahogany, or everyday stuff from Home Depot, or junk from the scrap yard. In any case, isn't using them to make something intelligent and beautiful an act of healing-of nature, of humanity which seems bent on destroying nature, of you the maker? Does that give you any comfort as you sit alone in your studio, listening to the news-and trying not to let its endless ramifications overwhelm you?

Say you're working with some recycled mahogany and copper. Maybe the mahogany was harvested before treaties protecting threatened species. But maybe the copper came from Chile during the bloody Pinochet dictatorship which made that country safe for global mining interests. Does recycling cleanse your materials of the original sins of their procurement? Should you worry about their sourcing? Can you not? Anyway, maybe your piece will balance accounts by embodying an image to broaden viewers' thinking, about sustainability, or dictatorship. Or maybe your piece will simply be beautiful. Maybe your piece will only give somebody pleasure. In a world this wounding, isn't giving pleasure healing, too? But is it enough?

Does listening to the news make your work sharper-or your brain duller

Alone in your studio, there's nothing but you and your material. Whether you are solitary or social, and even if your work requires extra help, it's all ultimately about you conceiving, you shaping. Even if you organize collective projects involving dozens of people or public ones seen by thousands, the work still originates in your studio (or your sketchbook, or your head). You have chosen a career that guarantees you little beyond this situational irony: your work in the world is mostly not conducted in the world.

Alone in your studio, you may want connection with the world, and tune into the news. Thus you let in a rivulet and soon a roiling cascade-a flood of questions, too. How to make sense of all this information? Assuming you can, how to react? Which story lines are crucial? Which are causes, which effects? Do you really need to know more, or are you just addicted now to horror? Is too much information toxic-blurring sensitivity, stupefying thought, subverting good work? But does knowing too little engender false security, simplistic thinking?

Meanwhile consider the source, and your relationship with it. Marshall McLuhan observed that reading the daily newspaper is like climbing into a hot bath. Have the narrations of NPR, perhaps your default source, become as soothing as lullabies? Shouldn't you change stations sometimes, to Fox or BBC or Aljazeera? How are others-across town, across the planet-getting information? What do they know about your situation, their own, the chasms between? Is any information source reliable? Can you tell?

Quilt by instructor 

              Sherri Wood

Each coffin shape in this Quilt by instructor Sherri Wood
is embroidered with the name of a soldier who died in the Iraq war.
Students in the session and visitors to the gallery were invited
to participate in the piece by cutting embroidering names onto the
coffins that Sherri used to complete the piece.

And what if a tree falls (or is felled)-but nobody hears (or reports) it?

Crafting the beautiful object: political action or pain management? What are possible responses to what's wrong in the world? One is activism and engagement, through your work or outside it. Another is intentional withdrawal, to concentrate on your art. (There's a third possibility: nothing. Know nothing, care nothing, do nothing. This resembles intentional withdrawal, except for the lack of intention. But if you're still reading this, nothing is not an option for you.)

What makes you an artist? Mastery of aesthetics and techniques, certainly. Do you not also possess a sensitivity to culture and the world, an idiosyncratic take, a distinctive delivery? Isn't it this, your eye, which you possess who knows why and may sometimes wish you didn't, that enables you to perceive the strange, the other, the ill, the weirdly beautiful, the simply beautiful when it's obscured by ugliness? Isn't it this that provides both you and your audience a way to comprehend such things? There are people who do not see acutely, and people who do but cannot speak-because they don't have the language, or life has ripped out their tongues. Do you have a responsibility to speak? Isn't it up to you to reveal the beauty and normalcy in what's odd, excluded, unseen or unloved, to identify what is abhorrent but still accepted and declare it unacceptable? To speak the truth?

You are perhaps luckier than people with other callings. When the world seems too diseased, you can retreat to a zone of health: your studio. There you can start the healing by simply crafting a beautiful object. Can there possibly be anything wrong with adding to the world's limited supply of beauty? But does this reduce your work to pain management? Would that be OK-or enough? Suppose you do make art that is political-let's say, apparently abstract photographs in which each of ten thousand dots, seen close, is an exhausted person laboring up the wall of an open-face mine. The aestheticization of suffering: what are its ramifications? Is it exploitive or demeaning to the sufferers? Or is it urgently necessary to relieve them? If your art is confrontational-and assuming that you can find a place to show it-will it move others to action, or just agitate them? What if instead of cultures or continents, you try to save a tree? Or yourself? Is any purpose served by your remaining in pain?

Engagement, or withdrawal? But might these paths criss-cross rather than lead in opposite directions? A retreat to the studio, to focus on your craft-or less grandiosely, to feel better-may seem a rejection of the world. But couldn't this be an intentional choice for the smaller gesture, the humbler persona, the more agile stance? Can accepting your smallness in the world free, even empower you? Can't it affirm this central mystery: that, even beleaguered, nature goes on? Doesn't it acknowledge that ideologies and strategies, in proposing to explain everything, explain too much away-and that explaining everything may simply be impossible? Your work may seem apolitical or abstract or personal. Does that strip it of truth or prevent it from evoking response? Could its personal nature give it power-because viewers experience what you experience, and you can help make sense of that?

But what if you wake up the day after some holocaust and must admit that despite your premonition it was coming, you sat alone in your studio-perhaps listening to the news-only making things of beauty?

Glass artist Mark Angus

Glass artist Mark Angus reinterpreting the book form as a
glass sculpture. Mark's class during the Craft and Social
Conscience session explored stained and painted glass
as a medium for visual narratives.

Calculations of risk and resistance.

This is a time of extreme polarization. Cultures, nations, political parties-even neighbors-are at odds. Suspicion and paranoia are engendered by governmental misbehavior. People feel insecure, fearing illness, fearing aging. In this environment, making activist art might have frightening ramifications: loss of money, freedom, life and limb, even loss of friends. How far are you willing to go? Who will go there with you? How might your resistance strengthen-or weaken-you? Will its possible motivating impact on others justify your risks?

The dangers of political action are the same for writers as for artists; alas, these include making bad art. In the dark days of 1939, when fascism was rampant and war looming, E. B. White heard the news that, "...a certain writer, appalled by the cruel events of the world, had pledged himself never to write anything that wasn't constructive and significant and liberty-loving. I have an idea that this, in its own way, is bad news....Even in evil times, a writer should cultivate only what naturally absorbs his fancy, whether it be freedom or cinch bugs, and should write in the way that comes easy...In a free country, it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty....A despot doesn't fear eloquent writers preaching freedom - he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold."

Polarization, meanwhile, not only results from political crisis, but causes it. Surely duality is one source of the world's current troubles: "You're with us, or against us." If political anger propels your art, can it reach people with other views-or only reinforce those who agree? Can you find a way to speak through your work that subverts duality?

When people feel immobilized and isolated, is simply doing your work an act of resistance? Or must it also be seen, given the chance to affect others? If it broadens viewers' perceptions, can it actually change their behavior? Can speaking truth encourage others to not feel too crazy or scared or alone to act? Is provoking others to action your responsibility as an artist? Is it a responsibility you can decline? How big is too big to think about what you do?

Quilt by instructor 

              Sherri Wood

Serving soup during the Empty Bowls dinner that was part
of the Craft and Social Conscience session. Empty Bowls
is a craft-based hunger relief project that was developed by
Penland studio coordinator Lisa blackburn and her husband
John Hartom.

A strategy to redeem lives-starting with your own.

With its origins in tradition and the utilitarian, and its grounding in materials derived from the earth, craft easily enough takes on a social dimension. Craft is unintimidating, but also inspiring. Anybody who has visited Penland, where it seems as if every other hinge and doorknob is a unique and good-natured work of art, knows the lift of spirit which can occur where beautiful objects and their making are revered. This elation may not be political, but it is freeing. Some media, like drawing and printmaking, easily incorporate overt messages through recognizable words or images. Others can generate solutions to real social problems-say, an elegant design for cheap bamboo wheelchairs, for countries riddled with landmines. Other media take easily to recycled materials, so regardless of explicit meaning can imply a narrative of survival. Craft can engender group activity and catharsis-through community quilts like the Names Project, for example, or the anti-hunger Empty Bowls Project.

Amidst rampant ugliness, can creating beauty generate a culture of resistance? The world needs people who can feel. Doesn't art make feeling people? Is it your job to model fearlessness for the world, even by simply doing your job? Opportunities abound to join organized efforts for social change; your contributions to those could be valuable. But isn't it possible that you are needed more urgently in the studio than in the streets?

-Jonathan Lerner