Thursday, August 25, 2011

Old Magic

A conundrum I’ve struggled with my entire life has been that eternal set of questions—“What is Art?” “What is Craft?” “How are the two related?”

It’s always worth an evening to engage friends in conversation about these things. We can talk all night, but what has eluded us every time is a concise set of answers, some commonplaces about Art and Craft. Until now.

While I’ve got a sense that the mere act of putting forth my revelations about Craft and Art will reveal their flaws, will show the cracks in their reasoning, it’s much better to share them with you than to hide them away. Besides, I want to hear what you think about these ideas.

I’ll start with Craft. Put in its simplest terms, I believe Craft is the power of transformation. There is something materially alchemical in the taking of raw materials—paper, wool, apples are the examples I’ll use here—and through skill and work turning them into something else, something useful. Through Craft we can create something that didn’t exist before—paper becomes a book, wool a sweater, apples applesauce.

Art, as an activity, cannot exist without Craft, because at its core Art is also the power of transformation. But Art adds something more. In Art, transformation is enhanced by imagination. A blank book becomes something greater once a story is printed in it. A sweater takes on meaning if it is made as a gift by a loved one who is thinking of the recipient. And anyone who has spent time around the artisan food scene (in Berkeley or elsewhere) knows that homemade applesauce is rarely mere applesauce.

There are a few theories as to why the D.I.Y. movement—people making more of the things they use everyday—is making a comeback. Some point to the alienation brought about by technology that discourages us from meeting face-to-face. Others say the terrible economy is leading people to stay at home and take up productive hobbies. Both these reasons are valid, but there is something greater, more basic and ancient, at work here.

Craft and Art are activities that have always been with us, as I was reminded by Werner Herzog’s footage of Paleolithic cave paintings in his new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I believe that our taking hold of these powers of transformation is a response to a feeling of awe or powerlessness in the face of larger forces.

We pick up raw materials, we work with them, sharpen our skills. Each of us adds touches that only we can. We share the results with others. In doing so, we transform our environment. We shape our world so it makes more sense to us. Craft is the power of transformation. Art is the power of transformation imbued with imagination. They are acts of old magic. In fact, they may be the defining features of what it means to be human.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Standing at the Gates

I haven’t shared anything with you lately about Commonplace Birthday, my follow-up to Commonplace Mouse, so here is a peek at one of the paintings I’ve recently completed for it.

The trickiest part about painting this picture was capturing the light. I paint with minerals dissolved in water. Mud, basically. Can you imagine how to use mud to make light, which is—to put it one way—the absence of mud?

As I confronted this problem, I was reminded of a moment described to me years ago by my younger girl’s preschool teacher. The class was painting with watercolors, and as my daughter was putting the color onto the paper she sighed and announced that she felt as though she were “standing at the gates of heaven.”

The story was a beautiful one for me then as a mother, but while I was working on this picture it resurfaced in my mind as an artist. Isn’t that feeling of transcendence what we all strive for in our artistic work?

Of course, I was a ways off from that feeling as I sat, brush in hand, trying to figure out how to transform mud into light. Eventually I realized I just had to go for it. I had to make a leap of faith and trust that my ability and my materials wouldn’t fail me.

What became clear to me at that moment, though, was that the way to succeed wasn’t to try so much as it was to just “stand at the gates,” to leap and hope that the light would be there. It seems to have worked, but of course my preschooler could have told me it would.

Have you ever had a moment like this in your own art?