At first, I thought it was just about being alone on the water, floating in a small boat far away from the noise of people. Yesterday, it occurred to me that air movement lifts ozone out of the water. In that oxygen-enriched atmosphere, cobwebs clear out of the brain. The change in the atmosphere before a rainstorm…
[I have been sending all or part of this to various people in the NEA, just trying to get a rise out of somebody. There’s no response so far, and in fact I don’t really believe that anyone cares…people who have never done anything with their hands just can’t understand how much it matters.]
Two years ago, I received an NEA grant from the Arkansas Folklife Program, ostensibly to support training an apprentice. I used most of the money to build a timber framed structure, employing a promising young artisan and teaching him the trade (he has been working in Little Rock for the past three years, but is moving to Colorado because the opportunities are so much better). We photo-documented the project in detail, hoping someone might be interested in what we were doing, but found that the grant administrator (Mike Luster) only distributed the money, and took no further responsibility or interest. (That is truly unfortunate, actually irresponsible as regards the apprentice. Without follow-up and supporting context, you simply lose them to a richer environment.)
On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of support for visual arts, performing arts, documentation, writing projects, etc. but very little support for actual hands-on work. From where I’m sitting, it appears that we are rapidly losing our genuine craft culture. Most of my peers are retirement age, few of them are actively passing on their skills, and the current generation shows little interest or motivation.
I was quite impressed to see Robert Runyon chosen for the Living Treasure Award. I have known Robert for many years, and actually have worked with him. Much as I admire and appreciate Robert, he epitomizes the rugged individualist. His work is not in any real sense replicable, scaleable, teachable, or affordable (if you disagree, I encourage you to prove me wrong). If you were aware of Tim West (he was Robert’s neighbor), he’s a classic example of a well-educated artist encountering the opportunity cost resulting from desperate poverty, alcoholism, and lack of cultural context or support.
Over the past several years, I have managed to become persona non grata with the Department of Arkansas Heritage, beginning with the blacksmith shop project which resulted in a breach of contract suit. Which I won, effectively sacrificing any future status with Heritage (such is principle/politics) and more recently I asked way too many questions about the demise of the Preservation Program at Helena. Heritage continues to use their failure at Helena as an excuse for not pursuing other possibilities.
It is simply inexcusable that Arkansas’ premier state arts organization is incapable of encouraging any sort of comprehensive craft education program. From North Bennet Street to Blue Ox, examples abound of creative, vital efforts. Heritage Crafts Association in Britain is growing, and UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage directive is as applicable to our culture as it is to anyone’s. What do we do???
My efforts to revive craft education in Arkansas have so far encountered:
Department of Arkansas Heritage put a great deal of time, money
and effort into trying to make a trade school work. Despite all that, it
did not succeed. The department has no plans to try to do it again, and
any further dialogue with you on this subject would not change that. [Melissa Whitfield]
I have been thinking about what does work. For years, Little Rock had a perfect example in Becky Witsell. When I visited there in 2007, her studio was involved in restoring the doors and floor-cloths from Lakeport Plantation. She had four or five young workers, all of whom were moving on into graduate school or working as self-employed artisans. Meanwhile, they were earning wages, and acquiring high-level conservation skills.
83. Master and Apprentices*— The fundamental learning situation is one in which a person learns by helping someone who really knows what he is doing.
France has a long history of Guilds and apprenticeship, still providing opportunities for young people. In fact, the Tour de France originated with young men on the journeyman phase of their education taking a walking trip around France, visiting and working in other shops. Germany still has a similar approach to craft education. I have met and worked with several French and German journeymen through timber framing. How about a “Tour de South”?
Markets: There are only a few retail outlets in the state for craft; the Craft Guild shops, Arts Center, Historic Museum, Crystal Bridges, and the seasonal craft fairs. Art galleries focus on 2-D works and modest sculpture, but rarely show furniture or functional craft.
Some years ago, Fine Woodworking had an issue about a venture in New Hampshire, evolved from the Guild of Craftsmen. A selection of furniture makers were invited to participate in a gallery show of their new work. The condition of entry was that the exhibited piece must already have a buyer (not solely speculative). I think there are several levels of incentive in this approach.
The digital landscape has evolved since Heritage’s ill-fated venture at Helena, and it is now practical to manage and market an enterprise with little more than a laptop. Investment in a campus requires massive continuing support (most likely from a private foundation these days), and the classic master-and-apprentice relationship won’t scale into a 30-student classroom.
Old-fashioned thinking about vocational education is just wrong. The fundamental issues are, and always have been, about culture and the development of human capital. As I look at our rural and small-town South, it’s painfully obvious that we are rapidly losing on both fronts.
*A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander et. al.