Sunday, 25 September 2011

a lovely little gem of a craft book

I want to share a little gem of a book and you can be one of the first to own it as it is hot off the eco press.

Most craft books start by selecting the best, the last, the most famous craftspeople in each trade, this produces a particular type of book that has it's place but it has been done many times. How would it be if instead you selected a bunch of artisans at random, say by cycling round the coast of the British Isles and interviewing and photographing folk you met along the way?

That's was Nick Hand's idea and the results are wonderful. What I love most about this book is the humility of actually quite ordinary artisans chosen by chance as they came into focus on one man's remarkable journey around the coast. What we learn is that when you take the time to look, even the apparently straight forward lives of a bicycle repairer, hat maker or basket weaver are driven by passion and a deep seated love for their work. It is inspirational.

The book is a joy and you can see thoughtfulness and passion in every aspect of it. I have no idea how Nick conducted his interviews but the folk open up in a deep and meaningful way and share the inner drive that makes them do what they do. Nick would say it is the bicycle that wins folk over, I guess when someone has ridden 1500 miles to your door you recognise the fellow dedication and that empathy comes through the pages. As you would expect from a top photojournalist the images are sublime.

It would have been easy to publish this as a coffee table book with big glossy pages printed cheaply in China, instead it is a small book printed on FSC paper made in the UK and printed and bound in Wales. It's difficult to spot just why it works but it has that lovely quality of the original Beatrix Potter books, I guess it is loving attention to detail, caring, craftsmanship.

I would really very highly recommend it as gift to yourself or a friend. Just £14 or £16.50 inc P&P, a few clicks and you can use Paypal if you like. Here is the link to the order page.
Oh yes and £1 of every sale goes to Parkinson's UK

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Making Futures conference "the crafts as change maker in sustainably aware cultures"

This is the final post on this 2 day conference which will sum up the overall feel and meaning for me as well as mentioning a couple of speakers that didn't fit elsewhere.
Dartington felt an odd place geographically to run a conference on sustainability meaning many folk had very long journeys including quite a few flying.  As a physical setting though it was wonderful, this is the magnificent fireplace in the great hall, and the history of the Elmhirsts pioneering work using the arts to reinvigorate rural culture resonated deeply. In 1952 there was a major international conference here looking at the future for craftsmanship particularly focusing on pottery and weaving.

So now again in 2011 we were looking at the role of crafts in creating a sustainable future. One interesting talk by Steve Swindells looked at a project addressing the issue of textiles (tents and sleeping bags) that are abandoned at UK music festivals.

The bags are collected by volunteers, washed and then given new life by students who make liners and embroider them to make them personalised. These are then given to homeless folk, having worked with folk in homeless shelters and asked about their needs they sewed safe pockets inside the sleeping bags for storing valuables. I felt ambiguous about the project, from one point of view it was good to see design students encouraged to do something other than adding to material wants. My reservations though are that this is tinkering and not addressing the real issue. Leaving tents, bags and other rubbish behind is a real problem that could and should be cured, just as festival organisers solved the ticket touting issue.

Another great presentation was by Mary Loveday-Edwards from Plymouth college of art. She took us on a roller-coaster ride through the history of "Nostalgia".
Nostalgia Noun; a wistful desire to return in thought or fact to a former time in ones life. A sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

"Nostalgia is part of the narrative of craft; like all narratives it is ideological. The nostalgic narrative of craft is a utopian one, one that not only cannot exist but that has never existed. The romanticised nostalgic Crafts ideal is seen as proposing a way of life with a particular value, one which places value on the everyday rather than the sublime, one which overcomes the alienation of the contemporary world, one which values the human-sized approach. This narrative is not negative in itself; but seen in the sentimental light into which nostalgia can drift, it can place craft in a position of privilege or of withdrawal from the world, as William Morris found to his despair."

The talk was a real eye opener and ended with a very positive message about how we can take the best from the past and the present to shape the best possible future. I look forward to the full paper being published on the conference website.

As with all conferences much of the benefit of being there was in the informal chats had between presentations. New acquaintances made and good times spent in a more informal setting with others. in this photo to the left with red hair is Mila Burcacova who studies Morris and Craftivism, in the centre is Joe Kelly director of Craft Northern Ireland, a great chap who took me to visit Patterson's Spade Mill in 2009. Back to the camera is Hillary Jennings an advisor to the Heritage Craft Association who was presenting on the transition town movement and to her right is Diedre Figueiredo of Craftspace. Chatting with all these folk and bouncing ideas about where the craft world is going was very interesting. The subsidised art world is facing difficult times but craft has a lot to contribute to the sustainability agenda and that is definitely an area that is of growing importance.
Now I want to just add two gratuitous photos that don't fit but I have a strong connection to land and places and Devon and Dartington made big impresion on me. The screens passage between hall and kitchen at Dartington looks very Harry Potter.
 And here just a shot of typical South Devon countryside, it was first time I have visited the area and I loved it.

Friday, 23 September 2011

craft communities and sustainability

Connecting Craft and Communities is a networking project "to enable participants to examine the changing cultures, politics, practices and skills of Craft in the 21st century."
As part of that I attended a 2 day meeting at Dartington Hall focusing on crafting sustainability. It was a wonderful informal gathering and whilst folks were presenting short papers as a focus for disscusion others were knitting or embroidering.
I think we need to see a better picture of that wonderful roof
There were a bunch of good short presentations I'll just flag a couple of links the Small Is Beautiful project looking at small local businesses and shops in the Soth West, particularly the sort of place you can take stuff to get it mended, a declining asset that helped sustainability by keeping stuff in use and out of landfill.

Carolina Escobar Tello asked how material culture related to happiness. She presented good research showing that happiness does not corelate with degree of material consumption, that genuine happiness is more likely to be found in sustainable societies and that the happy planet index is a better judgment of well-being than GDP. Carolina felt that currently designers were merely meeting and adding to consumers desires, we need a new breed of designers to challenge how people live and meet thier true needs for a happy life.

Most interesting of the lot for me was Kate Fletcher (a good craft surname) 
She talked about sustainable design in fashion, not an industry we normally associate with sustainable thinking. Her current project "Local Wisdom" looks at the craft of use, where most clothing manufacturers loose interest the moment the garment is sold Kate is studying how people wear, wash, alter, mend clothes and particularly how some clothes develop more character and meaning which in turn keeps them out of landfill.

Finally Jaqueline Atkinson presented the results of research into quilting and wellbeing, see this Daily Mail write up and NHS critique whilst this was only a small qualitative survey it did beg the question why no more research has been done into this area. The benefits of art therapy for instance are well documented.

In the evening I ran a spoon carving session, good to get craft academics, making craft.

and over the way they were doing embroidery.

At the end of the 2 days we split into groups and discussed what we felt the key things to act on for a more sustainable future were and how we would achieve them. Here were our groups feelings.

Key goals

  • change peoples habits of consumption
  • move from passive consumers to active citizens
  • share products and services
  • reduce material and energy consumption
  • reconnect; with community, niegbours, family, friends, earth, nature
  • build safe positive communities
  • true materialism; a positive, sustainable and healthy way of relating to material stuff
And our means to getting there?
  • sharing skills, by sharing skills we also share values
  • encourage individuals to organise skill share events
  • use enabling spaces for events eg village halls
  • use digital media to spread the message
  • this was all beginning to sound rather like craftivism but with a broader range of crafts
  • finally we got rather idealistic and imagined a "social tax" where in your 70 years in society you had a duty to give something back.
Most important of all we felt the sustainable message had been rather sold as a negative message, all about doing without stuff that is fun, like petrol. We felt we needed to show that contrary to popular belief excessive consumption  does not bring happiness and that a simpler life with more time and less money is often more fun.

And on that note I went off to the beach.
the surf was a bit messy but I had borrowed a little surf kayak which was great fun.
This is my home from home, it even has a chopping block in the back for itinerant spooncarving.
My last comment on environmentalism is why don't we all avoid white? White clothes in particular simply do not work with any sort of environmentally friendly washing cycle. So having stayed one night in the rooms at Dartington hall my impact involved washing pure white sheets and towels and most folk no doubt throw away the soap bar after one use. That soap bar is made from palm oil no doubt grown on cleared rain forest land, I am buggered if I am going to use 2% of it and throw it away.

William Morris and Craftivism

Was William Morris a Craftivist? and do the writings of Morris and the ideals of Craftivism have something to contribute to the personal philosophy of craftspeople today? That subject forms the basis of a forthcoming PhD for Mila Burcikova, a bit much to cram into one blog post but quite exciting and kept me engaged in conversation all evening in the pub last week, or maybe that was partly the beer.

Let's start with Craftivism. A new word coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer Craft + Activism = Craftivism

This is part of Betsy's Craftivist manifesto "Craftivism is the practice of engaged creativity, especially regarding political or social causes. By using their creative energy to help make the world a better place, craftivists help bring about positive change via personalized activism."

I wholeheartedly support her work and think the craftivist movement is great. It has grown rapidly particularly using traditionally feminine crafts like knitting and crochet reinvented as yarnbombing to give a more edgy 21st century meaning.
Sometimes just the act of making can be a political and ethical statement, sometimes it is just fun. The phone box above was made a group called knit the city Who are a bunch of friends that get together to knit stuff, stick it on things in public then run away giggling.

"We are unashamed to admit that we yarnstorm most simply because unleashing our squishy art on the world makes us and others happy. Put an 8-metre giant knitted squid on a statue of the father of modern biology, or a giant cosy on a phonebox under the paranoid gaze of CCTV, and see how it makes you feel."
Whilst many craftivists have a serious political agenda which tends to be anti war, environmentalist and anti sweat shop, others are simply turning away from being passive consumers of culture to do something active and fun with friends. A bit like making the move from supermarket shopper to allotment gardener these small changes in our own lives are important.

So what would Morris have made of all this? Mila did her MA on Morris she felt that there were some similarities, his key ideals included;
  • happiness in work, 
  • fellowship, 
  • beauty for all, 
He worked to achieve these through his Morris and Co workshops, SPAB and later political socialism.
Perhaps the key difference between Morris and the craftivists is not the ends but the means. Morris saw creativity as closely related to skills, he was keen on people experiencing the pleasure of mastering difficult skills whereas craftivism tends to flourish using skills which are quickly and easily learned and shared. Where Morris's products tended to be beautiful quality, made to last and expensive the products of craftivism tend to be ephemeral or it could be argued that the real product is actually the change in feelings of people not the tangible woolly thing.

Is this a typical male female divide? It was interesting that Crafts Council research presented at the conference last week showed strong gender inbalance in the contemporary crafts with for instance over 75% of gallery/curatorial workers being female. In some traditional crafts such as hand engraving the inbalance is be the other way. Craftivism thus far has been a largely feminist movement using feminine crafts. Perhaps it is time for us all to get together.

When I look at craftivists getting together and having fun making stuff and making a statement I think it is great. There is a bit of me that thinks, all that energy could be used to make something useful too but then I don't think that when I see folk enjoying making music or cooking for friends or any other ephemeral social activity. So is it time we had some more masculine craftivism? what form would that take? making using sustainable technologies in the 21st century is a very political thing to do, it addresses many of the big issues in society from sustainability and climate change to world inequalities and Western over consumption. Is it the nature of soft feminine crafts such as knitting that make craftivism work? Could a bunch of greenwooodworkers get away with whittling spoons in Kings Cross station? or would we have our knives taken away?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

crafts and the way people relate to objects

Kevin Murray gave one of the keynote papers at the Making Futures conference last week. a very entertaining speaker he encouraged us to question the way we relate to physical objects. In the great hall at Dartington with the oak lectern he looks rather like a preacher but the sermon was anything but dry.

We started by looking at tram conductors in Melbourne who used to give tickets to passengers. The ticket had a meaning and was also connected to a personal interaction between conductor and passenger. The conductors were much loved and avoided being replaced by automatic ticket machines by several high profile public campaigns to save them, though despite overwhelming public support they were done away with in the end.

We then considered other objects of meaning, in many cultures charms have great significance. The Japanese will give a charm which brings luck and again creates a powerful connection between  the giver and receiver. Perhaps our last strong example of this embedded meaning in objects is the wedding ring. Kevin recomended Stuart Walker's work on environmental design, particularly the discussion of the way in which surfaces age, either beautifully (wood or natural materials) or not beautifully (an ipod) If we want to design for sustainability we should make objects that last and remain in use. If we can embed meaning into the objects, as with charms, wedding rings or special gifts then they are less likely to be discarded.

Final thought it is perhaps the distance between maker and user of objects that allows us to become complicit in an exploitative supply chain which we would not condone if it was closer or more visible eg Iphone. Crafts can re-establish a covenant between maker and user and endow objects with meaning.

Alastaire Fuad-Luke had a related message, "re-crafting capitalism"

His argument was based around a broader understanding of "capital". He used Jonathan Porritt's 5 capital's
  • natural capital
  • human capital
  • social capital
  • manufactured capital
  • financial capital
He pointed out that we pay rather more than our fair share of attention to financial capital or GDP   and whilst natural capital has risen up the agenda a little we need to pay more attention to social capital. That is the value of our relationships and communities which allow us to enjoy and maintain health, knowledge, skills and motivation better than if working in isolation.

Craft can help us build social capital (or strengthen our communities) He gave a nice example of craft project that was doing this. "give fleece a chance"  involved 70 knitters making 250 small sheep from local fleece, connecting local wool users with wool producers. From the project has grown an online wool directory locally and a great deal of interest in running similar projects to reconnect with locally sourced wool around the country.

This short film tells the story.

"Give Fleece A Chance" 2010 from Brent Zillwood on Vimeo.

Craft is Great Britain

Today David Cameron launched a £500,000 ad campaign promoting British Culture with 10 posters highlighting British Heritage, Music, Countryside, Sport, Innovation etc

 but they forgot the crafts one again so we helped them out. Please share these with your friends, post it on your blogs and facebook and let's get it out there as widely as we can.  We have an incredible heritage of craft skills in the UK which should be recognised as being as valuable as any other part of our culture. Will you help get the message out there? Click copy paste share, thanks.

Dartington Hall and the Elmhirsts

Just back from 6 days in Devon discussing what role crafts have in helping create a sustainable future. The setting was the magnificent Dartington Hall. I came away inspired and am now wondering if I can manage to pass on some of that inspiration just through blog posts, I'll try my best though as a medium it can't compare to a real person talking passionately. First though a little history of the venue.

Dartington Hall was built in the late 14th century between 1388 and 1400 for John Holland Earl of Huntingdon. 
 The Hall was mostly derelict by the time it was bought along with the 1200 acre estate by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst in 1925. The Elmhirst's invested Dorothy's considerable inheritance in the estate with the vision of reinvigorating the declining rural community.
The gardens are a joy to walk in and the ethos of the Elmhirst's shines through here is a rather famous but wonderful quote from William Blake.
 I was taken by this sweet chestnut tree, at a glance it looked like a Nash sculpture but I think it was the result of lighting strike killing a spiraling strip of bark which was painted with Arbrex, a practice which used to be common but nowadays arboroculturists prefer to leave wounds open to the air.
The list of outstanding people involved in the Dartington experiment includes Ravi Shankar, T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), Bernard Leach, Walter Gropius, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, HG Wells, Yehudi Menuhin, Ben Nicholson, Aldous Huxley, James Lovelock, Amory Lovins, Jonathan Porritt, and Vandana Shiva amongst many others. For anyone interested in sustainable rural development or the arts generally it is hallowed ground. More recently the estate is also the home to Schumacher college. This was the view from my bedroom window looking down into the main courtyard.
 And my little attic bedroom.

And the centre piece the main hall itself with a fine hammer beam roof, what better venue to discuss craft and sustainability? The following posts will pick up some of the threads and talks that particularly caught my imagination and also show some of the other fine rooms at Dartington.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Prof Kate Soper on craft and sustainability

Making futures brought together delegates from the UK and around the world to question how we can live sustainable lives, and whether craft has a role to play in getting from here to there. The full conference program and summaries of the papers are available online here in due course the full text of the papers will also be published freely online. I hope for now to share some of the highlights and also talk about how the discussions have helped me to feel more positive about the potential for a sustainable future.

So lets go straight in with the first of the big name speakers. Professor Kate Soper is a philosopher, which she defined as an armchair thinker who has no idea how to make an armchair.
It was great to hear someone talking about the crafts seriously from a philosophical perspective, I guess most craftspeople are philosophers in as much as being very concious of their own life philosophies and it was somehow validating to hear a professor of philosophy preaching to the choir.

Kate pointed out how our current materialist culture "grooms children for a life of consumption" which is clearly unsustainable in a finite world. We have to change consumer desires and we won't do that by trying to force folk into a position of altruistic compassion and environmental concern, rather we need to sell a positive message of the self regarding gratification of consuming differently. We need what she called an "alternative hedonist" approach which means not looking back but rethinking the nature of prosperity and the conditions of human flourishing (currently measured purely in $ £ as GDP)

She recommended the book "the spirit level" and suggested the Happy Planet Index as a better more holistic judgment on how we are doing as a country than GDP. How does your country score on the "Happy Planet Index" map here?

We finished with a startling sculpture I had not seen before the wee man made from 3.5 tons of discarded electrical goods which is the average amount each of us in the developed West will discard in a lifetime.

So what can craftspeople do? Kate felt that there was  perhaps a slight fatigue with the traditional "downsizer" "good life" alternative culture, I don't agree with her there but there were clearly problems with the existing consumer culture evidenced in growing sense of disconnection, obesity etc.

We have to then question what matters in our lives, what life we want to build for the next generation, craftspeople are in a strong position to question the existing capitalist order and propose more meaningful and sustainable alternatives.

a sample of Kate's writing for the Guardian here 

More posts on the conference speakers crafts and the way people relate to objects 
Mila Burcikova on William Morris and Craftivism
and the venue Dartington Hall