Sunday, June 03, 2012

Flaming hula hoops and the sale of crafts...

I spent two days at the Bentonville ArtFest which was held in association with the monthly "First Friday" event on the Bentonville Square. One lesson I had learned early in my arts and crafts career, but had forgotten was that festival atmospheres are not the best places for selling crafts. Attempting to sell crafts in flea markets, farmers markets, and festivals where folks are primarily drawn by music or cheap stuff is a surefire way to fail and is often demeaning to the maker. And so chastened by my experience, I am glad to be home.

And flaming hula hoops? It's true. There was a large woman in a skimpy red leotard demonstrating her expertise to the pleasure of the crowd, though what that had to do with ArtFest, I've yet to comprehend. Human beings are driven at least in part by the need for attention, and it may be a bit easier to get it with a flaming hula hoop than with actual craftsmanship. They also had a miniature bungie ride for kids, who seemed rather quiet in comparison to adults falling to what must feel like certain death. That reminded me of the last time I was set up in close proximity to a bungie ride where I had a more rewarding experience.

The amazing thing is that so few folks these days have much of an idea of how things are made or why anyone might be interested in making things themselves, and other artists have noticed. As we all seemed to suffer from poor sales, the lack of patrons became a topic for conversation. No art in schools, no art or craft buyers when those students become adults. This year's ArtFest, artists were excited that there would be so many shareholders in attendance following the Walmart Shareholder meeting held in Fayetteville this week. But big buzz and large numbers of folks seldom pays off in the sale of finer work.

I was in my booth when the juror came by, and she was obviously trying to do a good job. She asked questions. She wanted to know if the fine lines of spalting on the lids of some of my boxes were "drawn" by hand. She seemed disappointed to learn that what she was seeing was the work of nature rather than of a sketch artist. Sometimes those engaged in graphic arts have difficulty comprehending things done in real materials. Painters these days sell both original work and Giclée which is French word for a fancy form of inkjet print. It seems that authenticity in this day and age is of diminishing importance.

Whenever I am set up to sell my work, I am relieved to find woodworkers who share my love of making things from wood, and that helps to pass the time.

In any case, I've learned that my efforts are better spent teaching and writing, and I need to find an easier way to sell my work. If you'd like a piece, I am easy to find via email, and I have a few pieces in my Etsy shop. Selling work is the major challenge for most makers.

I met with a friend the past couple days, Ken Trapp, who had been the craft curator at the Renwick in Washington, DC. It is fun to spend time with someone who has a well researched sensitivity to the role of crafts in human culture. I am currently reading a book for which Ken wrote the preface. A theory of Craft, written by Howard Risatti makes the point that crafts should be on equal footing with the fine arts. Risatti's is a scholarly treatise, attempting to put crafts into an intellectual framework similar to that which has been enjoyed by painting, sculpture and architecture... The line between art and craft has become so blurred that some would argue that there should be no line, or that when craft objects are severed from their own traditional connection with practicality and functionality, they become art. In the meantime, one might look at the traditional places within human culture for art and craft to find reason for the elevation of one and the disparagement of the other. In the making of churches, art in the forms of painting, sculpture and architecture were used to create a sense of obedient reverence and were therefor assigned greater value. This is not to say that other forms of traditional crafts were not used as well for ecclesiastic purposes. But common crafts, were traditionally the work of the common folk, even when uncommon, that served in their daily lives. Which is actually the higher form depends on how you feel about humanity and the aspirations of common folk.
"I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful." — Oscar Wilde
Forgive me if this has become a recurring subject in the blog. In any case,

Make, fix and create...


  1. Anonymous4:24 PM

    You can add county fairs to the list of places where craft doesn't do very well.

    Also, I just returned from a local craft show called "100 American Craftsmen" in Lockport, NY. I was only impressed by one of the woodworkers, and the work he was doing was in the category of things that are useful. Well thought out, beautifully made and finished. It was inspiration.


  2. I certainly lean toward the useful myself. I hope at your show the craftsmen were selling well. It is interesting to hear of a show that features craftsmen specifically instead of "artists." Though the distinction between the two is badly blurred.

  3. Anonymous12:22 AM

    I get really upset whenever this rears its ugly head. I strongly feel that there should be no distinction between the two.

    In my mind the only question should be the level of the Art in question.

  4. And how do you judge the level of art? Or craft? It is all a slippery slope. Do you take into consideration the tools used or the materials available and whether it is of original design or derivative from someone else's thought? does the message the artist or craftsman is trying to tell in the work significant to your assessment of its value? What of work, well done, but meaningless in its message?

  5. Anonymous9:25 AM

    I have come to the determination that the scale reads from arts/heritage festival on the one end (the one I find useful) and carnival on the other end. Recently, I participated in what had been a heritage festival (the word "olde" having been part of the name and character of the event, which became old for 2 years, and which has been eliminated altogether now. I anticipated several hundred dollars worth of sales but barely cleared $100. Over the last 5 years I have been there, "they" have transformed from festival to carnival. Carnivals attract people who certainly appreciate my work but cannot afford to buy it. At the same time, those who can afford my wares don't usually go to carnivals. This seems to be the current trend in my area, although there are still a few good events. I will be expanding my area of operations, travel, tax rigamarole, and a wider and more appreciative audience/clientele.

  6. For years, I have uncomfortable with being referred to as an "artist". I work with traditional hand tools, including a spring pole lathe and a shave horse. Lately, I have been rubbing elbows with the artistic community by way of an invitation from a local American art museum. The curator there sees my work as an extension of the collection there.
    So, I wonder how the term artisan fits in.

  7. Woodness Sake, The naming of things always diminishes. There are not enough words for beauty, or to describe the craftsman's intent. Placing things in a hierarchy of one over another tends to complicate our ability to fully perceive. And yet, here you have a museum curator, willing to look at what you do as having value. That is a coup. Keep up the wood work.