A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman
The first piece of original craftwork I bought for myself—actually a joint engagement purchase with Ann—was probably the urnish lamp base created by a well-known New Brunswick potter. Just visiting his studio and shop on the outskirts of Fredericton seemed an exotic exercise at the time…all those unfired pieces on view, his magical potter’s wheel and oven. A few years on we befriended a Boston glassblower moved up to Mactaquac and the co-founding of Opus Craft Village. Now there’s a procedure to observe…glassblowing. One of the niftiest trades I’ve ever effected was one of my poetry books for a wonderful glass hanging vase. Later, we acquired one of the artist’s few forays into figuration in glass; I wrote about Scarecrow Man in a poem (later included in my book Lords of Shouting).
When I became editor of ArtsAtlantic in 1979, my predecessor had already made a place in the periodical for regular regional crafts coverage. That was jake with me; I was already sold on the importance of fine craft in a world of fine art. My magazine regularly published reviews of craft and art exhibitions together. The two worlds, such as they’d been for aeons, maintained a thrumming art/craft dichotomy that has dethrummed only within the last decade or so. One artist-in-clay I had profiled in ArtsAtlantic came to call himself a sculptor when he thought the distinction signified an elevation. It used to be considered daring for art galleries to mount craft exhibitions using an art curator.
Of course, production work means business, and production crafters may or may not cherish the notion of making one-offs when they’ve the time. The best ones do. We have a modest collection of objets, most of them clay in some form, created by ceramists from this area and beyond, gifts and purchases both. None was rushed into being. A superlative wood-turner we know makes only one-offs because of the nature of his medium. I know two meticulous jewelers who couldn’t make a boring piece if they tried.
On PEI, some of the better craftspeople were buoyed for many years by a teaching job at Holland College School of Visual Arts, where a number of fine creators were trained and got a start. The school ought not to have been shut down but reconsidered and revivified.
Had the SVA been maintained, not only would PEI be richer for the presence of talented teachers and promising students, but it might have made more obvious to the powers-that-be that craft can transcend the concept of light industry, and ought to. Craftsmen aren’t industrialists by nature (however businesslike some of them can be), and the best ones can’t hope to produce artistic excellence en masse. What rolls off any sort of assembly line can’t be both plenteous and transcendent. Inspiriting craft needs the same nurture necessary to the making of fine art, and sodalities that link creators and make a variety of opportunities available are now traditional and necessary. So far as I know, every province has its own crafts guild; these also set professional standards for their members. There’s no vision in cutting off organizational funding on PEI unless there are some bright alternatives. I can think of none. The Island’s crafters are already too restrained in what they do.
When I take pleasure in the clay and glass and wood and metal, and so on, that occupies space on our shelves and walls, I don’t need to be reminded that extra-able minds and skilled hands brought these materials to life, despite, and because of, conditions particular to where they were made. Ditto with the small collection treasured by the Confederation Centre Art Gallery. Production methodologies and retail savvy account for something potentially marketable, but not, in the main, for what I’ve chosen to admire and collect. Someone has to see to what edifies the spirit. Pure function has always been intrinsic to craft, but that’s not all there is.
Qualitative leaping needs to be sparked, from out of the craft community, and from those in a position to help that community advance through fiscal support. That’s the only way we’ll come to see and hold more imaginative work, more of the unique.
Joseph Sherman still regrets not purchasing an exquisite Kayo O’Young jam pot at the Ontario Crafts Association shop in Toronto in 1982.