(Lone Crow Sunrise, 7”x15.5”, recycled glass tile, stained glass on MDF by Jesica Carleton)
Featured Maker: Jesica Carleton
Arts & Crafts — I remember such a class from my late elementary / early middle school days, a class where we explored woodworking, ceramics and painting among other creative activities. I recall laying a big sheet of paper on the floor and dripping tempera paint like Jackson Pollock, making a small cabinet to hold my VCR tapes, and squeezing clay between my thumb and index finger to create my first “pinch pot.” The class was a wonderful diversion from the typical reading, writing and arithmetic program aimed at honing our literacy and abstract thinking skills. Instead of sitting idly in chairs and using only our brain power, we engaged our bodies and minds in doing something, in making. Never once during these formative years did I entertain the idea that some of these activities I so enjoyed were labeled as “arts” while others were labeled as “crafts.” The distinction didn’t matter; it was the activity that counted.
The notion of “making” is central to the arts and crafts. The ancient Greeks used the term “techne” to designate “making” or “doing” with respect to the production of knowledge practically applied in what they referred to as the “mechanical arts” (as opposed to the liberal arts). As Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “Every art is concerned with bringing something into being, and the practice of an art is the study of how to bring into being something that is capable either of being or of not being.” With this rather general sense of art in mind, we might question how much distinction the ancient Greeks afforded between the sculptor and the bootmaker, for example, since both brought an object into being through the knowledge required of their practice.
In her TEDEd talk, “Is there a difference between art and craft?”, Laura Morelli posits an answer to this question, noting that shortly before the lifetimes of artists like Da Vinci or Michaelangelo (1500’s), “the concept of artists hardly existed.” Instead, in late medieval European workshops, makers from goldsmiths and hatmakers to stonemasons and fresco painters worked in guilds as apprentices or journeymen under the tutelage of the “master.” They were viewed collectively rather than individually and subscribed to a set of strict standards in accordance with their particular tradition as they brought into being the intended objects of their practice. Eventually, however, some makers wanted to be recognized individually for the excellence of their craft, especially as they brought innovations forward. As patrons responded to this prospect, the notion of the artist took hold, specifically within the disciplines of painting, sculpture and architecture. For those who did not rise to such superstar status yet continued making objects of a more practical sort in the tradition of the guild, the moniker “artisan” was granted and the distinction between art and craft solidified (Morelli).
So where do we stand today in terms of the Arts and Crafts dyad? Here in the United States, we are well aware of the many Fine Art galleries that exist, especially in such cultural epicenters as New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and many of us have strolled through the ample Craft Fairs that typically take place once a year in many towns and cities. As an alternative to such entities that make a specific distinction between art and craft, many makers have banded together in a way not unlike the medieval guilds of Europe to form Artist Cooperatives, or the Artist Co-op. Here in Central Oregon, there are several, including the Artists’ Gallery Sunriver, Red Chair Gallery, Tumalo Art Co., and The Workhouse. The Red Chair Gallery, for example, “offers the finest in art and contemporary craft” while The Workhouse boasts “handmade goods from over 60 local makers, artisans, and artists” (redchairgallerybend.com and theworkhousebend.com).
In this new series for 2021, I ask makers who showcase their creations in such artist cooperatives and who, in my view, blur the distinction between art and craft to chime in on the issue. Featured in this article is Jesica Carleton of the Artists’ Gallery Sunriver who creates stunning mosaics as well as a variety of other beautiful, handmade objects, which she describes as both “fine art” and “whimsical art,” a fuzzy boundary indeed.
Me: Describe your art / craft.
Jesica: My main medium is mosaic, although I also work in polymer clay, fluid acrylic painting, resin casting, fabric dyeing, and was an avid quilter for many years. I crave color and am drawn to anything that allows me to create things.
Me: Do you consider your work art or a craft?
Jesica: This is a tough question. I’ve always had a vague notion that there is a difference but never pinned down an exact definition of either. I came across this online:
“Art is a form of work that is the expression of emotions. Craft is a form of work, which results in a tangible output, for example, moulding and carving.
Art is often described as unstructured and open ended. It has no limitations of expression, just like in painting. Craft on the other hand is structured, which means that it has a certain form that is visible. Art is a result of a person’s innate talents whereas skill in craft can be acquired with experience.”
This explanation, however, still doesn’t totally clear it up for me because 1) I believe that innate talent is very much a factor in fine craftsmanship, and 2) as I understand it, painters and sculptors use learned skills and techniques. Based on the above statements, I’d have to say I’m more craftsperson, but the article also goes on to say: “Unlike craft, art is known to come out of the heart and soul,” and I chafe at the idea that there’s no “heart and soul” in my work. I am very clearly more attracted to creating physical things, working with my hands and materials. But the last statement makes it sound like “skill / technique” and “innate talent” are at opposite ends of a spectrum, and I don’t agree with that.
Me: How does your work address artistic concerns, like those that a painter or sculptor must consider (form, composition, color, value, texture)?
Jesica: I think, to a degree, considerations about form and composition in mosaic are similar to what a painter or sculptor face. I need to create a result that feels balanced, well-formed. In terms of color, value, and texture, there are also similarities, but there is a departure simply based on the inflexibility of my materials. I’m not able to mix colors to get just the right shade, and I can’t cover over an area that’s not coming out as I’d hoped with another layer. I have to figure out how to achieve my vision (depth, shading, gradation, texture) with chunks of glass, pixels. But as I said to you recently, unlike painting, I don’t face the question of when my pieces are “finished”; when the substrate is filled up, it’s done (of course, there are times when it’s “done” but just not quite right, so I may have to pry up a section and redo it, or scrap it altogether).
Me: What is your opinion on the arts / crafts dyad?
Jesica: I’ve often been uncomfortable with the possibility that I’m not a “real artist,” that I’m “just a craftsperson,” because it seems like more value is placed on art than craft. I think this is due, in part, to the fact that crafts include everything from crocheted potholders to finely developed, hand-made furniture. There are more quantifiable qualities in craft than art. For example, is a handmade chair sturdy, balanced, comfortable? I wonder if the unquantifiable nature of aesthetic perception, that mystique, is what makes people view art as more valuable. I really don’t know, but I think artistically crafted items and skillfully rendered art are equally magnificent. I think I don’t really care where I fall on that spectrum; I’m just happy to be on it.
Me: Well said. Thank you, Jesica!
To view the dynamic work of Jesica Carleton, visit the Artists’ Gallery Sunriver located at 57100 Beaver Drive, Sunriver Village, Building 19, or visit her website at carletoncreations.com.