Artist or a Crafter?

She seems super-jazzed about this post. Her papier mache, bamboo skewers, felt and aluminum foil are all a twitter!

(Warning: There is a derogatory term used in the fifth paragraph of this post. It is used as a means of detailing cruel things that have been said to me by people wishing to cause me emotional harm.)

I have absolutely no problem personally calling myself an Artist (Yes, with a capital A). Yet making that same declaration to the world makes me hesitate. I find it incredibly frustrating that I understand something about myself so profoundly as to make it part of the bedrock of my personal identity, yet feel as though the way in which I am perceived by society is in direct opposition of that. I’ve examined this puzzle from so many different angles over the past few weeks. I’ve rummaged though my own personal experiences to see if they could help me in an effort to better understand what I believe about art and craft. I think I’m on the right track to some sort of solution I’ll be okay with, but as always, time will tell. So allow me to ramble on. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_284RNK8eCo)

I had two courses at the university in which student culture and society were examined more closely. I learned that there are functions of individual cultures and societies that their members are not entirely aware of until such time as they are outside that home culture and society for a length of time. In one course, we talked about the cultural lenses we all use when we are learning about or experiencing another culture or society first hand.

The culture and society in which we are each born and raised make indelible marks on who we are and how we intellectually and emotionally interpret all others who are on the outside of our culture and society. Urie Bronfenbrenners Ecological Systems Theory has always made sense to me.

Those cultural lenses with which I see myself and my world were poured and cured without my being consciously aware it. It started at a very young age and began to gel while I was in middle school and then solidify when I was in high school. I think that I simply interpreted accepted my cultures established societal norms as ‘knowing where I fit in the pecking order’ or something like that. I had begun to know who I was, and what I was about, and more painfully, that who and what I was did not fit within the narrow constraints of what my culture and society valued.

I was not physically attractive. I was not pretty. I was not thin. I was interested in subjects and activities that didn’t seem to have a whole lot of value to the people around me. I was too loud. I was too obnoxious. I was too opinionated. I was too weird. I was too dramatic. I was histrionic. And there were people around me that let me know how ill-fitting I was. Sometimes not always in the kindest way or the nicest terms. I was the fat kid. I was a ‘dog’. I was called ‘art fag’.

These experiences were internalized. As much as I dislike having to admit it, but these words, these ideas, these beliefs, all foisted upon me by people who had no vested interest in me as a person, still affect me to this day. These beliefs make me hesitate. They are the chorus voices that tell me that every single person that I meet thinks I’m fat, ugly, stupid and weird.

(I would like to note here that I did in fact have friends when I was a child. I had very good friends that somehow managed to keep me from being alone. I am forever grateful to these friends, many of whom are still in my life today. They saved me and taught me how important friendship is.)

What does this have to do with being an artist or a crafter?

Those cultural lenses that I’ve mentioned? Those are how I interpret the difference between artist and crafter. Real artists paint pictures or create sculptures. Real Art it displayed in museums. Real Art is oil paint and marble and graphite. Real Art has grand, important subject matter. Real Art is expensive.

While this is true for some Art, it’s not how I feel about Art. It is the culture and society speaking over my own personal ideals regarding Art.

The art that I create is made from what I can afford. Recycled materials. Second hand materials. I sew. I embroider. I crochet. I paint. I draw. I sculpt. My sculptures are made of cardboard, newspaper, bamboo skewers and glue. I create patterns and bring them into the physical world through layers of news print and glue and plaster and endless sanding. My sculptures are doll like. They have moving parts. They are colorful. They look like toys.

Add to this the fact that I am a public school art teacher. Again, my culture and society steps in with stunningly ignorant phrases like, “Those who can’t, teach.” followed by assumptions that I am somehow not intelligent enough or talented enough to be a a ‘Real Artist’, because I apparently teach finger painting to small children all day, and after all, how smart or talented does one really need to be to do that?

According to the my society and culture, the artwork that I create is not valid within the narrow, predetermined definition of ‘Art’ that has been engraved in stone by my own culture and society. My artwork is considered craft. And this is a hard thing for me to shake. By all my own calculations, there are some pieces that I spend well over a hundred hours creating. I use the same sorts of tools, techniques and materials that are contained in ‘Real Art’, yet my artwork is still considered craft by the culture and society in which I was raised. There is still a part of me, who calls herself an artist, that believes that BS is true, that I’m just a crafter.

Now, I understand that there may be people reading this who don’t understand why this is such a big deal for me. Artist or crafter, they can be seen as interchangeable to some people. Some people may see no distinction between the two at all. For me, it’s all about the perception of the people, the society, the culture around me. I can call myself an artist. I can present myself as an artist, but that by no means guarantees my acceptance as an artist. I want my personal identity to match what is perceived by the world around me. I suppose I require a certain level of validation by the art gate-keepers, which is kind of a twisted way of thinking about being an artist. 

But when viewed through the personal experiences that I have detailed above, you may be able to see how knotted-up my perceptions about myself and how I am perceived by the people around me have shaped my thinking, and why I can’t seem to figure out this artist or crafter thing more easily.

I had a conversation with an instructor of mine way back in art school about the differences between art and craft. He saw them as separate and distinct entities, that may come close to one another, but that they didn’t necessarily overlap. I told him that I saw it differently. That craftsmanship was part and parcel of art. Creating art and doing it well. Knowing your materials, having experience with the tools and the techniques was incredibly important to the creation of original works of art, whether it was painting, drawing, sculpting, etc. I still believe that.

I truly believe that creativity and art creation is for everyone, regardless of skill or ability level. For some people, crafting and following a set of steps to create something is as valid a personal experience as any painter or sculptor in my book. You are engaged with yourself and your materials. You are creating. That is a very good thing.

Okay. Now what?

For me, I think that getting to the point in which my internal definitions of who and what I am matches, or at least comes somewhat close, may be a longer road that I’d originally thought. And while there is part of me that thinks that wanting to have my internal beliefs and external world line up a bit better is just really not needed, there must be something to it for me if it bothers me as much as it does.

The cultural lenses that I view myself and my world though don’t seem to work the same way here in Finland. The assumptions that I have about how art and craft (or teaching or teaching art) are viewed aren’t the same as the Finnish mindset, which is refreshing for me, but also make me hesitate. In my experience with the people I have worked with here in Finland, from my entrepreneurial mentors, to students, workshop participants, and those who have graciously offered me public spaces in which to show my artwork, has been so much more positive for me. I don’t feel as though they have ulterior motives. I don’t feel like I have to keep a sharp look out for some weird, mean or strange thing they try to do to me. Which is one of the reasons I’d started to become aware of all the mental and emotional baggage my cultural lenses were making me think was there…when it wasn’t.

At this point, if you are still reading, believe me, I commend you for being able to slog it through to the end of this rather rambling post. I’m not sure how I’m going to fix this for myself. I don’t know if I truly need to fix anything. Adjustments may be enough. Perhaps just knowing that I have this weird artist or crafter problem banging around my head is enough, and it will become just another voice that sometimes I need to periodically check in with. To help me with this, I’m going to go and make some more art.

Here are some interesting YouTube Videos that you might find interesting as they pertain to the Art or Craft conundrum:

Is there a difference between art and craft? Laura Morelli https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVdw60eCnJI

The Myth of the Tortured Artist: The Art Assignment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv5-O-jP2i8

The Truth of the Tortured Artist: The Art Assignment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IpTxQ_DWy0

Grayson Perry discusses art and craft https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAdcD4ZCKak

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