From 4 November 2017 – 4 February 2018 the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is hosting the exhibition ‘Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry’s Dresses’. Regular readers of this Blog will know I am a big fan of Grayson Perry and his work. And, Claire is a force of nature.
The Exhibition is displaying ensembles designed by students of Central St Martins for this world-famous, cross-dressing artist as well as outfits designed by Grayson Perry himself.
A friend of mine recently went along and took some photos to share with me as I can’t get to Liverpool to see these fabulous, outrageous creations.
The Exhibition is taking place in the Craft and Design Gallery of the Walker Art Gallery.
There is a perennial question ‘Is it art or is it craft?’ that bothers some folk, but I think we can say that both in his Turner Prize winning work, and, his personal expression as Claire, it is all first rate visual culture with no need for post-medieval boundaries.
Earlier this week on Tuesday, 2 May 2017, Chad Dickerson, the Chief Executive of Etsy, quit his job following unexpectedly poor results for the first quarter of 2017. Etsy made an unpredicted loss of $421,000 (£325,000) during the period. The business is now under investor pressure to restructure – mmm, I wonder how many of those investors are crafters too?
I admired the original premise of the Etsy founders and the platform has certainly been extremely successful for over a decade. Dickerson once commented “Etsy is very much a community-based business. What we’re really trying to do is build an ‘Etsy economy’ that’s about connecting people.”
And from . . .
A handcrafted beginning (from the Etsy homepage)
Etsy was founded in June 2005 in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York to fill a need for an online community where crafters, artists and makers could sell their handmade and vintage goods and craft supplies. In the spirit of handmade, founder Rob Kalin and two friends designed the first site, wrote the code, assembled the servers and spliced the cables to get Etsy up and running. In 2008, Chad Dickerson joined Etsy as its first CTO, and created the company’s foundational engineering culture, treating “Code as Craft”. Chad became CEO in 2011 and began championing the “reimagination of commerce,” a transformation of every aspect of how goods are made, bought and sold. Under Chad’s leadership, the website that began in an apartment in Brooklyn has evolved into a sophisticated technology platform that connects Etsy sellers and buyers across borders, languages and devices, a company that spans the globe and a business that is committed to creating lasting change in the world.
Etsy has burgeoned into an enormous global ‘marketplace’. The successful original idea has grown and grown.
However, back in 2013 significant changes that broadened what was accepted as handmade work were introduced much to the concern of many Etsy crafters. These changes permitted the hiring of help to make your work and the opportunity for wholesaling your work.
I must admit at that time I was a newbie to Etsy and was more perplexed about ‘wholesaling my work’ than annoyed about it. I simply couldn’t imagine how I could create and physically paint enough silk myself and then offer it wholesale to be resold (mark up of at least 100%) at a price to even cover my costs let alone make a small profit. For me the wholesale idea didn’t fit with my craft. And, this is the rub – truly handmade, craftwork is neither cheap nor high volume. As you may remember just about a year ago I decided to close my Etsy shop as my one-off, handmade work was difficult to find, swamped amongst the thousands of laser printed or amateur silk pieces offered for sale.
The Etsy craft platform business model appears to have a hit a bump in the road as those 2013 policy changes have eventually resulted in less one-off original pieces and many more ‘me too’ products. And, if you are fine with the ‘me too’ world why not simply go elsewhere to buy/sell on Amazon Handmade or eBay. Etsy has ridden the crafting wave successfully, but nothing grows for ever and if, in the world of handmade, you water down your standards to achieve volume, quality will inevitably suffer.
I used to think that Etsy helped promote craft, but now I’ve realised that the resurgence of interest in craft and the ‘so-called’ boom was well underway at the grass roots before Etsy came into being. (If you are interested fellow crafter and early member of the Etsy craft community, Grace Dobush, has written a superb article about craft and the Internet.)
And, finally back to Chad Dickerson. During the 947 days that I had my Etsy shop, I watched several Etsy ‘live chats’ with Chad Dickerson and his Etsy staff. He came over as an interesting, thoughtful guy. He certainly appeared to believe in his quoted wish to champion ‘the re-imagination of commerce”. However, perhaps, at this point in time, we’re re-discovering that authentic craft has more local than global appeal.
“Who buys craft in times of austerity?” The answer, according to the UK Craft Council, who produced a report in 2010 just two years after the global financial crash, is older, educated women. Below is an extract from their report giving more details about the types of people who buy craft.
You may have noticed I sneakily switched from ‘handmade’ to ‘craft’ in my opening questions, which then begs the question “What is the difference between craft and handmade?” Now this report is essentially concerned with what people consider as ‘craft’ as opposed to simply handmade. Obviously, you can have handmade pastries, but I think most people frequently do consider handmade and craft to be interchangeable. However, if you dig a little deeper ‘craft’ appears to suggest a range of connected perceptions. This intriguing radar (spider) chart below shows how different words are more or less associated with craft particularly with relation to art and design.
And in the chart we see that the term ‘handmade’ features strongly as does ‘workmanship’ which is hardly surprising, but also ‘rural’, which, in the 21st century struck me as rather odd. Handmade ceramics, handblown glass and handwoven textiles are all very popular these days and don’t necessarily call to mind a rural aesthetic. For me, it transpires that my painted silk, though handmade, is often not considered craft. Also from my own experience it is not ‘older, educated women’ who are my customers in these times of austerity. Interestingly, it appears to be their husbands, sons and daughters who are buying my work as special presents. It’s heartwarming to know that even during these challenging times mums are still regarded as exceptional and merit a quality, genuine, handmade gift.
There was once a world before Amazon. I remember having to hurry to the university bookshop to get a recommended textbook before they sold out. If I wasn’t fast enough I’d have to wait, sometimes a couple of weeks, for my local bookshop to obtain a specialist book for me. Amazon and the Internet changed all that. Naturally, in this ‘Age of the Internet’ there have been plusses and minuses. There have been some winners and, unfortunately, some losers, not least those who make a living from cultural production. Musicians, writers and photographers have all had to find new unique interactive ways to sell their work to their respective markets. We’ve seen the rise and rise of live music events, literary festivals and even some professional photographers moving to live shows to exhibit their output. Authentic experiences are valued and traded which is perhaps one of the underlining elements fuelling the renewed interested in original handcrafted work.
The world moves on and you know an alternative trend has gone mainstream when a company like Amazon sets up an online retail service called ‘Handmade’. And, it’s already old news at the point when the UK Sunday Times Style Magazine publishes a feature on the new Amazon Handmade offer as a challenge to Etsy the online marketplace for artisans. There’s been quite a fuss in the world of artisans and crafters on various forums discussing the pros and cons of changing one’s selling platform, but not much discussion about why an enormous, global company such as Amazon thinks there’s serious money to be made out of handmade, artisan goods. As far as I can see Amazon used to be the go-to site for a mass produced product at a very good price if not the cheapest. And, it’s easy to have a “pile ’em high sell ’em cheap” attitude if you’ve got scale and muscle and a good just-in-time relationship with your suppliers. But surely all that is the antithesis of the artisan/cottage industry model.
Each handmade item takes a real person skill and time to create. Most crafts involve specialist knowledge and honed skills together with that all important essential- creativity. Artisans have experience working with raw materials and understand the precise associated processes that will culminate in a unique handmade piece. Within any specific area of artisan production there is a range of abilities, quality of materials used and standards of finish attained, but there is always more time involved to produce ‘handmade’ items. And, as they say, ‘time is money’ therefore handmade should not equal cheap.
If we just step back for a moment, one of the primary outcomes of the Industrial Revolution was the saving of time and the increasing of productivity through machine manufacturing. Machines were faster and more consistent producing thousands and thousands of identical versions of any given object. Nowadays, we take mass production for granted, it is the norm.
So what’s Amazon doing getting onto the ‘handmade’ bandwagon. Let’s face it there isn’t any real possibility of scaling up for most artisans as by the very nature of your work you are making things that require intense, time-consuming human activity and not machine/technological production. So if there’s not profit to be made by scaling up production what is the big business model? Well, that would be scaling up the makers – that is vast numbers of people listing and selling a few pieces. But what of the individual makers – perhaps a working life similar to that of the medieval weavers of East Anglia. Oh joy!
Recently I have been working on my ‘Ranworth Collection’, a series of painted scarves that have been inspired by the medieval rood screen of St Helen’s church, Ranworth in Norfolk. The painted rood screens of East Anglia make a stunning contribution to the region’s heritage. Also as they can still be found at their original sites they provide a very tangible connection to the past lives of medieval East Anglians within some physical context.
Nowadays, these painted screens are appreciated as exquisite examples of medieval art, yet at the time of their construction and painting they were created by artisans and craftsmen and were objects of religious piety. Of course, in the late-fifteenth century the very notion of ‘an artist’ as we understand it today was a developing concept that was only just becoming established.
I don’t call myself an artist, but an artisan as my current creations do not have an overt, considered content other than their visual design. Not even if my collection of one-off pieces was to be presented as a whole in an exhibition could I name it an ‘art installation’. I have made art in the past when I set out to produce a visual representation of a sequence of experiences that were personally significant to me. However, I arrive at the creation of a painted scarf in a very different way although I employ the same techniques.
For a textile design my creative process begins with a visit to a place that has caught my attention. Sometimes it is the exterior architectural details of a medieval structure or a small carved detail found inside a church that offer potential to be translated into a two dimensional design. But with the ornate detail of the painted screens it is not just the intricate patterns that are so carefully rendered, but also the delicate, fading colours of the images that I find inspirational.
On a visit I take between 50 to 100 photographs of the various panels that make up the rood screen. I check the website for the parish church before I visit to ensure I won’t be intruding on a service and I try to start early before the tourists and visitors arrive at the more popular places. It takes at least an hour to shoot an interesting screen and, of course, there is absolutely NO FLASH when photographing 500 year old paintings.
Back at the coal face, sorry computer screen, I then start the process of selection and elimination. This procedure clarifies my visual impressions from standing in front of the originals and my own designs for pattern and colour combinations gradually crystallize as I select images from which to work.