Jack of all arts, crafts, wannabe

I am equally passionate about fine art and craft, about decoration and abstraction. I am equally thrilled to think about and be involved in architecture, interior design, crafts and the tactile arts.

What I mean by architecture is the design and execution of structures such as homes, offices and civic buildings. Architecture is a very “well-rounded” profession requiring knowledge of a wide variety of disciplines and crafts. Successful design and execution of structures makes use of craft and decoration.

What I mean by interior design is the design and execution of interior spaces, making use of finish materials (wall coverings, floor coverings, moldings) and furniture. Architecture and interior design often overlap. Successful interior design makes use of craft and decoration.

When I refer to the tactile arts, I am referring to paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints (as in printmaking, not digital reproductions) and so on. These are commonly referred to as the fine arts as well. I specifically refer to them as the tactile arts to distinguish digital art from hand-made, three dimensional art. The tactile arts regularly make us of decoration, and hopefully employ good craft.

What I mean by craft is “to make or manufacture an object with skill and careful attention to detail.”

I write all of this in a manner of thinking out loud. I don’t personally know how to reconcile my interest in so many distinct visual activities. I would love to find a way to be equally involved in all of them, designing homes — inside and out, working in my studio to create both abstract sculpture and functional furniture. Could I make such a thing financially viable, make it into a business? Would I want to?

Last night I listened to a discussion among friends. They pondered out loud the definition of art, the importance of craft and the validity of abstraction. It was pointed out that Frank Lloyd Wright’s wonderful designs were often poorly executed. Craft is vital. In culture today craft is second class. Whether on account of our impatience, profit-driven mass manufacturing or an imprudent priority given to concept over product, objects in America these days are more often than not cheaply made. I’d like to see this change in the midst of good design, great concepts. I’d like to see well-built, enduring architecture and furniture, with imaginative and prophetic sculpture and painting on the walls and in the yards of homes and public structures.

And I’d like to be a part of that renaissance, somehow.

Abstract decoration on Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright building in St. Louis,
from the Missouri Heritage Project website.

About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

17 Responses to Jack of all arts, crafts, wannabe

  1. 24books says:

    Thanks for writing this. I wonder if my generation (Xish) or the one rising up (Y) will have the patience or endurance to develop quality of craft. I hope so. The American car industry seems to be getting the quality picture…more and more consumers are demanding good quality for their money, however, paying for well crafted objects is not inexpensive.

    You asked if you know me…not really. I used to be the web editor for Via Affirmativa until I left to pursue my craft of writing good advertisements in late December…talk about a world of juxtaposed values. I enjoy your site.

  2. Matthias Pearson says:

    Culturally, it will be difficult to see real craft again until we free ourselves from our consumer driven pragmatically grounded societal habits. The philosophy of Positivism states that we should only value that which we can quantifiably measure or rationally analyze. It takes time and thoughtfulness to exercise craft. For those with eyes to see it brings richness and depth. But it is also one reason well crafted things cost more and why it’s difficult to mainstream quality. From a Christian viewpoint I think our ability (need) to regain an appreciation for craft is tied in part to our like ability (need) to “set Christ aside as Lord”. What I mean by this is it takes time to absorb who God is, his attributes and scriptural doctrines. They are hard to wrestle with yet through each season of struggle God creates in us a spiritual depth not gained otherwise. For me, craft in art and architecture is a reflected image of this process. Most of us would agree with the value of this process but are we willing to commit ourselves to it and support the arts or live in well designed and crafted homes?

    BTW, my thoughts about Frank Lloyd Wright are that he was so far out in front of technology that it was not so much the lack of craft in construction (as opposed to design or idea craft, at which he was brilliant) that caused some of his designs to receive criticism, but the lack of appropriate materials and science to properly execute them (there are exceptions I’m sure, he designed over 700 buildings). Can that be the fault of the designer? In part yes, architecture, as you state, is such an all encompassing discipline and includes satisfaction of even the most basic means of shelter and construction. But I hope we will never turn away from designing with a forward mind toward the things that really enhance life.

    I’m with you in that renaissance!

  3. TAE says:

    Quite possible, FLW’s being ahead of the technology. Does make sense. I hadn’t heard that mentioned of him before the discussion I listened to (and cursorily participated in) and mentioned in the post. My own experience in a Wright building didn’t cause me think of poor craft.

  4. Tim J. says:

    TAE, your posts are very tempting, beng as they are so densely packed with material on which one could comment. This post is one on which I could spend an afternoon, but God would not be happy about that. 😉

    I am tardy in writing my next post in my series on abstraction, but I sense some possible (if foggy) consensus on the role of decoration and abstraction in the bigger picture. Abstract art is, I believe, more directly involved and dependent on its environment – more architecturally driven – than other categories of tactile art (a phrase I like, BTW, and plan to steal).

  5. TAE says:

    Steal away. My point is for clarity, and I think this will help in discussions about art in our present cultural context.

  6. Tally says:

    Having made the comment about FLW, I would like to add that I myself have always felt a kinship to him. Except I recognize that form is far more important to me than function so I don’t build things that have safety codes. Not that I believe FLW’s structures were life-endangering. And not all of them had issues. It’s a fact that flat roofs are a challenge when it comes to rain and snow and ice. Glass has never been known for its awesome insulation qualities. Well, I could go on and on about the juxtaposition of art and function. It’s been a lifelong dilemna for me.
    I am all for your renaissance too! Let’s bring back the craft! It’s high time.
    I have a question. What do you do when function contradicts your form?

  7. TAE says:

    I thought it was Joel that made the comment about some of FLW’s craft being suspect, but no matter. Perhaps both of you shared the sentiment.

    When function contradicts form? I’m more inclined to think that in modern times forms contradict function. Do you have examples of what you’re asking?

    If a certain material, which generally implies a certain function (clay = vessel, yarn = textile, brick = wall), does not agree with a proposed project I would look at a different material that better suits said project. Does that speak to your question?

  8. Matthias says:

    You ask “What do you do when function contradicts your form?” I suggest change the model until both complement each other or are the same. Horatio Greenough wrote a book around 1840-50 entitled “Form and Function, Remarks on Art, Design and Architecture” that perhaps set the tone for much of the discussion surrounding this topic (a really good read by the way). He does an in-depth study of creation and how, for example, the form of an eagle’s eye brow is shaped to enable it to shade the eye so that the eagle can see its prey clearly. Louis Sullivan, FLW’s mentor used the same terminology. Then FLW came along and married the two stating that “form and function are one”. Reality is probably somewhere in the middle of those two but my goal at least is to always aim for the Wrightian interpretation. It is harder to achieve, takes more time, requires more craft, but results in a richer, multivalent (I learned that word from one of my students) solution.

    Rather than thinking of materials in how they have been traditionally used (I’m not implying this was all you were doing), the specific attributes of a material needs to be studied and then that material can be utilized based on its function not its historical use which could open up non-traditional expressions.

  9. TAE says:

    Matthias said: “Rather than thinking of materials in how they have been traditionally used (I’m not implying this was all you were doing), the specific attributes of a material needs to be studied and then that material can be utilized based on its function not its historical use which could open up non-traditional expressions.”

    Very good. The implied uses of materials need not be their end all, but I’m assuming craftsmen before me have — to a large degree — explored the limits of many basic mediums. However, as artists I hope we always push the limits of our craft and design, doing so in a well-considered manner. That is, so the end product doesn’t end up needing to be covered up because it’s too bright (referring Gehry’s L.A. Philharmonic building).

    I meant to mention Sullivan in my original post with respect to the abstract decorations on the Wainwright building in St. Louis. I’ve gone back and added a photo to the post; thanks for the reminder.

  10. Mo-Coffee says:

    This is a lovely post. I don’t know if you will ever find a completely satisfactory stance between art v craft and art v craft v theology, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making the effort! I often feel it is similar to the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, or God (depending on translation)–sometimes you just have to hang on and refuse to let go until you are blessed.

    I have an MFA Ceramics (Kent State), and am a Christian, and have been dealing with many of these issues for 20 years now. I don’t have any specific wisdom to give– I find whenever I plant my flag in one place the sand is shifty, so i just carry it around mostly. Will our society ever embrace great craftsmanship again? Probably not. Did it ever? That, too, is debatable. Is there a Biblical mandate to do so- I think that case is makable. (BTW do you get Image Journal?)

    FLW was amazing, but he was a designer, not a craftsman. I have visited many of his houses (I live close to Oak Park, IL), and I’m pretty sure about that. He designed some pretty lousy sculpture, and worse furniture. He was no fan of function (like most great architects). He was, perhaps, a slave to his own ego- well, who isn’t, really? But he did get MATERIAL. I would argue that Gehry does, too, in his way.

    I love Matthias’s comments. What our American culture is rapidly losing is the ability to abide in time. That greatly effects our ability to recognize God and each other. It is my hope that good craft somehow helps us do that- both in it’s creation and in its use.

  11. TAE says:

    @ Mo-Coffee:

    Great to make your acquaintance. I’m ecstatic to find someone with an MFA in ceramics on my blog; if you scan the headlines back over the last few months you’ll see that I’m pondering the worth of the same degree.

    I don’t take Image Journal but have known about it for years, and have been occasionally involved in their online forums.

  12. Tally says:

    Hm, I love these answers to my question. Call me an idiot, but I never thought about considering the proper use of a material and realizing that its occasional handicap in performance might be attributed to the simple fact that it just wasn’t made for the purpose I was intending it. K, all that to say, I guess I work backwards. I get an idea and grab whatever material I think will produce the effect I want. Sometimes it works (and I feel like a genius) and sometimes it doesn’t (and I get frustrated).
    I really like the analogy of the eagle’s eyebrow. In thinking about function, I realize that’s part of my problem. Function is relative for me. Here’s an example. I bought a really cute silverware caddy for my sink. It’s black iron and I love it. It is not very functional though. The silverware constantly slips through the wide slats. My mom was washing dishes for me at Christmas and at one point said as calmly as possible, “Doesn’t this thing ever annoy you?” “No, I said. I have a normal plastic one you can use instead if it’s annoying you.” She declined, I think because she didn’t want to rock the boat. And that boat is…..it’s far more important to me that something look good than actually work well. Obviously function is important to me on some level or I wouldn’t be using the caddy for its intended use. I’m just saying its hard for form to keep up with function, if function is fickle.
    I’m not sure any of this made sense. Sorry. I spent too long on it not to post it though.

  13. Pingback: Is art defined by communication? « The Aesthetic Elevator

  14. Mo-Coffee says:

    So, Tally (and others)–
    Try these working definitions on and see if they fit:

    Art- aesthetic built around the idea that the concept drives the material

    Craft- aesthetic built around the idea that the material drives the concept

    These definitions completely redefine the art v craft debate, and creates all kinds of problems about how we define certain people (e.g. Pollock might be considered a craftsman), but it’s worth kicking around. If I have the time I’ll unpack my rational in a post soon

    • Hi, just found this blog and post. I’m at the very early stages of starting a PHD..just getting my area of focus together. I want to focus (through an art practice-based method) on the work made in the areas where fine art, craft and decoration overlap. This stems from my own practice as I have always felt confused as to where to locate it!
      I like your reasoning between art and craft, hmmmmm, something to think about!
      I’d love to hear from anybody else who interested in this field!

  15. TAE says:

    Definitely worth kicking around . . . Yesterday afternoon I was actually thinking about how aesthetics played into my thoughts and questions . . . Sick today so not sure that will play out on the blog . . .

  16. Pingback: Art for art’s sake « The Aesthetic Elevator

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