Distaff = #Realcraft?
Social media and the internet allow the once-cloistered craftsman an enormous window to the world of fellow makers — an opportunity for instruction and inspiration and a forum for discussion. A recent thread of craft blog writing following close on the heels of a carving master-class I was fortunate to attend has gotten my critical thinking/writing all fired up.
Here’s where it all starts: #Realcraft
Hashtags can be frivolous, but their larger implications, the “meta-” content of the entire conversation related to the hashtag, can carry some real weight. Examples here, here, and here. We know that words matter, and that we can use words in a powerful way to help to shape our sense of self and our place in the world.
The meta-conversation with #Realcraft seems to have started in late 2014 with a British designer named Chris Eckersley and an essay written for a show called Real Craft . A response to Eckersly’s essay by English woodworker Robin Wood added a counterpoint. Jarrod Stone Dahl is probably where I initially picked up the thread, via his blog and Instagram. The most recent conversation has been mediated and motivated by Joshua Klein of “Mortise and Tenon” magazine, here, and here. Finally, some interesting input from Peter Follansbee.
Each of these writers engages honestly in the conversation at hand and in their own way works away at what appears to be the crux of the topic: What exactly can be meant by this word/nonword “#Realcraft”? I found some insight for myself at the confluence where this theoretical discussion intersects with my own recent experience at Greenwoodfest, and a subsequent intensive carving masterclass, with the Swedish woodworker Jogge Sundqvist.
Jogge Sundqvist is well known especially among woodworkers interested in green woodwork — work done typically with freshly felled, wet trees as raw material. He is the son of Willie Sundqvist, who, via the guidance and interest of Bill Coperthwaite and Drew Langsner introduced the Sweedish sloyd (slojd) woodworking tradition to the United States.
Jogge is a tremendous ambassador for traditional craft work, and is an impressive teacher. His personality is infused with curiosity, passion for his craft, and more than a little rock-n-roll.
Surolle Working It
This was entirely in evidence when he presented a jaw-on-the-floor multimedia performance on the first night of Greenwoodfest. Entitled “Rythem and Slojd”, it began with Sundqvist roughing out a portion of a birch log with an ax to the driving beats of blasting techno music. When he had worked the birch far enough in a rough state, the music came down, Jogge sat down, and, while simultaneously working away at the project in his hands, began to define for us the tenets of his craft: slojd.
Slojd, he said, could be represented in the mind as a room with four walls, each necessary to hold up craft: the wall of tools and techniques, the wall of materials, the wall of tradition, and the wall of people and folk craft knowledge. Use of the proper tools, applied with skill to wood whose origin and qualities you are intimately aware, worked within and with awareness of the traditions and past practices of those who have come before and an awareness of the needs and desires of those for whom your work is intended, all integrated with the desire and responsibility to pass the skills along to the next generation, to foster the love and awareness of the work and the working life. This, to Sundqvist, was the definition of the word Slojdare, similar to the english word craftsman, if that word could be intended with all the foregoing implications.
This, in turn, is how I would suggest #Realcraft be defined, in the evocative, multilayered language of the slojdare.
Eckersley and Wood focus largely on the longstanding handmade/machinemade, artwork/craftwork conversation. It’s an important conversation, but works along the edges, is unsolvable, and as such, doesn’t break much new ground.
Klein shoots straight for hard boundaries, using his own strong opinions, a dictionary, and David Pye’s problematic definition of the word “craftsman” in relation to the workmanship of risk. I think there’s too much “If this, then that” to Klein’s analysis, too intense a focus, and as a result, he needed walk his initial essay back a bit. Credit is due for jumping in with both feet, however.
Follansbee gives himself an out, with the caveat that he “doesn’t usually get involved” with these types of conversations, and that the “heat has fried his brain”. I think he’s being a bit obtuse initially, picking up on the literal “real” vs. “unreal” crafts, poking at Jarrod Stone Dahl’s use of “real” as a marketing ploy, and his assertion that the way other people work “…means nothing to (him)”. Follansbee’s cagey though — if you’re aware of his work, his devotion to teaching his craft, and his place in the lineage of american craft tradition you know he’s pretty #realcraft.
I find the strongest affinity, language-wise, with Jarrod Stone Dahl:
There is something about meeting new folks, carving together and sharing stories about life and craft that strikes a deep feeling in me. These experiences solidify the many facets of what I call Realcraft. It’s the people, food, stories, skills, life, the sharing, etc.. the real life backstory to the images on your favorite social media platform or “how to” video on Youtube, blog, etc… that defines Realcraft for me.
…I know this may seem to be quite a story, but craft objects and stories go hand in hand and as makers we tell our part too. If you ever listen to folks talk about there prized wooden spoons, wooden bowls, hand thrown mug, hand made knife, basket or what have you, telling stories are part of it. If folks have taken a workshop were they make things with their hands, telling stories is very much a part of that too. There is always a story, a memory.
The story is what makes these things, the handmade, an inseparable part of our very human existence. They are a part of us in this way. There is also something imparted into the object itself too. It’s the Handmade. They are steeped in the story of the maker, the thoughts, feeling while it’s being made. They are steeped in the thoughts and feeling of the owner or owners as well.
There’s earnestness, awareness of tradition, concern for the future of craft, the continuing thread of craft through life and work, the people making and using. I think Jarrod’s slojdare for sure.
Heady stuff, up there in the theoretical ether, but brought home in a meaningful and direct way for me in the days immediately following Greenwoodfest as I had the opportunity to work with Jogge Sundqvist over two intense days in his class Distaff: The Passion of Carving.
Decorative distaff by Jogge Sundqvist
The distaff, a traditional implement used in spinning flax fiber into linen, was the vehicle via which I came to begin tounderstand what it means to be a slodare, and as a result, develop these thoughts about #realcraft.
The object itself would be a commonly found, handmade, household tool. In Swedish craft tradition a common object might be elevated in significance through additional care and intention in making to the status of “loving gift”, a gift given to woo, to show care and love, to indicate through your personal attention that you were “not uncrafty”, suitably skilled.
We were shown and learned to select and process a birch log with an ax and froe, to create a regular, symmetrical form with a drawknife and shave horse , to carve and pierce with a knife and brace, to embellish with carved decoration and color.
This class integrated tradition, skills, materials, and people — theory actualized in the real world. For someone concerned with craft, with the working life, with learning and teaching, living fully and happily, I can see how the meta-conversation revolving around #Realcraft, a crazy collaboration between traditional craft knowledge and contemporary social media, could help to open the doorway to the integration of theory and form in life by helping us to see that we’re not alone out there.
Distaff carving in process