In an age of the global village, one with no streets or front doors, where everywhere is nowhere, there is a surprising resurgence of interest in the local and handmade. In a world of technological wonderment, we have found a cultural context and appreciation for craftsmen who preserve things worth saving- however small. In the NYT this week, there is an article on a woman who makes Tintype photographs of musicians in Appalachia. This month’s Food and Wine magazine celebrates the blacksmith who makes knives, the baker who mills grain, and an importer searching for a single strain of heirloom turmeric. Yet this respect for tradition and love of craft do not extend to painting —where the craftsman has long been rejected in favor of the prophet.
The craftsman pursues technical excellence knowing that time and repetition are a necessary component of mastery. The skills of the trade must be ingrained so deeply that the hands can work while the mind is free to roam. Yet, there is ambivalence towards skill in art that is found even within Ateliers. This school year we have had numerous debates pitting creativity against technical mastery as if they are two inherently opposing forces. Students question the value of repetition, master-copy work, and simple projects, especially when they have big dreams and the sense that there is never enough time to accomplish them. Allocating time for study is all the more difficult when the sacrifices demanded aren’t recognized as necessary or culturally relevant.
The bestselling book Boys in the Boat, capture the devotion of a master craftsman who elevated his field to an art form. George Pocock was a builder of racing shells whose boats won three Olympic gold medals. ’ Author Daniel James Brown wrote:
Pocock said the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done, and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart.
Pocock’s description could have been said by the representational artist at an easel. You cannot truly separate craftsmanship and creativity at the level of the masterpiece- any more than you can separate body and spirit. The craft provides the material form to embody creativity and imagination of the artist. The visual expression of our ideas is inseparable from their embodied presence. The writer, John Berger, said, ‘to try to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating hope.’ Perhaps it is worth adding the word ‘well’. To try and paint well, even if we don’t hit the mark we aim for, is an act of hope and resistance.