Crossing the Line

Have you ever winced when someone admired your work and declared you an artist? I take it as a sincere compliment, but I think of my work as craft. If done well it extends our craft tradition, a reward in itself. Yet that “Art” compliment seen in a historical context offers insight that may just help you do your best work. Pre-industrial design literature is filled with references to art.

In the broadest sense the world was split into two large buckets – things that occurred by the forces of nature and things art-ificial, or things made by the hand of man. Thus the word art was tacked onto any activity where we transformed a thing into something else. Art was used to describe the work of the trades such as the art of joinery or brewing.

“Three Pairs” oil on canvas board by Barb Walker

Art was defined as “A system of knowledge which makes the things a man undertakes succeed.” Art was further divided into many branches, but for our purposes the fork that separated art and craft was the distinction between liberal arts and mechanical arts. Liberal being defined as arts involving the mind, what we today call fine art, and included: painting, music, poetry, sculpture, and architecture. Oddly enough Ephraim Chambers Cyclopædia circa 1728 described the liberal arts as the noble branch worthy of being cultivated without any regard to lucre. As opposed to mechanical arts (craft) which furnishes us with the necessities of life and largely involved hand and body such as: weaving, clockmaking, joinery, turning, and cabinetmaking.

Yet even though separate branches, both liberal and mechanical shared some common threads. They both recognized that the best work crossed a line that often defied words to explain. Whether that came after centuries of refinement handed down through generations and resulted in the pleasing lines of a boat hull, or the stunning image of a painting that captures the essence of life. There was always the sense that both craft and art has the potential to cross that mysterious line.

Both arts also understood that there was a “craft” element to be mastered. The painter studied brush techniques, color, values, and perspective, while the cabinetmaker learned joinery, sharpening, and the properties of wood. Yet cabinetmaker and painter also learned the “craft” element of design. In the cabinetmakers case, the craft of design involved simple geometry; mastered not just for layouts, but also to nurture the inner eye, and something even more odd to our modern way of thinking. They held tightly to a rite of passage that shows up over and over again, learning the secrets of the classic orders. These ancient architectural standards helped the mind to understand space and proportions, improve judgment and confidence, and provide the ability to cross that line that defies explanation.

This ancient design standard is a textbook on applied proportions, Drawing by author.

That design skill element is what I’m interested in mastering. I know it doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s the gateway to crossing over that line.

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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7 Responses to Crossing the Line

  1. Chris Bame says:

    Brilliant post George. I have often felt that way about the “artist” comment.
    Craftsman seems much more appropriate to me.
    The lines do blur but Iv’e always thought of the painter as the “artist”
    Thanks for your insight

  2. Ray Schwanenberger says:

    George – Very informative and most interesting. I have always thought it a great compliment to be referred to as an artist or a craftsman, but until now did not really understand the distinction between the two. Maybe then, the compliment given speaks more to the interpretation of the viewer rather than the artist/craftsman? Regardless, both are fine compliments! Great post!!

  3. Woodster says:

    Some who look at my work ask if I am the artist. I am a woodworker, I reply, my son who is a painter is an artist. I make wooden things, he makes art. Big difference.

  4. millcrek says:

    George, I guess I’ll be odd man out and somewhat disagree. I believe painting, sculpture, woodworking, ceramics and any other hand endeavor are all crafts. On rare occasions a crafts person may make a work of art. A work of art for me implies a level of universality, and a communication of ideas or emotion that the viewers participate in. Only a few of the paintings of even the great painters achieve the status of Art with a capital A. Great craftsmanship is great craftsmanship but it doesn’t make art, great art can be done with poor craftsmanship, poor engineering and even poor design.

  5. ejcampbell says:

    I had ntended on writiing a longer reply, but Millcreek beat me to it and said it so well with so few words. When people compliment a great craftsman on his work of art, I think they mean that the design and craftsmanship go beyond the utilitarian and create a work of beauty that does communicate an emotion. When I look at a Maloof rocker, I feel a beauty and grace and serenity that come as close as I’ve seen to Art from a piece of furnitture.

  6. Pete Chast says:

    I’ve got to say that The beauty that we create is often at least as good as what is touted as Art today. I feel it should be recognized as such, art.

  7. Jack Plane says:

    Amongst many pursuits, I make furniture. By definition, I must therefore be a furniture-maker. To me, the word ‘craft’ conjures up bucolic endeavours of yore and while I don’t regard furniture-making as a craft, certain elements of furniture-making are crafts such as bodging and seat caning/rushing etc.

    Millcrek cornered the argument for ‘art’. I definitely don’t consider any aspect of my furniture-making as art. I do occasionally paint, though none of it could really be regarded as art either!

    The accolade that really gets under my skin is ‘master’. It’s difficult to rebuke a misguided well-wisher who claims you are a ‘master’ or that your work is a ‘masterpiece’, but I have come very close on a number of occasions. I am a master – in the true sense – in a totally different field (though strangely, my efforts in that area seldom drew any commendation!), so I am particularly sensitive to the misuse of ‘master’ or ‘masterpiece’ and it really winds me up when I read of a pine coffee table that took three days to make being lauded as a masterpiece!

    Sorry… what were we talking about?


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