Friday, July 5, 2013

Why Handmade: Handmade vs. Mass-produced

by Lynn Mohney of Prunella’s Workshop

The definitions of handmade and mass-produced are not as clear-cut as they may originally sound. Can something be handmade and mass-produced? When is the fact that an item is handmade special, and when is it just a process? These questions are not easily answered, and seem to have different answers depending on the medium of choice.

Little Pink Flowers Photo Print, 8x10 Matted photo, by K. Hawkins Photography

For example, take a photographer or a print artist. By their very nature, there is a suggestion that multiples of one piece may and probably do exist, as the task of reproduction is simple. However, an artist may do limited editions and guarantee they will not make more than a certain number, whereas a mass production outfit would make no such guarantee. While the cost of one from the individual artist may be defrayed across the cost of several, it may be more expensive than what one could purchase from a department store. The department store can sell limitless numbers of one print as long as the marketplace demands it, whereas regardless of demand, the artist has made a promise to you that there will be a limited number in existence regardless of demand.

There are companies that claim handmade status of mass-produced items. A designer creates a design and several people do their part in touching and creating the item, sometimes with and often times without the designer’s supervision. Technically, the item has been touched by multiple hands, and may have slight variations between each one. They are not one of a kind, nor are such companies sporting claims of such. Can they claim handmade status? This can be highly debatable. Does the artist have to be the one who actually made the item? What if there is an assistant? Or a team of assistants? It is an interesting question. Where do we draw the line?

There are artists, to be certain, who cannot not physically make every part of an item with their own two hands as it requires a team. For example, there are glass blowers who design very one of a kind work and supervise a team of assistants who do parts of the work. The artist’s hand is in every stage of the work. One only has to look at the Italian Renaissance to see how fine artists have utilized apprentices to complete a larger body of work than they may have been able to complete on their own. A painter would draw the design of a fresco painting, and apprentices would work on various parts. The most central part of the work would be completed by the artist himself. The work is credited to the artist, and no one questions it is handmade status as it is indeed one of a kind.

Copper Cuff Bracelet with Blue Stone, by Prunella's Workshop

On another note, there is the jewelry artist and casting. There are types of jewelry that are not effectively hand fabricated. An artist can carve a wax mold with dental tools and send it out to a caster. The caster can create as many copies of the wax as the artist pays them, at any level of finish. In other words, it can arrive back to the artist ready to be sold, some clean up may be required, or the artist may have further work to be completed such as stone setting. As the piece leaves the hands of the artist, one could argue this to be a mass-produced item with aspects that are handmade. However, some jewelry artists do the casting in-house. Prunella’s Workshop is one such business. Cast items still may not be one of a kind, unless only one is made; therefore mass production is still a possibility. However, every cast item from Prunella’s has two co-creators. One designs and carves the wax while the other does the casting. The process is seen by both creators.

Therefore, if it is acceptable for an artist to have a small team of assistants as long as the artist participates in the process, and multiples of one piece are acceptable in the art world in media where multiples are as simple as another sheet of paper, where do we draw the line and say, that is not handmade, that is mass-produced? Can something be mass-produced and hand made? Can something be handmade and mass-produced? Are they one and the same? There is no one answer.

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