Friday, July 25, 2014

Why Handmade: What is Your Title?

by Lynn Mohney of Prunella’s Workshop

What do you call yourself? Why? It seems a simple question for some, and for others it can be quite complicated. Are you an artist? Artisan? Craftsman? Designer? How do you define each one? Are there negative connotations to any or all of these for you? When you break it down further to your specific specialty, is your title clear, or do you need to break it down even further?

A lot of emotional weight is carried with terms such as artist, and craftsman. Such terms carry different meanings for people, depending on their personal experience, and it can be difficult to separate emotion from objectivity. The title one person uses for themselves may be unsatisfactory to someone else in the same or similar field. For sake of objectivity, I’ve looked up the definitions of some of these terms in the Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Double Infinity Scarf by Loomination

Artist: a person who creates art : a person who is skilled at drawing, painting, etc.; a skilled performer; a person who is very good at something
Art: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feeling; works created by artists : paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings; the methods and skills used for painting, sculpting, drawing, etc.
Artisan: a person who is skilled at making things by hand
Craftsman: a person (especially a man) who makes beautiful objects by hand; a person (especially a man) who is very skilled at doing something
Craft: an activity that involves making something in a skillful way by using your hands; a job or activity that requires special skill
Designer: a person who plans how something new will look and be made; a person who creates and often produces a new product, style, etc.

Handmade wool Felt clutch by Sugin Textiles

Did you find any surprises? I personally was struck by the definitions of craftsman v.s. artisan. I’ve preferred artisan over craft or craftsman, as the latter has taken on a meaning of unskilled creating. Playing with play dough, as opposed to creating ceramic pottery, if you will. There is definitely nothing wrong with the former; I like to do it all of the time, but I don’t have to be good at it to call it a craft.  Yet, by very definition, Craftsman and artisan are almost the exact same thing. In fact, the advantage of using the term artisan over craftsman seems to be the gender neutrality of the word.

Vase by Early Bird Designs

In addition, I noticed the word designer has a more hands off definition. There seems to be more room in the definition to allow someone else to create the product based upon the imagination of someone else; however, the definition leaves room for a designer who creates their own ideas.

I wasn’t surprised to find the definition of art/artist to be be the most ambiguous. Art is a difficult concept to define, in my opinion, as so much of it is based upon emotion. For example, I had an art history professor who felt there was nothing more beautiful than the emotion and expression he saw in a Jackson Pollock painting. My husband has shared with me he sees the work of a sloppy house painter, who dripped paint all over a canvas. In the world of art, both opinions can have validity, as it is based upon emotion as much as skill. One cannot force someone to have an emotion if they aren’t feeling it! However, by being vague, the definition leaves room for any craft to elevate to be considered art based upon the response to the work, and the ability of the artisan.

However, we don’t typically introduce ourselves as an artist or a craftsperson. There is a lack of specificity to the terms which doesn’t help our patrons. We say we are photographers or painters. We are mixed media artists. It isn’t always even that simple. For example, if you sew, are you a seamstress? Or do you call yourself a sewer? Maybe you are a tailor or a sewist. One member of Boston Handmade has mentioned she doesn’t like sewer because of the word’s resemblance to a gutter in spelling. She likes seamstress, and feels it reclaims woman’s work of the past in a positive way; whereas another member objects to seamstress due to the suggested hierarchy of seamstress to tailor, the latter being a male higher position in the economic scale. Meanwhile just what is a fiber artist or a textile artist, specifically?

My own field has many titles with slightly different nuances to each. There are jewelry artists, jewelry designers, metal designers, metalsmiths, beaders, and wire wrappers, just to name a few. Within my own house we have different titles. My husband refers to himself as a metalsmith, whereas I usually call myself a jewelry designer/metalsmith.

Why does any of this even matter, anyway? We can say what really matters is the quality of the execution of our work, and this is true. However, how we define ourselves can make a lasting impression on our patrons and other artists/artisans. Each person we come into contact with has a perception of what each of these titles mean, and this perception can be the difference regarding whether they take us and our work seriously. If you are finding people aren’t understanding what you do, or the depth of the skill required to do what you do, consider changing up how you define yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised!

So. What do you call yourself now?

1 comment :

  1. Great post, Lynn! This is something that I have struggled with in the past. I've decided that "illustrator" is the word that best conveys what I do. (Surface pattern designer works too but a lot less people know what that is.) I draw instead of paint but feel the word "drawer" is awkward in much the same way as "sewer" is. I don't consider myself an artist because I don't do one-of-a-kind pieces. And it really bothers me when people call me a graphic designer. I understand that the general public is not aware but there is a big difference between what a graphic designer does (communication design such logos, branding, marketing pieces; often very type-based) and what I do (drawing images and patterns to be used on products). Thank you for starting this conversation!


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