Hornton & Cotswold stone, Chipping Campden Library (1999)
Dear Helen and Andy
When you asked me to write something in response to your project, my first thought was to write about time. I thought about T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton and the dance at “the still point of the turning world”, which is an image that many artists and craftspeople are drawn to because it seems to speak to the experience of making, of being out of time, of time standing still. This made me think of my late father-in-law, the sculptor and letter cutter Bryant Fedden, because he particularly loved that poem and used it in his work, and then I thought that I would write about him. He embodied many of the values that are reflected in your themes. Bryant exemplified for me a certain kind of craftsman for whom the integrity that he put into his work was bound up with the struggle for an integrity of being.
Bryant was one of the principal reasons that I became a maker. I met him at a time when I was casting around for what I wanted to do with my life. He was a very fine craftsman with a distinctive style of carving, characterized by a sureness of form and a certain lightness of touch. But he also appeared to be reaching for a practice in which work and home, aesthetics and politics; a reflective interior life and an outward looking sense of society were all bound together. He aspired to live in a world of his own making. It seemed both intellectual and practical. Immensely attractive to a young man.
Eventually we established a group workshop, together with my brother-in-law, Matthew Fedden, in the Forest of Dean. We made work together and separately, and other people came, to assist us and to make their own work, attracted by the ethos that Bryant encouraged. These visitors included Bryant’s great friend Li Yuan-Chia. Li is regarded as one of the most important Chinese artists of the 20th Century, but in the 60’s he had eschewed fame and status in the art establishment. He settled in Cumbria, next to Hadrian’s Wall, where he opened the Lyc Gallery, which became a centre for his village community, with the motto space = time = life.
The workshops faced down a valley, across fields, towards the forest. Hills, fields and trees were arranged just so, in a way that seemed considered. In fine weather we would set up a trestle table under a tree and take lunch together in a grand style. We had a strong sense that our life and work was located, in the landscape, in the village, in a community.
When I think of the workshop, of course I think of the good work that we made there, but I think more about the mode of working: the process of settling into work at the start of the day; the mindfulness, the close attention to the present moment; the cycle of work and shared mealtimes; conversations; collaborations; the proximity to the house and garden; the children running in and out in the summer. I think of it as a focal point, which drew people to it and from which we worked outwards to engage with the world – through our making, of course, but also in ways that were somehow facilitated by our work. What do I mean by this? Well, partly it was to do with being around, being fit, practical people, sadly lacking in financial ambition, available to help out, but it was also about constructing a unity between our work and our social relationships. The artist Joseph Bueys maintained that people who worked with “substance”, who came, through patient learning, to understand the give and take of trying to manipulate matter, generalised that knowledge so that it informed all of their being. They lived life with closer attention, took greater pleasure in their daily experience, became better citizens. This is an idea straight out of Ruskin and Morris, and has recently been reiterated by Richard Sennett in his new book The Craftsman, where he argues that ‘the capacities our bodies have to shape physical things are the same capacities we draw on in social relations.’
The workshops that we shared in Littledean, at their most thriving and coherent moment represented a cherished ideal for Bryant, they were inseparable from and all of a piece with the life that Bryant created together with his wife Kate – a very special thing, a “still point” around which we all gathered. This ideal is rooted in a tradition of craft thinking that is denigrated as ‘Romantic’. But it has a new resonance in the face of the alienating effects of late capitalist work practices, when we are trying to imagine a future without oil. I recently attended a local meeting, which was to consider the role of artists in the Transition Towns Movement. Some people talked about the role of the artist in communicating the problem, through work in schools or through “dramatic interventions”. Well, there has always been a role for the artist as illustrator or fool. Perhaps, though, the Romantic ideal of the crafted existence could help us to model more positive communities. Richard Sennett claims that the urge to be creative and to do things well are innately human, and that the denial of that urge in our working culture is profoundly damaging to our sense of ourselves and to our greater well-being. This suggests a healing role for the crafts in all our lives, in all our communities.
Critical debate around craft has seen a great resurgence in the last decade or so, but it has sometimes seemed concerned principally with positioning the crafts within the grand narrative of post-modern theory. Until recently it hasn’t greatly concerned itself with the kind of principals that are expressed in your themes. However, they continue to have currency for many people who build their lives around a craft practice.
Your project, in reasserting values that are part of a long tradition of craft thinking, is timely and seems to be part of a fresh debate. A debate that places craft alongside other ‘slow’ movements but also at the heart of wider debates about what kind of a world we want to live in.
The literary theorist Terry Eagleton has reflected on the impact of cultural theory in his book After Theory, and acknowledged that it has tended towards a distancing irony, which has been de-politicizing. He argues that, in the face of globalized capitalism and the “war on terror”, “theory must be harnessed to practical political ends”, and more broadly that it must re-engage with what it is to be human.
A human being is a craftsperson!
Yours in hope