TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Sunday, November 1, 2009

You make stuff. Are you an artist or a crafter?

My friend Neddy Astudillo's self portrait.

Ah....  the big can of worms!  What is art?  What is craft? 

Recently, several discussions about this have made their way into my little world and I felt compelled to bring the problem into the public arena.  As people who make stuff and try to make a living at it, we often run into trouble when we try to define what we do to our audiences and peers.  "Artists" are often snobs who look down their noses on "crafters".  Why the big divide between people who should have common concerns about materials, marketing, and achieving a receptive audience?  I believe that the main struggle has to do with money.  "Art" has traditionally commanded a higher price point for similar work and skills than "Craft".  As an example, a quilt made by an Amish woman might be priced at a tenth of what a quilter in the fiber art world might charge for work that is less skilled and that took less time to make.  How can that be fair?

A mola blouse worn by the Kuna Indians 
could be classified as "folk art" or as a craft.

First, let's take a look at the words, art and craft.  Craft originally referred to a specialized skill.  This could include writing, blacksmithing, doctoring, or any professional activity.  You could excel at your craft or fail at it.  In time, crafts became synonymous with handwork: embroidery, carving, sewing, pottery and other activities that refer to the making of functional and decorative objects.  Art, on the other hand, traditionally refers to work that somehow taps into the soul, that has a muse.  It is expected that art is a journey of the spirit that explores originality.  So, a writer or musician who has this muse is as much an artist as the painter.  In the last century, access to arenas that had been traditionally inherited or mentored became available to anyone who was curious.  Books, videos, kits, ready supplies and workshops all made it easy for the novice to experiment and compete with the traditional keepers of the arts and the crafts.  Flooding the market confused the words.  Arts and Crafts became lumped together as one category.  This created tension as now anyone could be an artist, anyone could practice the craft.

Paint by numbers: are they art or craft or what?  
They have become highly collectible.  

My background has been a long journey of working with ethnic crafts along with my own thirst for following my muse.  I have witnessed the disappearance of many traditional crafts around the world as wars, famine and industrialization push people out of their cottage industries into formal occupations dictated by their local economies.  As I struggle with learning new skills and experiment with producing my own body of work, I am always humbled by the techniques and creativity I see in the textiles I sell.  I will never be as good as these women are who made these embroideries in some far off village, yet their work is sold for peanuts, while I can determine that my inferior work has a certain value based on hours worked, materials and originality.  This discussion of what is art and the value of craft has international repercussions and also boils down to that basic question of price point.

There have been some attempts at resolving this problem of value by adding words to art and craft that specialize the product.  So, now we have "fine art", "folk art", "outsider art", "fiber art", "abstract art", "wearable art", and so on.  All of those extra words increase the price point of what was otherwise just "art". We also have "functional craft", "designer craft", "studio craft", "American craft", "handicraft", and "country craft", which also increase or decrease the market value of the product.  We are now experiencing a revolution in the United States that embraces all things hand made as a rejection of the cheap commercialized products available in large retailers like Walmart.  This discussion encompasses all of the crafts including food, housing, and transportation.  Getting back to basics and having intimate knowledge of many crafts has made the "Renaissance" man or woman into a superhero who can go into the woods, drag out the trees that nature felled on its own, build a hut, make rain into the water supply, grow food, spin wool, and have a virtual zero carbon footprint on the environment.  This modern Thoreau will also have an overactive muse who will help him or her write, compose, and make everything into spirit-filled canvases.  Thus, the true artist.

I could go on and on, but let me share a few vignettes and that make a conclusion.

In Caruaru, Brazil, a whole town mass produces little clay figurines that were started by folk artist, Mestre Vitalino.  The video below is a short documentary on Vitalino.  It's in Portuguese, but has good photos of his work.  The town recently celebrated the 100 years since he was born.  So, this guy developed an interesting style in clay, became sought after and collected, and the local people wanted a piece of the action and now replicate his work over and over and over.  It is fine that they do this because they are giving continuity to both a craft medium and recording local folklore that is rapidly disappearing.  I tried to import a bunch of these clay pieces, but they were low fire and I lost about 30% of what I bought due to breakage in transportation.  But, while I was there, I was wandering around through the different houses, deciding what to buy.  I happened into one where this little old man was making huge sculptures of bizarre mythological figures.  Many were over six feet high and they would be impossible to transport.  Each had a handwritten story attached as these were all images he had seen in his dreams.  Conclusion:  Vitalino and the crazy old man both had muses.  They are artists.  The villagers mass producing the clay figures are artisans or crafters.  Vitalino and the old guy deserve more recognition and more money because of their vision.

When I first lived in Chicago, I had many friends who were studying at the Art Institute, so I went to lots of art openings in those days.  Almost every senior show was peppered with photos, collages, sculptures or drawings of vaginas.  If you were a female art student, it was a given that the vagina had to be an "in your face" subject.  It got very old fast.  Conclusion:  The art world can push an original subject into mass production, thus losing its value.

At a fair trade conference several years ago, a whiny woman from South America (Bolivia, I think), got up to testify that the artisans in her community were like everybody else.  They were grateful for work, but what they really wanted to be were doctors and lawyers and teachers.  They wanted nice houses, cars, televisions and all the amenities of the developed world.  Conclusion:  Making stuff is just another job for many people.  The market has a demand for it, but there is no muse there.  This is craft and it can be very good, but can also be shoddy and of inferior quality.

There are all those issues of child labor and sweatshops.

I never really liked Picasso until I visited his museum in Barcelona.  Surrounded by his body of work and following the processes that he explored, I was overwhelmed by his genius.  I still do not like a lot of his later work, but I understood why he made it big.  Conclusion: Art demands a body of work that shows growth, experimentation and maturity.

The Zulu of South Africa make wonderful baskets that are very similar to Navajo baskets.  Technically, they equal each other, but the Zulu baskets sell for a fraction in value to the Navajo.  Why?  The art community has elevated Navajo traditional work to art status.  Native Americans who still employ ancient techniques are relatively few and are considered masters while most other Native American crafts have resorted to mass production for tourist consumption.  The Zulu basket makers still have their village structures intact and are capable of maintaining production standards because they have community support.  Conclusion:  Art is subjective and changes depending on availability.  What is now considered a handicraft might be art as that culture is disseminated.

Is this Zulu woman an artist?
Visit Zanzibar Tribal Art for more info on Zulu weavers. 

That's probably enough to get some reactions from you, the reader.  Am I an artist?  It's easier to say that to people than to go into the tiresome descriptions of how I sell online, have a bunch of odd jobs, and jump around between what some might consider art and others will define as craft.  If I say that I am an artist, it will be assumed that I am odd.  The IRS considers us to be whatever we make our money at.  So, I am an online retailer as that is where I make the bulk of my living.  Several years ago, I heard a statistic that said that less than 2% of people who had their master's degrees in art ended up in an art related field. Most of us do something else to pay our bills and explore the muse in our free time.  But, there is a spiritual element to my process, whether making a hat or a quilt.  When I am engaged in the process, the rest of the world falls away and I am the closest I can get to a state which others describe as prayer or meditation.  The end result is not as important to me as the actual making of stuff.

I think I'm an artist because I am odd.
(Rachel Biel Taibi having fun with a photo editing program)

I find this discussion especially frustrating because in the long run, I don't really care about these labels.  All of it is subjective, the market is whimsical, and what I think is really important is that people are excited about making stuff.  We are so far removed from where things come from (food, clothing, machines, furniture) that anything we can do to try to relate to the materials around us (paper, pen, ink, wood, paint, dirt) is a good thing in my book.  But, my frustration comes in wading through all the junk to get to the good stuff.  I can't sell any new, fair trade items on Etsy because it is considered a commercial product.  Yet, someone can sew a sequin on a pair of jeans and sell it as handmade.  I find this extremely limiting on a non-juried international site.  It creates a divide between those of us who are creating handmade stuff, whether art or craft, but may not have computer skills.  People like me do a great service to those who do not speak English or who cannot access larger markets.  I can sell vintage ethnic crafts, but the artisans who made them are dead, so they don't benefit from it.  Language and perceptions of what these words mean do have a powerful impact on not only how we perceive the "stuff", but also what opportunities we grant to the people who made them.

So, this is my story and I'm sticking to it!  Let the food fight begin!



  1. A great saying goes:

    "He who works with his hands is a laborer.

    He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.

    He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist."

    For all intent and purpose, I like sticking with these as definitions.

    and... in saying that....... it truly is all about "intent and purpose".

    If you are creating things as a 'hobby' (defined as "An activity or interest pursued outside one's regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure."), then your intent and purpose is truly different than an artist who's desire is for recognition and monetary reimbursement for what he/she does.

    It is when these two things meet in the same space that you have the 'war of art vs craft', in which there can be no winner (as is the outcome of any war).

    Some things I muse on are:

    1. That a 'successful' artist is usually one that is proclaimed as such by others


    2. That a successful 'crafter' is usually one that is proclaimed by the crafter themselves.

  2. Nice peace on craft and art.
    Once said a craftman with art ?
    Sorry my poor spelling. Long time since i wrote in inglish.
    Carlos Neves Portugal

  3. I like this definition for what I do: An artisan (from Italian: artigiano) is a skilled manual worker who crafts items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewelry, household items, and tools. (from wikipedia) It elevates handwork above mere time-filling hobby but not into the pretentious self-importance some "artistes" try to sell to their clientele.

  4. When you go through the college system you quickly learn to re-identify subjects, so that pottery becomes 'ceramics', fabric becomes 'textiles' and painting becomes 'fine art painting' as opposed to fine art sculpture. These are useful and professional identifying headings for those within the creative industry, but often confusing for those outside, but then there are often confusing job titles within the medical profession for example, that help to identify specific tasks within that profession. Why should the creative profession be any different?

    I have a degree in constructed textiles which makes me a designer, but if I choose to produce hand woven textiles then that makes me a craftsperson. If on the other hand, I decide to produce a woven 3-dimensional sculpture, that could make me a textile artist. These titles are not really flippant, they are descriptive as to the approach you take to your work.

    The word 'craft', at least speaking from the perspective of Europe, tends to create images associated with the amateur and the word is often frowned upon within European colleges and art schools. The snearing remark 'craft equals crap' is often used by students and tutors alike, particularly by those who consider themselves to be on the artistic rather than craft side of the creative element.

    There is no real merit in the remark but it does tend to show up the friction created by titles.

    I suppose we live in a world where words matter. The old adage about sticks and stones never really held true, as descriptive titles are what define us and the ill use of a title can hurt. If we are asked what we do, no one really means in your spare time, they really mean how do I identify you. If someone says that they are a shopkeeper, librarian or doctor then there are automatically a set of tags that will pigeon hole that person. If another says artist or craftsperson, the same will happen, but perhaps our peers will judge us more harshly that the general public.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article.

  5. All of these comments have such great insight! Many thanks to all of you! I hope others keep contributing to this important discussion.

  6. "I find this discussion especially frustrating because in the long run, I don't really care about these labels. All of it is subjective, the market is whimsical, and what I think is really important is that people are excited about making stuff."

    This is a neverending discussion, but a true food for thought. I couldn't agree more with you. "Labels" are only a way to cathalogue (conveniently) things that are scattered. Although we need labels and organization, in terms of study, commerce, teaching... I honestly find them quite limitating when it comes down to the actual degree (in fine sculpture, in my case). Maybe in some way, there still are many preconcepts in the art schools due to a few tabus. Like my teachers accused me of making too "small sulptures" because I didn't identify with concrete megalithic pieces as themselves... I sincerely didn't leave university with a smille on my face, I don't practice my degree and ionly now, 5 years later do I truly realise how much these concepts depressed me and chopped off my strength.
    Anyway, the real freedom I found was through crafts. Or whatever you want to call what I do. Because I'm free to explore whatever media I like, as long as I'm making things of my own... then, I'm happy.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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