As a young boy, I took a walk nearly every June day to a small lake three blocks north of my home. Some days it was with my sister to the dreaded swim lessons during what seemed to always be the coldest days of summer. Some days it was just me, my fishing pole, my little black tackle box, and whatever worms I could dig up from our back yard. And then there were the days that nearly all of the kids on our block would gather and practically run the short distance to a small park at one corner of the lake where a few high school kids would have set up a mobile arts and crafts studio.
The crafts weren’t complicated or even very exciting from what I can remember. Most of the time they required bringing something from home or finding some things in the park to use. But there was something about being outdoors that made these activities special. Perhaps it helped that there were the older kids as leaders too, since they seemed so cool and not like our art teacher at school who made us color inside the lines and use only small dabs of paste. Or, perhaps it was that whatever we made we could bring home to give to mom or dad if we didn’t end up breaking it along the way.
Milkweed pods became homes for elves. Sticks turned into frames for pictures that we painted of lakeshore scenes. Rocks and sand filled jars to become abstract patterns of great meaning. A feather or flower worked its way into jewelry. The young leaders would haul out tools and paper and glue and paints and all sorts of stuff from the trailer. It was kind of magical and mysterious but mostly just a lot of fun.
I hear a lot about “craft” these days. It’s sort of a buzzword. At some point in the past few years we once again began to notice the efforts of everyday artists whose skills tend to the more practical “arts.” While these artisans might not get a special showing at an art museum or in a gallery or at an art fair, they’ve begun to appear at markets and storefronts and are making themselves known with the power of media. Whether it’s a craft beer or a knitted sweater, the skills and labor involved aren’t for everyone, and yet, they easily could be. Craft is much less about some superstar talent or rare gift; it’s just about learning something and dedicating yourself to it.
In some ways, the efforts to think “smaller,” through shopping more locally, choosing small businesses and supporting independent ventures leads to a growth in craft. By walking away from the great big one-size-fits all products and the mass marketed/mass produced version of items that everyone “must have,” we open up the ability for many, many artisans to earn a living at a scale that fits each one of them.
I’ve been following a pair of friends who are enjoying the challenges of moving from a small scale, kitchen-table operation of fermenting vegetables, to finding ways to work in a small commercial kitchen with a scale that can let them share their craft in local grocery stores. They are facing the same challenges I faced when imagining how to provide scones on a daily basis to my neighbors from a small coffee shop instead of out of my kitchen for a few special events each year to friends and family. We both love our crafts and know that there is a point where scaling too big loses that sense of craft and certainly loses the love that goes into providing something for people you know and can meet face to face.
My daughter is currently working with a school whose sole purpose is to support and promote “folk” crafts. Traditional craftwork, taught by experienced teachers assures that those skills won’t be lost. It has been a joy for me to hear of the many projects she has participated in and to hear her excitement at being able to teach some of those crafts to others herself. I did my part to teach her some of these handy craft skills, but many are skills I don’t have and couldn’t teach her but now perhaps could learn from her.
I cringe when I see “craft” on billboards or part of a huge corporation’s new product line. I’ve felt saddened by the way global businesses can step into any neighborhood and out-muscle the people who’ve spent their lives quietly building a community. When we are willing to support those who make their living from a craft we strengthen a community and allow those skills to remain in the community where they can be taught and passed on to future generations.
The neighborhoods throughout Minneapolis are blessed with an abundance of skilled artisans and crafts people. A sustainable neighborhood provides lots of ways for these people to use their craft to earn a living. I encourage you to create that neighborhood by making your own short “walk to the park” to support a local craft worker. I also encourage you to learn, develop and make use of your own craft!