Made in the USA … by you
By Erin McCann
Craft is a difficult thing to define. Unfortunately, the word has become associated with potholders and granny square quilts, connotations that are outdated and stereotypical. But craft can be seen as a reclaiming of the handmade in a world increasingly saturated with uniform consumerism.
Because of the ever-evolving definition of art, concern over unstable and unjust times, and a backlash against mass production, “do it yourself” (DIY) craft is both artistic and political. From potters to printmakers to knitters, do it yourself crafters are approaching entrepreneurialism from a creative standpoint, spawning a new idea of community, forging an independent and powerful economy, and finally appreciating a growing market for their art.
Craft can be humorous, witty and sometimes even tacky, but its function is not simply to validate itself as art. Craft represents choice, creative freedom and a push toward economic independence.
Fred Ericksen is an Elm Grove-based artist who interprets craft in the form of handmade birdfeeders and bee habitats. A true do it yourselfer, Ericksen is a self-taught metal smith and entomologist who began selling his functional art pieces in 1997, creating his own studio, The Pollen Path. Also a traveling lecturer and educator on native bees, he found the creation of his art a natural transition. “It was a hobby of mine,” he states. “I just took it a little further.”
His hummingbird, oriole, fruit and peanut butter birdfeeders are composed of small, halved logs with polished interiors. People all over the country send wood to Ericksen. The roofs of the feeders are copper with a signature handmade pattern. “I take something rough and rustic and force a contrast by melding it with something a little more elegant like copper,” Ericksen explains.
Even if they are not creating items that directly benefit the earth like Ericksen, do it yourself artists are green at heart. Whether they are ripping apart thrift store clothes to make new ones or cutting up old children’s magazines to create bookmarks, many independent crafters take what is already there and create something new out of it. And that’s not the only way these artists are in tune with the nation’s mindset.
There was a shift in America after the events of September 11th and the subsequent war. A desire to return to a simpler, more honest life emerged. Popular magazines like ReadyMade and Real Simple offered instruction on making everyday items yourself, providing how-to’s on creating everything from furniture to soap. A backlash against the commerciality of Martha Stewart grew, and indie craft magazines, small DIY collectives, co-ops and DIY web sites sprung up.
Concerned that the rise of the independent craft movement would remain undocumented, Milwaukee-based artist Faythe Levine produced and directed ”Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design.” The film (and book by the same title) attempts to capture the indie craft movement, profiling more than 80 artists across the country and highlighting their diversity and creativity.
Levine is also a photographer and curator. She was the co-owner of the now-closed Paper Boat Boutique and Gallery in Milwaukee, which sold handmade objects, many from local independent artists. And in 1994, Levine founded Art vs. Craft, Milwaukee’s alternative art and craft fair. Levine’s vision was to create an affordable event that showcased local independent artists and gave people a more meaningful consumer experience. The next Art vs. Craft will take place November 28th. The official web site is artvscraftmke.com. Levine is busy traveling worldwide, promoting screenings of the film. Check out handmadenationmovie.com or read Levine’s blog, indiecraftdocumentary.blogspot.com.
But there’s always the flip side. Crafting is big business and the handmade look has shown up in popular consumer stores like Urban Outfitters. The retail giant sells house wares with an indie look (think owls) and t-shirts with images that are made to look like handmade silk screens. Many other stores are picking up on this trend, ironically promoting individuality through mass-produced products. More and more art and craft fairs now have corporate sponsors, as companies are beginning to notice the market crafters have been quietly creating for years. While this brings more attention to the DIY movement and may influence many to seek out and purchase handmade items, it also is slowly dragging independent craft back into the mainstream; exactly what these artists were trying to get away from in the first place. Hopefully consumers will realize the difference.