In the late 80's and early 90's, I worked for a little bridal salon and alterations shop where I made a lot of headpieces and veils. It started after my employer, Laurel, had ordered a new line of wedding accessories on a buying trip to Dallas, and when we unpacked that first frothy shipment of tulle and pearl-encrusted finery, analyzed and dissected the construction, tried everything on and had sufficiently marched around all afternoon sweeping our arms and singing "One Grecian Urn! Two Grecian Urns!" we'd agreed: Amy can make these.
And I could.
So I did.
And let me just say, I could use a hot glue gun like nobody's business. Those opaque sticks of glue -- so shiny! The nozzle -- so melty! I massacred the end of the Laurel's cutting table with permanent drips and smears of cooled glue. I glued the shit out of those headpieces.
One might say I was self taught.
It was the time and place for this, and I did a pretty darned good job. The work was well done and clients were happy. But I was also a teenager and I can't imagine I would have picked up on the finer points of customer relations or the nuances of happiness or disappointment. I know I didn't -- unless they were my own happinesses and disappointments -- but this is the deeper work of what we now scientifically define as the teenaged brain. But that's so, like, totally a different story.
Years later, after factory jobs where I'd been a cutter-sewer-patternmaker-illustrator-designer-production manager-etc., I returned to the bridal industry to work for an expert tailor and couturier from Manila, Manuel, my mentor, in an atelier where white-girl-proving-herself felt like the primary job description. One of the first brides I worked with still needed a simple veil made. Normally the seamstress -- a lovely, sharp-witted woman from Vietnam, with ramrod posture and a powder blue vintage sewing machine -- made the veils. But I offered to make this one, and I knew this much by then: no hot glue.
I created a small buckram frame, alternated silk organza and peau de soie in a pattern that echoed the gown, added a single layer of fingertip-length tulle. Done. I hadn't made a veil in years and it felt great. I brought it in for the final fitting where the bride twirled in and out of family members with cameras, handed it to Manuel, and as he tucked the comb into her loose bun he leaned in and said to her, "This is just a fitting, what do you think about the length?"
No. This was the real thing. This was her veil. I made it. It was ready to go out the door with the dress. This veil was getting married tomorrow.
"We'll deliver everything later tonight," he said, kissing and hugging and dancing the beaming family out the door, then he disappeared into the back room to quietly ask the seamstress to make a proper veil. Of course I asked what was wrong with the one I'd made.
"It's just not ... fine. It's not fine enough."
I woke at 3 this morning, my son snorting and blowing his nose on the other side of the wall, and this was the memory that came to me, this embarrassment and confusion about what "fine" meant. And I think it emerged from a comment my friend Christine Byl added to a recent post I wrote that touched on that old semantics debate between art and craft. The imagery in her comment stuck with me, and a lot of other people contacted me to say it resonated with them, too. I fluffed my sniffling kid's pillow, discussed the merits of Mentholatum in the darkness (met with refusal) and thought about the weight of words and understanding and experiences decades removed until 4 am. Then I made coffee.
I will preface the following by saying that Christine Byl is a fine writer. Her thoughts are culled from a spectrum of experiences and education that is as deep as it is broad. She intimidates the hell out of me on paper, but then I get to spend time with her and she's so real and kind and interested in everyone and everything that this silly "I'm-really-dumb" feeling fades right away. Her first book, Dirt Work, is an exceptional exploration of her ongoing work as a trail builder, an academic and a human; I highly encourage you to seek it out and read it. She is a woman who knows her tools, and one of them is language.
Here is her comment:
Some interesting thoughts here, Amy. Isn't it amazing how many people find it difficult to talk about these distinctions without a whiff of value-laden language? As if art or craft or amateur or expert must be better or worse, when really the intents or histories or positions are just different. As my favorite quote of the year goes, "It is bizarre to treat all differences as oppositions." (Marilynn Robinson)
Gabe and I talk a lot about craft-art distinctions, particularly because of his work which includes elements of both, as you know--the aesthetics and training and palette and intention of "fine art" and a medium and method (cutting up tiny pieces of paper) more associated with craft. I've come to think that there's a false dichotomy in setting art and craft opposite each other. Craft is more a subset of art. Art is like a river with lots of different feeder streams--ground springs and silty glacial run-off and rain-fed mountain gushers--and the quality of the art will be influenced by what primarily feeds it. It could be craft techniques, or aesthetic concerns, or activist impulses, or all of them blended. But while those may all affect the character of the art, they don't make it something else. I mean, it's a huge discussion in "fine art", how something is "crafted" or a discussion of the artist's "craft"--not at all diminutive. The degree of skill in the making is part of the success of any piece. So what we call "crafts" are perhaps types of art-making that foreground the "made" component. (Woodcraft, needle craft, etc.) In this way, craft is a component of art that may be present or not, but it isn't an opposition. It's apples to oranges, in a way.
"Expert" is also so loaded. My favorite experts--and the kind of expertise I aspire to--are utterly cognizant of nurturing Beginner's Mind. True expertise does not shun the qualities of apprenticeship.
So we need some new words! What's the word we really mean to contrast with art, to signify some pastime or activity that's not intended to be considered as an aesthetic object in addition to whatever its use is? What's the word for an Expert that is unafraid of continuous learning? Ah language, such a fluid, tricky, incomplete thing. Makes you want to go build or stitch or glue something, doesn't it?!
There are days I'm rushing at that larger river, others when my output is reduced to a trickle waiting for the log jam to explode, but there will always be an underlying intent to my work, a scrutinizing mantra, a point to it all --
make it finer.
At this time and in this place, and despite my efforts to do a pretty darned good job, fineness is a shifting thing. There are constraints and realities to consider, the many small and large needs of others, so finer falls somewhere between "better than good enough" and "my very best," somewhere between "walk away from this piece of crap you think you're making" and "head down, keep working," somewhere between the upswell and excitement of Beginner's Mind and the cynicism of a mind thick with history and knowing and thinking and worrying too much.
Fine. Finer. Fineness. I do not have some new word to add to the discussion of Art and Craft.
But I will keep considering and coming back around to this old one.