In May and June 2020, the American Craft Council hosted a series of three virtual discussions, American Craft Forum: Craft Thinking. With support from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the series examined “the ways craft is standing up and standing out during the global pandemic as makers dig deep into their creative conscientiousness to heal, mend, and build a more resilient and equitable craft ecology.”
Over the next month, we will publish the archived forum videos along with reflections from Folklife interns on key themes and how the Center fits into the future of building resilient craft communities. This series will be one of many highlighting the work we do with makers all over the world.
What is craft? Who is, and what is, typically included in the historical canon of craft? How can craft be used to address social issues and function as a method of healing? Between COVID-19 and the increased attention to systems of oppression following the death of George Floyd, and through my work as an intern working on the development of the African American Crafts Summit, my own answers to these questions have evolved and expanded. An experience that contributed to my learning was the first American Craft Forum, “Craft for care and well being.”
Stephanie Syjuco, a fine textile artist and one of the speakers, describes how the previous idea of normal “was always a problem anyway in terms of who got access to the time to make artwork . . . or support systems to be an artist or craftsperson” and how this “normal” will change after the events of 2020. Speakers during the session reflected on this new normal, with three major themes emerging during the presentations and discussions.
How the craft community is responding to COVID-19
Jordan Carey of Loquat Design—a project that aims to empower “people who are disenfranchised or stepped on” through their bold, stylish, and sustainable fashion accessories—kicked off the conversation. Since the start of the pandemic, Carey shifted from designing a variety of accessories to almost exclusively sewing masks for sale. He has recognized the widespread need for personal protective gear and used his skills, style, and voice to respond and continue his business despite the economic challenges that have arisen from the health crisis. Carey’s masks continued to pass on messages of his mission to empower his customers, specifically African Americans like himself.
Syjuco, who formerly created installation textile art, similarly recognized the rising need for masks, using her skills and artistic expression to help the cause. She, on the other hand, created masks for donation, which led to a conversation around compensation for craft labor. Syjuco chose to make masks for donation because she had the economic security to help those who need masks the most. But giving away masks to those who cannot afford to purchase them takes a toll on many makers who need income during these tough times.
How craft helps us to identify and grapple with social issues
Craft is and has been political, both in who is creating it and in the subjects of the pieces created. Kei & Molly Textiles is a social enterprise that sells hand-printed textiles and advocates for equal opportunity by employing entirely refugee and immigrant women. Karen Hampton, a fiber and textile artist designs “from the perspective that to be alive is a political act.” I found this same idea reflected in the common phrase, “the personal is political”—individual experience is inherently tied to larger social and political structures.
Craft has functioned as a way for makers to connect to their heritage by exploring their identities as both individuals and as members of a greater community. For Kei & Molly, this is reflected in their support for members of their diverse Albuquerque neighborhood.
In contrast, Hampton’s work functions as her personal exploration of her African American identity. While her pieces reflect her lineage, the messages behind her art resonates with other African Americans who have similar ancestral heritage. Hampton has continued to use her voice as a textile artist to encourage community responses to COVID-19 through imagery around the urgency of the crisis and the importance of advocacy and involvement. The pandemic has allowed even more opportunity for makers to bring communities together, unite people in common efforts, and encourage them to partake in the current social and political movements.
How craft helps us to heal and mend
Avra Messé, a ceramicist and frontline nurse featured in the Craft Council’s [Not] in Isolation Film Project, emphasizes the importance of touch, connection, and her hands. As a hospital nurse, Messé works daily with patients suffering from COVID-19, and her hobby as a ceramicist has helped heal some of the resulting fear and anxiety she feels during the day.
As a maker and member of the Socially Engaged Craft Collective, Holly Hanessien similarly engages others through craft and through touch. Her social practice project involves two people, sometimes strangers, connecting by holding hands with a piece of clay in between their hands. The clay, which Hanessien later glazes and fires, then serves as a record of the interpersonal connection that occurred. This project helps people heal because, as Hanessien describes, they “need to engage with another person for it to actually take place and happen,” and “right now, during a pandemic, touch is so important to us. I mean it really changes the way we feel about our anxiety.” Hanessien uses her platform as a maker to help individuals heal by connecting, a function that is even more essential in a time of social distancing.
The makers featured in this session are representative of a larger group exploring social and political issues through their crafts. Though these makers have had to shift their work due to the pandemic, they have used their platform to help others. Carey and Syjuco mobilized to make masks, Kei & Molly and Hampton advocated for change through political textile work, and Messé and Hanessien provided personal care and support through ceramics and social practice projects. Syjuco reflects, “When the need for masks really came up very, very quickly, it was the online craft community that stepped up to respond.”
The quick response of the makers to COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the immense potential of the capabilities of the craft community. Craft thinking gives people the power to grapple with, respond to, and heal from the political, health, and economic effects of the pandemic. This can lead to great societal change for the future.
In thinking through a “new normal,” makers and the organizations who support them must reimagine what craft can be and who and what is included in this definition. Craft has been, and will continue to be, political, so it is the role of makers to work toward making the craft community more equitable and inclusive. In doing so, makers have grappled with how to dismantle the problems around ignorance and oppression in order to truly change the craft community and the rest of our society. But there is still a lot of work to be done, and these makers are only just getting started.
Julia Hirsch is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of Macalester College, where she studied anthropology, French, and African studies. She has been researching African American contemporary craft with a focus in diasporic experiences.