Sunday, June 13, 2010

A good-enough artist

On Sundays I try to find time to read one of the magazines I subscribe to while eating my breakfast.  Sometimes I question my continuing subscriptions to Crafts Magazine and Ceramic Review.  Over the years I've heard so many criticisms of Crafts, in particular from craftspeople.  I know what they mean.  What appears in the magazine often bears little resemblance to the quality crafts being produced all the time around the country.  It's that age-old discussion about art versus craft.  Crafts often seems to be more about art than craft as most people think of it.

I'm in danger of getting into the ramble of all rambles here.  So many topics branch out from the art/craft discussion.  (Thinks: or do they stem from it?  What's the difference?  Oh dear, that one really will have to wait for another time.)  Today's magazine browsing made me think about my own place in things, though, so I will try to stay focussed on that.

I came away from college with a B.Ed. Hons in Art (Textiles).  On paper this qualified me to teach Art.  Our final year's 'main subject' work was to prepare for an exhibition, dissertation and viva along with other trainee art teachers and the ethos of the textiles department encouraged us to think of ourselves at this point as artists rather than teachers.  However, most of our four-year training had been in teaching textiles in schools, where the subject was more usually a craft subject than part of the art department.  I applied for a few jobs in art departments but at interviews it soon became clear to me that I was applying for the wrong jobs.  I wasn't an art teacher.  I really only knew about textiles.  Having eventually secured a job to teach textiles, I went on my first pottery summer school course that year and so caught the clay bug and that reinforced my thinking that I belonged with crafts rather than art.

When I began to sell my own work it was framed pictures, embroidered onto a water-colour painted silk or cotton background.  Describing my work in those terms I can see how others might have viewed it as art, but at the time I still thought of myself as a craftsperson.  I was continuing my journey with clay (though not yet at the stage of selling pots.)  I then went to some basic drawing and painting classes where I met and became friends with J, who was teaching me.

I became aware that J and another friend, S (who modelled in clay), would introduce me to people as "another artist".  At first I would rather sheepishly try to disagree but I suppose I realised that this wasn't very polite to J and S and began to accept the description.  Over some indeterminate period of time I gradually  began to describe myself as an artist but all the time I think I was waiting to be challenged on the description by a 'proper' artist.

Friends who had other jobs would often be critical of what they thought was perfectionism.  Time after time I would point out the flaws in my latest offerings from pottery summer school and get a tut-tut about it.  Then one year I made a particular jug which I thought was a good pot.  I said so.  I'm not sure people liked that either. 

So it was with the artist/craftsperson distinction.  I see-sawed my way through the years and through stages in my own work, calling myself a variety of things but none totally comfortably.  Stroud Valleys Craftsmen was born and I joined, happily feeling at home with the description.  At the same time, my textiles work had evolved into wallhangings which really didn't belong on craft tables but were much more happily viewed on gallery walls.  Craft shows were where I showed and sold pots but the wallhangings moved to mixed exhibitions of art.  I was a potter and a textile artist.  It's what I did, what I do and I still use this description of myself in some contexts.

Sometimes, though, you need a shorter job title and I am now clear, not only in my thinking but also in what I feel, that I am an artist.  If you want to get into distinctions, my work with clay is craft work, undoubtedly, my photography is often on an amateur level, but my textiles work is art and I'm definitely an artist in the kitchen.  Primarily, though, I'm an artist because I just am.  I can't not be.  Prevented from creativity in any form I soon become ill-at-ease and probably difficult to live with.  Returning to creative work after an enforced break I feel above all a sense that all is right with the world.

So what's with the good-enough artist?  Well, I still have what I would call a realistic view of things and others less comfortable with honest self-appraisal might call a lack of self esteem or too much perfectionism.  I look through Crafts Magazine and see beautifully made pots and innovative textiles.  My less confident self of years ago would have been prompted into self-doubt and feelings of inferiority and perhaps even thoughts of giving up in the face of standards I could never reach.  Now, though, I enjoy looking at what is often better work than I can make but without devaluing my own work.  I'm not a world-class artist, but I don't need to be.  While thinking about all of this, I was reminded of my couselling training and the work of Donald Winnicott.  Winnicot developed the concept of the 'good-enough mother', rather than the 'perfect mother', where the good-enough mother's children grow up to be psychologically healthy.  I'm not drawing exact parallels between the good-enough mother and the good-enough artist but there is something here about what we think we should be striving for.  Perfection isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be and good enough isn't a put-down, though I think it's often thought of as one.  Good-enough is good enough.

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