Tuesday, 27 November 2012

We need to talk about basketry: #1 starting line

Life.  You wait ages for a storyline and then three come at once!  They're all interconnected and in one way or another touch on some of my recent thinking about basketry.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin.
(I haven't any particular images to illustrate this blog so I'm just going to insert a few random pics of my favourite basketry techniques)

Cordage by Pip Weaser of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle www.scottishbasketmakerscircle.org

I went to the Craft Study Centre (www.csc.acreative.ac.uk) in Farnham last week for a practical workshop on writing about craft run by centre director Professor Simon Olding and independent writer/curator Sara Roberts.  We were a small group - a mix of makers from different craft disciplines including textiles, ceramics and basketry alongside a couple of curators and educators.

After the usual introductions we got our brains into gear with an ice-breaker exercise in which Simon and Sara gave us each a minute to write down three words we felt characterised good writing about craft.  There were no right or wrong answers but what was interesting was that of all our combined words none were repeated. Several though clustered around the themes of clarity, simplicity and accessibility whilst others expressed a wish for writing about craft that is surprising, provoking and questioning.  We then mirrored the exercise with only thirty seconds to write down one word that sums up bad writing about craft.  Impenetrable, obfuscating, inaccessible and confusing were some that give a flavour of the general consensus.

Interlacing by Rachel Max www.basketryplus.org

Next was a talk by Simon and Sara on their top tips for good writing - well illustrated with engaging and inspiring examples, including one of my favourites; ceramist Matt Smith's piece for the catalogue of 'Unravelling the Manor'. www.unravelled.org.uk    www.mattjsmith.com   Then it was time for tea and a spot of networking before the challenge of crafting a few words of our own.

The brief was to select one object from the current exhibitions at the Study Centre and write fifty words about it for a general audience (reading age 12-14). With a checklist of points to include such as revealing something of the making process, providing a context for the reader to appreciate the work and including a human element - i.e. telling a story - we were given just ten minutes before having to read it aloud to the group! No pressure!!

Having decided there was no time to follow most of the others up-stairs to the exhibition of contemporary ceramics by Alison Britton I headed straight for the ground floor display of objects reflecting the life and work of Robin Tanner - print-maker, educator, craft collector and founding trustee of the Craft Study Centre.  I'd seen this fascinating exhibition, curated by Jean Vacher, on a previous visit so had an idea of what to expect, ceramics by Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and Bernard Leach, furniture by Gordon Russell, textiles by Barron and Larcher as well as etchings and engravings by Tanner himself.

                                         Samples of basketry techniques by Stella Harding

I was desperately looking for something that would connect to basketry in some way and the closest thing was exhibit No. 42 a rush-seated chair by Gordon Russell.  I've never done chair-seating but I know a lot of basket makers who have - it employs related materials and techniques.  Nine minutes left.  I began writing - accompanied by Vaughn Williams' 'Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' playing softly in the background.  Some frantic word-counting and crossings-out later Sara came in to say 'stop writing'.  We then headed upstairs to face the moments of truth - standing in front of our chosen objects reading our pieces aloud to the group before getting feed-back from Simon and Sara.

Twined cardboard cups made by children at a British Museum workshop - see similar illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques' A&C Black 2012
One brave ceramist volunteered to go first with her piece about Alison's Britton's tea cup collection.  Nice one: get it over with so you can relax and watch the others squirm as they wonder when it's going to be their turn.  Listening to engaging prose followed by generous and encouraging appraisals from Simon and Sara gave some comfort as it gradually began to dawn on me that I would probably be last. 

Back downstairs to the Tanner collection and after a discourse on a brown jug there was no escape.  I don't know what imp of perversity had got into me there in the hushed shadows of all that's hallowed in the British craft tradition, but I would have to stand by what I'd written. Deep breath, no apology, say it with conviction.  Here goes.

"Number 42.  A chair.  Ladder-backed, rush-seated, English Yew.  Solid, enduring, vernacular.  It speaks of pastoral sensibilities, cottage industries and traditional values. It speaks too of my on-off love affair with the rural idyll.  Perhaps it's time for an end - a sticky divorce?  It would make good firewood, if only I had the hearth."

53 words

Imperceptible pause.  Explosive gasps of incredulous laughter.  Beaming smiles and positive grins.  Huge relief.  Comments from Simon and Sara re-assured me that it took confidence to write something provocative in that particular context. It described the object and its cultural context whilst telling a personal story which takes the audience on a journey with an unexpected twist at the end.  Comments from the group were that they'd never look at that chair the same way again!

Coiled Pomo basket from the Pitt Rivers Collection - maker unknown

For me, it summarised a lot of my thinking about basketry and my own relationship with craft traditions and the relative values of craft skills, processes and objects.  I greatly admire that chair - everyone said that was evident.  It stood in place of the basketry I couldn't find to write about - filling an absence, a silence, an empty space in the history of objects with no maker's name to legitimate their place in the hierarchy of cultural production.

What struck me too was that all the others had chosen an item of ceramics to write about.  A craft genre with with no shortage of erudite and eloquent makers, craft historians and  cultural critics to chart its history and contemporary developments. Simon had advised us earlier that one way into honing our writing skills was to read, read, read and it's often occurred to me that much of the critical writing about contemporary ceramics and textiles could easily relate to basketry.  But where would that leave basketry as a distinct area of creative pratice with its own specific conditions of production and consumption?

No. We need to talk about basketry.  Not fibre art, not constructed textiles, not willow weaving, not even basket-making.  Basketry.