Guest Author: Melanie Egan
Director, Craft & Design Harbourfront Centre
There are numerous encounters throughout my 30 plus year career that have stayed with me and ultimately informed my thinking about this deep and broad field of craft and design. I have learned that craft explores the intersections between making, culture and material investigation and that craft occupies an analogue world – a very touchy-feely world. Currently due to the pandemic we are literally being bombarded with digital and virtual “everything” – exhibitions, studio visits, activations, workshops, how-to videos, etc. and that has proved to be mind-numbing. The desire for physical engagement whether it be taking a pottery class, heading to a craft fair or going to a gallery are all fundamental experiences that give meaning to our lives; and they are all on hiatus. We are a gregarious species – even the most introverted of us are missing that social and visceral human experience of being together.
I neither knit nor crochet but I am endlessly fascinated by those that do.
Early in my career, (I originally trained as a jeweller) one of my first jobs was working in a commercial jewellery factory in Scarborough. I travelled by subway at 6:30 every morning and discovered a very different group of people I otherwise would not have encountered. I imagined they too must work in factories with early start hours. I was struck by a particular group of women. I dubbed them the “Subway Society of Knitters and Crocheters” and they mesmerized me. At any one time there would be eight or ten of them: chatty, companionable, noisy, all knitting or crocheting at dizzying speeds: baby bonnets, booties, doilies and shawls. They rarely looked at their hands while producing these highly complicated patterned lacy and fluffy wonders. Those women were extraordinary. Their subtle, beautiful hands steeped in generational and embodied knowledge were a sight that has stayed with me for years. It remains one of the finest examples of social craft I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing; one that is seamlessly woven into the everyday lives of everyday people.
Watching someone knit, still feels like magic to me.
I drink tea in the morning from a very particular mug – wood-fired stoneware*. It’s among my favourite mugs because it is the perfect mug for tea. It has a rightness about it when I hold it in my hands, and it is integral to my morning ritual.
A few years ago, I spoke to a group of Emily Carr University students who wanted to know more about craft. And I said this about a potter who makes beautiful mugs. “A potter isn’t making just any mug. She is making a very singular mug imbued with all the choices she previously made about material, techniques and tools. She is conscious of the historical and cultural meanings of ceramics, mindful of the visual, aesthetic (form, surface, ornament) and aware of the conceptual implications of the work she is making. All of that information is being held in her mind and body while making a mug.”
The whole process from making and thinking to sipping and drinking is a slow and careful one – there are pauses throughout the making and through the everyday interactions with that perfect mug. It is a human centered process and a contemplative one, from start to finish.
Craft invites experience and intimate interaction whether as a maker or as a consumer. I am extremely fortunate that in my career and life I am surrounded by craft objects and experiences. The myriad manifestations of making and meaning continue to hold me in thrall, and I value each encounter.
* Geneviève Boudreault et Matthieu Huck of L’Arbe et la Rivière, Saint-Demain, QC