Touring the current exhibit Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection gives me pause and allows me time to reflect on a career spent in craft. As an artist working at a world-class museum, I am afforded a unique opportunity to explore these connections in a variety of ways. Craft, to me, at its core is about connections, whether through the physical touch of an object, the experience of making, or our basic human desire to create. They not only signify our fundamental needs and speak to functionality, but they can also serve to illustrate our thoughts and ideas.
Crafts and human beings have been inextricably tied for eons. Ceramics and textiles are ancient, reaching back to the dawn of civilization. For example, the art of glassblowing dates to 50 BC, starting with the Phoenicians in Mesopotamia. Because of this lineage, I find a deep personal connection to materials and processes. Each has its own language to decode and understand, and therefore, a unique resonance for me. When making work, I look to what materials seem most appropriate—steel speaks a different language than wood, and glass than ceramics, each eliciting a different response from the viewer. The relationship to each material is also directly related to the creative process. I find that these bonds stem not only from the solitude of practice but also from how materials interact when placed together. I am often surprised how similar they all are—like romance languages stemming from Latin, they seem to have a singular focus at their core.
This connectivity has transformed our digital world. For centuries, craft has lived in the guild system of master and apprentice, and this long-standing arrangement has created a path for generations to pass on the skills and traditions of each artist. Today in America, this tradition has primarily been assigned to universities, which are now tasked with the distillation of information from lengthy apprenticeships (glassmaking was a seven-year appointment) to a few short years. However, as a former college faculty member, I witnessed student skills develop rapidly in this digital age. The level of sophistication and awareness that students arrive with is far more advanced than previously, given the rise of social media. Digital communication has shortened the learning curve for young artists in understanding their craft. When viewed as a resource, certain pitfalls of making and unique techniques can be shared and recognized through social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. No longer are artists islands unto themselves, but part of a global community where information and understanding are at their fingertips. But make no mistake, there is no shortcut for honing skills. Craft will always demand the prolonged communication that an artist has with their chosen medium.
Occasionally, my role at the museum requires me to create exact reproductions for use in programming and I relish the chance to search through the collection with our curators discovering hidden treasures. The opportunity to study artifacts from hundreds of years ago is one I am truly grateful to have. Here, in front of me, are the movements and expressions of each artist left crystallized for me to examine. I think of all the craftspeople that came before me, how their movements transcend time, and their work on display for me to experience in my own way. The craft hasn’t changed, the actions of the artist are still the same—it is the unspoken language of craft, the secret language that makers speak.
Joshua Wojick is Crafts and Trades Program Manager at The Henry Ford. You can see Joshua, along with Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable, walk you through a live demo in Greenfield Village’s Glass Shop on our Facebook page here.