I played a game in reviewing Ezra Shales’ book, The Shape of Craft (Padstow, Cornwall, UK: 2017. 256 pages). If the author was also a crafter, what discipline would he follow? Because Shales-the-critic can be fiery and hard hitting, I expected him to be revealed as a blacksmith. The image of an anvil impacting with sparks flying came to mind. I was wrong. Shales is, at heart, a weaver. To my credit this discovery came to me before learning that he is, indeed, a closet, wannabe basket-weaver.
His writing has weaving’s soft, continuous, hypnotic rhythms, simultaneously organic and structured. And it returns frequently to key starting points. The arguments move effortlessly, left to right, as he travels through this contested subject. The philosophical weave is gentle, flexible, smart and inaccessible. This a good read, rare in theory, even more so in craft, which can become leaden with sincerity and process worship.
Shales wisely avoids treating art and craft as polarities dismissing this false comparison early in the book. That debate was an ugly period in craft thinking, not quite dead yet but close. Nor does he hustle the reader into ideological cul-de-sacs, forcing them to digest overweening theories as many art writers do. The very moment he seems about to make an ironclad rule, he dances away, leaving the issue floating, malleable. Take it, leave it, move on, build your own matrix.
The weaving metaphor continues with his homage in the title to Kubler’s Shape of Time that suggests the metaphor of links and assembling chains of knowledge and understanding. Links are materials means of weaving, a warrior’s chainmail being a case in point.
The book’s energy comes from the surprising and enlightened counterpoint of debating three makers per chapter. “Archtypes: Who is a Craftsman?” is a good example and my favorite in the book. The question is answered by an unlikely trio that becomes persuasively effective and insightful: the matriarch of Native American pottery, Nampeyo of Hano; the sculpture God, Constantin Brancusi; and the tough modernist studio potter Karen Karnes. All three have long hero status for me so I am a ready audience, but his mirrored juxtapositions revealed the three in a new light.
I do have a quibble though. Nampeyo’s use of a metal basin instead of the traditional puki, a ceramic bowl fragment, makes her an inventor in Shales mind, which is fine. But he belabors this symbolism. Potters are pragmatists and the use of a tool not previously available does show free thinking but is hardly radical. Still, his point about the regal Nampeyo being inventive holds.
The Santa Claran potter Susan Folwell was at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC when she struck up a conversation with an elderly East Coast Native American. He told her how in his teens he had worked with Nampeyo, close to death and blind, but still potting. He asked if she had regrets and she admitted only one, “There are pots in my head, unlike any pots I have ever seen, I wish I had made those.”
Shales absorption in weaving and basketry produce some of the best writing in the book. He is a disciplined writer but it’s here where he allows the a more discursive tone:
“A careful admiration of interlacing should waver between the perception of isolated strands and the expansive field of fabric; is a mind – bending deliberation to leap from a single linear stitch to a plane and back again. Our eyes and fingers hover between identifying a fiber and an overall field, a figure and a ground. The thread and it’s horizon function as allegories for the human body and his geographical position. In the tension between intimate threads and the attempt to integrate with our world, no less is at stake than the question of the process of reinventing and supplementing the self. At times, we position ourselves in the here and now and yet, at other moments, fabric permits us to to construct an imagined temporal context for our lives. Fiber and textiles more than any other Croft process or product, are essential to our simultaneous search for self and shelter; all societies shape–shift with this craft.”
Shales view of craft is tinged with rugged romanticism seeing it as an avatar for mankind’s memory of things and their journey. The pursuit of craft is romantic, and unlike technology, it is warm, not cold. The danger is letting this slip into sentimentality that Shales avoids.
Writing in the last chapter Shales lays out his vision:
“Materials like Wood Clay, fiber and glass have no understanding of time: it is humans who count rings and wrinkles and value something that spans three generations. Metaphorically, mnemosynthesis might carry us through a geological formation to integrate material and human dexterity is in bodies. Namapeyo’s and Karnes’s clay and Brancusi’s hewn timbers business are things that tug at my emotions and conscience. Meaningful craft is like a constellation carrying old rays of light–conversations with people now dead, previous encounters and sensations–and illuminates the present moment by informing it with previous experiences. Material synapses can connect us, therefore are worth imagining into existence. Mnemosynthesis is a human growth path as chemically potent as photosynthesis – self-aware craft grows that consciousness.”
This a perfect text for art, craft and design students in universities, and even older high schoolers in arts programs. While rich in protein, reading is pleasurable. Shales understands flow, and that quality that allows pages to seemingly turn on their own. And one can drop in at any point and read without feeling lost.
This book is of particular value to the fine arts, where today’s practitioners are reaching out more and more into traditional craft without understanding its context. The latter is not essential but a greater intimacy encourages expansiveness. The Shape of Crafts lets them know that while rooted in labor, material and haptic experience (I only acknowledge craft as a verb) it can also be intellectually profound and conceptually textured.
One wonders if the Shape of Design is in the works? I do hope so. It is sorely needed as craft, fine art and design continue to build free-access bridges between their separate disciplines. This will allow Shales to explore some of his more radical opinions that appear only briefly in Craft, particularly his respect of factory craft alongside independent craft which he soft-pedals this engaging book made all the more so by its compact size but still with heft.
Love or loathe this book review by Garth Clark from the world of contemporary ceramic art and contemporary ceramics? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.