The business of craft

Craft up close: Woodworker Darrell Copeland shares his artistic and economic vision with Art Connections Tours organizer Sherry Masters during a tour of his Weaverville studio. Tim Robison

Craft is a loaded term, as far as the arts are concerned. It carries descriptive weight, yet deceptive weight that is all-encompassing and still means so little. And the term “craft” is frequently used to describe products and producers the same way that it describes art and artists.

“There’s a lot of reverence for the word ‘craft’ here in WNC,” says Andrew Glasgow, a program director for United States Artists, a national arts-support organization, and former executive director for the American Crafts Council. He attributes that respect to Western North Carolina’s deep arts and craft-arts heritage, a history driven in part by 19th century immigration patterns and George Vanderbilt’s penchant for handcrafted goods.

But according to Glasgow, no self-respecting crafts artist would call themself a “crafter.”

Rather, such creators are artisans and makers, weavers and fiber artists, sculptors and potters and glass blowers. Glasgow’s point is that “crafter,” as a term, is too diluted to serve them well.

“The word craft has been taken over by chefs and designers and car restorers,” he says. “And beer, of course.” Nowadays, “craft” is effectively anything that a person takes time to do or create by hand. That may be a far better alternative to industrialized manufacturing, but the notion muddles the representation of a major artistic and economic force in WNC.

“People tend to think that craft works are things that are crafty,” says Wendy Outland, founder of Who Knows Art, an Asheville-based arts-and business-development program. “But it’s really about quality of the work, not always about how useful it is.”

Yes, craft is often functional and includes works like chairs, quilts and pots. But it can also be abstract, combining traditional means and methods with modernized, concept-driven artistry.

Craft is about the makers, their hands and their tools and materials, which were likely culled from the raw, earthen landscape. Though it exists alongside what we consider fine art — paintings, photographs, sculpture, etc. — it’s regularly thought of as separate due to its form and function.

And while craft is handmade and characteristically in-and-of-this-earth — and of these mountains, for that matter — it also shares a core foundation with a separate, unambiguous ideology and structure. It’s a structure that Glasgow and Outland identify as absolutely necessary to success and artistic development: that of a business.

Craftsperson = businessperson

“Crafts people by definition, and artists by definition, are business people,” says Glasgow. “If they’re not, they should be.”

We usually call a person making a product and selling it a businessperson. But that connection often evades those involved in artistry.

Beneath the layers of ceramic glazes or wood varnishes, after all, is a raw product. Turning that material into a marketable work of art is one thing, but getting it in front of buyers and collectors is the more difficult part of the equation. “There’s a huge void with art schools pumping out artists with no way of knowing how to make a living,” Glasgow says.

Outland offers a potential solution to bridging that gap: 12 business-arts workshops designed to educate artists on how to operate themselves, their studios and their work with business sense.

“The classes hit on as many topics as possible, but so much of it is purely business-based,” Outland explains.

Classes begin with basic budgeting, retail and business practices and Gallery 101-style workshops. They expand to include pricing, portfolio building and legal issues that may arise when selling and contracting with galleries.

Similar arts-based business-education courses have become somewhat of a new focus for the growing number of Asheville’s crafts artists, arts educators and program directors.

Area colleges and crafts institutes, such as A-B Tech, Blue Ridge Community College and Penland School of Crafts, have business-management programs built into their art departments. Outland’s program often partners with organizations such as Handmade in America and the Asheville Area Arts Council to host her workshops, often for free or at reduced rates.

Finding and deviating from the center

One of Outland’s most popular workshops, Cultivating Collectors, focuses on the importance of finding one’s place in the local market and developing partnerships with collectors. Real financial gain is dependent on finding that target market and balancing relationships with galleries and collectors, she says.

That starts with figuring out where and to whom artists should be selling their work. And once they find these connections, they need to actively engage them. When it comes to the galleries, the artist should be prepared to offer a constant flow of work. And regarding contacts with collectors, Outland says, “that means staying in touch with things like handwritten notes.”

“It may be old-fashioned and corny, but it shows appreciation,” she says.

As Asheville’s arts and crafts scenes continue to grow, there’s a greater demand for quality by the serious buyers and collectors. Artists must adapt, Outland says.

Sometimes, it boils down to just keeping regular, business-like studio hours. “Artists should be held to that,” she says. Failing to do so inhibits in-studio opportunities to sell artwork and make lasting connections with potential collectors and gallerists. “Nothing turns off a buyer like having a closed sign in the window when they show up,” Outland notes.

Of course, many artists, whose studios rest far from downtown Asheville and the River Arts District, rarely see in-studio visitors, if ever. Downtown and RAD studio spaces offer greater visibility, but at a higher price.

While that makes it easy to find art and artists in Asheville, Sherry Masters aimed to create “a total arts experience.” She founded of Art Connections, a new Asheville-based studio tour that specializes in taking locals and visitors alike outside of the strollable downtown and RAD environments, and introducing them to fine art and crafts studios beyond the city limits.

The tours begin in October and will visit six-to-eight studios over a two-day period. Masters, a co-director with American Craft Week, a national campaign that will be celebrated Oct. 4-13, will survey some of WNC’s most notable crafts-based artists. She’s created a web the stretches from Stoney Lamar’s woodworking shop in Saluda and Michael Sherrill’s ceramics studio in Bat Cave to the Echo Mill fiber mill in Weaverville and on up to Barnardsville.

This total arts experience is “one that you can’t get in the gallery.” Masters says.

Many of the artists on the tour are represented in downtown galleries, but their presence stops there. “We want to help people who don’t know the world of craft and art to better understand it,” Masters says. “And to know that there’s more than just downtown Asheville.”

Downtown and the RAD may be the face of this WNC, crafts-based economic engine, but it’s hardly the sole generator, nor proprietor. Rather, it’s a combination of all the studios and crafts artists — both on the map and under the radar — and area crafts organizations. They educate and uphold generations of handmade ideology and tradition. Craft and crafts artists bolster growth in the arts and WNC at large. And, ultimately, they continue to help define our regional identity. X

About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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