Ideally Positioned

“The Ambassador of Handmade,” an article about the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement and one of its chief proponents, Faythe Levine, recently appeared in the New York Times. By the time I had finished reading the piece, it struck me that polymer serves as an ideal toggle between the world of fine craft and the world of alternative craft or DIY.

For the past few years, many questions have been posed about the future of craft. What is happening to the high end, exclusive, juried craft show and market? Are the artists and customers/collectors who have sustained it, ready to retire from the circuit of showing or abandon their desire for acquisition? Has the traditional craft show mostly served its purpose? In contrast, the alt craft movement, which includes all ages of creators and shoppers but is perhaps slanted towards a younger maker and buyer, is making a distinct statement with its alternative set of indie shows and e-tail dominated by Etsy , an enormous on-line marketplace for handmade objects. How does this affect the overall craft scene/market and its vitality? Polymer art appears in both types of settings. Why is it well suited to each?

In the fine craft world, many artisans have spent years and years learning and perfecting their skills, style and market image. The jurying system, although supposed blind, is generally one of peers and experienced eyes who cannot help but recognize the distinctive look of many of the top artists. Although these shows always include new talents, there is a stable of reliable and known exhibitors that appear year after year. Albeit a subjective judgment, they represent what is supposed to comprise the best in craft. These artists work in an assortment of different mediums that generally have centuries of traditions preceding them as with metalwork or ceramics. Within this fairly exclusive assemblage of top craftspeople, there is also a group of artists who work in polymer, some of whom are well acknowledged by the larger, non-polymer craft community. While presumably most of these polymer artists have some kind of background in the arts, they have no long established traditions in their medium, years of apprenticeship or journeyman’s work in an established studio or a degree from a specific academic curriculum. From that perspective, polymer desperately needs to document its history. Recorded history will provide a foundation for formal recognition of polymer as well as helping to secure a position as a legitimate artist’s material.

In the world of alternative craft however, working with polymer gives someone the potential to be an instant star. It is easy to pick up a hunk of clay and get quick results. One can learn enough from books, articles, the internet and just playing with the material to feel some level of mastery. This leads to many hands creating lots of work and often a desire to show what they have made. A situation like Etsy, offers an ideal outlet for many such artists. It is all inclusive, easy to use and gets a wide viewership. The egalitarian nature and enthusiastic embrace of this site has resulted in a huge range of what is presented. Some work is very accomplished and other pieces far less so, with lots in between, but it is all a matter of opinion. It is up to the both the seller and the buyer to differentiate and determine what is of value. This fits perfectly within the range of alt craft philosophy that tends to be anti mass market, a proponent of handmade but with little emphasis on formal design skills or workmanship, and supportive of community. At any given moment, there are tens of thousands of by a huge list of creators.

One current subject among many in the craft world is why these two distinct options often seem at odds. Last year at a metals conference, a heated discussion led by fine jeweler and educator, Bruce Metcalf and Andrew Wagner, editor of the American Craft Council’s American Craft magazine, on this very topic gathered lots of attention. ( Listen to a more recent ACC Salon podcast on the same topic or read the and then follow a very long thread of comments on Imogene.

Some might generalize and say that those who follow the more established means of presenting and marketing their work are feeling a threatened by the “upstart” artists who suddenly appear without any vetting into the world of alternative craft and are even making a financial success of their efforts. Participation in the top tier of the more traditional craft venues, although considered highly prestigious, offers no guarantee of economic self sufficiency. It is expensive to exhibit for many reasons: assorted booth fees, promotion, housing, travel and food all add to the base line cost for “doing” one of these shows with no way to predict what sales might be. In the world of DIY much of this is circumnavigated. On Etsy, while there are transaction fees for posting and selling and price points tend to be quite a bit lower than at a traditional show, there are no travel, living or booth expenses for the artists to absorb. Indie craft fairs are more relaxed about presentation and it costs far less to exhibit. Moreover, the DIY set is able to make bold statements about society, politics, the environment and such through both their art and their venues without worrying about the reaction of formal gatekeepers. The alt craft set’s innovative use of the digital universe and establishment of independent exhibitions has significantly advanced an awareness of their energetic presence.

Polymer appears to be well suited to both camps. On the one hand, there are artists who have succeeded in the highly competitive world of what is now the traditional craft show. These artists have earned much respect, but most of them have participated at one time in the communal world of polymer. This community continues to embrace those at every level of skill and has been extremely generous about sharing information. Perhaps due to its lack of status, easy of availability and relative newness as a material, it has taken a while for polymer to be accepted as a viable medium by others in more established craft mediums. Looking back a fairly short time ago, some of the earliest polymer works, although very creative and still lovely, seem quite basic compared to what is being done now. Today, artists make stunning work that has evolved out of the medium’s limited background and their own extensive personal exploration. As an indication of marketplace value, this work generally sells at prices competitive with comparable non polymer items. These top artists demonstrate a full mastery of their material and exemplify the full potential of the medium.

On the other hand, Etsy affords everyone, from experienced artist to beginner, an opportunity to present their vision via polymer. There is no overriding quality or design judgment, just someone’s willingness to share their creativity in an open format. The DIY nature of learning to use polymer, seems in keeping with the uninhibited world of alternative craft that appears to invent itself and solve problems on a “need to” basis. (as discussed in a New York Times magazine article by Rob Walker entitled Handmade 2.0) Polymer art prices on Etsy vary widely. As of the other day, prices range from a low of 20 cents for a pair of earrings to a high of $1340 for a multiple figure sculpture group. But, the same enormous price ranges are found on Etsy in other mediums. In the alternative craft venue, polymer always has been equal to any other material. It is infinitely responsive to the artist’s creative vision- be it topical, retro, cute, figurative, wearable or a combination of all. The only limitations are self imposed and have to do with the time and effort one takes to finesse the material or merely finish an idea.

Because of the versatility of polymer it seems ideally suited to both situations. An artist’s ability to employ the medium for the creation of items worthy of being designated fine craft represents one option. The more casual and open atmosphere of the alternative craft scene offers different artistic opportunities with a far broader chance for participation.

I cannot remember a time in my life that I wasn't interested in looking at art, talking about art and the making of art. In 1990 I earned a Phd in art history at the University of Maryland. My first experiences with polymer clay were in 1992, but I consider my real work with the medium to date from 1999.