Thinking About Artist Groups and Craft Guilds

Self Portrait outside of basketAbout thirty years ago when I was a member of a weaving guild I took a weekend workshop in weaving our identity. Being a literal thinker I warped my small portable loom to make a self portrait using the tubular weaving technique that allows for the figure to be stuffed while still on the loom if desired. I saw myself as medium length grey hair, always choosing to wear pants over dresses, and a bit of a hippy. I still have blue eyes, still think earrings are like underwear and saw myself as a happy person. Since I was also firmly involved in basket making, I stuffed some of those materials coming out of my head. And when I did that I knew she was not complete as a self portrait at that time if she was not housed in a basket – of course! So here I am – in and out of my perceived place of belonging in the late eighties.

She hangs in the guest room near another weaver’s interpretation in figure form of how I looked selling my wares at a Renaissance Fair. Both the figure I wove of me and the basket she sits in were done on the same loom with the same warp threads – just a simple matter of spreading them out further to accommodate the corn husks, raffia, reed, heavy yarns and of course beads.

Self Portrait

It was fun to do. I did not have to think about anything but fitting materials to techniques and techniques to materials. It was simply a portrait in fibers – nothing more. It was meant to be a singular piece, not part of a series and definitely not for sale. If there was ever an intention of having this piece say “art”, it would be impossible. There is way too much immediate evidence of materials and techniques. And that makes it “craft”. In this case not even that good of craft. Others in the classroom had much better command of their abilities to weave finely shaped forms with appropriate materials. And still even their self portraits were not “art”. They were not an idea fixed in form. An idea that gives the viewer pause to look at what might be being said in the work. All our pieces simply called out to the viewer that we all made doll-like figures on looms with yarn. Nothing more to think about except perhaps how well we each accomplished that goal.

When I moved to North Carolina and went back to college to get my Bachelor of Fine Arts and then on to graduate school, I was introduced to “the art world”. No one cared about “how” I made something but “why”. Then if my intentions were clear and not buried under materials and techniques that spoke more about good (or poor) craftsmanship than about whatever my issue at the time was. And those issues had wide ranges at the time – from the war in Bosnia to the fading of a patriarchal system adrift in feminist theory.

I had a lot to say – a lot to talk about. And in an area where craft is livelihood it was hard to find those passionate about their ideas and doing whatever it took to get those ideas across in a visual form to  share in publications and exhibitions.

And I am not talking about someone who is trying to make the most beautiful basket or exquisitely crafted jewelry, clothing, furniture, pottery, etc. Those are all made with the intention of being decorative art, functional art/craft but not an idea fixed in a form and presented as simply as that – a visual thought that the viewer looks at and says, “Here is something that the artist intended me to be a part of – to experience – to feel.”

Art is not “better” than craft. It is simply different.

If you are in a craft guild, then the talk will invariably all be about “how” and then “how much?” “How did you make it, how much time did it take and how much does it cost?”

Art in a way is so much simpler. It is only about “What are you saying here?” And “Why?” Craftsmanship is only there in service to the idea, not to become the dominate feature.

bug lo res for blog

The above image is one of several “specimens” from the installation exhibition titled Expedition to Elsewhere: the Evidence. There is no way the viewer is looking at craftsmanship here. It is purely “What and Why”.

Finding my people to talk to about art took time and the formation of an art group. We have met continually for more than fifteen years. Some have left due to being more about the how and others because of lack of passion for their own work or interest in the rest of ours. But now we are a hard core group who meet once a month to talk about what matters to us to make. The only “hows” are how we feel about those efforts.

Here is a list of questions for those interested in starting an art group of their own.


By Sandy Webster

  1. What do you want from these meetings?
  1. How often should we meet?
  1. Where do we meet?
  1. Will everyone bring work each time?
  1. Will there be a progression in the work?
  1. Can there be a clear statement (written) by each participant on where they want their work to go and how they plan to see it through?


We just had our last meeting of the year on Sunday. We meet at 2pm and take turns talking about our work in my studio until dinner time when we stop, eat together and everyone leaves. There is always wine and appetizers. There is always art to be discussed. We are a close group and have total trust that what we are feeling and doing matters – to all of us. It takes time and it is so very worth it.



Treasure Boxes waxed and closed

Treasure Boxes Cane Toad side view

Marla's Gift Box with fabric scrap

These are three boxes I made for gifts this Christmas. The first one is pig skin over board with an inlay of goanna skin. The one below has an inlay of cane toad skin. And the last one is a box covered with a material that was turned into a book cloth and inlaid with a kantha stitched textile from India. They were treasure boxes filled with smaller wrapped gifts.

The cloth covered one was so much easier than the leather boxes to make. There is much to learn about how to make leather do what it needs to do to be properly fitted to the form. But I am learning.

The wooden spines have to be made first because all other parts must fit to that. Below are some of the stages the treasure boxes went through.

Here are the wooden spines with thick leather straps to give additional shape. The trays are made to fit and the ends covered with thin board to smooth out the join between wood and tray.

Treasure Boxes with trays attached

Next they are covered inside and out.

Treasure Boxes with inside bottom paper placed

The leather is cut to the correct size and pared down on the corners with a leather paring blade. In this case the cover boards will need to be made with windows to show the cane toad and goanna skins that are recessed into the cover.

Treasure Boxes layout for leather measurement

Treasure Boxes front cover window wrapped and weighted

The accent hides are centered onto the inner lid that fits into the box when closed.

Treasure Boxes Cane Toad inside

I used a tai kozo paper that had been contact printed with plants and a rust colored lokta paper on the inside of the boxes. The glue was pure corn starch paste for all except I used a straight PVA to glue the tray pieces together. These boxes were definitely a labor of love and I can easily see where I need to do better on the next ones. But I love how they sound when they close and how they feel in the hand.

Just Waiting

Xmas 2014 on the road

A week from today and it is Christmas. I finished wrapping gifts. Cards were sent out two weeks ago. Now I am remembering other Christmases with friends and family I will miss this year and wait for company to come and fill the spaces left behind.

A neighbor hangs these balls along the road each year. It is a lovely bit of unexpected cheer and we love it when one gets overlooked when they take them down and is left to remind us of the holidays all year long.

Our dinner for Christmas is all settled, ham, roasted sweet potato wedges, buttermilk biscuits, amazing kale salad, more vegetables followed by a presumably delicious dessert. Appetizers and festive drinks before we settle into full plates and even fuller conversations. It is a good grouping of family and friends old and new. I like mixing them up around the table so we aren’t sitting near someone we eat with daily.

There will be twelve of us which is smaller than usual so the menu is less complicated than before. I don’t think we eat as much food as we used to and that is a good thing.

What I also like is that we begin at four in the afternoon and easily finish by eight o’clock. We have caught up with each other and cleaned up by then. The only thing left is to put my feet up with a very chilled Stones Ginger Wine, talk about how well it all went and start thinking about what to do next year.

After Christmas I will post pictures of some of the gifts I made but for now they are to be a surprise.

Happy Holidays.

Travel Boxes

The Travelers Box lo res

This past week I have been making very special boxes for gifts as well as finishing the last of my two travel boxes for other countries.  The one pictured above is not of my own travels but of an imaginary wanderer.

This is a box that opens in the middle on one side only. It sold several years ago out of an exhibition. The top left window holds this writing I did that inspired the work.

“Once he returned from his travels there was so much to sort through. Where to put it all – especially the memories. Which ones would they replace. What and who did he have to let go – what forgotten and what not.”

I think I was fascinated with the idea of whether there was a maximum of space to hold memories and did we make somewhat conscious choices to let some go just to hang onto others. How did we say goodbye and close the door on some and open it to others.

Anyway here is the inside of the Traveler’s Box. It is filled with the things placed in his pockets along the way and his journal full of already fading memories.

The Travelers Box open lo res


The Travelers Journal open lo res

This is one of those ideas that as an artist is just so rich, so full of potential for expression. It seems to recur over and over in my work.

I am glad that someone bought The Traveler’s Box. It makes an artist pleased that it mattered enough to someone to do that. But I would like go through his journal again and hope that somewhere in my files I have images of everyday he was recording, remembering and then forgetting all that he saw. I’ll have to look.

So back to this week. Since 2010 the mementos of France and Italy have been waiting for their boxes to be made. And here they are.


Travel Box France

Travel Box France inside

Some of the shopping bags are folded in the bottom. A book of tied together pages of itinerary, tickets, wrappings and small papers is placed on top. Then a tray made that holds a small translation dictionary, lavender soaps and tea bags, buttons from a potter in Rustrel, a notebook from Sennelier and a baguette bag. The inside lid has another bags paper covering the insert.

All of my sketches from France and Italy are in a separate leather journal I made for the trip so no drawings are in these boxes.


Travel Box Italy

Travel Box Italy inside

Italy is a much smaller box covered with the shopping bag a book binder used to hold purchases. Another journal of tied pages for tickets, etc. Wine corks and a small bundle of cards the book binder made still in their leather wrapping. In the inside lid is a pocket to hold prints purchased from street vendors and postcards.

These two boxes joined the other five on a shelf of contained memories of places not here.

Travel Boxes on shelf

Below are pictures of those other boxes that hold Australia, Bali, China, Japan and New Zealand.

Australia is my first and fairly large box of mementos. I like the sketches hidden inside.

australia box sketches lo res

Bali. I added the lotus from my water garden at home. There were so many of these everywhere in the gardens of Alam Jiwa near Ubud.

bali box open lo res


china box open

china box sketchbook lo res


japan box open lo res

japan box displayed lo res

New Zealand.

new zealand inside lo res

It occurred to me that I have been to an eighth country – Canada – and only did sketches while there. Such a close neighbor; I never really saw it as a foreign place. Maybe some other time.

Next year back to Australia and maybe someplace new.