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.