Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991


The Rapture Of A Poet

Pride and Pleasure in Crafting

By Phyllis Rossiter



Phyllis Rossiter lives and writes at Gainesville, Ozark County, Missouri. Her newest book, A Living History of the Ozarks, will be published in Spring, 1992, by Pelican Press.

I achieved something of the rapture of a poet who has written a sonnet when I found I could use a tap and die ....

from Earnest Elmo Calkins, Care and Feeding of Hobby Horses

Most of us have failed to recognize that such rapture in an act of creation is not the sole ,province of the "fine" artists. While no one questions the landscape painter or sculptor who works feverishly in the excitement of creation, we may look askance at a fine craftsman--perhaps a handspinner or silversmith--who is driven by the same frenzy of inspiration. The truth is, the line between art and craft is probably blurry at best--particularly in the rewards to be reaped by the practitioner.

Ask one who spends long hours at a loom or a vise why he or she does it and you may well hear something about a labor of love--or even that such an expenditure of effort is not really work, but is, in fact, more like play. How can that be? we wonder, when we can see for ourselves the calloused hands, the dusty face, the soiled apron. How can something so seemingly difficult and labor-intensive be enjoyable?

But when we remember that play is accepted to be that which refreshes, or virtually re-creates us, we can come closer to understanding what drives--and nourishes--the crafter. Sociologists say both children and adults, when given the opportunity to play, instinctively repeat those things which were for so long the vitally important achievements of our species. They hunt, fish, hike, garden, and engage in other activities (such as games and sports that echo previously held values as well as the recreation they afford)--all once necessary to sustain life.

For untold eons everyone engaged in crafts in order to survive. But for those who practice them now as a matter of choice--particularly the skills known as heritage crafts, they often seem to fulfill some psychological need to get in touch with our forbears. Certainly it is possible, when performing a task that has been repeated since the dawn of human history, to feel the bonding continuity of its legacy. As a handspinner, I have a sense of responding to something deep-seated in my racial memory--and of somehow being in tune with countless spinners before me.

Perhaps that is part of the reason that handi-crafts and the sense of well-being they engender--

have become so vital to the valuable work of Occupational Therapy, where they are often used in treatment and rehabilitation programs. In a great number of documented cases, both physical and mental, crafts have proven therapeutic where other measures have failed. By extension, it stands to reason that if crafts are valuable in restoring mental or physical health, they have the power to prevent such ailments when taken up as recreation by the healthy.

Certainly one clear benefit crafters often cite is the simple pleasure they derive from working with their hands in our high-tech society. In the confusion of modern existence, often far separated from the basic sources of life, it is somehow comforting to retrace long-lost paths and return to old-fashioned values--to know again "the spirit of the past." Without question crafts provide relief from the sometimes monotonous or unpleasant work we must perform to make a living. The craft becomes an anchor. It is something we can call our own; it is one thing that remains under our control. And, while our workaday world may deny us any sense of completion, particularly if we are a small part of an overall operation, the craft item we make with our own hands provides our sense of achievement, the necessary awareness of accomplishing something worthwhile. Often the craft is a refuge of just plain fun and pure enjoyment in a difficult existence.

What's more, in this all-too-often standardized and mechanized world, artisans find in their crafts opportunities for creativity and self-expression. Beyond this creative outlet, crafters often discover in themselves hitherto unsuspected capability. Probably no experience affords more personal satisfaction than to learn to do something which always had seemed beyond the reach of one's abilities. Together with the development and refinement of new skills, the realization increases self-esteem. And for one who may be otherwise handicapped, handiwork offers a compelling opportunity to excel and to accomplish the unique and special.

Further, a craft frequently suggests other avenues of inquiry--which then may become routes to new endeavors and accomplishments. A handspinner, for example, may experiment with natural dyeing in an effort to bring color to her yarns--or even begin to raise her own sheep in order to control the quality of her fleeces. The craft practitioner's horizons often broaden in new and unexpected directions.

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In fact, while one of the crafter's most encouraging and stimulating experiences is to sense the growth of skill, such satisfaction does not necessarily cease when competency has peaked; it simply changes. Then the artisan usually progresses to a higher creativity, an on-going progress in which she may begin to innovate, to invent new ways of achieving the desired result, new designs, new colors. A quilter may progress to designing original patterns; the woodworker, to cutting and curing his own wood. Always, for the crafter, there remains the pride in his work, his personal satisfaction. Contrast this with other pursuits, such as sports, in which the participant's satisfaction is likely to begin to de-cline-along with his skill--soon after it peaks.

And, while sports and games bring people together in congenial relationships, experts tell us that one should also cultivate the habit of being comfortably alone. A craft often encourages one to become good company for himself. At the same time, the artisan seeks out and enjoys the companionship of those who share her passion for a particular craft and makes new and lasting friendships.

Even more profoundly, crafters--like artists--develop the habit of seeing beauty, of being sensitive to their surroundings. (While the enjoyment of beauty is probably a primal instinct, all too often it is lost to today's masses who turn instead to MTV and concrete canyons.) Indeed, crafters often take special pleasure in utilizing the found materials available around them, as well as materials and objects that might otherwise be destroyed as useless and wasted. And since the crafters' raw materials are frequently the quintessence of the earth, they are uniquely refreshed by handling them.

In a very real sense, the crafter forms a link between art, the realm of human expression, and nature, of which he is a part. Indeed most crafters develop a new awareness of, and concern for, the natural world. They experience a heightened awareness of the dignity of common things. They become more sensitive to and appreciative of articles in museums and the products of fellow crafters--no matter what their ethnic background or the country of their origin.

From a purely practical standpoint, crafts often lead to new sources of livelihood. When that happens, crafters know perhaps the greatest of all human satisfactions--making a living from working at what one loves most.

But whether or not craftsmen and women earn money from their work, all know the simple, yet profound, satisfaction of creating beauty and utility from insignificance--and such a reward has been basic to our kind for a long, long time. And, while there may be as many reasons for crafting as there are crafters, it seems a safe assumption that in each there is that flame of something akin to rapture.

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