Is everything art?

Is everything art? It’s a question I have heard posed a lot over the past 18 months. But is this the right question? Haven’t we asked this before? I believe the more poignant question is: why don’t we cherish each other’s individual perception of what art is? Or even our own ideas of what art or craft is. I often feel we have empowered others to dictate to us what art, craft and good taste is. This has become so acute that the art and craft world has become predictable and homogenised, at least in my view.
This is the point, it’s my view and it’s no more or less valid than anyone else’s view. Personally, whenever I see an exhibition billed as “interesting and thought-provoking”, it’s a sure fire sign to me that it will be neither of these things. This idea that an elite has a better idea of what art is has led to (again, in my opinion) a disconnect for most people with art. This is best illustrated by the annual drop-off in visitor numbers from our publicly-funded galleries. This is a direct result of giving this small elite permission to only project their idea of what art is.
In the craft world this has manifested itself in the rise of fashion being confused with craft. Fashion is its own thing, it has its own support networks and very good publicity opportunities that by far outstrip most craft opportunities to promote what they do. I’m not saying there is no craftsmanship or artistry within fashion; I’m saying, in my opinion, that in itself it is not the same thing as craft or art. More and more I’ve noticed fashion being lorded in craft and art galleries. This gives most visitors a confused message and tends to leave the galleries looking a bit like a jumble sale. As a result we see dropping sales in these places for craft and art. Not because people don’t want to buy art or craft, or fashion for that matter, but because they don’t see the connection or relevance that fashion has to the other work on display. I have seen the support networks set up for the craft industry slowly be redirected to boost fashion at the cost of craftspeople. There are less and less opportunities for us to exhibit our work as more space is given over to fashion. Less and less funding, as more is given to fashion, and fewer opportunities for support from the bodies set up to support art and craft as they turn their focus more and more to fashion.
I think all this stems from the fact that we have given too much power to people who don’t know any more than the rest of us, and quite a lot less than most practising artists and craftspeople, about art and craft. It is high time we started wrestling this power back and realising we are the experts.

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Not Dying

Not Dying is a short film that is an exploration of forge-work as a sculptural medium. Charting the creation of “Hand of the sleeping giant” a sculpture hand forged by myself . Filmed by film maker Simon Watson. Filmed on location at: The Forge, Castlebaldwin, County Sligo, Ireland. Music by “Four tet”

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Skill and development vs. time and resources

Had an interesting conversation today at the kitchen table with the current Mrs Budd (Tiffany) about progressing as a craftsperson and artist. We both work at opposite ends of the same medium, metal: Tiff being an extremely talented goldsmith (www.tiffanybudd.com). As we live in a part of the world which does not offer much in the way of training for either of us, gaining new skills most often means teaching ourselves, mostly through trial and error. The conundrum there is, it takes longer to gain skills in this way and when do you fit in that time? It’s a conundrum that every working artist/crafts person faces and on a regular bases.

It’s a hard balance to get right; some might think there comes a time when an artist has become fully rounded but in my opinion that does not happen. If you want your work to continue to move forward you can’t afford to live in your comfort zone. If you do, you are stagnating which can be the kiss of death. I look on gaining new skills or techniques in this way: my experience is like a combination tumbler lock, every skill I have learnt is a wheel on that tumbler. So, every new skill learned is an extra wheel on the tumbler which in turn gives new combinations. It also changes the combinations already on the tumbler and propels your work forward into new exciting possibilities. In fact, what I once saw as learning new skills I now see as gaining greater understanding of my chosen medium, steel. The more experience I gain, the more I am able to see and realise the possibilities, and understand hot forged steel.

In order to gain a greater understanding of your work you need to give yourself time to develop new skills and, as we all know, time means money. I’ve done this over the years by designing speculative items like fire sets, candle sticks and sculpture to incorporate skills I want to learn. In this way I’m motivated, as I have a project to finish and at the end of it I have something to sell which helps to pay the bills. So in a way I’m paying for my own on the job training, if you follow.

This time of year lends itself to refection, as the year wanes to a close and, having achieved this year one of the goals I set myself when starting my own forge back in 2006 – inclusion in Metall Design International, an annual book showcasing 11 metalworkers/blacksmiths from around the world. ISBN No:978-3-931951-69-6, in case you want to check this wonderful book out) – I have been reflecting on my journey so far. I started my forge with very little: an anvil, hammer, leg vice and a set of old bellows. At the time I bemoaned my lack of tools, having come from working in a very well equipped forge. Everything slowed down for me when I wanted it be leaping forward but now I realise that this was one of the most fortunate things to happen to me. The lack of tools and money forced me to focus on hand skills and propelled my abilities forward at what I’m sure was a much faster rate than if I’d been able to fill my wish list of tools and equipment. So, training myself became a necessity from the start was quickly incorporated into my everyday work to the point where I didn’t give it much thought. I just set aside time at the start of every project to develop new techniques, and the end of the project to evaluate them.

This leads me on to something fundamental. If we want skill and craftsmanship to continue in contemporary work, we must afford new people coming into the creative sector the chance to develop their skills. Not just put them on treadmills of mass production of craft or art. Otherwise, as in a much of our culture already, we will end up with homogenised work all running along similar themes that we will all too easily walk past without giving a second glance.

 

How do we do this? How do we afford people the time to develop as artists and crafts people? By simply promoting them. Give them the chance for people to see their work and invest in it. The best way to be funded as an artist is through people buying your work. Most of the media and art institutions we have spend the majority of their time and resources promoting artists and crafts people that are already successful. We have become a reactionary culture where nothing is interesting unless it is already “trending” whereas human history’s greatest achievements have often come from leftfield, from the unexpected. In short, new ideas.

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Quick Progress Report

Originally posted on veesca:

I have started a few entries since my last, and they will be finished in due course but I feel this one requires a degree of urgency before my time is up with The Model. It shall be short and sweet.

During the week I read a rather funny article from Her.ie entitled “Thirteen Of The Worst Things About Being An Intern” Unfortunately, I could relate to 11 of the 13 things mentioned. I’ll let you play a game and guess which ones. To be very honest the first few months of my internship made me regret leaving Galway. I felt I had made a horrible mistake both personally and professionally. I had left my administrative job in Lorg Printmakers in which I was using every aspect of my masters, I had left a very good group of friends and I had left a thriving visual arts community that I…

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Websites. A blacksmiths guide to improving your site’s performance.

Originally posted on blacksmithsday:

 

I hear people working in the creative sector saying “I have a website. Been no use at all to me, big waste of time” If you’re not gaining anything from your website, it is usually down to one or all three, of the following. 1. you have a bad website that does not show case your work to its full potential. 2. you have spent no time promoting your site and its listing on search engines is very poor. 3. you’re not looking at your site in the correct way for your type of work and the audience your trying to reach .

Here is my guide to help you achieve results from your website if you’re making bespoke art/craft. This is not a definitive guide but simply things I have found useful over the past six years working on my own site.

  • ·         Firstly, find a website…

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Websites. A blacksmiths guide to improving your site’s performance.

 

I hear people working in the creative sector saying “I have a website. Been no use at all to me, big waste of time” If you’re not gaining anything from your website, it is usually down to one or all three, of the following. 1. you have a bad website that does not show case your work to its full potential. 2. you have spent no time promoting your site and its listing on search engines is very poor. 3. you’re not looking at your site in the correct way for your type of work and the audience your trying to reach .

Here is my guide to help you achieve results from your website if you’re making bespoke art/craft. This is not a definitive guide but simply things I have found useful over the past six years working on my own site.

  • ·         Firstly, find a website designer/engineer who will work with you and your particular style of work. You need your work to stand out, so a generic one-size-fits-all site will not cut it. Shop around for the right person to work with. Make sure they are willing to either carry out regular updates to your site or teach you how to do it yourself, as updating your site is key to its success. (I’ll explain way later.) It helped me to make a shortlist of sites I liked the look of before I sat down with my website designer (David Danels Danelsdavid.daniel@yellowlamp.com – a shameless plug for someone who has become a good friend over the years). This allows them an insight into where you want to go with your site and affords you both the opportunity to rationalise ideas. For instance, I couldn’t afford a big expensive website so David advised keeping it simple and as clean as possible. This led us to the final design as much as anything else. I chose the simple look as much for the idea that it would not become dated.
  • ·         Next, take an objective look at your work and evaluate it: how it sells, who it sells to and the main reasons why. If, like me, you’re mostly working on commissions or creating one-off sculptures, expecting your site to work like a big retail one is unrealistic and acts as a barrier to it working effectively for you. I realised that I needed my site to work as an online portfolio, giving people an insight into how I work, showcasing my style and method of working. I can direct people to my site to get an idea of what I can do for them. It works for me as people can see whether my style of work suits them and I don’t waste time trying to sell to people who really want something else. Lastly, this frees me up to concentrate on those clients who do like my style. It also means that I don’t get disillusioned that people aren’t emailing me constantly to buy the work shown on my site. It’s not designed to do that, so the pressure is off and I’m clear to correctly evaluate its true effectiveness.
  • ·         Good photography is a must, your website is a visual medium and must present your work to its full potential. Not everyone can afford a professional photographer but you can learn to take better photos. All you have to do is take the time to research photography online. There are thousands of “how to” videos on sites like YouTube. It’s just a case of taking the time to learn. Even cheap cameras take great photos these days. On the whole, a good photo of bad work will be more effective than a bad photo of good work. I won’t go into details here as I’m not a photographer but in general I follow a few simple tricks. For none installation work I use a clean background so the work stands out. I use a plain white sheet (make sure you iron it beforehand). Make sure not to use the date stamp function on your camera and take photos in good natural light where possible. The built-in flash on most cameras tend to flatten work which is not the best option for most. Also, take plenty of photos from different angles. You can always delete those that don’t work later and you might stumble upon a style that suits your work.
  • ·         Next is what website developers call “click appeal”. You want people to explore your website so the homepage should have the wow factor. Don’t bombard people with a long stream of text. All too often websites are designed like glossy magazines, with loads of competing images and text, supposedly to attract the reader’s attention. But websites are not competing for attention in the same way as the glossies. Try looking at your website as a short novel. The front page should be clean and striking. It should intrigue the viewer to explore further into your site. In this way visitors to your site are more likely to be interested in finding out more about you and your work. This gives you more opportunities to dazzle them.
  • ·         The text content of your website should be relevant to your work and, again, try to include as little as you can on the homepage. Let people decide for themselves how much or what they want to learn about you and your work. The main thing to keep in mind when writing the text for your site is to re-affirm the keywords that describe your work and your location. For instance, as a blacksmith working in Sligo in the northwest of Ireland, my keywords will be anything to do with forge work and my location. Therefore, I work these keywords into my text. This will help dramatically with boosting your site’s presence on search engines like Google, as these cross-reference your text content to help correctly categorise it. There is a school of thought for websites that it is essential to drag any and all traffic to your site. This does not work for such specialised areas as art and craft. Also, search engines must ensure they provide relevant information to the search topic requested and have long acted to combat this practice. In the end it will harm your ranking.
  • ·         Getting your site higher on the search rankings. As I have already mentioned, making sure your text is relevant and reaffirming keywords is a start in pushing your site up those rankings. But it’s only a start. You will need to continually update your site as search engines see this as a sure-fire sign that your site is current and relevant to their search categories. The more often you update your site the more frequently they check that they have the most current version. This is a key factor in boosting your site’s ranking. Two easy ways to generate updates are: photos of new work, keep putting photos up as you finish new work. Don’t wait to only do it once a year. Creating a news page where you regularly post current events is another helpful way. A note here is that you must take down news that is no longer relevant or this may give readers the feeling that your site is not current. Another big help in gaining a higher ranking is linking your site, but there is a pitfall here too. Any links included should be relevant to your work. So, don’t create links on your site to your fiend’s if they work in a field that is not related to your own. Search engines look at links as a way of verifying that your site is genuinely connected to the stated subject, so linking to unrelated sites will harm your ranking. Do, however, create links to sites that reaffirm your own subject area such as associations, galleries and so on. Push for these sites to link you back as, again, it boosts your ranking. Don’t be afraid that by linking to one which lists competitors you risk losing clients. In my experience people either like your work, in that they are attracted by your style, or they do not. We are not in competition with each other on this level. In fact, by showing you are part of a diverse community of creative’s you’re more likely to increase the amount of clients who are interested in your work. People are attracted to movements or groups much more readily than something that is seen as being just an individual or part of a dying trade. As a friend once said “People buy into movements, not weirdoes in the corner.” Those who are attracted to my work wouldn’t necessarily be interested in another blacksmith’s work and vice versa. By linking to these sites, and they in return linking back, you’re creating networks that validate all members. This will help to push the irrelevant junk sites further down the rankings, which helps everyone. One of the biggest frustrations when searching on the web is the amount of irrelevant sites you have to sieve through and it is a key factor in people just giving up on finding artists and crafts people.
  • ·         A lot of us now have social media pages and these are a great tool. Make sure you put links to your social media accounts on your website and vice versa. Use your Twitter and Facebook accounts to publicise your website. I put photos of work-in-progress on my social media accounts and it generates lots of interest, pushing viewers to my website. In return the more interest my website generates, the more people explore my work-in-progress shots on Twitter and Facebook. It’s amazing how many people don’t think anything is made by hand anymore and social media is the perfect way to let them see that you actually make your work, you don’t just design it and have it made on the other side of the world. People want to buy into things that are made by hand, on a human level, so help them as much as you can to see that’s how you work. Social media is perfect for this.
  • ·         Promoting your site is another key factor, and you need to take every opportunity to do so. The more people search for you on sites like Google, the more those engines will take notice. It should go without saying but make sure you have your web address on business cards, headed notepaper and so on. Don’t be shy in asking friends to share your website on their social media accounts. It all helps to direct traffic to you and that in turn can boost your online presence.

To sum up, I’d guess in the way of everything else we do, the more work you put into your site, the more you’ll get out of it. I always think of my website as a work-in-progress. Like my forge work it will continue to change and grow hand in hand with me and my work. I don’t think my site answers all my needs but it’s the best I can do with my current knowledge, money and time.

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We don’t shoe horses!

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I’ve heard the question posed “Why are cobblers, who shoe humans, comical figures in history while blacksmiths, who shoe horses, are heroic figures?” There’s a very simple answer to that.

Blacksmiths. Don’t. Shoe. Horses!

There, I’ve said it and it feels good to say it too.

Blacksmiths are heroic figures because they made the tools, weapons and machinery that made our civilisations possible for thousands of years. Without us the world would not have the tools to build and farm in the way we have, other crafts wouldn’t have tools and so on. Because of this blacksmithing was always known as “The King of Crafts” and the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in London has as its motto “By the hammer and the hand, all arts do stand”.

So why the confusion? Why is blacksmithing so deeply linked with shoeing horses in the minds of the general public when we don’t shoe horses?

Firstly, we must establish that people who shoe horses are farriers and they rightly have a very proud tradition as a craft in their own right. But a farrier’s skill is in his knowledge of horse’s feet and their care, not in their knowledge of steel and iron and its manipulation which is the blacksmith’s skill base.

Before roughly 1850 the two crafts were completely separate in the minds of most people. Farriers worked much like they do today, in that they mostly were not fixed in a workshop. They went to the horse rather than the horse coming to them. The only difference back then was that farriers had a round that took them about four weeks to complete. Four weeks is roughly how often a working horse needs to be shod. So, the pre-industrial revolution farrier went from one district to another, set up the forge in a local farmer’s barn, shod the horses in that area and then moved on to the next. In the winter when most farm horses had less work to do they were left un-shod so the farrier used this time to make shoes for the coming season and to repair and make his tools.

The blacksmith in contrast worked, as is the case today mostly although not exclusively, in a fixed workshop or forge in rural areas. Their work consisted of mostly tool work: shovels, hoes, hammers, chisels, ploughs and so on. More than likely the forge also supplied all the nails and bolts for the area, a job mostly carried out by the apprentice. Also, some smiths were lucky to have the patronage of the nobility or clergy which allowed them to specialise in decorative work.

The fact is both crafts, Blacksmith and Farrier, were far too busy to be the Jack of all trades as portrayed for the past hundred or so years.

Where the crafts seem to be confused with one another is once the industrial revolution started to push out into the countryside. As the railway rolled out it had two major effects for both crafts. Firstly, there was less work for horses and as a result a reduced need for horses, meaning less work for the farrier. At the same time mass-produced tools and hardware could be easily and cheaply supplied to the public which had a huge effect on the blacksmith’s income. Within a very short space of time both crafts found themselves in decline, as did most crafts at this time. It was not long before farriers and blacksmiths started sharing premises in a bid to economise. Further, they found sharing the costs of an apprentice helped them both. And so, in less than a generation skills in both crafts in rural areas declined; they could only afford to teach the apprentice whatever work came in the door, there being no colleges at this stage.

The final blow came with mass media which naturally portrays what it sees and by this time it saw a solitary person mostly shoeing horses or making the odd hinge and repairing a plough or two. This can be best illustrated by a quick online search for images of the forge. There is almost a complete divide at around 1850: pre-1850 paintings and illustrations of the forge depict three or four people forging tools or weapons, while in the post-1850s era it has become a solitary man making horse shoes.

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The Forge Francisco de Goya y Lucientes c.1815-1820

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The Forge Joseph Crawhall – circa 1885

The situation continued like this until the 1950s when the two crafts began to separate out again. At this time the larger middle classes kept more horses which meant more work for farriers and with the invention of the automobile it meant they could now go directly to the customer again which enabled them to see more customers in a day, thus making it more profitable. The blacksmith, while not seeing a revival in the need for tools, did however see a renewed interest in decorative hand-forged architectural work, thanks to some of the early twenty first century’s leading designers and architects with their innovative uses of forge work. These people such as Victor Horta, Gaudi and Charles Macintosh helped renew interest in the blacksmith’s skills as an art form and from the 1950s onwards a new generation began to experiment with the forge.

And so, we come to the present day, blacksmiths create craft items for the home, art galleries, public sculptures, monumental architectural iron work and, in some specialized areas, tools and machinery still. If you take the time to look around you, you’ll find a blacksmith in your area. We’re everywhere! And I can almost guarantee that any smith you find is not shoeing horses!

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