This morning I received in my inbox, information of yet another degree in craft. This time at Crawford College of Art & Design, in Co. Cork, Ireland. It will consist of ceramics, glass and textiles. Once again blacksmiths are not at the table.
I have long thought the blacksmith industry needs to focus some attention on getting our craft into the major art colleges. On the whole, when voicing this idea I’ve been met with mockery, derision, anger, outrage and, thankfully support, at such an idea. Why are we so resistant to new ideas? Surly having small forging departments open for three or four days a month (like some other departments already) in art colleges would be good for blacksmithing. It would provide extra and much needed income for those smiths who feel happy to teach. It would also help to promote our craft in areas some have felt to be blocked off to us. It would allow students to dip their toes in the water and, if they like it, dive in. I’m sure a great many of these students would then go on to fulltime studies in forge work at collages like Hereford in the UK. It would also help to promote our craft to future administrators of the art world. A large amount of art students don’t go on to become practising artists, they become gallery administrators, curators and civil servants. In short, they become the commissioners of future art. Thus, if they aren’t exposed to the forge they are less likely to commission forge work. This is borne out by the fact that very few of us are commissioned by these sorts of institutions.
It feels as if we, as an industry, decided at some point to stop moving forward. To stop building on the monumental efforts of those who helped halt the decline of our craft in the Sixties and Seventies. Smiths I have a great deal of admiration for, without whom I know I would not be doing what I love today. These artists, most of whom are widely known by those of us working in the forge, put in place what became a great endeavour to help blacksmithing survive and move on.
Other crafts did the same, but at some point our paths differed quite significantly. We became content with, on the whole, being a craft. We set up our colleges in rural areas, held the majority of our events in out of the way places and mostly, though not exclusively, shunned the art world, its colleges and galleries.
Crafts such as ceramics at first did the same, establishing colleges in rural areas and so on. But somewhere along the line they began to court the art world, getting small ceramic departments set up in more prominent art colleges and holding events in major metropolitan areas, with exhibitions in contemporary art galleries. In short, ceramicists pushed their way to the front and became a mainstream art form as well as a traditional craft.
You don’t need to take my word for this, all of us already know of ceramics events being pushed by various groups, colleges, galleries and associations. All we have to do is look around us. How many times have you been introduced to someone as a blacksmith and been met with one of the three following remarks:
“You must be one of the last blacksmiths in the country”.
“Do you shoe horses?”
“I thought blacksmiths died out in the Victorian era”.
Ask those same people if they know of ceramics. Not only is it odds-on they know of it, they most likely collect it and know several potters.
The other effects on crafts/art forms like ceramics and glass is that, like us, fifty years ago they were a predominately male dominated industry whereas now they are relatively aligned with national averages in terms of gender employment while our industry has only about 10% of its number being female. This puts us at a huge disadvantage. Any industry that is either mostly male or mostly female from one class or group is in danger of stagnation, becoming irrelevant to whole swaths of society. If we are to move forward we have to recognise that blacksmithing has a poor record in attracting women into the craft and we must look at why women don’t find their way to holding a hammer.
This all leads to one truth in my opinion. We are not diverse enough! We have very few avenues into our craft which has left us isolated among other art forms. We are bogged down in dogmas about how blacksmiths should orientate their business, where and to whom it should be taught and where it should be exhibited and demonstrated.
I’m not saying everyone should be forced to operate in the art world or go to art collage. I, myself, left school with no qualifications and come from a metalwork background, both my father and brother being welder fabricators on the docks of Portsmouth in the UK. What I mean is, disregarding those with successful careers in the art world is counterproductive to our craft. Refusing to acknowledge that other crafts have gained huge advantages by being present in art colleges undermines our craft. Carrying on only promoting our craft in the same way as has been done over the past forty years, with the same results, is not progressing our craft.
Of course, the forge-ins we have are great fun, they are fantastic ways of sharing skills and fostering friendship. All of this is very desirable and something of an edge we have as a craft. But … yes sorry, I have to insert a ‘but’, it does not effectively promote forge work to the other 99.999.999% of the world. Not least because of the way we generally do it as a whole at the moment. The most recurring complaint I hear from other smiths is the public’s lack of awareness of our craft. It would appear to stand to reason that our combined efforts so far have not been effective. So, logic would dictate that we look to promote our craft in different ways, wouldn’t it? Shouldn’t we look at how other crafts and art forms have achieved greater results? Perhaps combined with what we already do so well, it would push blacksmithing into the limelight, and as a result smiths would find it financially much more comfortable?
I don’t know how to end this other than stating that I’m not attacking anyone for what they do. I’m not trying to rubbish people’s efforts over the past fifty years or say it was worthless. As I’ve already said I have a great deal of respect for what these smiths and their families and friends have done and sacrificed for the craft. I simply feel we have problems and we need to look afresh at how to solve them. Otherwise I fear the efforts of the past could be for nothing.