"Sensory Craft" was the theme for Session 1 of the Craft Forward Symposium on Saturday morning. It was an appropriate premise to start two days of presentations about craft with a focus on the senses and the hand.
Sensory Craft included presentations by David Howes and Frank Wilson.
Both lectures were filled with factual and interesting information, most of it like a PBS NOVA show on scientific thinking about the body and research into cognitive studies. The lecture about the senses from David Howes was truly fascinating and explains a tremendous amount about how we perceive art and craft. My post will focus on the information from his lecture because we can take this information into the studio to inform our work.
I've heard Frank Wilson speak before at a recent SNAG Conference. At Craft Forward, he did a better job communicating with his audience. If you're interested in his theories, I suggest that you read his book about the Hand.
His lecture materials focused primarily on the question, Did humans become intelligent because of the biomechanics of the hand, or.... did the human hand make people intelligent?
"Creation of The Birds" by Remedios Varo 1957
What did I learn?
David Howes's lecture was titled, "Craft, Sensory Power, and Delight." The first astounding sentence stated that there are not just 5 senses but at least 6 senses and there may be as many as 33 senses. He used the image, "Creation of The Birds" by Remedios Varo (above) to explain that adults usually grow out of their appreciation and dependence on their senses.
We have all heard the saying, "Master of all I survey" (taken from the poem "Solitude of Alexander Selkirk" by William Cowper). This serves as an apt metaphor for western society's focus on vision. Howe says artists are the masters of all they portray, and painters have painted the "perception of perfection" for eons. It also explains the preeminence of painting as it is dependent solely on sight for appreciation.
Craft in comparison engages all senses. The weight of the pot, the feel of the fabric, wearing clothing provides warmth, adornment such as jewelry can be multi-sensory with the sound of a pair of earrings, the touch of a necklace, or the weight of bracelets.
A Japanese tea bowl comes to mind for me. Holding a tea bowl is part of the wabi-sabi experience.
In western society, we have relegated the senses (other than sight) to a very secondary role. As an example, David Howes described a shamanistic healing experience that would include hallucinogenic drugs, auras, fanning away of evil spirits, luminescent visions and designs, acoustic patterns of rattles, songs, chanting, and fragrances, all involved in a healing ritual of musical and sensory healing. (Harriete wants to add the observation that we should compare this description of shamanistic healing to modern medical practice where the treatment may indeed be therapeutic, but rarely feels that way.)
This bias of senses, visual outweighing all the other senses, is reflected in our western cultural bias toward painting as the "highest" of all arts, and craft assigned to some lower status in the art hierarchy.
David Howe continued with a few more examples where the visual sense seems to rise above the other senses.
For example, the elevation of the male gaze over female touch. While this can be seen in the many paintings of naked females (my feminist ire speaks out), but also in the reduced value of the female touch. Some craft is rooted in the craftwork performed by upper-class women such as paper cutting by Mary Delany (left image).
I won't go into the many other art vs. craft examples. This was not the strongest part of the lecture.
It was more interesting to think about how the skills of any craft media are rooted in the senses. Skills learned by practice using ALL the senses.
What were the thought-provoking issues raised?
So often in the studio, I pause or question my intuition. I sometimes want to think that a formula, facts, or concept can assure success. Yet, over and over, my instincts lead to a resolution that I only understand much later. After all these years, I am still surprised by the power of decisions based on senses and intuition rather than conscious analysis and assessment. We all need to look at the relationship of all senses in our work and the intelligence of our senses in the extension of the hand.
Background about the speakers (below).
You can find Dr. Frank Wilson's books on Amazon here.
I found a quote that really resonants with my current work about standardized testing. Frank Wilson says: "Some people are beginning to think about its potential for radically changing the structure of formal education in this country."
He asks: "What do children really learn from years and years of forced immobility, ingesting simplified or frankly dubious narratives of human life and formulaic reductions of human knowledge? Increasingly, despite the bluster and bullying of the monomaniacal proponents of “rigor, assessments, and accountability” in schools, the answer appears to be “not much.”
David Howes' website is not that interesting but it does include a list of his research publications and books. The Sensory Studies website is worthy of investigation. His lecture was so interesting that I would definitely consider reading one of his books about the senses.
CHECK OUT emiko oye's posts on Crafthaus with lots of images from Manufractured exhibition at Craft Forward Symposium. Manufractured Forward Visual Impressions and Manufractured Forward Visual Impressions Part 2
This post was updated on February 1, 2022, to provide current links.