Is craft in Newfoundland and Labrador a trade or an art? Clearly, it's both!
"Some of the words I'd use to describe 'craft' in the province today are: excellent quality, good
design, dynamism, and even youthfulness," says Anne Manuel, Executive Director of the Craft
Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. "In the 1970s, when my husband began working as a
craftsperson, standards were less stringent — if it was handmade, it was good — the attitude was a holdover of the hippie culture. That's not true any longer, though. Today, a product must be
handmade, well designed, and well made — all these things are important."
Cara Kansala and Pam Dorey of Cara's Joy Photo: Pam Dorey
The work, she notes, has evolved along with the demands and awareness of those who buy it.
Manuel celebrates the fact that there is much traditional know-how being carried forward.
"I believe it is critically important to pass on that knowledge," she says. "It's important that people
know how to knit. They don't have to knit traditional things, as long as they know how to knit and they
continue to do it. Such knowledge — of how to practise these skills — should remain in use and be passed around."
It's a matter of preserving cultural history. For example, European traditions of craftmaking here began with functional objects — quilts, mitts, socks, hooked mats, boats — produced for use not for sale. But working knowledge of some of them is fading.
"Spruce-root basket making is rarely practised now," Manuel laments. (On the other hand, some skills, such as felting, are experiencing a renaissance.)
This province's craftspeople draw on longestablished and/or cutting-edge techniques, combine skills-passed-on with expert training, and apply them to traditional, found, or created materials. They also keep one eye on design and the other on the marketplace. In a time of shrinking rural communities, craft is being produced in homes, workshops, and studios in Doyles, or Fleur de Lys, Upper Island Cove, and North West River.
Part of being a craftsperson is a constant struggle to make the business viable. You can work at what you love, but you also have to be the bookkeeper, technician, maintenance person, shelf stocker, marketer — and the list goes on — without nearby colleagues to draw on or take inspiration from. Even so, successful careers in craft can be made in rural and urban locations, and those who have chosen to be craftspeople are among the most fulfilled working people you will find.
Tim Rast Photo: Ned Pratt
"When I create things, I am undeniably, unabashedly happy," says Jason Holley of Twisted Metal Creations in St. John's. "For me, the joy is in the making — always has been, always will be. Selling certainly has its own rewards: when someone buys something it's the ultimate compliment; that's part of our value system. But I'm also happy because when someone buys something, I get to go and make something else."
"I like being my own boss and I don't like repetition," says Janet Davis, a printmaker based in
Brookfield, on Newfoundland's NE coast. "In my work I'm always doing different things. Even the
pieces I make in bulk don't feel like production work because each one is unique in some way. I keep
an open studio because I like meeting new people, being a host."
Craft here mixes successful businesses with a range of unique producers and work. Tim Rast's flintknapped jewellery, Don Ash's knives, Janet Peters' papier-maché mummers, Kevin Coates' wooden carvings, and the bright wooden collages of Cara's Joy come to mind. We have exquisite traditionalists — grass-sewer Garmel Rich, carvers John Terriak and Gilbert Hay; and those who apply traditional skills to new forms — textile artist Shirley Moorhouse and mat hooker Shawn O'Hagan. And there is the unparalleled artistry of Ray Cox's poured pewter forms, Reed Weir's clay sculptures, Mike Massie's silver teapots, or the silver and gem-studded jewellery of Don Beaubier or Wesley Harris.
Manuel can also put the character of the work produced here in a North American context.
Reed Weir Photo: Eric Walsh
"The nature and personality of Newfoundland and Labrador definitely filters into the craft created here," she observes. "When you get to the centre of North America, distinctions seem to blur, there's a lot of cross-referencing. Out here on the edge it's easier to avoid getting submerged in everything else. You can still see the roots of tradition. You still see the strong presence and influence of textiles, you see a lot of work with practical purposes, and you see the colours of our landscapes. Even in work that is not intended to have anything to do with the environment or our icons, there's still something of 'us' in there somewhere."
Much of the time, of course, the referencing is conscious and overt. Many craftspeople say that one of the most gratifying things about working here is just how much of self and place you can infuse into your art. Take King's Point Pottery, for example. For 15 years, Linda Yates (a native Newfoundlander) and her partner David Hayashida (born and raised in Ontario) have built a business on the shores of Green Bay that combines production items with one-of-a-kind ceramic work. Their early lines of bowls, plates, and mugs feature, among other recognizable natural icons, the forms of whales in shades of ocean blue. More recently they have literally put Newfoundland right into their work: they make some of their glazes from earthen matter they collect locally, and shoot salty ocean water into their salt-soda kiln. "Through the clay medium we are trying to describe where we live, who we are, and what interests us," is how Hayashida puts it.
Davis' work could never be mistaken as that of an artist from anywhere else.
"I remember how one of my instructors at NSCAD [the Nova Scotia College of Art and
Design] put it after she visited here. She said, 'Newfoundlanders tell stories with their art more than anywhere else in the country.' It's true, although I hadn't thought of it that way before. And they're not just stories about our own culture, but any story, any personal story."
It's not always obvious. The chainmaille creations of Jason Holley, in silver, gold, steel, rubber, and recently, clay, do not appear to have an immediate 'Newfoundland' link. Yet Holley's career path, his ability to make a living at what he does, is supported by something else thatís distinctive here — a spirit of helpfulness.
Janet Davis at work Photo: Eleanor Parsons
It's been an enduring phenomenon. "When I started," says Manuel, "there were established people around who took me under their wing, showed me things, helped me. That is still happening. There's a remarkable amount of helping others out, giving advice. In some industries, if you find out a bit of information
— how to make something, or where to get materials — you keep it to yourself and guard it
like gold. Not in the craft industry."
"I think you become a craftsperson because it comes naturally to you, it's self-fulfilling," says Yates, "and that creates happiness, contentment — you're doing what you want to do; it's that simple."
Hayashida adds: "I think that anyone who has a passion for what they do is very lucky. I enjoy opening the kiln — it's like Christmas Day every time!"
Manuel puts it this way: "Many craftspeople have made a definite lifestyle choice. They've said, 'I don't care about making a lot of money, I want to live here, work here, and see the ocean every day. I want to make beautiful things for other people to enjoy.'"
The Studio Guide
a great way to take a closer look. The Craft Council will publish its fourth Studio Guide this spring. The illustrated Guide lists craft studios across the province that are open to the public, and provides
directions and contact information. Craft shops and galleries are also listed. The Studio Guide is available at tourist information venues, at participating studios and shops, and online: www.craftcouncil.nf.ca
Craft Year 2007
2007 — a great year to take a closer look. As regular readers of the NQ will know (see Volume 99, page 49), 2007 will be celebrated nationally as the Year of Craft. The events and celebrations taking place in this province are outlined on the Craft Council's web site.
To learn more about the wealth of craft being produced in this province, pick up a copy of the new Studio Guide in the spring, or visit these web sites: www.craftcouncil.nf.ca www.craftsofcharacter.com