Life is what you make in it
You don't need to be an artist to produce something special, says Jeanette Winterson. As a new craft exhibition opens in London, she urges us all to be more creative
Thursday 17 June 2010
The most satisfying thing a human being can do – and the sexiest – is to make something. Life is about relationship – to each other – and to the material world. Making something is a relationship. The verb is the clue. We make love, we make babies, we make dinner, we make sense, we make a difference, we make it up, we make it new...
True, we sometimes also make a mess, but creativity never was a factory finish.
The wrestle with material isn't about subduing; it is about making a third thing that didn't exist before. The raw material was there, and you were there, but the relationship that happens between maker and material allows the finished piece to be what it is. And that allows a further relationship to develop between the piece and the viewer or the buyer.
Both relationships are in every way different from mass production or store-bought objects that, however useful, are dead on arrival. Anyone who makes something finds its life, whether it's Michelangelo releasing David from 20 tons of Carrera marble, or potter Jane Cox spinning me a plate using the power of her shoulders, the sureness of her hands, the concentration of her mind.
I have a set of silverware made by an 18th-century silverworker called Hester Bateman, one of the very few women working in flatware at that time. When I eat with her spoons, I feel the work and the satisfaction that went into making them – the handle and bowl are in equal balance – and I feel a part of time as it really is – not chopped into little bits, but continuous. She made this beautiful thing, it's still here, and I am here too, writing my books, eating my soup, two women making things across time. I feel connection, respect, delight. And it is just a spoon...
But the thing about craft, about the making of everyday objects that we can have around us, about the making of objects that are beautiful and/or useful, is that our everyday life is enriched.
How is it enriched? To make something is to be both conscious and concentrated – it is a fully alert state, but not one of anxious hyper-arousal. We all know the flow we feel when we are absorbed in what we do. I find that by having a few things around me that have been made by someone's hand and eye and imagination working together, I am prevented from passing through my daily life in a kind of blur. I have to notice what is in front of me – the table, the vase, the hand-blocked curtains, the thumb prints in the sculpture, the lettering block. I have some lamps made by Marianna Kennedy, and what I switch on is not a bulb on a stem; it is her sense of light.
So I am in relationship to the object and in relationship to the maker. This allows me to escape from the anonymity and clutter of the way we live now. Instead of surrounding myself with lots of things I hardly notice, I have a few things that also seem to notice me. No doubt this is a fantasy – but...
The life of objects is a strange one.
A maker creates something like a fossil record. She or he is imprinted in the piece. We know that energy is never lost, only that it changes its form, and it seems to me that the maker shape-shifts her/himself into the object. That is why it remains a living thing.
Of course it is possible to design an object that will be made by others – but that is an extension of the creative relationship, not its antithesis. It is the ceaseless reproduction of meaningless objects that kills creativity for all of us, as producers and consumers.
But are producers and consumers who we want to be?
To make is to do. It is an active verb. Creativity is present in every child ever born. Kids love making things. There are different doses and dilutions of creativity, and the force is much stronger in some than in others – but it is there for all of us, and should never have been separated off from life into art.
I would like to live in a creative continuum that runs from the child's drawing on the fridge to Lucian Freud, from the coffee cups made by a young ceramicist to Grayson Perry's pots.
We don't need to agonise over the boundaries between "art" and "craft", any more than we should be separating art and life. The boundary is between the creative exuberance of being human, and the monotony of an existence dependent on mass production – objects, food, values, aspirations.
Making is personal. Making is shared. Making is a celebration of who we are.
Jerwood Contemporary Makers, Jerwood Space, London SE1 until 25 July (Jerwoodvisualarts.org)
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