7 min read

New Craft - Part 2

The famous toolbox of Henry Studley, Master Woodworker

In last week's post, I outlined some thoughts on Why people are or become artisans. This week I want to reflect on How they practice their craft.

It isn't easy to reduce something as complex as the qualities of an artisan into neat, reductive boxes. As a result, some areas overlap as we consider the same qualities in different contexts. Given what we're trying to do here - to understand what makes an artisan tick, learn how we can encourage that in ourselves and evoke it in people we work with - I suggest that we accept this for now. It may get clearer as we continue the exploration.

I've approached the "How?" question in three parts. Firstly, from the standpoint of "inner work, " considering attitudes and dispositions to our craft. Secondly, "outer work" looks at training, skills, continuous development and innovation. Lastly, I've considered the Ecosystem aspects - who we keep company with, who supports, and who judges us.

The Inner Work

Reflecting on my own journey, I find the inner work the most important, the most difficult, and the one that cannot be rushed.

Finding that place where we can consider what we are doing and why we are doing it amidst the cacophony of the world we live in is a sanctuary where we can answer for ourselves the question, "to what end?"

It is a huge topic, with many avenues depending on what I find myself considering.   Here are some of the elements that are uppermost in my mind:

Creating a Container. The scope of inner work, covering as it does, an almost infinite array of philosophical, spiritual, and practical questions is enough to overwhelm us and leave us absorbed but ineffective in our outer work.

I say this from personal experience. What I have learned from others is the need to create containers. A set of self-imposed boundaries and constraints within which I can operate and do the work I need to. One in which I can isolate the frenetic, short-term/performance pressures that affect us all, another to do the work that matters, and another in which I can place all the other matters that are important to me and to which I can return when I'm ready.

It helps me to turn the obsessional perfectionist energy I think many artisans share into something more disciplined and practical, to do the best I can do today on that road to the elusive perfect. To deliver something imperfect but better than yesterday in the knowledge that tomorrow will be better again as we travel the path to becoming.

The containers need constant attention because the tendency for them to spring leaks is high...

It is easy but insufficient to talk of an artisanal mindset. Richard Sennett highlights three areas that are important in how an artisan approaches their work that I find valuable.

Agency.  I think it's not possible to be an artisan in an area where we don't have agency:

an individual's capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action (Houston, 2010).

Determining and taking responsibility for what we do or make is central to expressing our creativity. If we produce to the directives of someone else, whether client or employer, we are operatives. It doesn't matter whether we are a carpenter or corporate lawyer, delivering for our clients with the freedom to determine how is an essential freedom for the artisan.

Affordance. As artisans, what we provide is connection. When the client uses it or experiences it, it offers far more than its function.

A use or purpose that a thing can have, that people notice as part of the way they see or experience it. Cambridge Dictionary.

It is a product of the empathy the artisan has for the client. A felt sense, a shared understanding. I have worked with accountants where the functional set of accounts they produce are presented in a way that triggers discussion into possibilities, in the same way as a beautiful piece of pottery has its own poetry. Affordances are the result of how an artisan relates to the work they are doing. They are in dialogue with it. It is a by-product of flow.

Flow is a cognitive state where one is completely immersed in an activity—from painting and writing to prayer and surfboarding. It involves intense focus, creative engagement, and the loss of awareness of time and self. Psychology Today

Assemblage. Artisans do not "paint by numbers" or blindly follow process:

Assemblage is art that is made by assembling disparate elements – often everyday objects – scavenged by the artist or bought specially. Tate

Each piece an artisan produces is unique in some way, even if not immediately visible. The originality derives from the attention being paid to what is brought together to create it.

The Dragons. Perhaps the hardest task of the artisan is to overcome the "dragons," those voices and conventions that stifle the originality required to do the best work we can. They include what we've been taught and what we assume is true because others have repeated it. It encompasses what we feel, no matter how subtle and being at ease with what we don't know. It includes trusting our experience and, importantly, knowing when to stop. Artisans have a tendency to be obsessive.

Inner work is an enormous topic, and this hardly scratches the surface. In simple terms though, what we produce is a function of how we turn up.

The Outer Work

As we do the inner work that lasts all of our lives, how do artisans manifest that in the way that they work? Here's what I'm noticing:

Playfulness. In a world where we are obsessed with short-term performance, and targets, playfulness sounds indulgent. I think it's important. As discussed earlier, the discipline of having a "container" is important to provide the focus and discipline needed for mastery. At the same time, curiosity and the search for perfection drive the artisan to challenge the boundaries they have set for themselves.

Educators talk of two types of play - "free play", which is purely exploratory, and "structured play", which is play with a purpose. Artisans do both free play to explore possibility and the "adjacent possible" and structured play, or innovation,  to push the boundaries of what they already do.

One of the important facets of this is getting together to play. Artisans had their Guilds, and of course, they were gathered in villages and towns in time before commuting. Familiarity and proximity are an important part of play. It raises the question, "how do we make ourselves available for play today?"

The Sketch. In between the discovery of play, and the creation of what we do is the idea of The Sketch.

from Greek σχέδιος – schedios, "done extempore") is a rapidly executed freehand drawing that is not usually intended as a finished work.

The pressures of time and efficiency often do not sit easily with the idea of sketching. Yet, for the artisan, it is critical as we take play's insights and experiment with ways to manifest them. We need the time to sit in that space of not yet knowing until what we want emerges.

The ultimate arbiter of the artisan is the work they produce. There are many elements to that. Here are some I think important.

Attitude. There is something about our ability to approach our work with equanimity, in the knowledge that whatever it throws at us is a question to be valued. I also include attitudes to time here. I think that whilst most work occupies Chronos, linear, time that is at the very heart of measures of efficiency; craft often occupies Kairos time, with its sense of timing more than time and its affinity with the creation of beauty. Whilst both have to be accommodated in day-to-day practicalities, Kairos time, like ideas of Flow, and Affordance are hallmarks of the artisan.

The Essence of Good Work. Richard Sennett identifies the three critical elements of practising craft as the abilities to:

  • Localise. The ability to take the proposed whole and identify its foundations' critical parts. What they are, what they are made of and how they must connect in order for the whole to deliver what the sketch has promised.
  • Question. To not take anything for granted. Each piece of work is unique, and whilst they follow the same process as another, there are always important small differences - perhaps the nature of a piece of wood, the idiosyncracies of the client, or the place where the work will be used.
  • Open up. I think of this as the ability to take all the parts I have identified and have them all laid out before me on a bench. Being able to take the time to get to know them and sense their nature before bringing them together into the whole.

Deliberate Practice. Most of us are now familiar with the "10,000-hour rule", the idea that developing Mastery requires that length of time in intense practice. There has been much debate about it, some of it critical. One important aspect has often gone missing in simplifying the idea into "ten thousand hours, bish, bash, bosh, Mastery". It is the nature of the practice. Deliberate practice is far more than practice; it is practice at the edge of current ability. It is what Lev Vygotsky termed the "zone of proximal development." It is a practice that pushes us, every time we do it, to the edge of our current capabilities, and a little bit beyond it. It links to the ideas of questioning and opening up mentioned above. It is hard work.

Teaching. Another of the hallmarks of the artisan is not just their willingness but their need to teach. Their craft as a vocation and a desire to see it develop and grow for its own sake. It is not just generosity; it is practicality. We know that the best way to really learn something is to teach it.


For craft to thrive, it has to be shared in council - an advisory, deliberative, or administrative body of people formally constituted and meeting regularly. For Artisans, it was the Guilds and their division into different crafts and ranks within each craft - Apprentice, Journeyman(sic) and Master. It provided the structure, ritual and ceremony that gave life to the development of the craft.

It is more difficult today in an age of anthropomorphic technologies, efficiency-seeking processes and industrial mindsets.  Yet, it is still vital an area I think is important to consider - just how do Artisans collaborate in an age when productivity and performances are prized over the beauty of what we create and when the ways we connect have become infinitely more complex?

In today's environment, who judges our work as artisans, and on what basis? Where do we share expertise or arrange for the sort of experience the Journeymen once did?

The Compagnons du Devoir, full name Compagnons du Devoir et du Tour de France, is a French organization of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle Ages. Their traditional, technical education includes taking a tour, the Tour de France, around France and doing apprenticeships with masters.(Wikipedia)

Where do we find the space for the friendly rivalry that fuels growth and innovation rather than cutthroat competition?

This, the ecosystem of craft and the artisan, is too complex for this post, so I will look at it in more detail in a later post rather than lengthen this post further.

For now, we just need to recognise its importance.

Next week, I will consider the What? of New Artisans - what is the scope of activities that modern craft covers?

Until then, have a great weekend.