A friend of mine who’s been a costumer for decades says he had a professor at Yale Drama who sometimes used to look over student work, click her tongue, and comment, “You can’t teach taste, and you can’t teach trim.”
With respect, I’m not sure I agree; but I do find it true that the intangibles of any art or craft—fiber art included—are an absolute bear to convey to puzzled students. “How do you get your ideas?” is an easy question to answer. “How do I get my ideas?” is not.
Tien Chiu’s Master Your Craft: Strategies for Designing, Making, and Selling Artisan Work (Schiffer Publishing Co.) aims to wrestle the second question into submission.
Chiu, a weaver, has a professional background in project management and new product development in the tech industry. It comes as no surprise, then, to find that Master Your Craft is light on the artisanal, locally sourced hogwash that often pads out titles on creativity. In lieu of daydreaming under an arbor in Tuscany until your muse shows up with a bowl of gelato and a ball of merino, this book suggests that you think, work, evaluate, think, work, evaluate.
It is, in other words, the process of product development applied to products that happen to be both personal and handmade. Some will recoil at the notion that an art quilt might be assembled in the same manner as an iPhone app. Others—and they will be those the book was written for—will be grateful for solid advice set forth with logic and conveyed in plain, sometimes blunt, writing.
The Unsexy Smart Things to Consider
Master Your Craft does not pull punches. When aspiring designers ask how they should begin, they’re usually concerned with inspiration. This book insists on facing the practicalities. Having an idea is lovely. But once you’ve got an idea, how do you know if you have the materials, skills, tools, and time to realize it? How will you manage the construction? What are the risks involved, and how do you minimize them? These are not sexy questions.
Even less sexy—and therefore often ignored on books on creativity—is the repetitious cycle of evaluating and editing. Master Your Craft presents this as the heart of the process, and it can hurt. How do you keep enough distance between yourself and a work in progress to know if it’s going well or not? Should you solicit feedback or input from others? If so, how do you gather responses that will be useful? How do you even know when you’re finished?
Inspiration Is a Skill to Learn
The emphasis on practical matters doesn’t mean that Chiu fails to acknowledge the importance of daydreaming and messing around. She devotes an entire chapter to inspiration, but her take on it is not the bolt-from-the-blue variety. It’s a skill to be learned. To this end, she includes a “Learning to See” exercise that aims to coax the novice into closely examining an object that may serve as the foundation for a new project. (By way of example, she turns her own eye on mass-produced black plastic office tape dispenser. A far cry from Tuscany and gelato.)
The abundant exercises (there are eighteen) are one of the book’s great strengths. Some, like Design Poker, are clever ways to shut off your internal censor and move past creative blocks. Others have practical goals—like the eye-opening method for calculating what you really earn when you sell a piece of handmade work. They turn the book from something to be read into something to be used, and that’s a good thing.
Should You Turn Pro?
One project does not an artist make, of course. In later chapters, Chiu writes about working in series, revisiting and adapting older work, submitting to shows, creating a product line, and turning pro. (Should you turn pro? What if the answer is no? Or, worse, what if the answer is yes?)
Useful as this all might be, still it could have been dryly academic and insufferably pompous if Chiu hadn’t had the good sense to invite a veritable brigade of established names—painters, ceramicists, textile designers, metalworkers, furniture makers, glassworkers, woodworkers, and fiber artists—to weigh in on the various topics. Mason-Dixon readers will recognize, among others, Kaffe Fassett and Norah Gaughan.
Their varied experiences and opinions—along with handsomely printed color photographs of their works and workspaces—are sprinkled lavishly throughout. They help to make the book a pleasure to read and to look at—a sort of roundtable to frank talk about what it means (and what it costs) to be a creative person.