Looking at Craft: Upside Down, Backwards, and Inside Out

Glenn Adamson

23 June 2016

There is a beautiful story about Kandinsky entering his own studio late at night, and seeing a painting he did not recognize. The image seemed to him alien and powerful, possessed of “extraordinary beauty, glowing with inner radiance.” After a long, awestruck moment, he realized that it was one of his own paintings… sitting on an easel upside down. The experience encouraged Kandinsky to believe that a completely abstract painting might be possible. From then on he devoted himself to it.

That an artist could have stumbled across the greatest innovation of twentieth-century art is almost too good to be true. Yet it happened, and it is a reminder of how useful it can be to look at things the wrong way round. Looking at the world like a craftsman often means looking at it in unusual ways: upside down, backwards and inside out. These are ways of seeing that yield surprising pleasures and insights, insights into the way things are made and the people who make them.

I’d like to begin at the beginning—or the beginning for me, at any rate.

I once had an epiphany which was somewhat like Kandinsky’s, if not quite as consequential for the history of art. I was, at the time, 19 years old. Enrolled for one year at Harvard as an exchange student, I was trying to get my money’s worth. The discipline of art history was a new discovery for me then, too, and I wanted to take as many courses in the subject as possible. So I carefully scheduled my week.

In this roundabout way, along with a great many classes about painting, sculpture and architecture, I ended up taking “The History of Chinese Ceramics.” The course sounded wildly esoteric to me, but it fit neatly into my one available slot. So there I was on Week Two, sitting in the back storeroom of Harvard’s Asian Art Museum for a ‘handling session.’ It was much like any other classroom seminar I had attended, but with the crucial added ingredient of artifacts from the collection. We were allowed to hold them, and turn them over in our hands.

Professor Bob Mowry was a man with a great depth of knowledge, bright blue eyes, and a glorious snowy-white moustache. He passed round the first object, which I don’t now remember. It made no impression on me. Then he passed round the second, a dish from the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 AD). This was a flourishing period for China, when the country was relatively peaceful and flooded regularly with people from other parts of the world. They brought their arts with them. The dish, Professor Mowry informed us, reflected this influx of new ideas. It was decorated in the sancai (three-color) palette: a grassy green, a rich brown, and a deep blue. These tints were achieved using lead-based glazes, with crushed minerals as colorants. They used copper for green, iron for brown, imported cobalt for blue. The decorative pattern was inspired by metalwork from the west, possibly modern-day India, or even further afield in Persia. But the design had a characteristic Chinese twist, with curling cloud forms toward the edges, a motif that also appears in silk paintings of the era.

I took all this information in with mild interest, thinking mainly how different it was to learn about ceramics instead of paintings. Then I turned the dish over, and everything changed for me. On the underside were the fingerprints of the potter who had made it all those centuries ago. I could put my own fingers in the same spots, almost feel the pressure that had been applied into the wet clay so long ago. I had that electric charge you get when you fall in love with an object. For me this meant also dedicating myself to an understanding of the craftsman. I wanted to know the maker of that beautiful bowl, just as much as you might want to know the author of a love letter addressed to you.

From that day I looked forward to Professor Mowry’s class more than any other. I even took “The History of Korean Ceramics” the next semester. And so began my interest in the skillful making of great objects. I went on to become a volunteer intern at other museums, first the Everson in Syracuse, New York—which has a terrific ceramic collection, thanks to funding provided by the local china industry over the years—and subsequently the American Craft Museum, which is the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) today, where I have the honor of being director. Had I not had the chance to turn that Chinese pot upside down, I’m sure I would be doing something else entirely.

Before coming to MAD I spent about eight years teaching at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I used to run my own ‘handling sessions’ there, always focusing on craft objects. They might be chosen to illustrate the historical development of a certain technology (usually ceramics, I can’t help it) or a type of object (spoons through the ages). I liked to think of each object as a prop in a story, except that both the object and the story it illustrates are real.

I generally sat the students around a large table, assigning an object to each one in order to give them a sense of personal encounter. Then I’d give them instructions:

Hold your object over the table, not over your lap.

Keep it at a low height. If it falls at least it won’t go far.

Keep the objects far apart, lest they collide.

Always use two hands.

And here is a curious rule: this may be a ‘handling session,’ but you should never pick up a cup or a teapot or anything else by its handle. Yes, I know that is what they were designed for; but the join in an old handle may be fragile.

Turn your object upside down, examining its every detail. Try to piece together how it was made.

As these directions suggest, what happens in a handling session is quite different from what happens in other encounters with objects. When you ask a group of students to study the signs of manufacture on the bottom of a teapot, you are putting them in a very unusual position. In fact, even beginning students may attend to the details of an object much more closely than its historical owners—and even its makers—ever did. Most people simply use a teapot to pour tea. The historian tries to crack its code.

Another favorite story of mine was related to me by a student interpreter at Winterthur, the great repository of early American decorative arts in Wilmington, Delaware. On one occasion, in a room devoted to the seventeenth century, the guide had launched into an explanation about the objects on display. She spoke for some time, facing away from her audience, then turned around in order to point out a unusual survival within the collection: a joined bench made of oak, probably dating to the 1630s. She was about to tell her visitors that this was a unique (and therefore extremely precious) survival, the only American example of its era known to exist today.

Imagine her surprise when she saw that the members of her tour group were already sitting on it like a row of ducklings, waiting politely for her explanation. Of course she asked them to stand up and NEVER TO TOUCH.

Which prompts the question of who was using the bench properly—them or her? If museum curators are lucky, and not too consumed in administration, they spend their days in constant interaction with objects. Yet they almost never touch, use, or even look at these things in a normal way, in the way their makers intend. The same is true for dealers, collectors, and auction house specialists. Think of the postures adopted by the connoisseur: turning over a silver teapot and reading its maker’s hallmark through a magnifying glass; crouching down inelegantly beneath a cabinet, so as to shine a flashlight on its underside; or examining the back of a painting to look for proof or disproof of authenticity. Recent technological advances have made possible more extreme forms of looking. Conservators now avail themselves not only of magnifying glasses, X-rays, and ultraviolet and infrared lighting, but also high-resolution photographs that can be enlarged to reveal more detail than the human eye can normally perceive. Curators love to look at things upside down, backwards and inside out.

This is often true for makers as well. While few people who are untrained in artisanal processes realize it, crafting things the right way is often a matter of getting them exactly the wrong way round. In many disciplines—including printmaking, moldmaking, and stamped textiles—one must be able to compose backwards. In letterpress books, for example, each piece of metal type is the mirror image of what you see on the page, which can be extremely confusing for the novice printer.

A particularly stunning example of backwards craftsmanship is to be found in traditional Asian woodblock prints, which are carved by hand entirely in reverse. The delicacy with which these prints render details like calligraphy and fabric is absolutely amazing. How did they do it? It’s a little complicated. First, the original design is painted on to an oiled paper, which is then pasted on to the woodblock face down. The ink design shows through the paper, and of course now appears backwards. The carver sets to work, first outlining the image with a knife, and then cutting away the wood on either side of each stroke using a set of chisels. This “key block” is then used to print a series of outline designs in black (right-way-round again), which can then be used in turn to create separate blocks for each color that will appear in the finished image. Everything is lined up through the ingenious method of carving an L shape into the lower corner of the key block, into which each piece of paper fits neatly, ensuring registration of the image.

Bronze sculptures made using the lost-wax casting process undergo a similarly extended set of reversals. The artist will typically start with a hand-modeled clay figure. This is then used to pull a negative mold, perhaps in plaster but more likely a more sensitive and flexible material like silicone or latex. Hot wax is then poured into the mold. The wax adheres to the interior surface as it cools, making a positive but hollow copy of the original figure. Once this wax shell is built up to the desired thickness, a ceramic mold (again negative) is built around it. Finally, molten metal is poured into that mold. The wax runs out and the metal cools and hardens. Finally, the mold is broken open to reveal the final sculpture.

I apologize for all the technical talk, but I want to make the point that when we look at a beautiful work of art, we are often looking at the result of an extended process of translations, not one simple gesture. That a masterful Japanese print or bronze sculpture is flipped around no less than four times is surprising to those who have never thought about how they were achieved. Even more surprising is the fact that hardly any of that work is done by the artist. Great printmakers like the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai – the creator of the iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa – knew a great deal about cutting blocks, inking them (itself a highly skilled process), and pulling the prints. Hokusai had apprenticed for several years as a cutter, in fact. But once he achieved success as a print designer he concentrated on the image, which was then handed over to the artisans of the workshop. Sculptors, similarly, entrust their initial maquettes to skilled mold-makers and casters who will remake the work not once, but several times before it is complete.

Few people today, I think, are aware of the extensive teamwork that went into such masterpieces as the Great Wave or Rodin’s bronze sculptures. They may even be suspicious of contemporary works that are not entirely the product of one artist’s hand. But if anything is backwards, it is this attitude. These days, given the scale and technical complexity that has become commonplace, contemporary art is rarely a solo enterprise. The really effective artists are not necessarily those who toil in splendid isolation, but often those who can work collaboratively with others to realize their ideas.

This is another message I have learned about craft: it brings you behind the scenes, opening up artistic process and rendering it transparent. An idea for an exhibition that I really like (though may never get around to) is a project called Behind the Seams. This would be a fashion exhibition in which great works of couture are displayed inside out, so viewers can see how they were made. Alongside would be life-sized photographs showing how the garments are worn on the body, and videos showing the garments being made. As a finale, we might introduce designers like Rei Kawakubo, Jean Paul Gaultier, Martin Margiela, and Yohji Yamamoto, all of whom employ an inside-out aesthetic, exposing seams and flipping hems around in order to give their clothes a still-unfinished, ragged beauty.

One reason I like this idea so much is that it perfectly balances the two primary objectives of a craft museum, education and inspiration. An exhibition of inside-out garments would be a great chance for students to learn about construction, but also a tribute to the dressmaker’s art (there is nothing ragged about the inside of most couture garments, which tend to be impeccably finished). It would also be in line with my broader objective as a craft scholar, which is to celebrate the world’s top artists and designers, while also letting people into their process. So often in museums and galleries, we are presented with finished works but given no insight into what went into them. It’s a state of affairs that is exacerbated by the increasingly complex, digitized, large-scale artworks that are being made today. Just like the teamwork that was required to realize such astounding creations, I believe that unveiling the process of a great work of art deepens one’s relationship to it.

Those of us who care about craft need to constantly bear this idea in mind. We need to work hard to open people’s eyes to true excellence in art and design, and the people and processes that stand behind it. This principle of transparency is tremendously important for the twenty-first century, in ways that far transcend the museum itself. As people today spend more and more time on their screens, sliding along in a frictionless drift, perpetually distracted, they have less and less awareness of how the world around them is made or who made it. We can make a difference, simply by connecting people to the spark of the creative process. In turn, we hope that they may take more interest in (and ultimately more responsibility for) the material world around them.

Craft objects are special, because every one is a pathway back to the immediate process of its creation. If you know how to read the object, you can walk this pathway back and forth, decoding the process and then finding renewed appreciation for the finished object. Thinking through craft means turning art inside out for people, showing them what has gone into its making. The best part is, they get to turn it right side out again.

This essay was originally part of the catalogue for Making Process, 2015 Cheongju International Craft Biennale. Thanks to Hyeyoung Cho. 


Glenn Adamson Profile PicUntil recently, Dr. Glenn Adamson was Director of Museum of Arts and Design, NY. He led the V&A’s Research Department, was Curator for the Chipstone Foundation and also served as Adjunct Curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum. An advocate for the reconsideration of craft as a pervasive cultural force rather than a circumscribed artistic category, Adamson has published several books and is founding co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft. He earned his doctorate in Art History from Yale University, and is recipient of the mid-career Iris Award for outstanding contribution to the decorative arts.

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  • Marianne Hunter says:

    I like the concept of behind the seams, but would suggest it also include those who do work in splendid isolation and also from wider cultural vocabularies. Fascinating.

  • Leonard Smith says:

    Wonderfully put, I too have been informed by Bob Mowry, though his Exhibtion Catalogue for Hare’s Fur, Partridge Feather and Tortoise Shell, along with the book Tenmoku by J M Plumer from Michigan University, to research Jian Ware. As a part of that research I have been honored to have access to both their collections and those of the Met and the Smithsonian. I bring a maker’s eye to this research which to a large degree is missing from most academic research. In Fujian I looked for the clay they used, the glaze rocks, the fuel and kilns they used and the social fabric of the makes lives.
    Again thank you for your essay.

  • Moyra Elliott says:

    Loved this essay. Although I think I already had some knowledge about every fact described by Adamson, as I too have been around craft practices, as maker, writer and curator, for a lifetime, I relished every word. It’s in my ‘keepers’ file labelled ‘succinct, elegant, and cogent’ and I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it for a long time to come.