Towards a Poetics of Making

Lately, I have been considering what I find to be the most engaging questions in my field and wondering if the theory that is available is of much use to me – or to my students. My friend at CCA, Dean Schneider, has been reading David Pye on the Nature and Art of Workmanship as part of his final thesis and it occurs to me that Pye’s notions of Workmanship of Risk and Certainty are still some of the most useful concepts for me when thinking about art, craft and design. I’m wondering if there aren’t other parameters and concepts that I find relevant in my work that might be more universally and usefully applied across the field.

But where to start on such a project? I’ve titled this project ‘Towards a Poetics of Making’. Admittedly somewhat pompous, but I think appropriate. I’m searching for qualities in making that can be identified clearly and that help understand the nature of making and at the same time provide tools for makers to think about, conceptualize and move their practice forward. Much like the notions of simile, metaphor, meter and other tools help poets to understand and construct their work while achieving a transcendent and culturally valuable outcome.

So what aspects of making could be relevant to this project? I’ve already talked about some concepts which I’ve been finding useful in some earlier posts. In my recent travels and spending time with students, faculty and the general public I have been introducing, discussing and enriching my own understanding of the notions of  ‘artifact’ and ‘translation’ that I introduced in  a previous post – which you can read here.

An over-arching question which I’ve been finding a useful tool arises from my thinking on ‘artifact’.

What concepts or cultural values adhere to a particular process?

In defining artifact I have focussed on the idea from science of an artifact being  a direct affect (often unintended, unexpected or unwanted) from a particular process or tool. In art making this is often referred to as a ‘mark’ and the consequence of using a tool is ‘mark-making’. The quality of the mark is determined both by the nature of the tool (be it pencil, or oilstick, or chainsaw), the ‘fluency’ and intention of the artist, and the medium which supports the mark.

I my thinking about translation, I have wondered what is gained or lost in translation as a concept or action gets transferred across media? In my own recent collaboration with Matt Hebert of SDSU using both hand whittling and digital fabrication, I have wondered if the inherent qualities of the whittlings – the form and surface that derives from the subtle interplay between the initial shape and material properties of the wooden piece, the shape of the knife, and my own thinking with both hand and mind – get lost or augmented by their subsequent translation through digital processes into objects of radically different scale, process and materiality? And then, what new attributes come from the translation that add to or contradict the initial qualities and readings provided by the whittlings? Of course, these attributes can be both physical and conceptual. I’m still thinking about it, and I’m hoping the works that we make together over the next few months help me discover some answers.

One thing I have concluded, is that the works in design, craft and art that engage me the most are those that have the process of making and the meanings that adhere to those processes at the forefront of their conceptual underpinning.

Which leads me inevitably to some thoughts on ‘craft’. At a discussion following Fo Wilson’s recent lecture at CCA, someone made the statement that ‘craft is an activity that brings you closer to the source.’ I like that! The notion that any activity that brings you closer to the core values and qualities of that medium or field is ‘craft’. So cooking involving all unprocessed ingredients where you are close to the source of those materials and understand the cultural histories and values of all of the materials and processes involved is close to the ‘craft’ of cooking. And this applies to both the cook and the diner – both the artist and the connoisseur. The source is in the sauce!

This way of thinking clearly applies to traditional notions of craft practice and allows us to expand the use of the term ‘craft’ to cooking, writing, and even designing video games. I have mourned the passing of a useful definition of craft as it has been applied to any activity which requires human intervention – the craft of shopping? Perhaps these notions of ‘source’ and ‘artifact’ can help me reclaim the terms as something useful to me as a maker who loves and is embroiled in the histories and stories imbedded in the tools, materials and processes I employ.

I welcome any thoughts you might have! These tools will only be useful if other people find them handy!


  1. Gabriel Russo Clothing March 8, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Great writing and wonderful insight. The source is in the sauce!


  2. You’ve got me thinking. The way you reflect on craft does evoke the sense of contact achieved between the maker and user in the handmade object. But is the gesture of marking enough? While whittling is a very hand-on process, it is also guided to produce a useful object. In the same way that the body rhythms of weaving are framed to produce a consistent fabric. So is source enough? Does skill also play an essential part?
    Have you read – Malcolm McCullough _Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand_ ? It’s 16 years old now, but still incisive.


    1. Kevin, Thanks for chipping in.
      I am hoping that the notion of ‘artifact’ escapes the direct association with the hand that ‘mark’ has. And hence also avoids an implicit connection with ‘skill’. In fact, I’m really more interested in the artifacts of machine and even robot production. Some of this has been provoked by looking at objects like Thomas Heatherwick’s Extrusion furniture and the Cinderella Table by Verhoeven. Both pieces tout their impeccable machine-made credentials while glossing over the incredible number of hours of handwork that both works entail. Clearly they were carefully ground, sanded and polished by hand to remove the ‘artifacts’ of the machine production – extrusion marks and scale on the aluminum and tear out and mill marks on the plywood. The surface betrays the artifact of this ‘handwork’ rather than those of the machine and so, to my mind, presents a contradiction. Pride in the direct creation of the machine contradicted by the spiffing up by countless more hours of handwork.
      I wonder which is the more important in these works – the ‘tale’ of the machine making the work or the ‘reality’ of the human labor going in to create the final outcome? Both designers would prefer the tale I’m sure, but I can’t help but see the reality as betrayed by the artifacts on the finished piece.
      So for me, reading the artifacts gives me a handle on how to understand the intent of the designer and provides a tool to critique the work, at the same time.

      And yes, McCullough has had his influence in my thinking. The notion of digital craft seems less contradictory if the hand and the haptic are taken out of the equation.


  3. Does your head in, this use of artifact. Lisa Vinebaum just wrote about this contradiction in JMC: There does seem to be a need to distinguish polished from marked. What’s the difference between the hand-polished aluminium body of an iPhone and the glass screen?


    1. Kevin.
      Good question about the polish on the iPhone.

      Its interesting how all this plays into the long standing discourse of the ‘hand’. Most of the industrial processes developed during the 20thC worked towards the elimination of labor (as too expensive or to demeaning, or too unreliable) so that the ultimate ‘machine’ finish was perceived as the smooth unblemished surface of a product directly popped out of a hot mold. And craft of course, opposed this style through the direct evidence of the hand, and the process of making, especially in ceramics. Pye’s work was to remove the nostalgic notion of the hand of the maker from the equation through introducing his notions of the workmanship of risk and certainty. A tool to help evaluate works not on their surface but on their amount of predetermination vs. the capacity for reflecting human attention and skill. But still the polished look reads as ‘machine’, efficiency, consistency – values exactly in line with the values to be portrayed by the iPhone. I’m not purely interested in the source of the ‘artifacts’ of making (though I am interested in how they can be identified and read and what they signify in terms of process) as I’m interested in the meanings they carry. So in the iPhone both surfaces are designed to carry the same meanings and so are consistent within the product irrespective of how they are created.

      The iPhone is a really interesting artifact in itself of course. The ultimate end point of the black box design of the 80’s – Deiter Rams must love his! My friend and colleague Sonya Clark drew my attention to ‘Lukasa’, beaded hand-held boards developed by the Luba to keep track of their vocal tradition. Look them up! Remarkably parallel to the iPhone both in appearance and in some aspects of their function – solid state to boot! But that’s the topic of another discussion altogether.

      Thanks for helping me probe the depths of this topic!


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