Wednesday 22 October 2014

Effort - Less is More

2007 willow and plastic lids
Sometimes, I just have to accept that it isn't going to work  in the way that I hope it will  and a whole weeks work has to be abandoned. That happened last Friday and the minute I made that decision and started something else it all flowed smoothly again.

Next year there will be some exhibitions of my work in Australia and in order to keep the shipping charges as low as possible we are not sending pieces with willow bark.  They necessitate fumigation and all sorts of other noxious processes to avoid the immigration into Australia of  rogue insects or diseases. But, the organisers of the exhibitions particularly liked  a couple of the pieces in brown willow with plastic lids (see picture above)  so I offered to try doing something similar but using white willow. I wasn't intending to reproduce the pieces, just to do something in the same vein. But, what I discovered  was that my original choice of brown willow  had been the best choice and that white willow didn't perform in the same way. It was much harder to prevent it kinking and the dark lines of the original brown willow looked better than the white. White might have worked on a dark surface but then there wouldn't be any of the graphic shadows and few galleries have dark walls and plinths. These problems were compounded by not having the right sort of wire, it was a bit too stiff and difficult to control and as I don't buy materials  that was that. I remade the same things four times in different ways but it just didn't work. The lids,  however, are still lovely and will be used for something else.

Fighting with my materials has never been my modus operandi, it always seems to show and  the work looks as tense as I feel doing it. I want my work to look as though it has been effortless to make  even though I might have spent many hours on it. It's  an economically  counterproductive way of working because if  it looks effortless potential customers can't appreciate the work that has gone into it and therefore think the price I am asking is unjustified. 

The balance between perceived and actual invested value, i.e time,  is an interesting one. I was once approached by an American gallery who wanted me to make a 'basketry teapot' for a show they were putting on. It had to be teapot sized (cheap to ship) though it didn't need to function as one and with as much labour in it as possible to justify an expensive price tag. I didn't take up the invitation because not only did I find the idea of a basket teapot horrible,  but, also because  it seemed such a stupid  idea to deliberately put as much labour as possible into a piece, when you could do something good much more simply.

Now I understand  that there is a whole commercial craft market that operates out of galleries in high overhead locations that work on this principle. Because these galleries are often quite small they can't show big works but they can get a lot of financial value on plinths by showing small one-off works with phenomenal amounts of labour built into them. It's not the amount of labour I find difficult to deal with, but the fact that it exists for one purpose only, and that is to make the item more expensive. It's almost as if it doesn't seem to  matter if the basketry teapot is a gross and pointless object as long as a customer can be convinced that they are buying a lot of someone elses skill, time and effort at a good price.

Ironically the production market works the other way. When we ran our own basket production company the buyers from stores constantly pushed us to lower our prices, but the only way we could do that was to take the labour out of the product. So for ten years  I designed the labour out of our baskets and in the end our baskets had very little weaving left in them.

These experiences have brought me to a place where, although  I believe Mies van der Rohes precept for minimalist design that "less is more", I  find I still have to show some  evidence of my labour in my work for people to like it enough to want to buy it. Its' a weird  place to be in and quite challenging.

This week I am having fun with  a sack full of corks, it may work, it may not, but at the moment I am optimistic that I will be able to strike the balance between evident effort and effortlessness!


  1. Hi Lois
    Thank you for this.
    A very thought provoking post. I think one of stands in this issue is that in the UK and other "developed" nations, basketry is often only serving an ornamental purpose. In some other nations, basketry is an everyday utilitarian thing, skeps, carrying baskets, chicken excluders, sides on carts it was historically in the UK. It seems to me that we use a lot of plastic items to serve purposes which traditionally basketry items served. So basketry is placed into the mental box as "art" and that affects the way it is viewed in terms of pricing, utility and such. I am not meaning to in any way deny the skill and the effort put into basketry by makers or to deny the artistic merit of some items, I just think that this is one of the things that plays into this issue

    1. Thank you Chris, I think you are right this is one of the factors but I think there are also plenty of others such as the profit motive and that unless you have actually made a basket yourself you really have no idea how much work is involved. If a basket is woven each stroke of the weave is evidence of labour that is easy for potential customers to understand, with other techniques it is much harder for them.

    2. Yes indeed, you are right. I know when making a covered coiled rope basket, it was the knitters and folks who sewed who could see the work straight away, some other folks did not. And yes of course there is the profit motive in our culture.

  2. So many truths in what you say. The world of making art is full of maps designed to confuse rather than illuminate. This is made increasingly frustrating by the triumph of money. So many folks who appreciate the beauty of crafted objects cannot afford to take them home to cherish.
    On the other hand, some mass produced objects are so cheap that they can be proliferated willy nilly. For example, I recently ordered cardboard tubes, and because the minimum length was too long for my needs I asked for extra plastic end caps in order to be able to use the cut away length of tube later. I asked for six end caps which were free. I did not notice that end caps came in bags of 80, and so received 6 x 80 white plastic 6" diameter end caps!! Together they are so heavy that I can barely lift them, and yet they were free! If you were passing north Hampshire any time soon you could have them (minus the few I wanted!) - but I guess they will just have to go into the recycling. Hey ho.

    1. Thank you Olga for your very pertinent comment. Sadly I cannot relieve you of your lids as I would have to make a very long journey. Hopefully someone reading this will be inspired to collect them and make something wonderful out of them.