Ask Carol Sauvion, creator and producer of the PBS series Craft In America, if the handmade revolution is alive and well, and she’ll answer with a resounding yes. And she should know — she’s been documenting it for seven years. She also lives it as a former studio potter and current owner of a crafts shop and gallery called Freehand in Los Angeles, California. Her series goes beyond the artist profiles to delve into the meaning of craft with episodes focused on themes including “Memory” and “Community.”
The newest episode is “Industry,” a topic Sauvion felt Etsy fit right into. “That’s the beauty of Etsy,” she says. “It’s creativity but it’s business.” The episode, which also features the quilters of Gee’s Bend, North Carolina’s Oriole Mill, and Lowell’s Boat Shop in Massachusetts, airs this week, so we caught up with Sauvion to talk about the “creative economy,” the thrill of making, and the staying power of craft.
Lisa: In a nutshell, can you describe what Craft In America is about?
Carol: What the series tries to do is highlight artists, organizations, schools — places where craft is being practiced in our country. We know it’s everywhere, it’s often hiding in plain sight, and we think it deserves attention. Our mission is to bring a focus to the handmade, which some people feel is an anachronism, but we feel the opposite. It’s more necessary now than it’s ever been.
Lisa: Why do you think that?
Carol: We don’t need it to supply the objects that we go through life with, but we need [the handmade] to supply the essence of who we are as human beings. It’s more necessary than ever, especially with what’s going on right now in the world. There’s a lot of strife, there’s a lot of disagreement, and it seems like something we can all agree about, and that’s good.
Lisa: What parameters do you use when looking at craft in your series?
Carol: We had a wonderful person named Steve Fenton who was very involved in producing the first treatment for our series in 2000, and he said something that caused a lot of conversation. He said, “All craft is art, but not all art is craft.” And that’s kind of a topsy-turvy attitude because most people think that craft is a lesser art form, but what he was saying is that craft is essential to all the art forms, because craft is the making, craft is the skill. I mean, in German that’s what kraft means, it means “skill” or “to make something” so, we think that’s essential.
Lisa: Can you briefly explain what industry means in the context of this series?
Carol: If you read stories or the history of early American life, often work was referred to as industry. People were industrious. What I think we were trying to say is that craft is of its essence industrious; people who do it are involved in an industry. And then the broader meaning and context, which Etsy really is a great example of, is the industry — the business — of craft. How do you make a living at it? We wanted to talk about that. We wanted to point out the fact that craft is still a viable industry, that the creativity of it is essential to the greater economy of the country.
Lisa: How did you come to include Etsy in the upcoming “Industry” episode?
Carol: The effect of the Internet on contemporary craft, on the handmade, is huge. It’s not only a source of education for people, it’s also a way to sell their work, and if you want to talk about selling work on the Internet, the master of that is Etsy. When you are making an episode about the handmade in the creative economy — this is the ultimate creative economy.
Lisa: What have you learned from doing five seasons of Craft in America?
Carol: The audience for craft includes people from all backgrounds and all political points of view. It seems to be a common meeting ground where we can all communicate and it seems to lead to important conversations about other topics in our society, and I was surprised by that. I thought of it as a way to make things by hand, but more than that it’s a way to build bridges.
Craft is alive and well and thriving. It’s in even better shape than it was when I started the project. I feel like there have been exciting new events and people involved and that crafting’s still a main source of pleasure and production for Americans and that’s just exciting.
Lisa: What do you tell people who think that craft is dying?
Carol: I try to share with them what I’ve learned, which is that people still need to make things. That’s what it comes down to. It seems to be just built into our DNA; we have an urge, and not everyone has it in the same way. Of course nowadays there are lots of questions…we talk about craft beer and well-crafted films, so the word craft is as elusive as ever. But it has something to do with human creativity in some way and I think that is just as essential as it ever was.
Lisa: What advice do you have for the next generation of people who are pursuing creative work?
Carol: To definitely keep at it. Don’t let small setbacks dissuade you. Your life will be filled with meaning and filled with great experiences if you are able to actually live it producing art, making art. I think that’s the ultimate joy in life is to create something that expresses who you are and makes a contribution to society.
Photos courtesy of Craft in America.