Is it “Art” or is it “Craft”?

I know I recently posted a very philosophical post on “The Zen of the Process”, and it just might be the mood I’m in right now.  I’m creating a lot and have a lot of time to think while I’m at my bench.   So I hope you will read this, as it’s the best definition I’ve ever heard of “Art” verses “Craft”.

My mentor Harold O’Connor was recently visiting.  As we sat after breakfast discussing what’s going on in the European jewelry scene, we got on the topic of craftsmanship in our jewelry.  Now, if you have even seen Harold’s work, you know it as immaculate craftsmanship and it is pure art.  I respect and admire both the man and his work. In fact, Harold’s work is in the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert Museum in  London, the State Art and Work School in Pfozheim, Germany, and more of the world’s most more prestigious museums and galleries.  Need I go on? (Just Google him, he’s probably the most famous art jeweler/teacher in the world, and totally makes every piece himself.)  Let’s just say the kid knows his jewelry.  I am so honored to have him as a friend.

So I asked the simple age old  question:

 “Harold, what is the difference between art and craft?”

He picked up one of my very old first pieces and said:

“If you forgive me for saying so, this is craft.”

The piece was simply a large sharped angled piece of Chinese Writing Stone from Gary B. Wilson that I bought years ago.  The silver backplate extends beyond the stone, and has some holes and a cut out space that replicates a shape in the stone.  Design-wise it’s not so great, this I knew, but the craftsmanship is excellent.  The bezel is tight against the angled stone, and each point is a tight angle with no  rounding of the corners of the bezel around the stone.  I was not upset that it was looked upon as “craft”, for I kind of felt that myself.  But I loved the piece for its simplicity.  (OK, for the “Zen” of the piece.)

So I asked Harold, “What’s the difference?”

and Here It Comes: words of the master,  though he said he could not take credit for this, it came from someone else…

“A maker of chairs makes 6 chairs.  They all look alike, the first one and the last one.  Each is identical.  That’s a craftsman.  The artist doesn’t know exactly what  his finished piece will look like.  He may have an idea, but doesn’t know exactly because he may change his mind during the construction. That’s art.”

So I added “The true artist knows when to stop.”  Harold smiled.

I have held these words close to my heart since he said that.  Its the best I’ve ever heard.  And now I know how to design.  Thank you, Harold.

16 Responses

  1. Well perhaps the next question to ask, if your piece is craft and not art, how would have Mr. O’Connor made it into a piece of art?

    He’s answer to you is spot on! Excellent!


    • Hi John–I did ask him that, and he gave me some great advice, but the initial response is the one that really touched me. I asked his permission, and and gave me his blessings to share his words. He is always the ultimate teacher.

  2. Powerful, thought provoking, insightful words from a true master of his art. We’ve had a number of discussions on this topic and I’m so glad you have shared these words of wisdom on your blog.

    My thanks to you Lex and Harold of course!

    Love, Kathleen

    • Thanks Kathleen. I know you admire Harold’s work too. More Conversations With Harold series for both of us.

  3. Well, I think you should have challenged him. Take the same type of stone, similar shape, the same materials and the same tools and say, o.k., make me a piece of art. Do that, and I will accept your evaluation that my piece is craft and yours is art.

    I tend to be realistic. I know I can’t do what Mr. O’Connor does, I know I don’t have the ability. I am older now, and with age, motor skills deteriorate, the eye hand coordination is not what it once was, the repeatability of motion is sketchy, the eyesight is not as good, but all that does not keep me from trying.

    • HI–Well, Harold is not Spring Chicken, either! But he has been doing this over 40 years! I did hand him my sketch book and he did some drawings and gave me some great ideas. His craftsmanship is beyond compare. But when you get to Harold’s level of expertise, I would think that its just expected, and that, along with his designs is what got him to where he is in the art world today.
      You make me laugh! I love it!

  4. Hi Lexi,

    The jeweler and sculptor, Kit Carson, was featured in Season One of Craft in America (PBS). I liked his take on “art” vs. “craft”. He says the two meld together. For his short definition, here’s a link to a video clip on PBS’s website –

    As I’m reminded of Kit Carson’s sculptures, I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought of doing a 6 foot Shaman sculpture. How cool would that be!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post,

    Kim Hatzold –

    • HI Kim–thanks for writing. I love Kit’s work. I met him in either New Mexico or Az at a show years ago. Both his designs and craftsmanship also are excellent. He brings out my Inner Cowgirl….which isn’t a hard thing to do!
      I do love his explanation: Art is your voice. That is beautiful. Craftsmanship is what you need to do your art.

      I asked Michael Boyd’s opinion one day when we were discussing this. Oh course his craftsmanship is pretty phenomenal, too. He said he would rather wear a beautiful piece that was poorly constructed, than an ugly piece with great craftsmanship.

      I’m sticking with my definition– Art is the Strawberry Shortcake of Life.

      Yes, I have thought about doing shaman sculptures that are really big. I also think some of my designs should be wall art! Plus I don’t work small. I would have to take up welding. I just don’t have the time…but I do have some thought about that, even. Wait until you see my new shamans! I’m so excited about them, and I have about 10 cut out, now I have to get into the texturing an soldering. I just got a new tank last night so I’m ready to go!

      Thanks so much for sharing Kit’s philosophy. I love it!

      Huge hugs,

  5. Laugh some more, I don’t do art, I do craft and craft is what I shall do. But, if anybody should lose their minds and call my craft art, well thank you very much, I appreciate the compliment. 🙂

    John, the crab.

    • Crabby John–you are pure dee-light! What does it matter how it falls into a category. You are having a great time at it, and isn’t that all that matters?

  6. […] past week, Lexi wrote an post on her blog about “Is it Art or is it Craft?“  We’ve discussed this topic a lot.  I want to take my work in the direction of Art […]

    • And we will keep discussing it. I also love Kit Carson’s explanation that Kim shared. Art is your voice, and craft is how you put it out there to be heard—–paraphrasing. He said it much more eloquently.
      WE all go through the growth period you are looking for. I took me several years, many years, and i thought i was a total flop because I couldn’t find my style. Others saw my pieces had a style…I saw nothing but
      a mismash of unrelated pieces. I struggle, gave up, got up and did it again—–and again. At about 22 years I found my stride and came home to what felt comfortable, which was something i started out with years before.
      So little sister, my love,
      I am with you.
      hugs an kisses,

  7. I really like Mr. O”Connors explanation of Art verses Craft, makes sense and gives me a better understanding. I am, I believe a new artist and am having lots of fun just letting go when I have the chance. I guess I am known as a Native American Artist.

    • Thomas, Thank you for writing. I wrote a chapter for a text book a while ago about Native American artwork. I think it’s some of the most vital and exciting art on the market today. Beautiful objects and so well designed. Stunning. What type of art do you do?

      Harold O’Connor’s view of art vs craft is most inspiring, as is Kit Carson’s. Like you, they have given me a much better understanding of the differences and sameness of the two. I feel I have grown tremendously by understanding this. Please keep in touch,

  8. My favorite quote: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes; art is knowing which ones to keep.” (don’t know who said it) I have that on the wall of our class studio and it helps free students up to appreciate their mistakes – and to allow the piece to become something new.

    However – how did Harold know that your creative approach was “crafty” rather than “arty”? His definition has more to do with the creative process than the finished piece so it seems impossible to judge by the look of the piece alone.

    Love the question – I’ve thought about it for decades and have never come up with a suitable answer. I’m afraid that if we tell ourselves that we are merely “craft” jewelers and don’t allow ourselves to be “artists” we may not fully recognize our creative potential.

    • Hi Pam–Sorry I’ve been late in replying. WordPress has been fighting with my computer. The computer won. I like your comments. I think Harold said, because the piece jut followed the outline of the stone, there was not real art process followed. True, it didn’t take me much just to come up with that design. I still says, the artist knows when the piece is finished. When my piece smiles at me, I know its finished. I like your quote. May I put it in my studio, to?

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