Cathy Vaughn took the big leap a couple of years ago of going into business for herself as an artisan working in copper. While fabricating trellises, tryptics, candelabras and chinoiserie, she developed a new technique, which, as far as she knows, is a first — creating images upon copper plate from the chemicals found in leaves. The result has been a series of extraordinary images, as seen above, that look as if they could have been lifted from a modernist New York art gallery.
She arranges leaves upon the copper, wraps them in cellophane and sets them aside for about two weeks. Leaves from different species of trees have different chemical signatures, which interact with the copper to leave a wide array of colors. Art meets science as Vaughn arranges different species of leaves in varying patterns to create novel effects.
It’s too early to tell if the “botanical etchings” will become a big moneymaker, Vaughn told me at a recent arts and crafts exhibit in Richmond, but early signs are encouraging. I’m no art critic, and I’m not even a fan of modernist art, but I found many of her creations visually arresting, even beautiful. Given the fascinating narrative behind her creations, I would venture to predict that she will enjoy considerable success — not just in Richmond but far beyond.
Richmond is hardly unique in having a vibrant arts community — Charlottesville and Staunton craftsmen were well represented at the particular event I attended — but the arts and crafts movement is growing. Many Richmond-area artists have a connection with Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of the arts, while others with a graphic arts background come from the advertising/ marketing sector. Budding artists are supported by a soft infrastructure: numerous art galleries, an artists’ guild, the Art Works and Plant Zero artists’ studios and the Richmond Visual Arts Center.
It’s easy to be dismissive of arts & crafts as an engine of economic growth — the term “artsy fartsy” suggests eccentricity and dilettantism — but a fundamental shift in consumer preference to “mass customization” suggests that artists, craftsmen and the so-called “makers” are a rising economic force. Not only will the revival of artisan create employment opportunities in a slow-growth economy, there is an inherently egalitarian aspect to the movement. Artists, craftsmen and makers are self-employed. They could become the new yeoman class of the post-industrial economy.
An analogy that I draw, and other observers readily accept, is with the beer industry. A couple of decades ago, three or four monster brewing companies dominated the U.S. beer market. The main competition came from major foreign brands. Then the micro-brewery phenomenon took off as consumers revolted against the sameness of the national brands and embraced the individuality of home brews, with their novel tastes, feisty branding and personal connection with consumers. The Brewers Association counted 1,871 microbreweries, 1,412 brewpubs and 135 regional craft breweries in 2014. That year saw the opening of 615 new breweries and only 46 closings. Craft brewers provided 115,469 jobs, an increase of almost 5,000 from the previous year.
The efflorescence of the beer industry is matched, in Virginia at least, with a veritable explosion in the number of wineries, not to mention artisinal producers of meats, cheeses, breads, seafoods, pastas, dressings, sauces, and confections. The Virginia’s Finest website lists 43 categories of made-in-Virginia products from herbs and honeys to soups and nuts.
The revolt against mass standardization is nothing new. The so-called “arts and crafts” movement originated in the late 1800s in reaction to machine production, and it never disappeared. But arts and crafts appear to be undergoing a resurgence, fueled by the growing hunger for unique, hand-crafted products and the rise of the Internet as an inexpensive distribution and marketing channel. In the future, inexpensive 3-D manufacturing will open up new fields for creative expression and the invention of entirely new products.
The rise of the arts-and-crafts economy is something devoutly to be wished for. Politicians will be tempted to jump on the bandwagon and “help” by doling out subsidies of some kind or another. Arguably, the fastest way to kill the movement is to make it dependent upon government largess. However, public policy probably can contribute to the movement by enabling artists, craftsmen, artisans and makers to form co-ops and mutual assistance societies to provide for common needs such as health care, disability insurance and the like. Tax policy should cease discriminating against the self-employed by extending the same tax breaks for health care provided to corporations, labor unions and other large entities.
For the most part, though, we just need to leave the artisans alone. They are creative people, and we should trust them to figure out what’s best for themselves.