Botanical etching made by oak and mimosa leaves
Botanical etching made from oak and mimosa leaves. Photo credit: Tracery 157

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.

Vaughn in her studio. Photo credit: Tracery 157

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.

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12 responses to “The Rise of the New Artisan Class”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Wonderful etchings. Does Cathy Vaughn have a website that displays her art?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      To answer my own question see;

      This stuff is wonderful.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Red Bud/White Mulberry

    Contemplate the Red Bud/White Mulberry
    See its traceries, its remnants,
    its passions, heartbeats, blood pulse,
    and its surrounds – its spaces and places, its frictions and fusions,
    dissolution and slow decay

    As a Philosopher would, see it:
    Red Bud/White Mulberry,
    its circle of actions and reactions,
    its animus and vitalism, Let Red Bud/White Mulberry
    Rescue your consciousness from the supernatural or delusion,
    Feel it refine its biologic building block into its workaday machinery, its energy and actions, its past and future,
    All naturally grounded now,
    Clocked Stopped Into Eternity.

    See it all at:
    Red Bud/White Mulberry
    dimensions: 18″ x 24″
    notes: Red Bud leaf with White Mulberry roots on 12oz. sheet copper with vivid reds and oranges.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Regarding Red Bud/White Mulberry,
    this insight on where Art and Science might meet,
    caught my attention –

    As reported this morning:

    “I haven’t been so excited in 40 years,” he said at the end of a long night last April when they’d tackled the Great Paradox at Great Brampton House.

    For he had just glimpsed for the first time the conceptual chance to reverse the “biggest blunder of his professional life,” and resurrect history otherwise lost now and into the future all over the universe in slow acts of destruction that would “strike at the very heart of our understanding of science.”

    This chance shimmering before him offered monumental opportunity.

    “Our past tells us who we are,” he said. “So it is very important (now) to find out if information is lost” in the operation of his “master-stoke discovery” 40 years earlier. Namely that Black Holes “can emit heat radiation and gradually evaporate” every particle a Black Hole had ever swallowed, leaving its nearest point to eternity, the genesis of its very structure gone, lost from us and the cosmos forever.

    The consequences for good or ill at hand were beyond calculation,
    beyond ineffable, his finding 40 years earlier, if left unalloyed, left a vast Nihilism in its wake.

    He knows this. Thus 40 years later Professor Hawking and his team work frantically still, on their quest to resurrect HOPE, eternity even.

    Perhaps here Red Bud/White Mulberry meet Black Holes where scientists and artist join hands, saving the cosmos.
    Perhaps too, at this place where art and science meet,
    each then reverse course, meld and bend,
    rejoined forever,
    not lost,
    as if Professor Hawking had 40 years earlier torn it asunder.
    And now so nobly works so hard to put back together
    For all of us, each and every one.

    See Steven Hawking’s Black Hole Challenge, in today’s WSJ Review.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Where Art and Science meet,
    At the horizon? Why?

    Yes, it is where “lost information goes”
    If it does not disappear, it goes to be stored at
    at the “the Event Horizon” of Black Holes.

    So said Andrew Strominger of Harvard University
    See “Steven Hawking’s Black Hole Challenge” above.

    But See also a well:
    For other closer horizons where art and science meet.

  5. We agree on your last paragraph. You also say, 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.”
    Yes, agree on that, too — but do you have any knowledge of anyone actually working on a “co-ops and mutual assistance societies” proposal, or who’s written about the problem from a “here’s what Virginia needs to fix” point of view? I’d love to help on something like this.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Great idea. You got my vote. But careful now. We got all the bureaucrats and spoiled professors and yes, artists, too, that we need on the Government teat, that labyrinth of creative destruction, show-off cant, naval gazing, and ideology.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        For an example of the dangers inherent in the government funding of art, see the results of Frank Gehry’s alleged “Memorial to Ike” at:

        Modern Politics destroys art.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      if those who worked but did not have employer-provided -had the same govt tax breaks and insurance rules as others – they too could afford some level of insurance.

      when folks talk of the govt “teat” they typically do not believe that those who have employer-provided actually fall into that category.

      For instance, beyond the 40% in tax breaks given to such folks – most others do not understand how HIPPA works.

      HIPPA prohibits denial of insurance to people as well as requires all in the same class to pay the same premiums regardless of their health status.

      so if the folks in the private economy had those same govt “entitlements” – they’d have not only the 40% tax break – they’d have guaranteed insurance at the same price as everyone else in that same class – i.e. single or family.

      If the govt truly treated everyone the same whether working for an employer or working for themselves – perhaps we’d not have needed Obamacare.

      On the other hand – if those who oppose the govt being involved in health care to start with – had the cajones to actually do that – i.e repeal HIPPA and repeal the 40% tax credits – perhaps the folks affected by the loss of those govt benefits (about 70% of workers) – would let the elected know that they DO want the govt involved.

      what we have now is the Great Pretend – where people either pretend or are truly ignorant of the facts so that allows them to continue to believe the mythology.

  6. […] and distinctive, and that typically means hand crafted — the trend I described last week in “The Rise of the New Artisan Class.” Do these trends portend a comeback for Virginia’s furniture sector? I think that’s a […]

  7. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    Take a week-end and travel down to Western NC they do a great job promoting and aiding the crafts.

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