Friday, June 15, 2018


One of my favourite mornings on our recent trip was spent at London's remarkable Barbican Centre.  In some ways, I shouldn't have felt the lifted spirits and joy I experienced:  the Barbican is an example of brutalist architecture, made mostly of concrete with small amounts of brick detailing.  Wikipedia tells us that  its "ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, "along with its massive contours made it popular for some things--university buildings, for example--but not for others--public housing, for example.  At first blush, it looks decidedly un-home-like.

But the Barbican works in some amazing ways.  Let me tell you what is contained within the Barbican's constructions:  Two tower blocks of housing.  A long and well-planted reflecting pool with a fountain on one end and a waterfall at the other;  on the day we were there, a heron and four watercolourists were enjoying its calm.  A music school and practice spaces.  A girls' school.  A movie theatre.  A library.  A theatre for live performances.  The home of the London Symphony Orchestra.  Three very different restaurants, all of them overlooking the reflecting pool.  A greenhouse and rooftop gardens.  A plan that coordinates all of these organizations in consideration of some big questions;  this year, it is "How can art respond to change?"

 But here's one of the things I most loved.  The crush space for the theatre opens onto the reflecting pool and when the theatre isn't giving performances it becomes public space.  You can see four young people gathered around a round table, all of them with their computers open, but all of them engaged in passionate conversation.  You can see a lot of mothers (at least ten) with toddlers and strollers who gather to get a cup of tea and let their children roll around on the carpet.  It's a safe, clean play space for a grey day in London's West End.  A young man who looked like an actor was stretching his arms and neck, unselfconsciously limbering up his body for something athletic or expressive.  The Barbican has residencies for artists:  in the week before we arrived, Christabel Balfour brought her loom into the Barbican's space for two weeks to weave a rug and to talk to anyone who was curious about what she was doing; the residency was part of "Make! A Season of Contemporary Craft."  And the Barbican has a shop where I found a button with its matching carry-all bag that simply read "Craftivism."  I'm not a wearer of buttons, but I really should have brought one.

Because we saw the spirit of craftivism all over Britain.  First, the smaller British art galleries--not The National Gallery, but The Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery, as well as the York Art Gallery--acknowledge the politics of art--its activism--in a way that is both unashamed and aesthetically rich.  We didn't see any installations that were lectures on, say, the environment or Europe's struggle to incorporate refugees without succumbing to xenophobia.  But we did see an exhibit at York called "The Sea's the Limit" that consisted of work by refugees.  One asked us to take a cozy blanket off its peg--a blanket with an image silkscreened on it that referenced the refugee experience--and wrap ourselves up in it to sit on a rug to watch a video of charcoal drawings of the refugee experience.  The tension between the viewer's comfortable setting and the homelessness of refugees was visceral.

In almost every gallery you would find a gray-haired volunteer who would approach you to talk knowledgeably about the work.  The York Art Gallery is in an old building that has skylights along the roof line of its second floor--not good space for displaying paintings, which really don't want to be bleached by natural light falling on them for part of the day.  But it's ideal space for displaying pottery--and so that's what they've done.
  The gallery thus owns the largest collection of ceramics in England--bigger even than the Victoria & Albert.  There an elderly man engaged me in a conversation about what I was looking at, observing that the long shadow of Bernard Leach still casts a bit of a pall over English Ceramics--and he gestured toward the room's display cabinets.  "Brown," he said, "Way too much brown."  I couldn't help giving him Victor Cicansky's name if he fancied  colourful ceramics, while telling him about Regina's strong clay heritage.  We had a lovely chat, and I shared other names, Jack Sures for example, and Marilyn Levine. 

In all kinds of ways, galleries were taking their art out into the streets in other acts of craftivism.  The Manchester Art Gallery has the usual large grey didactic panels at the beginning of each room explaining the period or the life and work of an artist, but they also have smaller panels that offer a cheeky feminist view of art history's assumptions about how men and masculine values have too long dominated art.  They have also been working with people who struggle with mental illness to explore the connection between the mindfulness of looking at art and improvements in mental health, and have chosen works for a room set up for just such reflections.  At the Whitworth--easily the most  cerebral gallery we visited--there are picnic baskets on tables chock full with art supplies.  You can load the basket up for your kid--or yourself, presumably--and go draw in the galleries or go out into the art gallery's lovely park--and make your own art.

Our first day in Manchester highlighted craftivism in another way.  We arrived on the train from London just after lunch, so our first job was to find lunch.  Veronica found a coffee shop with an inviting menu.  The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was a chalk sandwich board that informed me that the next creative writing meeting was this Tuesday. 

The shop (which I can't locate on Google Maps--alas) is perhaps the funkiest I've ever been in--and I love funky.  I've tried to think why, given that my own aesthetic is minimalist.  I think it's because funky is playful and rebellious.  They had a large picnic table in the centre of the room full of students working at their computers and occasionally consulting one another.  We sat in comfy chairs with a lovely pie crust table between us where they placed our floral china cups and plates of sandwiches.  In front of us was an alcove made by bookshelves that were full of toys that could be played with by children seated comfortable on the floormats, though two students were using it to study

The owner or designer had clearly thought of all the creative ways people might like to use coffee shop space, and had created an atmosphere that accommodated them all.  Beyond us were small tables in a rather dark corner where people could focus on their work or studies.

My contribution to the afternoon was to take  us off to the Manchester Craft and Design Centre, which I'd found on the map but knew nothing about.  It is an old fish market that has been converted into artists' studios and shops--with nary the smell of fish anywhere.  The spaces were small, and thus affordable, but contained room for a ceramicist 's wheel and a display of his work or space for a jewellery maker's table and her work.  We saw glass, textiles and delightfully primitive embroidery, silk screen prints, pottery in several styles.  We didn't buy anything--I don't need more things--but it was like going to an eclectic art gallery that celebrated the varieties of contemporary creativity.  It made me happy the way the Barbican made me happy.  And its spirit was captured in that Barbican button that read "craftivism." 

I think the mash-up of "craft" and "activism" is important--especially just now.  I won't claim that it takes you out of the capitalist whirlwind:  most creative people need to buy their supplies somewhere and many of us have stashes of yarn or fabric that are a little embarrassing.  Unless you grow your own feed for your own alpacas, whose fur you spin and weave or knit into something useful, you're depending on a supply chain for your crafts.  What you remain outside of is someone else's idea about what will give you pleasure.  And there is something liberating about learning to do something well, to gain an expertise that ensures that little bit of independence, that rebellion against what is in style this year, your ability to make something that has never been made in quite that way before, to have a vision and the expertise to realize it.  Craftspeople are not only keeping and adding to our culture's significant lore (read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas if you want to know how important this is:  when the end times come, my people will have warm feet.) You are keeping alive the practice of thinking differently, thinking rebelliously, thinking creatively in an age when we are too frequently being asked not to think at all.

(The first two photographs of the Barbican are Veronica's; the snapshots of ceramics and the wonderful coffee shop are mine.  I can't resist ending with my first truly funky quilt, which Lyra and Tuck seem to like.)

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