LivingArts: When “arts and crafts” is not a dirty word


Like many artists and educators, I used to cringe every time I heard someone refer to what I do as “arts and crafts”, reducing the work that I pour my passion and energy into to the worst of childhood time-wasters. “Arts and crafts” for me always sounds like the tired kind of activity that adults used to fill time when all the important work was done, and was usually made up of ratty bits of coloured paper, broken crayons and cheap glue.  Unfortunately in my line of work, I hear this quite often.  But lately, as I explore ways of engaging new audiences in gallery programming I am starting to reframe my own thinking. I’ve realized that maybe my visitor’s idea of “arts and crafts” can be a positive idea to build on.

For many “arts and crafts” time was fun, and it’s a comfortable and pleasant look back to simpler times.  Even activities of little aesthetic or creative value were still times to play with art, to let the mind wander and the hands be busy.  And fun is a good place to start.  Learning and creative expression will follow.

In creating programmes and resources for gallery audiences, there are easy groups to work with and there are more challenging ones.  Children are among the easiest - full of enthusiasm to make things and look at things.  They are happy to tell you what they think.  They are thrilled to get messy and play with new materials.  They are an educator’s dream audience.  Adults are another story.  Full of reservation and worry and a need to succeed, they often struggle to risk failure in unfamiliar activities.

I have done a lot of work with corporate groups in recent years, and I see adults who are used to being successful in their daily pursuits undone at the sight of some paintbrushes or an abstract painting on the wall.  Many have not been in a gallery since their school days. 

This is where I start to think about “arts and crafts”.  Fun.  Play.  Shared Experience. Success.   

I choose a comfortable starting point – “Tell me what you see”.  No prior knowledge is required, and it’s easy to get it right.  We go from there.  Before they know it, they are analysing a painting like a pro.  Then we move to something harder.  As this point I love to bring in something that I know many of them will dislike. One of my favourites was an abstract painting that was yellow.  “My kid could do that” I say, and we all laugh.  I know they are thinking it.  And we go through the same steps again.  Often my group finishes without loving the large yellow painting, but they like that they can actually talk about it a bit.

Drawing is probably one of the scariest tasks that I can propose.  “I can’t’ draw a straight line”, someone says, laughing but nervous.  They are quietly afraid that everyone else will see how badly they draw.  My solution – we draw a portrait where everyone will “fail” – the dreaded blind contour drawing.  The results – no one’s drawing looks like a masterpiece, but they all have fun looking at the odd results.  It is a shared experience that they struggle (or play) at together.  We laugh, we talk about seeing what is actually there, and maybe I change someone’s perception a little. 

Often the activities that I use are the same ones I might plan for students.  The important caveat to this is that while the activities and questions are the same, the approach must always respect the experience and the intelligence of the audience.  I do children’s activities with corporate groups but I talk to them like adults.  I explain the reasoning behind the activity or the benefits of looking at art with a mind free from judgement or context.  And I fill in the grown-up information as I go, as it fits.  I focus on the fun and play of art, on ways that I can provide success and new ideas and the ways I can make my guests comfortable.  And I judge my own success on their responses.  “This was fun and I’m going to come back with my family” is the highest measure of success I can receive.

Laurie Kilgour-Walsh is a confirmed gallery nerd who is passionate about art and believes that art-based experiences are essential for everyone.  Her experiences include working as the Educator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton since 2006 as well as work at several other galleries in the region. She spends her days thinking about ways to engage visitors in the arts through tours, classes, individual encounters and active social interactions with art.  As a visual artist, she maintains an active studio practice, working in mixed media in a studio littered with scraps of old books, rusted metal, insect wings, and carefully hoarded treasures. @lauriemkw