Sunday morning at Craft Forward started with a schedule change for the session titled,
Mass Craft
Ayse Birsel (the scheduled speaker) was replaced by Mimi Robinson. Her lecture was titled, "Artisan Enterprise."
This lecture was another of the many lectures at the Craft Forward Symposium where the story was about community.  In retrospect, I just can’t figure out why “community” was such an unexpected undercurrent of Craft Forward this year. Maybe by the time ASK Harriete covers every lecture I will have this figured out, or someone will offer their own insight.

In the meantime, I remain confounded by how Craft Forward became Craft Community.

Dd_robinson08_001_mb Moving on to the topic at hand...
Mimi Robinson's specialty is going to small craft communities in third world countries that are struggling to survive economically. She loves going to the place, figuring out what to make, and how to make it using local resources, skills, and creativity. The critical question for her at that moment is, “What is the unique spirit of the native culture, place and time?"

What did I learn?
West african symbols Her role in working for a non-profit or as an outside consultant is to develop an economic enterprise using principles of micro-credit. She works hand in hand, person to person, connecting craft to the place. It is grounded in the experience of working with local makers and the “power of craft.” For Mimi Robinson the story is important to increase public awareness about the critical issues, raising the voice and the visibility of the artisan community.

She showed examples of beautiful ceramic decorative items that would be marketed to stores like Gump's and other high-end retailers. In fact, she has been so successful in some cases that the artisans eventually had to decide whether they should meet production demands when they distribute their work to international markets.

Guata_risd_nyigf This brings up a new set of problems that American artists and makers can relate to themselves. Do you want to increase production? Hire more workers?  Quantity vs. quality? What is needed to develop a cohesive collection, prepare images and plan distribution when you take your product to a market like the New York Gift show?  Just like with U.S. makers, the critical issue is often price point? What will people buy? Matching production with buyers and the problems with seasonal cycles.

Ultimately her goal is to preserve traditions while fostering new customs and improved livelihood with more resources, better tools, schools, and a sustainable economy for these makers. It was another feel good moment for “craft activism” at Craft Forward.

What were the thought provoking issues raised?
The feel good moment, rah, rah, rah, community think is over!  And again I sense something out of kilter. 
 After reading my notes and careful consideration for the unacknowledged ramifications of the information presented, I realize that there is another side of the story about community.

Third_world_map Third world craft economies are exporting their products to the United States and competing with crafters, makers, and artists that live in the U.S.. The lower price points of imported items compete with local, regional and national U.S. makers (who need to make more than a couple of dollars a day).

Bizarre-Bazaar1 U.S. crafters, makers, and artists also have their own story of hard work, local enterprise, creativity and community. It is already very difficult for us to compete with the price points of the beautiful, imported items at Pier One, Crate and Barrel, or Bloomingdale’s "made by" third world makers. Our own community of artists and crafters attending Craft Forward Symposium or reading this blog post in their studio need to make a living wage too.

Acc_2011 In this case, the big question is, "Should we set a priority to support our own local artists and makers?Our story is important! We need to increase public awareness about the critical issues, raising the voice and the visibility of our local, regional and national artisan communities right here in the United States.

Soapicon copy I think that there is merit in at least examining this issue carefully.  If we want people to buy our art and craft here at home, shouldn't we be consistent in our own reaction to the soap box at Craft Forward? Our work is also lovingly made in our studio with skill, creativity, culture, and perhaps the micro economics of our own pocket books. We may not be a third world economy, but the U.S. has both rural and urban poor that need to learn job skills and nurture their creativity and culture.

Theaster-Gates-s In the next lecture for Mass Craft at Craft Forward, Theaster Gates addresses just this issue. In fact, I think he was being very polite about trying to address the  rationale of aiding third world economies when he sees the same problems right in his own neighborhood in Detroit, Chicago, the rural South, and elsewhere.

This will be the next post. In the meantime, consider your purchasing power every day. It matters...

Do you buy from the big box stores or from local businesses?

Do you buy your fruits and vegetables from Safeway or from the Farmer’s market?

It may mean going to the hair salon owned by your neighbor.

Or buying a pair of earrings from a friend?

Or buying a wedding present from a local artisan?

Consider the impact of your every day purchasing decisions?

Background about the Speakers 

Allison Smith was the moderator. Normally, I didn't say much about the moderators because of information overload, but her web site is definitely worth some time in looking at her body of work. Don't miss it!

Mimi Robinson's web site is under construction. You can read more about her projects in foreign countries as she helps third world makers on Here is another article from HANDeye. 

Session 5: Mass Craft
9:30 – 11 a.m.
Presentations by Ayse Birsel, Theaster Gates
Moderated by Allison Smith

Views: 330

Replies to This Discussion

Harriete - yet another GREAT post. Thank you!! I could not attend Craft Forward, but you really bring this conference "home" to me. I sincerely appreciate your time. :-)


Back to your topic:

If we want people to buy our art and craft here at home, shouldn't we be consistent in our own reaction to the soap box at Craft Forward? Our work is also lovingly made in our studio with skill, creativity, culture, and perhaps the micro economics of our own pocket books.


Yes, yes, and yes. I think the overall craft community is already very aware of this situation/dilemma, and there has been a lot of talk for years now about how to sustain one's studio practice amidst the cheaper imports available at the stores, and (let's not forget) the hobbyist's crowd who put pieces on the market below cost because they "don't need the income" and/or don't know how to properly calculate their prices. 


Point in case: A ceramicist friend of mine (who has his own studio practice, his own retail store, teaches 4 days a week morning and evening classes AND does functional pottery only) was told by a ceramic adult daytime student what a lucky guy he was that he could just make all the flower pots he ever needed right in his own studio. The ceramicist replied that if he needed a flower pot, he would NOT make one himself but instead go out and buy the pot at the [big box store].  Everyone in the class gasped! When asked why he didn't simply just threw and glazed his own pot, the ceramicist answered: "Because the pots from China at the [big box store] look really good, there is nothing wrong with the functionality of them, and the clay to throw the pot costs me more than just going out and buying it ready to go at [big box store]."


Why do we undermine ourselves like this? Clearly this is NOT good advocacy of the type of craft work we do.


"Should we set a priority to support our own local artists and makers?"  

 ABSOLUTELY! The good news is that there already are lots of initiatives around to foster and promote "the handmade and locally grown", so it's not necessary to reinvent the wheel. All one really has to do is to remember and emphasize buying local and handmade.



Thanks Brigitte for your comment. I don't mean to rehash an old topic (i.e. buy local, buy American, buy handmade, etc..)


My concern when opening this topic is why is this presentation by Mimi Robinson Craft Forward?

While it is evident that Mimi Robinson is good at what she does, why does she have to go to a third world country?

Why is she standing at the podium at Craft Forward surrounded by mostly local, or U.S. as the hero and advocate for Third World artists when we struggle here at home?

What is the message when the Craft Forward organizers put this topic forward?

There was no time for discussion at Craft Forward?  How about now?

We'd like to second Brigitte's kudos to you Harriete. Truly excellent coverage on the conference.Thank you for all the thought and time you put into this.


The current topic brings home a discussion that was inevitable: Globalization and its impact on our lives. Now local artists in the US find ourselves competing with globally sourced craft. The dynamics and effects of global markets are  well known and documented. Frankly, it doesn't look good.


As makers we can all jump on the "buy local" bandwagon, however, this has been done the world over for the last 100 years - to no great effect.  Industries band together to influence government to grant them concessions in the form of international trade sanctions, subsidies and other mechanisms designed to give their countries industry an advantage in world markets.


This is our wake up call for American craft. Who represents us politically? Where are our grass roots organizers like Mimi?  The Canadian craft market is far more advanced than we are on this topic. They have a working model that we in the US can look to. Its time to get down to business.

Thank you for covering this Harriete and 2Roses for chiming in so insightfully. The British Craft Council also seems to have a strong model.

Who represents us politically? I don't know who does or should, however, I think it is clear who should represent us on the national level with a professional multi-platform advertising campaign to build awareness and a brand for our collective creativity. 

Has anyone really asked ACC what they are doing on this front? I know they have listened to artists' concerns lately ( about the declining attendance and aging demographic at craft shows) but it seems they've never looked at these other models for pointers.

The ACC has new leadership, and they are trying to listen to people with the Convenings, Listening Sessions, etc. They have a long way to go before they have political power.


right on sisters!  we have got to get the word out that buying local and buying american IS the way to help our economy.  we don't need 10 pair of cheap shoes, just a couple well-made american ones.  and that goes on down the line for everything.  reduce, reuse, recycle, upcycle, and buy it and make it here!!  my dad understood this when i was a kid and it is more relevant today than ever.  that is why i am passionate about educating everyone what they should charge for their labor and how to explain it to buyers so they understand the difference between buying and making it here as opposed to the imported, no human rights versions.  thanks to both of you and i have read every post, harriete.  anne

Images from Mimi Robinson's presentation - good points that we should apply to our own craft as well.

Peruvian artisans Mimi worked with and their low-budget way of firing clay

The finished Peruvian pots, commercially successful

Great images from the lecture. It was really hard to find information online. Thanks emiko!



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