Kant wrote that the difference between art and craft lies in the fact that what the craftsman sets out to produce is an object for human use, while the artist’s creation has no purpose beyond the nourishing of the human soul —which is true, as far as it goes. An artist may express himself through music or dance or the written word, but in the plastic and visual arts, craft is one of the components of creation. Artist and craftsman alike must develop a particular set of skills that can be as demanding for the sculptor as for the violin maker. Those born with the urge to create art must first search out the medium that will best express their vision and imagination, and then learn and refine the craft that will reveal its inherent possibilities.
Looking for that perfect medium is often a long and drawn-out process. In the early nineteen-sixties I shared a Toronto storefront studio with Leonhard Oesterle, who later became head of the sculpture department at the Ontario College of Art. I spent my days at my easel near the big window facing the street, while Leonhard worked at the back of the shop in a fug of fumes rising from his pan of sculptor’s wax softening on an electric plate. Leonhard’s first sculptures had been molded from bits of clay surreptitiously scratched up from the compound at Dachau concentration camp,where he was imprisoned for several years. He told me that sculpting those tiny figures had been for him a connection with beauty and light and life, even in that dreadful place, and his love of doing it stayed with him as long as he lived.
Lithographer John Snow,who bravely undertook to teach me the basics of printmaking one winter when I was living in Calgary, spent his evenings and weekends in the basement of his small house, producing richly coloured lithographic prints on a huge press that he and his friend Maxwell Bates had scavenged and reassembled after it had been broken up and junked by a local newspaper. Both were painters as well, but the exacting traditional lithographic process became John Snow’s permanent and abiding passion.
Few art forms are as difficult and demanding as the one Mark Raynes Roberts has chosen —hand-engraving figures, landscapes, allegories and scenes of myth and fable on lens-quality optical crystal, making use of dozens of different instruments and tools in the process. A writer can revise a troublesome paragraph twenty times; a painter can cover an unsatisfactory area with more paint, or scrap the whole thing and start over for the relatively modest cost of a new length of canvas. But Mark’s crystal forms are made to his exact specifications, and, depending on their size, can be frighteningly expensive. One mistake can spoil the entire piece. There have been times, he says,when he wished he had chosen to splash paint on canvas instead, but over the years he has gained what Bill Evans calls the “Universal Mind” and become comfortable with his process.
Mark’s training began at the Birmingham School of Jewellery in England, first learning to engrave gold and silver, and then moving on to other metals and materials. One day he was shown examples of engraved crystal, and was so intrigued by its refractive potential, and the a ethereal way that a theme could be wrapped around a form, that it was for him a Eureka moment. He began engraving crystal, gradually moving away from producing commissioned works of utility toward the creation of self-sufficient works of art, his aim always to reveal the beauty that lay within his medium, going straight into the crystal without any preset design, and allowing it to tell the narrative itself. Mark calls his art an emotional response to the nature of the crystal, born straight from heart to hand. It’s about being free, he says, flying dangerously close to the sun but soaring without wings, allowing the material itself to reveal, ensnare and enchant. It’s what he lives for.
What Mark Raynes Roberts has set out to do in the Illumination exhibition is to demonstrate that craft matters. Arts and crafts that take years to master are born out of passion, and whatever the art form or discipline, becoming skilled in their use takes us closer to understanding ourselves and our shared humanity. In his own work Mark uses techniques that are not far removed from those that were used in 3000 BC, and no newly invented technology can replicate them. When we allow traditional skills to die with the generations who developed and used them, we cut ourselves off from our heritage, and are all the poorer for it.
Helen McLean (born 1927) is a Canadian author and painter, known for her two autobiographical books, Sketching from Memory: A Portrait of My Mother (1994) and Details from a Larger Canvas (2001) In 2003, her novel Significant Things was short-listed for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book Award, Caribbean and Canada Region, and her latest novel shown above with one of her paintings on the cover is, The Man and the Woman. (2014) Helen’s paintings are held in private and corporate collections that include the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, and her portrait of Margaret Laurence hangs in the Margaret Laurence home in Neepawa, Manitoba.
For more information on Helen’s books please visit: www.helen-mclean.ca