Observations #5: What's in a Name

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Blog entry by Russel posted 05-01-2008 01:44 AM 1107 reads 0 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 4: Growing Pains Part 5 of Observations series Part 6: The Value of a Pro »

Just a little musing here; nothing of consequence; merely a curiosity. It seems that those that create contemporary woodworks are often referred to as “artists” while those that create more traditional works are considered “craftsmen.”

Now this is simply my observation, but I’ve seen it often enough for it to make an impression. The question is, “Why is that?” Does “art” mandate non-traditional? If utility is the objective of a piece, can it still be “art?”

This second question is the result of viewing many beautiful art pieces that seem terribly impractical and it would appear that their purpose is to look pretty. Nothing wrong with pretty, but it frequently is separated from utility.

But back to the original question. It seems to me that an artist would need to be an accomplished craftsman. Can someone be an accomplished craftsman without being an artist? Is there really a difference between the two?

Oh the dangers of an idle mind …

-- Working at Woodworking

15 comments so far

View Dan Lyke's profile

Dan Lyke

1520 posts in 4124 days

#1 posted 05-01-2008 01:57 AM

I’ve always thought that art was in the design and craft was in the execution.

-- Dan Lyke, Petaluma California,

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4313 days

#2 posted 05-01-2008 02:06 AM

You know you are an artist when you spend weeks on a project…a little carving…lots of thinking….redesigning…to create a masterpiece and the first time you go to move it the leg breaks in half…but darn it it looked good!

View Betsy's profile


3391 posts in 3895 days

#3 posted 05-01-2008 03:04 AM

I think they are one in the same. It all comes down to the person looking/using the piece.

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

View jcees's profile


1058 posts in 3798 days

#4 posted 05-01-2008 03:14 AM


Dan hit it squarely on the head. So I’ll expand on it a bit. There is indeed a difference in artist and the craftsman. But first, let’s use the term artisan for craftsman. The difference is that the artist is a “creator” while the artisan is a highly accomplished craftsman. Thomas Chippendale was an artist AND an artisan, he created his pieces from the stew of his skill set, experience and cognition. He used other artisans to help him realize his fantastic works of “useful” as well as decorative art in order to make a living and at the same time, elevate the world of furniture design. So you can argue that the artist is the designer and as such he is the point of origin for the work of art.

For another example of “useful” art, we can use the example of wooden boat building. The guy who designs it is the artist as he “created” it in his mind first. It might be derivative as boats are nothing new and ultimately it is the differences incorporated in the finished work that push out on the envelope of what we think of as merely a boat and instead elevates our sensibilities to place it in the canon of “art.” Without an artist’s guiding vision the beautiful boat would simply not exist.

Now, without the artisan, the artist though brilliant at design might not have the actual skill set to build said beautiful boat. For the artist’s vision to reach fruition, he needs the artisan and his skill set. The artisan is the practical guy in the room. His impetus is to build and accomplish what the designer intends with all its problems and prospects. Problems with a design are usually handled as feedback from the artisan, the guy getting dirty actually doing the “work” of art.

So in short, the artist creates while the artisan realizes what the artist has created. In many of the arts, the artist/artisan relationship is a symbiotic one and sometimes hard to distinguish especially when the two inhabit the same person. Now if you’re wondering “what” art is then you’ll have to steep yourself in the stuff to come away with a satisfying answer. Ultimately it’s like what one of our Supreme Court justices said when asked about defining what pornography is, “I’m not sure how to define it BUT I know it when I see it.”

I hope this sheds a smidgen of light on the subject.


-- When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. -- John Muir

View odie's profile


1691 posts in 3839 days

#5 posted 05-01-2008 03:30 AM

Russel, I do answer this in my blog. We work with our hands, so to ourselves we are “craftsmen”. To the layman we are “artists”. To some artists we are “artists”. BUT seldom does our stuff hang on a wall … aah, the true sign of an artist…..... If it has function …. IT MIGHT NOT BE ART ??? I’m soooo confused…...


-- Odie, Confucius say, "He who laughs at one's self is BUTT of joke". (my funny blog)

View eklectic's profile


26 posts in 3768 days

#6 posted 05-01-2008 03:56 AM

Hi Russel
Can someone be an accomplished craftsman without being an artist? Is there really a difference between the two?

You can know the techniques,copy from the plans and enjoy to see something grow by your own hand: that is the craftsman.

The artist is the one that not only knows the techniques, but dreams of what he will do with this technique and how he will use that technique to reach his goal. And his goal is definitely not a copy!

An artist will have a vision that is different from the craftsman! And if the two are within the same person, so much the better!

-- Eklectic, Follow my Bliss!

View BrianM's profile


116 posts in 3751 days

#7 posted 05-01-2008 01:02 PM

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Craftsman may refer to:

  • A master craftsman is an artisan who practices a handicraft or trade (profession) (the term craftswoman is also used and a craftman’s work exhibits craftsmanship; the shop is a craftsmanshop)

An artisan, also called a craftsman,[1] is a skilled manual worker who uses tools and machinery in a particular craft.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the older broad meanings of the term “artist,”

  • A learned person or Master of Arts (now rather obsolete)
  • One who pursues a practical science, traditionally medicine, astrology, alchemy, chemistry (also obsolete)
  • A follower of a pursuit in which skill comes by study or practice – the opposite of a theorist
  • A follower of a manual art, such as a mechanic – partly obsolete
  • One who makes their craft a fine art
  • One who cultivates one of the fine arts – traditionally the arts presided over by the muses – now the dominant usage

Bottom line you can call yourself anything that makes you feel good.

-- There is no such thing as scrap wood!,

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 3938 days

#8 posted 05-01-2008 01:19 PM

Most interesting comments folks. I’m fascinated by how each of us sees things.

Dennis, I laughed hard when I read, ”but darn it looked good.” There have been a few times in my experience where function and fashion were in conflict.

Odie, your assistance was … well … it was your assistance. ;-)

And Brian, you said, ”you can call yourself anything that makes you feel good” and I’ll tell you, I tried calling myself Harrison Ford, and while I felt better, it really didn’t change much of anything.

Good stuff folks.

-- Working at Woodworking

View frank's profile


1492 posts in 4205 days

#9 posted 05-01-2008 02:03 PM

Hello Russel;
—-hmmm, kinda of like asking whats in your name or my name….?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title:—Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,Take all myself.

Romeo and Juliet, II, ii (47-49)

Thinking about this here and so I’ll just add a thought. You have asked or implied that, ”If utility is the objective of a piece….” and so I will ask a question? If one talks about artist-art and craftsman-craft….where and why, how, did the word ‘utility’ enter in? Do wood projects have to ‘fit in’ and be user friendly at being utility?

It would seem that you are comparing ‘contemporary woodworks’ with ‘traditional woodworks’ and this is leaving out so much of what woodworking is all about.

I don’t usually make ‘utility’ woodworks, but there’s no-thing wrong if one wants to. I have never found much money in the selling of woodworks that fit into the utility category of woodworking. I call my wood pieces by name and this has nothing to do with ‘pretty’, but folks will pay high end money….’crazy money’ to have ‘one of a kind’ pieces of ‘wood art’.

When a customer connects with a table or bench that I have created, they have a one of a kind. Most of these pieces will go into private libraries and rooms in their homes and offices, where they become a matter of viewing for individuals with taste-full eyesight. When I name a wood piece….that piece becomes a work of art by the one who created the piece. What good is a piece of art that has no-name….and therefore no-character? I name my wood pieces as characters of ‘wood art’ and yes this not so much as to separate them from ‘utility’ woodworks, but to market them for high end work.

As one famous artist once told me; ” Frank, that piece of sculpture is you….when some-one buys your art, they’re not only buying the wood sculpture, but their buying your name along with it….” Yes, there is a lot in a name and in naming my ‘wood art’, I also expect to make a good sale. After all, some of the benches and tables will never be sat upon, and no-ones going to put a cup of coffee on a table that costs some …...... of dollars…., (at least thats what they tell me before and afterwards) but they will and do enjoy the wood all the same.

Well just some thoughts I’m throwing out here….and yes, only my ‘two cents’ worth….

Thank you.

email is:

-- --frank, NH,

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 3938 days

#10 posted 05-01-2008 02:15 PM

Frank, whenever you have something to say on a subject it always has a melody all it’s own. And there’s always something worth reading.

-- Working at Woodworking

View odie's profile


1691 posts in 3839 days

#11 posted 05-01-2008 02:58 PM

Russel, I just figured why not getting this…. You speak of melody … that’s it! Your not reading mine to the melody from the TV commercial, “There ain’t no gugs on me …...”. You’ll get now I’m sure of that, cuz yer smart. (with tongue way in cheek … we have fun huh?)

-- Odie, Confucius say, "He who laughs at one's self is BUTT of joke". (my funny blog)

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 3938 days

#12 posted 05-01-2008 03:02 PM

Great. Now I’ll have that tune in my head all day.

-- Working at Woodworking

View teenagewoodworker's profile


2727 posts in 3767 days

#13 posted 05-01-2008 09:49 PM

i believe that an artist is more someone who does something that really no people have done before and kind of has their own style. an artist is also a craftsman but a craftsman is someone who knows the craft well be more follows the craft doing reproductions or pieces that have already been done or the style has already been establishes. to make the pass from a craftsman to an artist in my opinion is to start to do something with your own style that is out of the ordinary. a good contrast i think is Norm Abram as a craftsman as he knows woodworking well with David Marks as an artist as he really goes by his own style and really out of the ordinary pieces. i hope that makes sense!

View Ad Marketing Guy - Bill's profile

Ad Marketing Guy - Bill

314 posts in 3797 days

#14 posted 05-02-2008 12:05 AM

I think today most people view the terms as interchangeable . . . An artist pursues his craft; a craftsman hopes to develop art.

However, I think a craftsman creates a drawing (blueprint, plan) and builds from that engineering. This sometimes results in Art. Crafts in most cases are functional, and use becomes objective, its artist value is subjective.

An artist creates not from an engineering but from the mind and his emotions, it is always art -many times bad art, still art. Most times art is not functional, and in most cases it is subjective to the beholder, its use becomes objective.

Now the meat: The true definitions were created in the Middle Ages and defined how much people were taxed. While, the Roman Empire and even the Egypt and Babylon civilizations had both – The real definitive answer comes from the Middle Ages and the Feudal System – a craftsman (furniture builder, blacksmith, glass blower) was taxed as the working class. While, artists held a higher position in society, and in fact were not taxed – Many times their work was done gratis for the church and Feudal lords, primarily for exhibition and statements of the upper class wealth and power. Paintings, sculture, music were developed this way.

During the “dark ages” the arts died – Many artists were impoverished and tried to develop a craft that resembled their art.

Later the terms started to co-mingle and be used as interchangeable labels. An artist may pursue his craft and a craftsman hopes to develop art.

Today much of the craft of certain periods is considered period art and is pursued by craftsmen. Wood, pottery, even jewlery fit this type of constant. Frank Lloyd Wright prime example, art, craft or business ??

One thing to notice: NOT much has changed when it comes to taxes!

PS: During the Chinese dynasties these terms took on a very different meaning -

-- Bill - - Ad-Marketing Guy, Ramsey NJ

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 3938 days

#15 posted 05-02-2008 12:37 AM

Now that’s cool, a history lesson. A little musing reveals some pretty interesting stuff.

-- Working at Woodworking

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