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  • Edmund de Waal at the Crafts Council's EDUCATION MANIFESTO LAUNCH AT THE HOUSE OF COMMONS. PHOTO: SOPHIE MUTEVELIAN

Why craft is central

Edmund de Waal spoke at the launch of the Crafts Council's education manifesto 

"I’m wearing the international uniform of a contemporary artist, I realise as I walk up the corridor: a white shirt, Converse and a black suit. But, damn it, I’m a potter! I’m a maker and I’m standing up here because craft is my life. Craft is the encounter I had as a five-year-old demanding from my father that I go to an evening class to make pots. It’s the encounter when I was 11 of finding that there was a potter in the school who took me seriously, who took me so seriously that I could spend every afternoon making pots. I was let off games for ceramics. And at 16 when I left school early and was apprenticed, on my first day with this extraordinary maker he said to me in no particularly dramatic tones: ‘Do you know Edmund, the first 30,000 pots you make are the worst?’ And that’s it. That’s absolutely what craft is. It’s about being embedded in material, embedded in encounters with people and about being embedded in time.

I spent that last 45 years – because I’m now 50 – making pots, one pot after another after another. And I’m asked out there in the world of contemporary art: ‘Isn’t it marginal? Isn’t it peripheral? Isn’t craft a thing on the edges?’ And I say: ‘Craft is central, absolutely central.’ My list of who I talk to through my pots today includes inter alia architects, and dancers and curators and poets and musicians. It includes all kinds of people. It includes all kinds of makers, all kinds of collectors. But most of all it includes people. Who are you going to touch with what you make? And of course you can be in touch with yourself by making. 

Because that ultimately is the only standard of reality and authenticity about what you do: being in touch with what you make yourself; Ultimately, craft is about the value of things, the values in things.

Of course it’s about attention, love and materials, and risk and innovation and passion. But it’s also entirely about what the extraordinary and powerful novelist Primo Levi wrote in The Wrench, his book about someone making things. And in this extraordinary novel (which you must all read alongside the manifesto when you go home tonight) he talks about the ability of a person to work – with their own, on their own, with their own head, and even better with their own hands – to make something that will last beyond them, which will have encounters with people they do not know and cannot dream of. That is the value at the heart of making. It’s an extremely important part of being a human being. Homo Faber, man, people, the maker. Is there anything more intrinsic to the value of humanity than that?

EDUCATION MANIFESTO LAUNCH AT THE HOUSE OF COMMONS. PHOTO: SOPHIE MUTEVELIAN

So when I think about craft and education, making, the value of why making matters. I think about the encounters early on in my life and I think, ‘How come we’re a country where we do not allow our children to make a mess at school? How come we’ve got to a point when we don’t allow our children to encounter materials in their formative years to discover that there are non-verbal ways of bringing value in your life? That there are ways that you cannot anatomise and grade children through just simply what they can write down on a page.’ In this country of tradition, where making things stretches back to William Caxton and Grinling Gibbons and to Josiah Wedgwood, there are people out there who we don’t even know about, and surely it is these people who can make craft happen in our communities because they understand that making is valid, that it is of value to people. And that is why we’re all behind this manifesto today."

This is a transcript of a speech delivered at the House of Commons, 10 November 2014

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