Talking with Bruce Metcalf, artist, teacher and author

Episode #188

Today I talk with Bruce Metcalf.
We dive into some pretty touchy subjects. You’ll want to hear Bruce’s opinion on all of it!

Also, some books, tools and apps I’ve discovered that I think you will enjoy!

Interview with Bruce Metcalf Transcription

Alison Lee: Well I am thrilled to talk to my next guest. Actually my next guest was interviewed a few years back on Craftcast. I love having these kind of conversations. My guest today is co-author of Makers: 20th Century American Studio Crafts, as well as he was on the advisor committee for Craft in America, that wonderful television series. He's won numerous grant fellowships and awards. You can see his work in a bunch of galleries, and as he said he is currently working. I’m so excited to introduce and talk to Mr Bruce Metcalf. Thank you so much for coming on and talking to me today.

Bruce Metcalf: Oh my pleasure.

Alison: So here's my first question. Where's your passion at today?

Bruce: Most of my passion is simply being in the studio and trying to be productive and turn out a lot of good work. I pretty much ignore almost everything else the last couple of years.

Alison: Really?

Bruce: Been good. Really productive

Alison: And what is productive look like for you? I love it when people say I had a productive day. What does that mean to you?

Bruce: Oh, to me? I made 25 pieces last year.

Alison: So it’s how many pieces you actually made?

Bruce: Yeah. I can count. And normally its under 15 in the end. 10, 12 but which is by most people's standards ridiculously small.

Alison: Oh really?

Bruce: Yeah. I mean just [inaudible] small.

Alison: But for you it's good? And what is, so does every day feel productive?

Bruce: No.

Alison: So what's an unproductive day? I love hearing what, you know, how artist feel at the end of the day in their studios and what’s unproductive looks like?

Bruce: Oh I have to do a lot of back tracking. I mean a lot of times I make a shape and I put it with the piece I'm working on and it just doesn’t work and I have to carve another. Or I make a shape that just doesn’t fit anywhere and it basically winds up in the part pile. I mean I waste a lot of time.

Alison: It’s not wasting!

Bruce: It’s tremendously inefficient.

Alison: I think I adore you even more now. I love tremendous inefficiency that way. I call, it’s just the 3 steps forward, 2 steps back.

Bruce: Or 2 steps forward 3 steps back.

Alison: No. I’m not willing to go there with you that way. So now what is the passion that's fulling your production or your “Not Productive” days? What’s driving you?

Bruce: I mean that gets to the basic core of my existence and it’s like OK what are you here for? I'm here to make things. This is what my place in the world is to be a maker.

Alison: I love that. You're here to be a maker.

Bruce: I have to work with my hands. I don’t really have a choice in that. I have to think compulsively about these things and be all obsessive and kind of nutty and stupid about it.

Alison: I have to ask you something about that. Don’t you think most artists are that way and that’s why we sort of group together? Because that’s the normal being obsessive, compulsive and thinking about something?

Bruce: I think good artist are. And I also think the really good artist suffer a lot. I think it can be extremely painful.

Alison: Because why?

Bruce: Because you doubt. Because things don’t work out well and you sort of flood yourself like "Oh god! I’m such a no talent." Any of the good artists [inaudible] will suffer

Alison: Yeah. Well I think creativity has that on the other side of it because I just read something the other day. You know if you're creative you think oh that’s awesome, oh that’s not so good, oh its really disgusting, oh I'm a loser. Wait! That's ok. Oh wait! That's awesome.

Bruce: Actually that's not creativity, that’s criticality. That’s being able to look at your work and look at it with a critical eye and think, wait a minute that's not so great. And I don’t think everybody has that. I really don’t. I think there are a lot of people who think everything they do is just fabulous.

Alison: Aren’t they lucky?

Bruce: No they're not because they're almost never very good.

Alison: Oh. Ok. Alright. So that's a good way to measure how good you are, if you think you're good.

Bruce: No one would fess up to it. But yeah, you know. I mean I don’t know a single really good artist who proceeds in an absolute straight line from success to success. I don’t know any.

Alison: I don’t think that's possible. I think it’s a circle.

Bruce: There are sign waves. So yeah, I mean there's ups and downs and if you don’t have the downs, I don’t think you are ever going to achieve greatness or even close or even anything above mediocrity. That's my opinion.

Alison: With you but do we teach artist today that? Like how do we know that?

Bruce: How do you know that? That’s difficult to teach. I mean when I taught, one of the things I try to show my students was that the first solution you come up with is rarely the best solution. It simply requires re-examining the problem and going through different iterations of what kind of solutions you can come up with. Funny, I had students 30 years later telling me that they thought that was a really valuable life lesson. And that's true. I mean the first solution is rarely the best solution.

Alison: Do you think though? I think the first solution gets it out of your head though and out into the universe so at least it gets you on the map to get going. is that first solution.

Bruce: Right. It’s a start. It gets a process in motion but it’s only a start.

Alison: Yeah. It is, isn’t it. But that's good.

Bruce: Once every 3 years I have a first solution that’s actually a really good solution.

Alison: How do you know it?

Bruce: After I finish the piece and I go wow! That turned out.

Alison: And do you think you can teach people to be critical of their work. Is that a skill you can teach? You said before people are just, you know that doesn’t make greatness. So is that something you're born with. How does that happen do you think?

Bruce: Well like I said I mean I taught my students to believe that the first solution is rarely the best solution. So in a way you can teach it. But I think being self-critical is something either most people have or don’t. I mean there's a lot of people who are full of self-confidence and think everything they do is absolutely fabulous and you know, whenever it sort of pours out of their little brains is like "Oh that's the best thing in the world." And like I say it rarely is.

Alison: Yeah I know. It’s very interesting. So how are things changed since you started being a maker? What's the biggest shift?

Bruce: I started in 1970. But the biggest change to me, well there have been stylistic changes. That's obvious. I mean in 1970 Scandinavian modern was still in the air. It was very strong. And I kind of slick, polished surfaces and metal and you know, design-ie. very design-ie.

Alison: Oh yeah. Bauhaus?

Bruce: All that's gone. It has been erased. It is gone. Now we are dealing with like in jewellery people like sort of crusty, clunky things. And there's a sense of authenticity they would have been absolutely mysterious back then. I think other than change and taste the biggest difference is tremendous change professionalism, in that there are now all these procedures and codes and conducts and behavior about what it is to be professional. And everybody does it. So I mean now everybody knows how to right a resume, everybody knows how to take a picture or hire a photographer. Everybody knows how to package themselves. Everybody knows what good, tasteful salable work looks like. Back in 1970 a lot of that was still up for negotiation. And it’s a double edged sword, you know. On the one hand people conduct themselves with a lot more sophistication and confidence. On the other hand, standards of professionalism reach into realms of taste and now have a very conservative force. As particularly in the marketplace when you talk about professional craft, you kind of know what it looks like. And you know it’s well made, it's nicely designed, you know it's attractive. It’s something that your mom would like, you know. It’s not challenging, it’s not difficult, it’s not provocative.

Alison: That's a good word to use I think in the 70's that was more looked at as putting on a pedestal, the provocative part, you think or no?

Bruce: Right. And the thing is a lot of these people claim to be artist but if you know what goes on in the art world, those ideas have been challenging and provocative or embedded in that world and you just don’t find that much of it anymore in the craft world. I mean you did in the 70's but I think largely because of our concepts of professionalism, the idea of provocation has kind of gone by the boards. And I really miss it, you know. I liked that stuff.

Alison: Yeah. That was definitely suited to that time period. Well don’t you think it goes around again? I mean everything else does. Maybe that's where we're sitting right on the edge of right now.

Bruce: Yeah. It remains to be seen. I think the things that are passing for provocative now are pretty limp.

Alison: I love when people tell me exactly how they feel.

Bruce: Well that's what you get with me.

Alison: I love that. Well its interesting, I mean. Do you think the whole DIY, the do it yourself movement in craft, in the young people, their influence, I mean how do you think that has played into all of that? Because you know there is another generation of 20 year olds becoming makers.

Bruce: Yeah. There are 2 things going on. One the visual taste is completely different. I mean they like the clunky, rough and ready stuff you know. Duct tape wall is cool. But within standards of craft professionals and the duct tape wall it is out of bounds. You know you wouldn’t even think of it. Millennials have this whole different idea of what's acceptable in terms of taste. And you know the things in there about chaos about kind of visual overload and sound objects and [inaudible] and a whole bunch of other things are part of that taste which most people, most baby boomers find incomprehensible. But there is something else going on there. And because I have an understanding of history I kind of get it. The kids are moving the focus away from an ascetic contemplation of the object to consideration of what the object actually does in the world. So they are into various things like sustainability, local sourcing, flow movement. Things that have to do with the social processes surrounding they object. And that’s really interesting because that stuff goes back to William Morris. I mean that's exactly the kind of things that Morris is talking about making 70's and 80's. So for me what I see is this realization of an ambition that is more than a century old. This kids of course know nothing about that.

Alison: I was going to ask you is it just reborn from nature that way?

Bruce: I mean the [inaudible] reminds me of the hippies. The hippies were concerned with the social complex object too. You know, dropping out or going back to the land, self-reliance. All those things there are similar ideas but different and the impulse I think is much the same. Kind of about one form or another of responsibility.

Alison: Well do you think my view of watching how social media, texting and Facebooking and Twittering and Instagram-ing and all of that affects the art world that way? Can you imagine if we had that all when Woodstock was around?

Bruce: No. I can’t.

Alison: It would have been a different experience. There would have been, you know. That's what so interesting. because it’s so.

Bruce: Yeah. It was not a [inaudible] thing because that was so special. It was a standalone. Yeah and that's something that the millennials do. They really rely on the interconnectedness that you get with digital media. So it’s a lot, a lot easier to get information, it’s a lot easier to share things and it’s a lot easier to find a form of support.

Alison: It’s also a lot easier to share whatever status the piece of art you're making is in. You know the immediacy of it all.

Bruce Yeah.

Alison: I think that changes, I don’t know. I think that changes a lot of time put into things, the immediacy of all of it. Who has time?

Bruce: You may be right. I hadn’t thought of that.

Alison: I don’t know. I know that the time thing is so, the multitasking and the time thing it’s hard to find a lifestyle for I would think that age coming in. That gives them the time of what was spent to do art and become good at your craft and put the thought process into it. Is there any time left for thinking?

Bruce: Yeah, in reference to that I'm a dinosaur. Because I focus like crazy for hours and hours and days and months. Not a contemporary virtue.

Alison: Well it’s a wonderful virtue but it is, you know. I sort of find myself sitting on both sides of that so it’s, what’s going on today is its intense. It’s so fast it's overwhelming.

Bruce: Yes. I can’t possibly keep up.

Alison: That’s ok. You don’t have too. It’s not important.

Bruce: Well I don’t.

Alison: Yeah. It’s not. You've got enough on your plate going in there. Well let’s talk about, this is something I had written to you about, talking about what’s up right now. There's a lot of talk being shared online about the copying of people's work and what that means. And I love to hear your opinion on all of that.

Bruce: Yeah. Well this is a talk that’s been around for decades. I mean I remember hearing these conversations in the 70's so it is absolutely not new. I have limitations for people complaining. "Oh I hate this copycatting!" And the thread online, it’s on CraftHaus consisted largely of rants and complaints of one sort or another. I had no use for it. A complaint is going to get you nowhere. I’m much more interested in formulating specific actions, you know. Something actionable where we can do something to solve the problem. And it’s strange even after all this time I see no proposals for actual solution. I mean it’s so odd. The only concrete proposal that was advanced in the whole thread was Harriete Estel Berman saying "Oh let’s write some standards." I was like oh give me a break. Her idea is that if you have these rules out there that people are going to somehow magically obey them is utterly false. I mean people's motives for copycatting are either they're insecure and they don’t believe they have the stuff to make an original contribution or simple greed, you know. They see something that they have the technical facility and knock off and they know it sells, so they make a knock off, you know. I think it’s one or the other and you can’t demotivate people who are either insecure or greedy, you know. It’s not going to happen. So there has to be personally, I think the solution has to be punitive. I think you have to go, first you have to slap those people on the wrist and then if it persists you have to ruin somebody. You have to take them to court, sue them for all they're worth and basically break them. And the community is such that word gets around pretty quick, you know. Most of these events occur isolated and without generating news. So if you sued somebody for 30 or 40 thousand dollars, and I don’t know enough about what you can get out of a copyright infringement lawsuit so I don’t even know if it's possible. But if you did, the word would get around and I believe most, and in fact I believe all these people understand that they are copying. And I think they are equivocating with themselves if they tell themselves it's ok, particularly the people in the market place. They are not that unsophisticated. Hobbyist maybe but hobbyist get a pass. You know the people who are making money off it, they know and they are simply making a calculation that they will not get punished so, it’s a business decision actually. I can get away with a symbol, some do. So once somebody can’t get away with it and pays and pays big money then people will stop and I think punishment is necessary.

Alison: Do you think that it would make them also more personally creative? Will punishment?

Bruce: No. I don’t care what happens with them.

Alison: I'm just wondering if it would work that way though.

Bruce: No. I don’t think. But 2 things: Most people can’t afford to initiate a lawsuit particularly with the “you lose you pay” provision in copyright suits. In other words, if you lose the suit you pay the legal cost for the loser. And that I think was initiated to discourage nuisance lawsuits but it also has the effect of disenfranchising small businessmen because it basically doubles there cost of the lawsuit if they lose. So you know, businesses can afford that, businesses can build that into their pricing structure. Craftsman can’t. I think that's a problem that can be solved but I don’t think anyone is thinking about what that solution could be. It has to do with cooperation.

Alison: Well where did it start historically?

Bruce: Copying?

Alison: Yes. I mean I thought it started with the premising that that’s how we all learn.

Bruce: I think there's been copying going on forever.

Alison: Why isn’t there pride of not copying? How did copying become?

Bruce: Well I mean creativity is a modern virtue and if you look back painting in the middle ages it was all of a type. And everybody was basically doing the same painting. Creativity has no value. And it was only in the renaissance when there became a secular audience for art, when people began to think about, you know, invention. And it was the artists first. It was people like Da Vinci who was a loner and a complete outlier in his own day who kind of initiated this idea of artistic creativity. And then it became, it was given a logic and a name in the romantic movement in the 1700's. So the artist became the genius and the visionary and the person inspired by something or other up there and became the superior being, bringing back the truth to us mere mortals and all this stuff. But until then I don’t think creativity had a lot of value.

Alison: That's interesting. Didn’t thought of it that way. Well is there a place today? What does it look like for today as opposed to the 70's? So 70's you became a maker and it was pretty clear. What is that path look like today for someone starting out their 70's version of being a maker? What's that path?

Bruce: What is it like now? I think in any contemporary moment there is sort of a range of ascetic choices that are in the air. Most beginners will glam on to one of those choices or another. The things that seem current and fashionable at that moment. Like I said back in the day it was Scandinavian modern. And then for me it was pop art. I mean I latched on to pop art. Both those options are now antiques. I'm not joking.

Alison: They're collectibles. Don’t call them antiques.

Bruce: Yeah. Exactly. So you know, a young person coming up now will look into the kind of contemporary atmosphere and choose something that's sort of in there, something that's trendy and available.

Alison: Is there something we can call it? I mean pop art is something that comes right to mind.

Bruce: It’s a bunch of different things. I swear I think there is more choices now than there was in the 70's

Alison: OK. And is there a path to a career choice? I mean it seemed clear in the 70's and then it’s been getting fuzzier all along.

Bruce: Well I think you have more ways to make money now. And a lot of the kids I know they have an Etsy shop, they do shows, they do fairs, they go to rock and roll concerts and [inaudible] their [inaudible]. They have multiple income streams from multiple sources and they don’t think that any one of those sources actually even should be the one that generates all their income. And it’s actually quite different from the established craft market where people think they can do 5 shows a year and make all their money. So the young people I know are pursuing multiple sources of income. That's one big difference.

Alison: That makes sense.

Bruce: And the other thing they have to do is tailor their work to a marketplace of their own core, you know with their own taste.

Alison: Do you think canon artist today make it just doing shows? Make a successful financial living just doing the craft shows.

Bruce: That's a good question.

Alison: Or do they need all those other things?

Bruce: No. Some people are doing alright. It’s not a [inaudible] and who are relatively new. I know a number of people who have doing it for decades and they are doing ok. They are not great but they are doing ok. Yeah. But I would certainly, if I were to talk to a young person today now I'd say, don’t count on any single one source.

Alison: Yeah. That's what I was wondering. So the internet does prove how to get your work out to a much bigger market.

Bruce: Yeah. The internet inefficient. I mean there's relatively few people who actually make a living on Etsy and those that do are intensely commercial. But you know, Etsy can give you a nice little fairly steady cash flow. Why not? Plus, it gets your name out there which is extremely useful.

Alison: Well it does gives a validity in a website right away that’s built into their mechanism where you can collect money and it’s all built in besides [inaudible] your own site.

Bruce: And you can actually stand out on Etsy. It might seem absolutely improbable considering how many people there are but most of it is pretty low level. So if you are doing something really different or really well done or something or other. You can stand out and you can use that to build your brand. If you can differentiate on Asty, you can differentiate yourself anywhere.

Alison: And is that good today? is being different? OK. Good.

Bruce: That's one thing that has not changed.

Alison: Yay. Thank god!

Bruce: Yeah.

Alison: It’s important to have that going on.

Bruce: Yeah. I mean the easiest path to success in the craft market place is to be different.

Alison: Yes. Until the other follows along.

Bruce: Yeah. Well then you just keep changing.

Alison: And then you keep changing. Yeah. I agree. Is there, if you were going to call today's world of what the look is, like we've used the word pop art and Scandinavian and all of that. You've used the word clunky as another way you can describe what’s today's overall sort of thing going on visually. What would be a name, so clunky, what else would you say?

Bruce: Chaotic, kind of disorganized. Sort of what to my eye would initially appear to be un-composed. Let’s see, what else? Crusty is another word I like. There's a lot of interest in really heavy textures. What else?

Alison: I was starting to feel like you were describing my life so I’m glad that [laughter].

Bruce: You have a crusty life?

Alison: Crusty, unorganized, chaos.

Bruce: I think there's also something about the look and feel of authenticity. I think that's hugely important and that’s a code that changes from generation to generation. And the millennials have a different sense of what constitutes the authentic.

Alison: What does now?

Bruce: What's now?

Alison: Yes. What constitutes authentic?

Bruce: It would be the contemporary manifestation of punk. I mean punk was understood as being authentic because it seemed to be raw and immediate. So I mean that’s why everyone loves The Ramones, let’s say. It sounded like it came out of a garage and everybody was "Oh yeah! Untutored raw! Brooklyn! Yay!" And so it had this aura of authenticity that people respond to and I think that a lot of that has to do with commercial culture. I mean you go to a mall and everything is so bright and so thrifty and so polished. And after a while it gets so repulsive you know.

Alison: Well isn’t there a vulnerability built into that authenticity that you can relate to as opposed to the plastic, branded, here's another Gap Store.

Bruce: Yeah. Yeah. It's human, its approachable, it's vulnerable, in a sense open. Yeah. There's a lot of codes in there built into the idea of the authentic. I'm less convinced by that because the problem is that it can be faked. I mean you can be a really good musician and you can do a punk sound. I mean it’s possible its fake. So I’m a little skeptical.

Alison: Not you.

Bruce: Huh?

Alison: Not you. You would never be skeptical.

Bruce: But the thing is the kick to, someone is young it doesn’t matter you know. They are not questioning the intention. They are looking at the form, they are looking at the visuals, they are listening to the sound and to them if it appears to be authentic it is authentic. You know, what can you say?

Alison: Well I have a belief that that's what shines through on the internet when it’s so hard to remove the inner face of that. That what comes through as being authentic is what people then, you know relate to in this massive just electronic everything. I think that's why texting works in all of that. It’s because its authentic. It’s really the person.

Bruce: Yeah. Right. It's the presence of the person in all their state of messiness. And actually I'm a big believer in messiness. So I'm at least sympathetic.

Alison: Well, yeah. There is messy I think is part of the process.

Bruce: Yeah. Well messy is part of life.

Alison: Yeah. Exactly.

Bruce: For that reason, I have always found that art that wasn’t messy can be kind of a misrepresentation.

Alison: Yeah well it’s the chaos that needs to be tamed and then it looks pretty bad for a while.

Bruce: Or not. You know. I think a lot of people are simply satisfied with a representation of the chaos. It’s like that idea that came out of hip hop. You know these guys were basically commenting about life on the street and all they were doing was representing it. And sometimes it was pretty brutal and stupid and these guys would say "Hey man. I'm just showing you a picture of what's real." And I don’t know of that's an ascetic excuse. I don’t think that justifies very much. Particularly when you talk about violence and sexism but it’s a view. It’s a point of view. Hey man, I'm just representing life as I see it.

Alison: Yeah. so that's exciting. I like that. I always love to see what's new on the streets that way.

Bruce: Yeah. Right. I mean up to a point. There are certain things that just make me want to throw up. But hey.

Alison: Well then you're back in your studio working anyway.

Bruce: Yeah. That's right.

Alison: People like me will report it to you when need be. Well I know I adore talking to you. I just adore it. I love you point of view and everything that you know and thank you so much for sharing. I know everyone else listening has enjoyed it as well, Mr.Bruce Metcalf. And you can go to Bruce's site. It’s your name correct?


Alison: Very easy. Thank you again.

Bruce: Alright. My Pleasure.

Episode Notes: 

Paper Garden by Molly Peacock
Remoldelista by Julie Carlson

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