Scooter Riders – Road to Mysore, India It was early Sunday morning and I was in a car heading towards Mysore, a city ninety miles southwest of Bangalore. Just the day before, I had the distinct pleasure of making portraits of lovely models all afternoon. This day’s photography will be very different. I’m not a […]
My first trip to India, some 30 years ago, was a backpacking experience: three months that began with a few weeks on a houseboat in Kashmir, several bus trips across the north east to Manali, Dharamshala and Macleod Ganj, time in Delhi before a train trip to Nepal to trek the Annapurnas, returning for the Taj in Agra and a visit to Pushkar via Jaipur. Exciting and exasperating, India is a place of mystery and magic.
This time I spent an immersive two weeks in Karnataka: primarily in Mysore, but also visiting Hampi and Bangalore with Skillstourism, to learn traditional crafts. My main focus was block printing fabric, but I also took flower garland making and basket weaving lessons. Whilst the holiday and total tourist experience far exceeded my expectations, this post (first in a series of three) will focus on my time as a student and reflect on the different learning strategies used by my teachers.
My first Mysore morning began with a crisp red apple and cup of tea on a balcony of the Metropole. I watched a small squirrel scurry across tree limbs as the traffic horn chorus began. Later, Catherine, principal and host of Skilltourism, introduced our driver and we stopped to purchase flowers from a street stall on our way to the garlanding class.
I chose blooms for their colour and size, not understanding the process to be undertaken. ‘Be ready’ is an important strategy at Moss Vale High to prepare students for learning – this may involve a verbal link to previous lessons, sharing a model, and an outline of learning intentions.
We arrived at our teacher’s home, and Saraswati completed preparations for the lesson – woven floor mates, cushions, a small bowl of water, reels of cotton thread and flower scrutiny. Separate piles were made and some head shaking occurred: with limited English, we communicated through hand gestures and facial expressions, with an occasional translation from her busy daughter who was also staffing their clothing shop attached to the side of the house. Saraswati gestured for us to sit, and then her position opposing us.
I focused intently on her demonstration, and copied her movements by lining up flowers in my left palm, wetting thumb and forefinger of my right hand before dampening cotton then twisting and looping knots. It all seemed achievable, although tension became the key element that would hold the garland together.
It took many, many tries before I realised that Saraswati’s actions needed to be reversed, and I giggled. I recalled my adult tap dancing lessons where the instructor showed each step slowly, but also while facing us. It is much more difficult to learn a practical skill that is being demonstrated in this manner. This made me more cognisant of my own teaching practice: I demonstrate writing on the whiteboard (back to class) and begin on the left side and write to the right – as I expect students to copy. Moving among students and giving praise and suggestions also builds confidence.
Even with an improving practice, it became obvious that this method of garlanding is quite time consuming, so we switched to the use of needles that quickly progressed the length of garland achieved.
Saraswati also demonstrated another method,
and I stretched out my left leg and looped cotton around my big toe.
Although I felt quite confident in the skill I was developing, the burgeoning garland fell apart once tension was released. Another hilarious moment. Obviously, much practice was needed, and Saraswati made it clear that she had learned this skill as a young child from her mother, and continued developing her abilities over many years.
My challenge as a teacher is to encourage and remind students that when writing, a first draft is not an end product, but rather a first step that requires practice and revision to be crafted into a satisfying final version.
The main focus during my Curious Artisan Tour with Skillstourism was fabric printing using traditional methods and wood blocks. I planned on spending four of my seven days on this activity, but through the skill and assistance of Ravitej who mixed colours, Khan who demonstrated the process and gave thoughtful advice on patterns, and Varsha who prepared delicious snacks and lunch on the first day, I actually finished a day early and chose to spend a rest day by the hotel pool.
I prepared for these workshops by purchasing and pre-washing fabrics in Australia, though I later found the Skilltourism personal shopping trips made fabric buying a delight. I also took two sewing patterns so I could print borders for specific dresses. This was an interesting process for Khan and Kanchana, who owned the studio space and operated a tailoring business nearby. It was a delight to discuss sewing with her, and I was fortunate to visit her workshops where traditional embroidery was being sewn on simple Singer machines, and watch the process of creating beautiful embroidered buttons being made.
Each day, I was met at my hotel by Catherine and our trusty auto-driver, Srinivas, at 9.30 to head toward the workshop. Sometimes we travelled directly, sometimes there were errands to run on the way and this added to my enjoyment of Mysore and the daily workings of this vibrant city. Arriving in an integrated suburb of Muslims and Hindus, we usually parked behind the painted pink police station and greeted locals who are often doing chores – sweeping and washing – on their doorsteps. The workshop itself was two large rooms, accessed up a set of narrow stairs. The Indian-style toilet was located downstairs, past a small room where Fairoz worked with dyes and bolts of fabric.
I shared my fabric printing experience with Karla, a fellow Australian, and Catherine was initially on hand to introduce us to our teachers and facilitate our understanding of the process and practice. This made the workshops fun as we discussed block choices and colours, each making selections for our first attempts at printing. Later in the week, I worked alone with Khan and Ravitej.
As a learning process, my teachers had varying levels of English, but made their instructions clear through demonstrations and simple phrases. Ravitej spoke English well, as did Kanchana and Varsha, but Khan made himself easily understood with words such as ‘push’, ‘here’ as he pointed and simple praises ‘good’ and expressions such as ‘ah’.
After mastering the basic technique of applying paint to a block and pressing, we moved onto the trick of printing around corners. It proved to be an easy method of printing over newspaper folded into a triangle.
We set about learning how to stretch and pin fabric onto the large padded table before printing on practice cloths, then moved to stamping tote bags and later decorated scarf length fabric – all supplied by Skilltourism. This means anyone attending even a one day workshop could complete and take home finished articles.
Next, I worked on a borders for a length of fabric to make into a simple princess line dress.
My next project was to trace patterns pieces onto stretched black cotton/linen fabric
before printing a border on the skirt, sleeves and collar
For my final project, a reversible wrap-around dress, I spent an enjoyable afternoon searching for lining fabric. This gave me the colour pallet to compliment my navy cotton. With colours mixed to match, and after tracing the pattern pieces, I again printed borders using an upturned cup as a spacer.
Without realising, I had chosen leaf blocks to match the lining fabric that were ‘doubles’. This meant I could overprint the first colour with a contrast. This was, I thought, a next-level skill, but Khan assured me it was easy enough to master. I’m so pleased I took his advice! He also suggested the quicker method of transferring the pattern pieces by simply chalking a dashed line – quick and effective.
After drying, the fabrics were ready to fold neatly and pack away in my luggage. Back at home, it was a simple process to iron the printed fabrics, wash and re-iron to cut out each piece and sew my frocks.
I am very pleased with the finished garments, and have received many compliments. On my next trip, I plan to purchase locally produced khadi cotton fabric and create different outfits.
Usually, when we talk about tourism and taking vacations, people imagine idyllic destinations, luxurious conditions, and a lot of sitting around, doing nothing. Such is the profile of the typical tourist; they want to escape their familiar environment to go to a sunny island where they can be lazy and indulge themselves, and they are willing to pay a pretty penny for the experience. But however appealing that may sound, is it really that satisfying? Sure, it’s completely relaxing, but it’s also mind-numbing; you don’t come out with anything after this experience. You haven’t learned anything, you have not become a better person, you haven’t taken anything of value away from it.
To counteract the “lazy” tourism of rich people who travel to faraway lands only to hang out at the resort for the entire time, there is a new type of tourism that has emerged – a practical, valuable kind of experience known as skillstourism. The term was coined by a couple of Australian bloggers who came up with the concept and turned it into a business. Travel*Learn*Create is their motto and they were able to combine the artisan with the traveller. That sort of adventure allows people to visit fascinating places and immerse themselves in those cultures. It gives you the opportunity to escape your status as an outsider and step inside a new culture and live like a local. And how do you do that? You essentially become an apprentice, and you learn a new skill from a local. It’s a win-win-win: you get to see a new place, you learn about it first hand, and you acquire a new skill.
What can you learn and where?
Dancing in Cuba – South American lands is where you go for dancing. Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and yes – Cuba are all well-known for the sensual, elegant art of dancing. No one here has two left feet, and Cuba provides a fascinating look into a culture that does everything on musical rhythms. For all people say about Cuba is that they are truly unique in the world in that they always have the “buen humor” to dance. Learn how to move your body to the music that flows through you.
Cooking in Italy – If we’re talking about culinary artistry, we can’t ignore Italy. By far the country most well-known in Europe for its food culture, Italy offers a lot of opportunities for culinary tourism. This beautiful country is so much more than pasta and pizza, so if you are interested in learning how to make real food that is organic, delicious, and hearty, Italy is your next stop. In addition, you also have the chance to discover the world’s most famous wines and wineries while you learn from a local how to make tasty dishes.
Silversmithing in Vietnam – Working with silver is difficult, but it’s a valuable trade that is usually passed on from generation to generation, and it is no different in Vietnam. Learn this practical, but beautiful skill from a local with years of experience,while also taking this opportunity to live like a Vietnamese. Enjoy the food, the sights, and the incredible things you can learn.
Textiles in Morocco – Surely you are familiar with the Medina of Fes, Morocco. A gigantic marketplace that is complicated with winding paths and thousands upon thousands of vendors, this is the perfect place to observe the incredible diversity of fabrics, textiles, clothes, veils, carpets, etc. The colors and the craftsmanship are exquisite, and most of these pieces are dyed and made by hand. All the textiles are colored with natural dyes and left to dry in the sun, and the intricate beadwork of a beautiful dress or veil are also marks of unique talent. If you’re looking to learn how the process works, this is the place to do it.
Blacksmithing in the United States of America – You may think that this seemingly medieval practice is all gone. However, it’s not only still around, but you can also actually learn how to do it right in the States. Technical institutions provide some well-equipped workshops where you can pick up on the tricks of the trade and practice your blacksmithing skills. Whether you want to fashion yourself a mighty sword, or just see what your hands are capable of with a hammer, an anvil, and a piece of hot metal, blacksmithing is a fascinating skill to acquire.
Sculpture in Africa – Some of the most impressive sculptures in the world hail from Africa and a lot of tourists bring them home to decorate their homes and remember their incredible experience in Africa. But what if you could actually learn how to make them? What if wood carving were a skill you could acquire while visiting Africa in the meanwhile? Africa is so rich in culture, and its sculptures are truly unique. It’s amazing what can be achieved from a simple piece of wood with the talent and artistry of a master.
Mysore painting in South India – One of the most beautiful and unique forms of art is Mysore painting, which is practiced in South India. Thus, to learn the techniques, you need to travel right to the source and become the temporary apprentice of an Indian artist. Learn the significance behind the paintings, their history, and the methods for obtaining vivid colors and combining them to create beautiful, impressive pieces of mural art with gold leaf. You also have the opportunity to explore the breathtaking beauty of India, in all of its visual, olfactory, and auditory glory. You won’t be disappointed by this trip.
All in all, skillstourism is becoming an incredibly popular way of exploring a new part of the world and really experiencing a new culture. If you’ve ever wanted to master a trade, craft or skill from a foreign country, this is your chance to learn directly from the original and talented artists and craftsmen.
The suffix -ism might only be three letters, but it’s a powerful little one. It can totally change the meaning of a word. Add it to social and you have socialism, while feminine becomes feminism. When you add it to the mix of craft and active, you create craftivism: a form of activism carried out through the practice of craft. And yes it’s a thing! It’s a worldwide movement based on creativity and altruism (another -ism).
Betsy Greer, author of Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism, is considered by many to be the godmother of craftivism and she succinctly defines it as: “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite.” [source]
Craftivism has also been covered academically. The Craftivism Manifesto 2014 was published by Kirsty Robertson, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art & Museum Studies, University of Western Ontario. It’s a series of essays covering the work, the history, the criticisms and the practices of craftivism.
“If we take control of production, we are taking that power back. This is a path for those of us who would nonviolently change society: change its commodities, its understanding of production, of distribution and exchange. Even the way we relate to things personally.” [From the Craftivism Manifesto 2014, Artist Statement, Common Goods, Travis Joseph Meinolf]
Bringing it to the masses, the V&A Museum in London held a 6-month exhibition, ‘Disobedient Objects’ in 2014. The focus was on grassroots movements and how they can affect social change. It was the first exhibition of its kind and displayed a wide-range of subversive works. The exhibition raised many societal issues and challenges, bringing awareness to the activism behind the exbitits.
Carrie Reichardt, a self-professed extreme craftivist, was one of the artists whose work was featured. The Tiki Love Truck was a piece dedicated to the memory of a death-row inmate. For the past 15 years, she has been using screen printing, mural and mosaic techniques to create intricate, highly politicised works of art. In addition to requests for her art installations, Carrie is often asked called upon to speak about the subject of art and craft as a form of protest.
Not all craftivist works involve extreme activism. London-base craftivist, Sarah Corbett, is a great example of one person who started small and is now enacting positive global change with her craft projects. Sarah was a discouraged and exhausted activist who was doubting her effectiveness. She was searching for a way to keep her passion alive and to fight for the change she wished to see in the world. After she discovered cross-stitching, Sarah found craftivism which she describes as slow and gentle activism where you start people thinking by involving their hands, heart and head. Sarah founded the Craftivist Collective in 2009 and now has a global following in the thousands.
At this point you may be wondering how you can change the world by practising a craft. Craftivism can start with one person at a time. It doesn’t have to be extreme. It can be as simple as you using your handcrafting skills for the greater good by starting an art or craft project in your local community, which might then spread to other communities throughout the world. Or if you‘d like to become involved with a ready-made project, take a look at the those that Betsy Greer at Craftivism and Sarah Corbett at the Craftivist Collective have happening at the moment.
A delightful one-man project that put the individual artisan firmly in the spotlight is Nick Hand’s Slowcoast. In 2009 this graphic designer decided to take the slow road and cycle around the British coast. Along the way he stopped to meet, record and post his conversations with local artisans. He followed this up in 2010 with a similar trip around the Irish coast. His collection of over 100 Soundslides document the making of useful and aesthetic objects that uplift people through their functionality and beauty. In the age of fast, it’s a celebration of slow. During the talk Nick gave at Do Lectures Wales in 2011, he talks about why we need to celebrate craftsmen and how we need to keep these skills alive.
An example of a grassroots movement that went global is yarn bombing. Aesthetically pleasing, it’s been used to brighten many a drab urban area. It makes a statement and is community driven. And it’s a project that has captured the imagination of knitters worldwide. Likewise knitting for charity projects have had great uptake worldwide.
Knitting is just one of many arts and crafts. Look around the world and you’ll see signs of a handmade revolution beginning. There’s a movement away from items mass production by big corporations to aesthetic works produced by artisans and traditional crafters.
From a humble start in 2003, Etsy has grown to be the world’s largest e-commerce platform for direct sales of handmade goods. Sales have risen dramatically since the early days with total sales in 2015 reaching over 2 billion USD. This would indicate that consumers have a strong interest in and appreciation for handcrafted products.
In 2012, BBC 2 produced and aired a 10-part series, Paul Martin’s Handmade Revolution. The aim was to put the British back in touch with their strong craft traditions. The crew travelled around the country to visit the various artisans featured in each episode. Pottery, weaving, silversmith, sculpting, master cutlers (scissor makers), and glass blowing were just some of the crafts portrayed. The show stimulated a lot of interest in the process of making products by hand and the show’s free Arts and Craft Handbook is still available to download.
In the States, the former motor city, Detroit, has long been a city in decline. Shinola is one Detroit-based business helping to buck that tread. Founded in 2011, the company’s tagline is: We’re building a tradition one thoughtfully crafted product at a time. The high-quality, handcrafted products – watches, bicycles, leather goods and journals – are made to last.
“We’re building a tradition one thoughtfully crafted product at a time.” – Shinola Detroit
Connecting the creative traveller with local artisans is Skillstourism (and there we go again, one more -ism!). They’re a niche tourism operator who believe in urban self-sufficiency, and creating a positive economic alternative through craftsmanship. Their tours offer an ideal way to combine your day job with learning a desired new skill. You’ll travel to exotic locations to learn handicrafts from traditional masters of the trade: wood, stone, metal, fabric, paint, music, dance, whatever takes your fancy.
And if your tastes veer more towards obtaining modern-day technical skills, Skillstourism has this area covered too. For the Maker / Inventor, they have tours which take place in Bangalore, the IT capital of India, and offer you the chance to learn how to make a 3D printer, or a 60 cm quadcopter. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to code? That’s an option as well.
Whatever you decide to do, it’s a vacation that promises to transform not only your life, but the life of the person passing on their skills. It’s a contribution to sustainable tourism and how you can tip your toe in the craftivism waters to start making a difference.
So what skill will you choose to craft a new future?
There are certain skills that every craftsperson will learn in time. Some are lucky enough to learn them from a mentor, others learn from life experiences. Regardless of how these skills are learned, they will help an artisan in the workshop and in life. Here is a list of ten essential skills.
Create Well: Do everything to the best of your ability. Even if you are unsatisfied with something you have created or done, as long as you have done the best you possibly can at that moment in time you have no reason to be ashamed.
Prepare: Have a general understand of what you are trying to accomplish. Do not be too rigid in your plans for things will come up that were not intended.
Be Precise: When it comes to execution of your plans know exactly what is needed. You know the old adage, “measure twice, cut once”.
Know Your Tools: Know how to use the tools you have available. If you need a special tool for a project, see if you can find a way to complete the project with what you have. You may develop a new technique or better way of doing a task. If this does not work, then consider a new tool.
Stop Controlling: Even the best laid plans will have glitches. Be flexible and comfortable with changes. That piece of stone may not want to be the bust you have planned. Instead of being rigid, allow yourself to see the possibilities in all materials you use. That bust may turn out to be a beautiful lion instead.
Learn Patience: Not everything will go as quickly as you think it should. Be patient and do not force anything. When a blacksmith is working, he lets the steel get hot enough before striking. If he strikes before the iron is hot, the metal will not yield. It is the same with all things in life.
Accept Criticism: Criticism is not to be taken personally. It should be used to improve your craft or at least make an item to the specification of your buyer.
Practice Good Choices: Learn to make judgements based on wisdom and experience. If you know that balsa wood is too soft even though it is classified a hardwood, you would not use it to create a piece of furniture. Make choices that reflect your knowledge and grow your knowledge every day.
Become a Master: Every day in your workshop should be a day spent mastering your craft. Work to become the best in your craft that you can be.
Find Your Place: Craftsmen typically work alone in a shop. Even though their work keeps them separated from others most days, every craftsman needs a place to learn new skills and see what others in their field are doing. Find a local gathering place or take a skills holiday to spend time with others who value your craft as much as you do.