Themes/Craft: The art of making by hand

Over the last two decades contemporary artists have been working with craft techniques and finding ways to push the boundaries and blur the lines between art and craft.


Credit featured image: Skylines, 2008, Aluminium and copper wire 300 x 825cm, El Anatsui. Photograph, Jonathan Greet Image courtesy October Gallery.
Credit listing image: ‘Vicious Turquoise’, 2006. Coloured paper and mylar. © Simon Periton, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.


The word craft comes from the old English ‘Craeft’ meaning strength or skill and describes an activity that involves skill in making things by hand. Traditional craft techniques are varied and include wood carving, paper cutting, glass blowing and weaving.

So what defines/divides an artist from a craft maker? Perhaps intention makes the distinction? If the maker intends to make something functional does that make it craft? If the intention is to make something with no obvious function does that make it art?
Daniel Charny guest curator of the 2012 ‘Power of Making’ exhibition at the V&A identifies three types of making: adding, subtracting and transforming.

Adding: using techniques that connect, layer or combine materials. These include welding, soldering, weaving and embroidery.

Subtracting: using techniques that remove materials. These include cutting, carving, engraving, drilling and grinding.

Transforming: using techniques that alter the materials themselves. These include throwing clay, blowing glass and forging metal.

Explore the artists below and discover how fluid the dialogue between art and craft can be.

El Anatsui: Adding

Credit: El Anatsui, ‘Focus’, 2015. Aluminium & Copper Wire, . Photograph, Jonathan Greet. Courtesy of October Gallery London.
El Anatsui’s practice has embraced a diverse range of media and processes. His signature use of recycled metal bottle caps and labels ‘stitched’ together with wire produce luscious and seductive pieces reminiscent of fabric and wall hangings. Fabric often has a highly respected and emotive position in many African cultures. El Anatsui’s work addresses a vast range of social, political and historical concerns. He says that the work he makes with materials that have been touched by the human hand are more charged than work made with machine-made materials.

Discover more of El Anatsui’s work at the October Gallery

Nnenna Okore: Adding

Credit: Nnenna Okore, ‘Ethereal Beauty,’ 2017. Cheesecloth, jute string, lace, dye and wire. Photograph, Jonathan Greet. Courtesy of October Gallery London.
Okore’s mainly abstract works are inspired by the textures, colours and landscapes of her local environment. She utilises everyday found objects such as newspaper, hessian and yarn. She deconstructs and reconstructs them into intricate sculptural installations using repetitive and labour-intensive techniques such as weaving, twisting, sewing, dyeing and waxing. Her approach and techniques bring to mind traditional women’s work or piece work. Her works explore the exquisite qualities of detailed surfaces and the surprisingly dramatic exuberance of organic formations.

Discover more of Nnenna Okere’s work via October Gallery

Nic Webb: Subtracting

Credit: Nic Webb, ‘Husk-Flamed Yew’. 2017. Photograph, Nic Webb. Courtesy of the artist and Sarah Myerscough Gallery.
Using modern methods with traditional tools Nic Webb works intuitively to shape wood into forms that are freed from function. The results are intriguing sculptural and organic pieces.
“As fire journeys into wood, forms are revealed, briefly seen and quickly disappear. The objects that remain are forms captured moments before they disappear completely from our world. They are husks; the edges between being and not.” Nic Webb.

Discover more about Nic Webb’s work via Sarah Myerscough Gallery

Follow Nick Webb on Instagram


Simon Periton: Subtracting

Credit: Simon Periton, ‘Vicious Turquoise’, 2006. Coloured paper and mylar. © Simon Periton, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.
Paper-cutting is an ancient craft as old as paper itself. Simon Periton’s work upsets what we think we know about the humble decorative factory-made paper doily, an everyday but generally overlooked object. He achieves this with his use of exquisite handicraft, anarchic imagery and off-key colour. Cutting from paper and mylar Periton uses dynamic scale to reconfigure and reconsider the domestic doily whilst questioning the conventional boundaries between fine art and craft, painting and ornament.

Discover more of Simon Periton’s work via Sadie Coles HQ


Grayson Perry: Transforming

Credit: Grayson Perry, ‘This pot will reduce crime by 29%’, 2007. Glazed Ceramic. Photograph, Marc Wathieu via Flickr.
In works such as this ceramic pot Grayson Perry records contemporary life using humour and even sometimes fear. He addresses the universal themes of gender, identity, society and religion. At first glance we see a conventionally shaped ceramic pot but on closer inspection we can make out a narrative or message in the glaze. It is this unexpected handling of the traditional field of ceramics that makes Perry’s ‘pots’ rebellious as both art and craft.

Discover more about Grayson Perry’s work via Victoria Miro Gallery

Annie Cattrell: Transforming

Credit: Annie Cattrell, ‘Capacity’, 2007. Borosilicate glass and Perspex. Photograph, supplied by the artist.
Annie Cattrell’s practice is often informed by working with specialists in neuroscience, meteorology, engineering, psychiatry and the history of science. This cross-disciplinary approach has enabled her to learn about cutting edge research and in-depth information in these fields. This piece uses traditional lamp-work techniques to create a fragile glass sculpture representing the breath trapped inside a human lung. With a fragile yet strong material the artist explores a fragile yet strong organ of the human body.

Follow Annie Cattrell on Instagram

Mary Evans is an artist who makes site-based installations using paper and disposable materials. Follow Mary on Instagram
Looking for more inspiration?

Annie Cattrell featured in the V&A’s ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’ show. Find out about other artists that featured in the exhibition.

Explore the V&A’s ‘Power of Making’ page including videos about different approaches to making.

The Crafts Council is packed with resources and news to help you research or make work.
Put these books on your wish list or seek them out in the library:

Sennett Richard: The Craftsman. Penguin. 2009
Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman: British Museum. 2012
Christopher Frayling: On Crafsmanship: Towards a new Bauhaus. Oberon Books. 2011

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