Is it Art or is it China Painting?

When my maternal grandmother died in 1994, one of the things passed along to me was a sagging corrugated cardboard box. Within, nestled in yellowed wads of the San Antonio Express were at least twenty-five china plates, cups and saucers rimmed all with gold and painted with a sort of blowsy bloom unknown to botany. A cross between a rose and a peony — let’s call it Late Victorian-Era Floral, and examples of it gather dust in every single antique store in the United States. I didn’t know that then; all I knew was that the set of china had been painted by some vaguely-related female ancestor — a great great aunt, a cousin thrice-removed as is the wont of old southern families — who had been quite skilled with her brush.

How artistic! I thought, picturing some rebellious, bohemian artist type making do with what she could get in Mexia, Texas in 1902 (canvas and oils seeming unlikely).

Fast forward a few more years to the death of my paternal grandmother, and I’m bequeathed the twin of that self-same sagging cardboard box. Only this time the newspaper the china’s wrapped in is the Dallas Times-Herald and the blossom is leggier; a cross between a columbine and a violet, maybe. Same level of execution (pretty darn good), same gold rimming the edges.

And so I learned about the fad of china-painting, the scrapbooking of the early 1900s. And once I knew about the kilns women bought, the boxes of blanks from Europe shipped by the boatload and the gatherings to paint them in Victorian parlors, I started seeing examples of the fad everywhere: practically every female friend I have has at least one piece done by some ancestor shoved to the back of their kitchen cabinet.

Is it Art or is it Craft?

Apparently I have very complicated, mixed feelings about these two states— in fact, you might even say that along with Bad Mommy Spectre and Bad Writer Spectre, Art and Craft tend to duke it out pretty often in my mind. Snobbery, cliches, elitism: I am embarrassed to say that I’ve fallen prey to all of them.

Interestingly enough, Art vs Craft wasn’t much of a debate I had with myself pre-motherhood. Sitting down to write a short story was clearly engaging in the pursuit of art (let’s set aside, for the moment, how pretentious that might sound). The fact that around the holidays I bought a bag of potatoes and made potato stamps and created my own Christmas cards while I watched TV was Craft, pure and simple. And what made it Craft? The fact that I could do it while watching TV? The fact that I hadn’t gone to grad school in potato-printmaking but had in short story writing? That I wasn’t very good at it? I didn’t even care, I just did it.

Last year, during one of those life-periods when the family boat has a brand-spanking-new coat of glossy paint and is riding high and pretty in the water, I took a Collage and Assemblage Class at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta campus), and after years of putting any creative energy I had into words and text, I loved doing something visual. Was I good at it? No. Could I do it while watching TV? Yep. Clearly Craft, then.

The whole debate would be like wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin except that apparently I have set myself a fairly stringent criteria for any free time I might ever have. Novel-writing? High art. Or if not high art, at least a productive expenditure of time. This Blog? Collaging a canvas for a Christmas present or to adorn Elder Girleen’s room? Craft, pure and simple.

Those poor Victorian matrons, I used to think. Sitting around painting china when they could have been striping canvases with manly bold strokes of oil. History has clearly seen them for the sad joke they that they were (or so I told myself).

Or has it?

The other day I ran into my favorite coffee shop (small, not bitter) for a latte. The baristas (so quick to offer me a Large Special Friend) clearly take their calling seriously: the cup handed across the counter to me was adorned with a lovely, leafy fern composed of striations in the foamy crema.

Art or Craft? They could probably do it while watching TV (if they had an espresso machine in their living rooms). Heck, they do it in thirty seconds while they work. So it’s craft, right?

I dunno. It looks like art to me.

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2 thoughts on “Is it Art or is it China Painting?

  1. Well, see, there I think you’re introducing another concept into the mix, that of right livelihood, or engaged work/living; in that dialectic, anything done with engagement, love, and awareness, in service to self and others, has a quality of art about it…

  2. Of course my Guinness these days are poured at home but I remember fondly that loving bartender of long ago who so carefully and creatively signed our draughts with his signature four-leafer. Art for sure – especially to be remembered so fondly so many years after the fact.

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