Conversation #2: Interactions Between Art & Craft

This is the second in a series of three (lightly edited) e-mail conversations I had with artist J. E. Johnson earlier this summer. When I first ran across his work I found the making he was doing with kids quite compelling but still I wondered if there was a line between that work and teaching art. This conversation illustrates the process of being in the middle of something new and the use of written reflection and conversation to help sort things out.

You are encouraged and welcome to ask questions or add to the conversation in the comments section, below. Our first conversation can be found in the post Beginning of Something New?

Malke Rosenfeld
ALT/space Curator & Editor


Jul 18, 2013

Hi J.E.

Thanks for taking the time to give me such a great picture of what you’re doing. It strikes me is that I’ve caught you just on the cusp of moving toward being a teaching artist – a really exciting place! A few questions/thoughts for you:

  • I’m curious about your use of the terms ‘tacit training’  (as mentioned in your very first e-mail to me) and ‘craft training’ and how that is different from art making  in your mind? In a sense, isn’t all art making part craft, part something else?  I’m not sure I understand the difference between art and craft myself, so your thoughts would be helpful.

  • I was struck by your statement about how moving your teaching into a more formal or more familiar learning environment of a ‘real’ classroom has brought all these different parts of your life together in one place, including your art making which had previously been on the periphery of what you do.  Do you feel comfortable thinking about yourself as an artist-teacher or teaching artist?  How does your art differ from your craft in technical theater settings?

  • Would you be interested in crafting (ha!) a piece for ALT/space using the text of your e-mail to me as the base and also using the pictures from your blog?  I think it is fascinating to be observing your transition to a possible new identity of teacher, although you seem to have been doing that kind of work for a long time. 



Jul 20, 2013


Thanks for your encouragement and great follow-up questions. I’m definitely on the cusp of something, I really don’t know what yet but I suspect that writing about my experiences and getting feedback from other teachers will at least help to steer me on this journey.

I have found that discussing the difference between art and craft can easily pull one into an inescapable black hole-like discussion of semantics. That said, I think there are useful distinctions between the two. When I refer to craft I’m talking about all that must be done to work in a particular of medium; not necessarily creative expression. Craft, in my view, also has closer associations with the body and art more with the mind, or to put it another way, art with thought; craft with action. I think of them as two poles on a continuum.

For example, in my profession, I would argue that the playwright, director, and actors tend to be more on the artistic side of the continuum. Of course they must master their craft but they are praised or panned for their ideas and the way they are expressed. Furthermore, their art tends to exist only in time and memory and is less affected by the realities of the physical world. The designers are in the middle of this continuum. They must respond to the play and the director’s vision but must also acknowledge and conform to physical realities. The set must be this such size and must have this many doors, and be painted in this way, etc, etc. I have made my career on the craft side of the continuum (though I have also been a playwright, director, and actor). Even if I think the play is insipid, the direction is uninspired and the design is effete I can still take great pride in my work knowing that the structural, esthetic, and physical challenges of the set are cleverly, efficiently, and economically solved. Of course I much prefer to be part of a team making great art, but that does not keep me from finding deep satisfaction in my craft.

All of us in theater depend on tacit knowledge. As far as tacit training goes, we spend a great deal of time in our shop at the University teaching our students what it feels like to be driving a drywall screw properly, what it feels like to vary their brush stroke for an even “scumble wash” or even what the proper operation of the table saw sounds like.

When I use the word tacit I also mean all the unquantifiable stuff that makes it possible for us to have a hunch, exercise good judgment, or flip a pancake. Tacit knowledge also encompasses the non-intellectual qualities that have tremendous effect on how we behave and the choices we make. Tacit knowledge is also more sensory. We daily employ most of our senses when working in our craft and teaching our students.

So how does any of that relate to teaching elementary students how to build a clock out of cardboard? 

We often emphasize the importance of cutting parts to a rough shape first and then trimming the last bits off.

Art sometimes implies natural talent while craft, at least to me, suggests more of a reliance on practice and perseverance, which is what it takes to build something as complex as a clock. For better or worse, personal expression had only a minimal role in “Gears and Gravity.” The students could pick out the color of the clock wheels and the quotation printed on the escape wheel but that was about it.


Regarding tacit knowledge, over the course of “Gears and Gravity” I tried to teach my students to recognize when the scissors cut well and when the pieces fit properly. I would argue that this recognition is felt by the hands before the eyes can see it. As you are doing with dance and math, this tacit knowledge can open a door to the explicit knowledge that might otherwise remain closed for some learners. Perhaps it still looks like art in the end, but I feel the need to be a little more specific as a means to an end.

Okay, I’m at risk of rambling now so I’ll close. I am not normally the sort of person write at such length but I have years of this this stuff pent up that hasn’t had an outlet until very recently and I recognize that these ideas are not yet fully formed. Thanks for your patience.

Have a great weekend!

J. E

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