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208 × 156 mm
272 pages
70 illustrations
13 Nov 2017

The Shape of Craft  Ezra Shales

Today, the word ‘craft’ is linked to a vast array of items, from handmade objects to microbreweries. The term ‘artisanal’ is so overused that it can strain our credulity. But this also reveals that the value of craft remains compelling in modern life. In this cogently argued book, Ezra Shales explores some of the key questions about craft: who makes it, what we mean when we think about a craft object and how that shapes our understanding of what craft is. Along the way, he continually upends our definitions and typical expectations of what we think is handcrafted or authentic.

Shales’s discussion ranges widely across people and objects: from potter Karen Karnes to weaver Jack Lenor Larsen, glass sculptor Dale Chihuly to Native American basket-maker Julia Parker, as well as younger makers such as Sopheap Pich and Maarten Baas, and to the porcelain and cast-iron sanitary ware produced by the Kohler Company, the pottery made in Stoke on Trent and the people in Asia today who weave beautiful things for IKEA.

Engaging, pertinent and direct, the book ultimately encourages us to feel the shape of craft in our own lives.

‘Regardless of craft heroes, doctrine and orthodoxies, it is the sensory object, however humble, that is celebrated here: “Can we respect craft that lies unsigned and underfoot and which oxygenates our lives, giving us tactile joy? To do so can restore our optimism that human manufacturing is healthier for our minds than it is harmful to our environment.” Shales embraces the role of technology, but also stresses the importance of “slow” craft in a rushed world. Such inclusiveness is an enrichment, not a dilution.’ – Crafts magazine

‘Shales is a gifted, garrulous, and glorious explainer, in essence, he is a philosopher of the factory floor. He writes highly detailed and observant descriptions of tasks, processes, and objects – no easy feat, particularly when describing how something is made – an issue often overlooked in today’s digitized, desensitized, object-free worlds. Art history is a discipline that eschews fieldwork, but the stakes of Shales’s book are just that: a plea for art history to literally think with its hands, instead of just its head, performing research in the field, not only enlivening the narrative, but also, nudging scholarship toward a social imperative.’ – CAA Reviews

‘Ezra Shales’ book is a valuable addition to craft scholarship . . . It is by documenting the multi-faceted scope of craft that Shales astounds . . . His extensive exposition makes plain that craft is rarely the elite object owned and/or displayed by a wealthy patron. More often it is embedded in the everyday material culture that surrounds us.’ – Capital and Class

‘[Shale's] writing has weaving’s soft, continuous, hypnotic rhythms, simultaneously organic and structured. And it returns frequently to key starting points. The arguments move effortlessly, left to right, as he travels through this contested subject. The philosophical weave is gentle, flexible, smart . . . This a perfect text for art, craft and design students in universities, and even older high schoolers in arts programs. While rich in protein, reading is pleasurable. Shales understands flow, and that quality that allows pages to seemingly turn on their own. And one can drop in at any point and read without feeling lost.’ – Cfile.org

‘Smart hands indicate intelligence and sensitivity. Alert eyes identify works made with ingenuity. Ezra Shales' book sharpens our visual perception and appreciation of finely crafted objects and environments which have enriched our lives from the beginning of time.’ – Sheila Hicks

‘Steering the conversation towards anonymous artisans and the sort of craft that doesn’t usually end up on museum pedestals, Shales brings ‘making’ back down to earth where it can connect to our cities and everyday lives.’ — Theaster Gates

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Ezra Shales is a Professor of History of Art at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He is the author of Made in Newark (2010).