Heaps of questions
Essay by Nancy Hoffmann (Art historian)
Essay- Heaps of questions
By Nancy Hoffmann - Art historian
“How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object (…) and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years...”
In his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2006), philosopher Alain de Botton explores the pleasures and sorrows of our working lives and the choices we make in this. It is thus that he voices his respect for the craft, the maker, the artist. A somewhat romanticised image looms of the craftsman toiling away at an object in his workshop, refining it and the same time his own skills. Slowly but surely, with his hands, he changes something in our world and in himself. He is a creator of his own world and increasingly learns to trust his abilities. For that is who he is. And thus he creates a “stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years”, all collected together in one place – the studio. How different than the labour of so many “whose work is strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing one could hold or see”. 1 That is one side of the story.
Selma Hamstra’s experience as a glassblower is that in reality, it is much more complex and intractable than that. After pursuing her path with a specialization in glass through her training at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and a master-apprentice course under the wing of glass master Gert Bullée in Leerdam, she took to regularly scrutinising her pieces and invariably a thousand questions would spring up in her head. When is this piece good enough? At every chance of a few hours at the glass furnace, the glassblower endeavours, in little and large experiments, to tame the fragile material. Sometimes into a sphere, sometimes into a knot. Or sometimes she makes a nip here or a tap there, against the heavy viscous mass, reheats it, adds some air... Selma’s workshop also displays a repository of skills, an accurate record of her progression as a glassmaker. But also a product designer, because she could not let go of that aspect either.
Initially, her dream was to have her own mobile glass furnace – the technique she graduated in. A product designer can also design processes, and research materials. This latter aspect is also a part of Selma’s practice and at times it makes her more of an artist-researcher than anything else. Even in the early days, she was already questioning the profession and all its challenges. And then the glass furnace became a reality: her own glass workshop with design products, applied glass objects she created herself. But also a place where other makers can develop their skills. This dream, too, came to fruition; at the Keilewerf in Rotterdam, a breeding ground for ambitious craftspeople and designers, she built a place where she could pursue her career with other makers of glass objects. With each step forward, with each piece she blew, Selma’s list of questions also grew. Once you enter the inner workings of this craft, there seems to be no way back.
In his seminal book The Craftsman (2008), sociologist Richard Sennet argues in favour of Homo Faber, man as maker. Only by making – by trying, failing and repeating – do we truly learn to understand things. Selma progressively experienced and understood how those solidified forms in glass shaped her professional practice. The glassblower’s limitations loomed large when she made demands on her product as a product designer. But she also realised that the limitations of the product designer end at the boundary between utility object and free object or experiment. She moved back and forth in a continuous flux, seeking the essence of her craft. In between workshops, paperweights and experiments with colour and form, an unruly practice full of shards and pearls emerged. Just as glass itself remains a mystery to science in terms of mass and molecular composition, how she might meld product designer, researcher and glassblower into a robust company that has its place in the design world also remained a mystery to her.
Taking inspiration from Immanuel Kant’s words “the hand is the window on the mind”, Richard Sennet underpins his call for a more respected place for the maker in our society in The Craftsman. With the advent of idyllic images of robust beer brewers and coffee roasters in the media and the call for innovation and international appreciation of Dutch Design, that battle seems partly won. Yet the forces of our economic system continue to tug tirelessly at makers of glass; the cost of keeping a glass furnace burning is not to be underestimated. And that is why an exploration of the value of craft in our western economy by people like Priyatej Kotipali and Anna Mignosa is of unprecedented value.2 Craft has more value for a society than just the checks and balances that churn out a figure on the Gross National Product; it has a cultural value for the individual and the collective that cannot easily be expressed in figures and yet must be taken into account. Each workshop for enthusiasts and the curious offered Selma another opportunity to carry out some of her own experiments and produce her own work. But then comes the question: when is mastery achieved? And at the same time: what is the value of my experiments and research? No one really seemed to have an answer to that. And although there were ever more questions, the time had come for a frank discussion.
With the ‘GLASSSH - Her Masters Voice’ collection in Milan at the end of the summer, Selma Hamstra will reveal all her questions to the public. Once again, she worked with Gert Bullée in the workshop in Leerdam on this project. In a choreography of blowing and bursting, pushing and pulling, she and Gert went in search of a series of objects that would serve as utensils but also question that aspect of utility. At the same time, their purpose was also to explore the finer points of mastery, research and the product. And perhaps asking questions is the most important aspect of Selma’s craft. What now? Now she asks the viewer to step into the mind of the master, to look at the objects with her and to allow questions to arise. To look for answers that cultivate a thriving culture of craft.
1 De Botton, A., The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Penguin, 2008, p. 260
2 Mignosa, A. en Kotipali, P. (ed.), A Cultural Economic Analysis of Craft, Palgrave Mcmillan, 2019