One year I did a large number of craft shows. I sold spoons and other treen while developing trade as a nautical carver. Each of my items was individually hand-produced, so there was no doubt that I was selling an authentic handcrafted item. Not so with some of the people occupying booths at poorly juried shows. Archly, those of us who handcrafted referred to them as Grandma crafters; when we were feeling kind.
Shows could put all sorts of regulations in place about imports, manufactured and remanufactured items. Still, enforcement was spotty, and it was hard to tell which show producers juried from those that pretended.
Most of the Grandma crafters sold remanufactured items, typically imports that they had altered. Some of the “artistic” flairs included painting and gluing on additional parts. Still, their goods sold, and some of the rest of us began to feel that the few real craftspeople in the mix were there to lend credibility to the show. Eventually, I fled to boat shows where my nautical bent on things belonged.
Recently I began using a laser engraver to achieve effects on some of my carvings that I can’t complete by hand – especially very small lettering. I needed this assist after eye surgeries. For each project, the addition provided with the engraver is unique and custom. The laser engraver is just another tool for me, like my bandsaw or carving tools.
Working with a laser engraver or cutter is not quite as direct as the bandsaw. So I belong to closed Facebook groups for users of these machines. The interface is via computer, and the maintenance, care, and feeding of the beasts require special knowledge. Being able to share tips and procedures is critical to successfully mastering the tool.
Many people utilizing the Facebook groups make laser cut designs for sale at crafts shows and on the internet craft selling sites.
Recently some of the jewelry makers have complained of unfair competition. One person complained that the earing she had designed had been pirated for sale by someone she had aided. Many folks manufacture similar items for sale on the craft sites and at shows that look similar or identical.
The original computer file tells the machine what to engrave and what to cut. The craft and skill belong to the originator and perhaps to that person’s first products from the file. Thousands of repetitions later, you have a manufactured good, not an item of craft. It’s a pleasing manufactured item, but not a craft item.
Add on all the imitators, and you have started to flood the market with mass-produced goods not much different than crafts knockoffs coming in from Asian countries.
Returning to my year on the craft show circuit, I met a phenomenal woman who crafted Teddy Bears. She was the sole person in that category that I ran in to show after show. One slow afternoon I sat in her booth, and she told me that once years ago, there had been shows where there were Bear Avenues with as many as a dozen makers of stuffed animals. The market was saturated, and many of the makers duplicated successful items made by their competitors. The result was category collapse- the over competition drove many out of the show circuit.
I suspect the same thing will happen to those “crafting” with laser engravers and cutters. In a few years, the machines will begin to appear on marketplace websites for cheap or free. Like any business cycle, it begins, develops, and declines.
Regarding craft or art, the question always has to be one of the tool or instrument’s role. Is it being utilized skillfully by the creator? If it’s merely turning out dozens or thousands of duplicates week after week, can it be craft?
Some art is produced in a limited series, after which the mold or master is retired. In the case of files distributed on the internet, that’s not going to be the case. That’s manufacturing.
There is also an accountability issue here. Craft and art are full of concept, technique, and theme borrowing; that’s part of the creative cycle. But pirated files and processes, which you then take credit for, are theft.
Watch yourself out there. It’s a dangerous marketplace for the creative. But there do not seem to be too many penalties for those who mooch and thieve.