The Highly Skilled Teamwork Behind the Master Craftsman

Lisa Hammel
New York Times
August 29, 1985

In the crafts field, the traditional perception is that of an artisan working alone to create an object—a statement of his personal esthetics made a reality by the skills of his own two hands.

Apprentices and trainees have always been a part of the crafts tradition, but today, some of the country's most eminent master craftsmen are using teams of highly skilled, wellpaid assistants—accomplished artists themselves—to create their one-of-a-kind pieces. The group works on projects in which the master's concept and style are clearly identifiable, and although the team may sign the finished piece in some cases, generally the only signature will be that of the master.

This change is the result of an increased demand for major crafts pieces by collectors. "There is a very serious coterie of the individuals who are responding to the art coming out of the crafts movement," said Helen Drutt, a gallery owner in Philadelphia. "Certainly there is an increase in this collecting." Public commissions have also increased. Lois Moran, editor of American Craft Magazine, reports that the publication's listings of craftsmen's commissions begun two years ago, have doubled in the past 12 months.

According to Patterson Sims, the curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art for last December's exhibition of works by the fiber artist Claire Zeisler, it is not unusual for an artist "to choose other people to work with him." "I don't feel it diminishes the end product," he said. "Mrs. Zeislar was able to get many more ideas completed by using assistants, and being an artist has to do more with the realization of ideas."

"I already have way more ideas than I'll ever be able to do in my lifetime," said Wendell Castle, who for two decades has been one of the most influential American woodworkers. "For me the enjoyment is seeing them realized, not having to have my hands on every part of it."

Mr. Castle now employs eight assistants in his workshop in Scottsville, a suburb of Rochester. His system is efficient in that most of his assistants are graduates of the two-year craft school he runs in the same shingled building.

"It's important for me to have this overeducated crew so that they can understand and appreciate what I'm doing and give it their best shot," said Mr. Castle, whose workshop is currently engaged in making intricate, one-of-a-kind standing clocks for a November exhibition at the Milliken Gallery in SoHo.

"The only difference between what I'm doing and the work of a single craftsman is some lack of 'hands-on,' but I don't know what it would be that my hands could do that no one else's could," Mr. Castle said. "I'm the composer and the orchestra conductor. They interpret the way I want it."

If Mr. Castle sees himself as a conductor, Dale Chihuly, the glass artist, sees himself as a movie director, overseeing artisans whose contributions he likens to those of a makeup man, costumer or cameraman. Mr. Chihuly has had museum exhibitions in the United States and Europe and is known for his free-flowing, intricately colored glass forms that, ironically, look totally spontaneous.

Although many glass artists work with skilled assistants, according to Douglas Heller, co-owner of the Heller Gallery in Manhattan, Mr. Chihuly's situation is unusual. Since his student days, he has worked cooperatively with one or two other artists, but since 1979 he has consistently used a team approach. He now works with a group of at least six or eight glass blowers, all of whom are glass artists in their own right. Specialized tasks are assigned to each, and they all work under the head glass blower, or gaffer, while Mr. Chihuly runs the show.

He has found, he explained, that he can better control the outcome by standing back from the actual process, which moves very quickly as molten glass changes shape and nature within seconds.

Glassmaking, especially under the aegis of Mr. Chihuly, is a theatrical performance. And Mr. Chihuly is not unaware of its dramatic possibilities. Home base is his studio attached to Pilchuck, the glass-blowing school he founded in 1971 in Stanwood, Wash., but Mr. Chihuly and his team travel frequently, holding workshops and demonstrations.

In a large industrial shed in Rochester, Albert Paley and eight assistants work amid the roar of the furnace and the whine of machinery. Wearing goggles, earplugs and masks, Mr. Paley and his assistants hammer, and forge massive gates, railings, architectural screens and free-standing sculpture.

"Everything I do is at least a two man operation," the metal artist said. "We're running a business based on art. The difference is that most people would make a model and then send it to a fabricator. But we do everything here."

All three craftsmen—Mr. Castle, Mr. Chihuly and Mr. Paley—make it clear that whatever the contribution their skilled teams make, they themselves remain the design originators and final arbiters. "I have the initial idea and the final say, and if they have input, I've approved it," Mr. Castle said.

These master craftsmen in one form or another, usually have their hands on the work at many crucial points, from Mr. Paley, who becomes involved in virtually every step of the operation, to Mr. Chihuly, who may race in at some critical moment with the wooden paddles to modify the shape of the piece.

There are, however, still many fine craftsmen who prefer to work alone. "For some it's a matter of economics," said Paul J. Smith, director of the American Craft Museum in Manhattan. "And some people's work is so personal, they feel they have to work on their own. But that's getting more rare."

"I think working with other people postpones the inevitable dialogue you have to have with yourself," said the glass artist Tom Patti of Plainfield, Mass., who works alone. "It takes a lot of attention and energy to work with other people."

Sydney Cash of Marlboro, N.Y., is another glass artist who prefers the solitary route and the control it gives him. "If I am doing a series, let's say three forms, by the time I get to the second one I change it, and by the third I make it completely different," he said.

Most crafts assistants, whose average stay is two to three years, are involved in the problem-solving aspects of the work: drafting, engineering, the mechanical choices that fit details into the broader creative sweep.

The salary range for a crafts assistant is wide. "The lower ranges are probably comparable to starting salaries in the teaching profession," Mr. Paley said, "while the higher ones are comparable to what is paid in the trades." Mr. Castle's trainees receive $7 to $8 hourly when they start, but an assistant with special responsibilities can make over $30,000 a year.

"As an assistant there is very little input in the design," said Michael Scott, who has worked almost three years for Mr. Castle. "It's mainly in the engineering of the piece, how it's going to be built. If there is a design change, it's run past Wendell."

Additional benefits for the assistants are the chance to observe the specialized skills of the master and the opportunity of helping to run a crafts business.

"It's invaluable to be that closely involved with an artist's thinking, developing and executing," said William Morris, the head glass blower for Mr. Chihuly and a glass artist in his own right. Like a number of the craftsmen, Mr. Morris also works either with a partner or with his own smaller teams.

And for many there is the indefinable and exhilarating experience of working with a remarkable person. "I gave myself a choice of graduate school or working with Albert," said Gregory Litsios, a former assistant to Mr. Paley, who has since gone out on his own. "It turned out to be probably the high point of my total career."

©1985 The New York Times Company