My name is Carmel Dolcine, a DE aspirant. At Kathleen’s request (who can say “no” to Kathleen?), I’ve prepared a blog post summing up our email conversation concerning ways we can learn from artisans. I’ve had some interesting successes and failures in this area. The purpose of this post is to share information that may help DEs become better students and protégés.
Gaining invaluable education from an artisan is a complex endeavor. The process may lend itself to some form of institutionalization, however, the burden of the formalization of the process is going to be on the individual or group interested in learning a particular method of craftsmanship.
The initiative must be taken by the student to observe the particular nuances and expectations of the artisan’s world. For example, I am working on and off with an artisan specializing in leather carving. He is nearly 80, very spry, and has earned the right due to his age and success to be temperamental and intolerant. He had a conniption the first time my hand held device vibrated then rang while we where working on sketches for my first piece. Consequently, I decided to leave the gadgets and gizmos, and everything else from the 21st century in my car during our sessions.
Every time you enter into the workshop of an artisan, you are walking into a parallel universe where your usual standards of etiquette and communication are null and void. Especially for egocentric institutionally educated designers, the adjustment can be very difficult to make. The honorable treatment of elders and authority figures is no longer a permanent fixture within the psyche of most of my peers.
I think some of the problem may be historical. The tasks of design and manufacture prior to the industrial revolution was performed under a man or woman called an artisan. Prior to the industrial revolution, the finest garments and architectural marvels of the world were designed and manufactured by artisans. Within recent history, the role of artisan has been split into three newly created disciplines – the designer (creator of the concept or vision in fashion), artist (producer of embellishments in fashion), and artisan (constructor of garments in couture/haute couture/bespoke). Somehow, the designer gets all of the recognition and praise, while artists and artisans toil away in the shadows. To increase the probability of success, self-financed DEs may choose to increasingly personify the old definition of artisan not only as designers and manufacturers, but as repositories and teachers of the tradition of fashion industry entrepreneurship, business management, and craft.
Education is a personal responsibility and the mentorship to apprenticeship model of learning may prove to be the most successful and durable means to prepare DEs for success. We’re so used to schools marketing themselves to us offering both undergraduate and graduate/continuing education studies. We are also used to structured curriculum. We don’t really know how to:
- Approach artisans who are really unique and admire what they do in a simple “pure” way,
- Recognize how an artisans’ skill can add value to our lives if we incorporated it into our businesses in ways that do not in any, way, shape or form compete with their businesses,
- Respectively in a culturally sensitive manner form bonds based on trust and respect that enables artisans to value us and teach us fundamental and advanced aspects of their craft on their own terms, in ways that they are accustomed to.
We work well in costly educational institutions. We follow the rules, kiss up to poor teachers, and get good grades. However, we don’t know how to go out into the world and find persons with significant life experience to teach us invaluable lessons of both craft and life one on one. Case in point, I knew a young lady -Jennifer- who wanted to study embroidery and sewing with my Aunt.
My Aunt was a recognized embroidery expert (no I failed to learn the craft before her passing, I was in school wasting money in university when I could have really been educated by her). I got a few names of people my Aunt had mentored and sent her the information.
My Aunt lived near Lyon in France; she lived previously in Spain, Portugal, and Venezuela among many interesting places (I’ve lived a lot of places too, but am of French ancestry). I sent Jennifer to one of my Aunt’s former pupils – Charisse, who was living and working near Lyon and traveling back and forth to the French Antilles. Production was in the Caribbean (Martinique) and the shop was in France.
I told Jennifer to help Charisse in any way she could. I told her to be particularly attracted to menial tasks, because such help was needed around the home and workshop. It is understood in such environments that her work would be rewarded by Charisse with teachings that may be invaluable to her design career. Charisse would not charge anything for lessons. If she liked you and you respected her, then she taught you as much as you could absorb. Charisse gave pupils free meals and lodging as well.
Well, as you can imagine this great opportunity for Jennifer did not turn out well. The main problem was that Jennifer did not modify her behavior and levels of expectation to suit the mentor-protégé model of education. Jennifer had a design degree, a know it all attitude, and was a wannabe socialite – I found all of this out much later.
She did not offer Charisse any help around the house and workshop. Jennifer brought a ton of patterns with her. She annoyed Charisse and the people at the compound with questions about her own projects. She was relentless.
My Aunt chastised me about the behavior of the “poor child” as they called her. Three weeks into a planned summer-long apprenticeship, Jennifer was asked to leave Charisse’s home in the Caribbean.
Jennifer was angry about spending extra money in a hotel while waiting for a flight. She was angry about traveling alone to Paris and then onward to the States. She felt that Charisse didn’t know what she was doing and was difficult to communicate with. This is the problem. The artisans only know about competence and labor, humility and loyalty, dedication and diligence – they don’t work well with the weird mix of ego, incompetence, and grandiose ambition most people have (especially in North America and Western Europe) in today’s world.
Mentorship relationships are hierarchical. I leave you with questions we must ask ourselves:
Are we ready to be mentored?
Are we ready to work in roles where we may feel vulnerable?
Are our self-esteems so fragile that we fear the scrutiny of our elders?