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It’s the commerce of craft that I find soul destroying; Emma Greenwood in Interview, Part 2

March 16, 2010

If you’re thinking WTF? Who is Ms Greenwood? then you obviously haven’t read part 1, and you should definitely check it out here. Otherwise, please read on…


When I first made contact with Emma, she emailed me saying

“Your blog is both thought provoking and beautiful, rather fitting with my new year mood of more sustainability, but I struggle to balance this with being a maker of ‘stuff’, after all – isn’t there too much stuff in the world? I have this thought constantly in my internal dialogue.”
I thought that was incredibly interesting, since I see the craftsman as the solution to a lot of the problems brought on first by industrialization and then globalization. So that’s where we started, just like that.

Me: Yeah, sure there’s too much stuff in the world. But people actually do need a certain amount of stuff – you need a couple of pairs of shoes and a few sets of clothes – and by creating quality goods you give them the opportunity to buy a product that means something to them, so that in the long run people end up consuming less stuff?

Emma: I originally understood that my love of shoemaking was as a form of utilitarian sculpture: a practical endeavour that was art in itself due to the processes and craftsmanship inherent in the making. The pure act of shoemaking is divine and is a specialised pursuit, it’s the commerce of craft that I find soul destroying, and that’s when I start lamenting about there being too much stuff in the world. Consumer culture gives me the creeps.

There are so many great ideas/products out there for purchase, made with skill and love by talented folks, and I do see a place for these ideas-people to make a living. I hope that I am one of them, however, the hustle of drumming up business doesn’t come naturally to me. Even logging onto Etsy freaks me out: some of the work available is gob smacking in its execution and skill, but essentially it’s all stuff for sale, packaged and labelled, and that element of craft doesn’t always sit well with me.

I studied fine arts before shoemaking, and I believe that traditionally in art schools the entrepreneurial approach isn’t really discussed, it’s more about applying for grants, living on the smell of an oily rag; I once heard someone refer to it as ‘professional begging’.

So, to simplify, I am great at the making, but not so confident at the marketing, maybe there is a niche for a savvy person with a Marketing/PR background to represent makers like me.

Me: I guess if you weren’t doing what you’re doing, there’s a fair chance you would instead have been working for someone else where you wouldn’t have the level of control that you do now:

Perhaps you’d be designing shoes that would be manufactured in China so they would be of inferior quality; there’s a good chance they would be made using cheap labour so in effect violating human rights in the process; and being mass produced they would help propel the whole idea of consumerism and throw-away culture.

Through the decision to be a craftsman you’re kind of opting out of that path, and in a way your work just acts to highlight the junk-quality of a lot of ordinary goods. What are your thoughts on that?

Emma: I have a lot of ideas that are far from commercial – labour intensive art pieces that are imbued with all the skills I can muster. These satisfy me so much creatively, but obviously it can be hard to pay the bills with them.

I find that there is a world between art and fashion, and it can be hard to identify where you are in that equation. My work is not about trends, I am a fan of the ‘slow’ movements of the world, and all of the pieces I make, shoes included, are modern day heirlooms which will last and last.

Fashion stores want trends, they want new stuff all the time, and I feel under pressure to supply this kind of work. Having a great idea independent of this is a true revelation, to this day I am so amazed that I conceived of the Postage Belts and that people still love them. I adore making them and plan to keep on doing so, instead of retiring an idea because it’s from three seasons ago.

Me: How did you learn to make shoes?

Emma: I bungled an enrolment at TAFE in Adelaide, and ended up doing full time footwear.  I loved it from day one, and completed Cert IV and V, leaving with all the knowledge I could possibly extract from my teachers.

From there I worked for other designers in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, making shoes by hand, all day every day, for about 6 years. My son was born in 2004 and since then I’ve been my own boss.

Me: Your shoes would appeal to a pretty specific group of people – is that a conscious (marketing) decision or does it just happen to be what you like doing?

Emma: I grew up listening to a lot of hip hop, and worked as a bike messenger for three years, so sneakers are in my blood! I’ve been making them for over 10 years now, and I do consider it a niche market in terms of handmade shoes, which tend to be a bit more traditional in design and materials.

I’ve done numerous pairs of sneakers for graffiti artist pals, with their designs incorporated into the upper of the shoe, and I’ve pushed the boundaries to some extent by making hand embroidered sneakers and floral patent ones, to appeal to a more feminine customer.

Over the years my tastes have evolved, and the styles of shoe I make are in sympathy with this. I’ve been drawn to more theatrical influences, costume design, other cultures, handmade surface decoration such as crochet, embroidery, and using unusual materials including postage stamps and Swarovski crystals.

Me: Can you see yourself making different types of shoes in the future?

At the ‘Shoe Show’ at Craft Victoria late last year my work was rather colourful and flamboyant in comparison to most of the other shoemakers’ work. I adore colour and experimentation, and I like to push things to the nth degree. I recently came to the realisation that I want my shoemaking to always be inventive; I don’t want to make run of the mill styles, I want to go crazy!

This obviously doesn’t appeal to everybody, and in Melbourne there is an aesthetic which is all about neutral colours, with a unisex minimalist vibe, but that’s just not me. I’m hoping that the peacocks out there are attracted to my work.

Whether you’re a peacock or not, to pick up some of her gourmet one-offs, check out Emma’ shoppe or stop by her blog to say hi!
4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 10:48 am

    Just a thought. I am all pro craft – anti mass consumption, but I’m unfortunately living myself in the kind of crap world in between.

    I WISH I – like Emma – could make stuff of great quality that lasts forever and makes me want to keep it instead of buying new things, but I can’t.

    If I make my own clothes, they will turn out -let’s say “personal”, but probably less nice than something I would buy and I probably wouldn’t like them as much. I love making crafty stuff but I don’t have the patience to be a skilled craftsman spending weeks on a few things, I want instant gratification and stuff that can be made in one hour or so. So ending up with even worse quality than mass market an probably not even as nice always. And buying handmade is very expensive and not always the stuff you really want (often too much “personality” for my taste…)

    And I do love a lot of the mass consumption stuff I have and I try to take good care of it so it will last forever.
    It’s just so much more complicated than “cheap H&M slave made” vs. “Craftsman made with love & lasts forever.”
    Its kind of more about “fair made”, “do i really love this item that im purchasing or just kind of?” and “reduce,reuse,recycle” for me. And investing in long lasting stuff.

    Anyway, too many thoughts mixed up in one post. I should go to bed.

  2. March 16, 2010 2:45 pm

    Thanks for your long comment, here’s a long answer:
    I think what you are describing is true for a lot of people – myself included: the feeling of being pulled between wanting to do the ethically right thing and lusting after the ‘wrong things’ that are so expertly marketed to us.

    And maybe to an even greater degree if you do have the skills to make stuff – if you were trained as a designer, say – and capable of making all sorts of things from furniture to clothes, because then there really is no excuse for buying cheap stuff.
    But it is a long time since humans stopped doing everything themselves and started trading – and for good reason: some people are simply just better at making clothes and others better at making chutney.
    And since we are not confined to our local acts anymore but can browse and buy well-made stuff from all corners of the world, the K-marts and Zaras have actually got real competition now because we do have the option to ditch them.

    But regardless of where we shop, what you’re saying about choosing carefully what to buy and taking care of the things you own are two incredibly important and powerful tools we can use to lessen consumption; that’s what people have done in all times but that was forgotten when everything became way too cheap in relation to wages.

    I guess the other thing you’re touching on is the love of making for makings sake – which i think is innate in human beings AND the reason why craft is the new cool; after two decades of being passive and letting themselves be entertained, a lot of people are rediscovering the joy of making. Which is wonderful – I believe making things lets us engage in our own life in a way that something we buy in the shop can’t, and maybe that in itself makes us more fulfilled and less prone to look for satisfaction through consumption.

  3. March 18, 2010 3:43 pm

    I’m going to give a short answer: Emma, Anna, Hawk and Weasel thank you — this is an incredibly important conversation and I agree with you all wholeheartedly. As it says on Anna’s masthead — be bold and begin — and may I add — KEEP GOING! As voices like ours get louder and louder we’ll be so glad that we did.

    And every one of us who wants to be respected and rewarded as a maker needs to vote EVERY DAY with our pockets.

    Do unto others…

  4. March 18, 2010 9:05 pm

    Dear Sandra,
    you are right. It is a way of life. It’s important to have confidence that we can create change, that our actions matter. And I think we need to keep the discussion going to encourage each other to honour what we believe in and remind ourselves that we are not alone but many, and strong.

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