Indian Art Gallery

Definitions for Traditional and Contemporary Craft

These definitions are provided for clarification and to inspire further research and discussion based upon the documentary “Alabama Craft: Tradition and Innovation” and its accompanying classroom materials.

Traditional Art

The terms “traditional” and “folk” may be used interchangeably to refer to those aspects of learned behavior (culture) that are transferred through word of mouth and/or by following an example set within a cultural group. Traditional art is learned from family or community members and is passed along through generations, with each artist remaining true to time-honored methods or techniques, yet free to add personal creativity to the process. Folk or traditional artists are highly trained, and it is the manner of their training that earns them the designation of “folk.”


An initial definition of “craft” means objects made for use, such as a cup for drinking or a chair for sitting. Before commercial manufacturing, these objects were made by hand, and the techniques for creating them were learned through family or community traditions, or occasionally through an apprenticeship program with master artisans. “Craft” additionally refers to the manual dexterity and creative ability needed in operating with materials and in making objects which will be decorative, functional, or both.

Contemporary Craft

Because the exclusive need for functional handmade objects no longer exists, and because the learning of (craft) processes may take place outside community tradition, contemporary craft is marked by innovation in design and materials. Accepted as a very important variety, contemporary craft is marked by new interpretations of traditional technique and elegance. Studio craft artists continue to make objects by hand, beautiful pieces that can be utilitarian and are frequently sold in galleries and at art fairs. These people have usually learned their skills in additional formal academic settings – as well as learning, researching, and experimenting. Some colleges and universities provide instruction in contemporary craft as a part of a broader fine arts curriculum. Specialized colleges, like Arrowmont in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Penland in North Carolina, give distinctive opportunities for learning craft processes.

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