Finding Beauty in an Ashtray

Posted on April 4, 2016 by Dr. Christopher Thurber

Canadian Camping Association Crafts“What is it?” asked my cabin leader, gently.  We both eyed my clay creation as it emerged from the camp kiln, glazed and cooled.  I was 12, so I hadn’t made a something; I’d made an anything.  It had just been fun to pinch and push the clay for our hour-long arts and crafts period.  Now came the hard part: I needed to identify my project.

“Hmm…” I thought out loud.

Finally, my cabin leader said confidently, “Oh, I see.  It’s an ashtray.”

And there it was.  The year was 1980, so it was still permissible to make an ashtray.  Today, the same object would clearly be a politically correct candy dish or a heart-healthy, hypoallergenic soy nut dish.  In any case, it was what it was and there it was.  Like most arts-and-crafts projects at camp, it was, more than anything else, an expressive snapshot of my thoughts, feelings, and actions at the time of creation.  It was simple and personal.  Which is probably why it still sits (sans ashes) on my mother’s writing desk.

Volumes are written about what makes art art and what differentiates art from craft, so instead of writing an essay on aesthetics, I just want to share why I think arts and crafts at camp are so meaningful.  In my mind, anything creative and pleasing to the senses can be art.  Crafts, on the other hand, are construction skills, often learned through apprenticeship.  Naturally, arts and crafts go hand-in-hand.  Michelangelo used the craft of stone carving to create pieces of art like David.  At camp, children learn crafts such as weaving and woodworking to create pieces of art such as baskets and birdhouses.  To what end?

Contemporary conceptualizations of the human mind include the idea of multiple intelligences.  Simply put, we have different domains of cognitive strength—such as mathematical, social, verbal, artistic—and those domains complement each other.  So combining some athletic and social activities at camp with some arts-and-crafts actually feeds kids’ brains.  It’s kind of like intellectual cross-training.  The trouble with some camp arts-and-crafts programs is they are either marginalized or mechanized.

Marginalization occurs when the leadership at camp fails to create an atmosphere where art is valued.  Arts-and-crafts becomes an “uncool” program activity and few campers attend the lame periods that are offered.  The campers who do participate are labeled in ways that suggest they must not be athletic, adventuresome, or heterosexual.

Mechanization occurs when the leadership at camp relies on kits rather than creativity.  Arts-and-crafts devolves into campers purchasing nearly-assembled moccasins, birdhouses, wallets, etc.  The activity periods—if you want to call them that—involve very little activity besides counselors explaining to kids how to interpret the kit’s assembly directions.  Creative juices dry up along with the seed for self-esteem: a genuine sense of accomplishment.

At the best camps, arts-and-crafts programs flourish because the leadership recognizes the value of a balanced program of activities—something that includes athletics, adventure, and art.  Equally important, these programs flourish because campers are challenged to refine their crafty skills, solve problems, and create new works.  The brains and souls of these children are nourished and the camp staff become actively involved in their mission: to nurture positive youth development.  And as an added bonus, some lucky parents and grandparents may get an ashtray—I mean paperweight—on closing day.

This article originally appeared in the Week-Ender blog, a product of Camp Business magazine. To subscribe to this content, visit