Is US craft/art/whateveryouwannacallit going the way of the dinosaurs? After what I’m hearing this week, I’m beginning to wonder.

As I mentioned, I’m at the Enamelist Society biannual conference, and we’re eating our meals in the university cafeteria at those long dining tables filled with (to me, anyway) strangers. I’d MUCH rather stay in my room to read, write, and have a quiet dinner to myself, but I force myself to get out and socialize. As usually happens, those attendee conversations are probably worth as much or more than the actual conference program.

Last night’s was particularly disturbing: “Enameling is almost a dying artform,” said one, “Almost the entire membership is well into their 60s or 70s. Look around you: We’re getting older but we don’t have enough new artists coming in to replace us as we pass on.”

Several heads–noticeably grey–nodded vigorously in agreement. “It used to be that everyone knew enamel; you could go to an art fair and the customers would know what you were doing without asking,” sighed another, “Now, you have to explain it. Most people don’t even know we exist.”

The lady sitting next to me jumped in. “It’s the fault of the schools. They used to teach art. I took art classes every year until I got to college and majored in fine arts. My daughter took art classes the same way.

My grandchildren, though: My oldest is 14, and she has never taken an art class because they simply don’t exist. The one class she COULD take, her mother asked her why she never brought any of her pieces home. ‘Oh, there’s nothing to bring home, Mom. They don’t have money for supplies so we spend the whole time drawing on the white board.'”

“That’s awful,” said a lovely woman from Scotland, “We certainly have problems with our schools, but we would never get rid of art programs.”

“How do we expect children to become interested in art, to become interested in enamel,” asked another, “If they don’t get hands-on experience when they’re young? Kids today, they have computers and phones and those iPad things. It’s not the same as getting your hands dirty with clay or metal or whatever.”

Food for thought. It’s certainly been a concern in other artistic disciplines; if I attend a guild meeting, one of the topics on the planning docket will almost always be “how do we get the young people to join?”

Personally, I think the best way to prevent “the young people” from joining is to call them “the young people,” but that’s just me.

I guess I’m old, too: The best part of my school day was usually art class (if you didn’t count boys). Mr. Lum, one of my all-time favorite teachers, introduced me to jewelry-making, sculpture, enameling, woodworking, skills I’ve been developing ever since. I can’t imagine NOT having someone like that in my formative years.

I’m wondering, though, if part of what we’re seeing is simply a paradigm shift, brought about by technology. Ten/twenty years ago, guilds and art societies and such were the way artists and hobbyists connected, how we learned. We bought magazines and books, attended classes, traded tips at meetings and art shows.

Today, I’m teaching myself enameling through Instagram and YouTube and Vimeo and Pinterest, going to artists’ websites, buying studio technique video subscriptions that I can view online, anytime. I’m going to Facebook and Reddit and connecting with other artists that way.

I believe that I’ve expanded my options, not contracted them. In any case, as fabulous as videos and websites are for teaching the basics or providing a fast lookup on a new subject, they can’t replace face-to-face classroom time. As I’ve said many times, the web tends to be a directed resource–you get exactly what you’re looking for, and may never realize that a side trip would have been far more valuable.

In a classroom, you’re asking questions, viewing the teacher’s body language, watching subtle shortcuts that you wouldn’t have known to ask about. And even better, you’re in a room with a whole bunch of enthusiasts, all trained differently.

I swear, I learn as much or more from my classmates as I do from the instructor. Yesterday, for example, another enamel artist gave me three tips on firing enamels in a kiln, which pretty much paid for the conference.

So…I dunno. Nothing profound about this; I’m not exactly breaking new ground here.

Yet I look around at the 160-plus attendees at this event, view the sea of grey heads, and wonder. I sure hope enamel–or glass sculpture or ceramics or even tatting–isn’t a dying art. If it is, how do we stop it?