Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Art of the Craft.

Sometimes our crafts aren't taken seriously as artistic endeavors. Heck, I certainly don't consider myself an artist in most of the stuff I make; I find I like to buy other people's patterns, follow them to the letter, and haven't yet designed anything more original than the first scarf I knit (where I tried out garter stitch, ribbing, and basketweave all on one piece of knitting. Not pretty.)

But often knitting or beading or spinning, traditionally considered women's work, isn't valued in the same way as a painting, for example, or a sculpture. I don't think I have to enumerate those reasons with this group (the same reasons women still earn roughly $.75 on the dollar compared to men); it's been covered before, by more knowledgeable people. Yet everywhere I look on the blogosphere, I see artists--I see originality and talent, and not just in the work but in web page design and photography, too.

I say this for a couple of reasons. I sent a good friend a book for her birthday recently, along with a little tank top I embroidered:

The book is Crafty Chica's Art de la Soul: Glittery Ideas to Liven Up Your Life, by Kathy Cano Murillo. And that there, on the tank top, is supposed to resemble ebi sushi. (The design is from the awesome Sublime Stitching Kit by Austin artist Jenny Hart.)

I thought my friend, V., would probably like the book; it's a great mixture of Mexican folk culture and personal narrative, and full of lots of great projects--jewelry, coasters, candles, a quilt, and more. V's very crafty in her own right; I own a beautiful box she decorated for me with a collage of saints, and use it to keep my beading tools in.

But I didn't expect the reaction I got: she looooved the book. She luh-uved it. Lurved it. She said that validated her passion for crafting, to see a book embody her aesthetic so well. She wrote about feeling worried that every time she gave something she'd made as a gift, the person would give it the old heave-ho into the closet (or worse!) as soon as she got a chance. God! That sounded so familiar to me!

Well, V., I can't wait to see what you whip up for me for Christmas!

The other reason (remember? I had two) was because I was privileged to go to an event this weekend with the quilters from Gee's Bend. I feel like I'm the last person in the world to find out about these stunning quilts. Funnily enough, I first saw them in the post office last week, when I walked in and bought a new book of stamps! I saw the Gee's Bend stamps and of course had to have them, but thought the designs had to have been stylized so that they could print more cleanly.

Uh uh. Nope. I hope you do see for yourself and go visit the Gee's Bend web page or the Austin Museum of Art's page, where they're having an exhibition that runs through November 5. Because these quilts are just. Amazing.

The talk on Saturday was with Mary Lee Bendolph, her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway, and her daughter-in-law, Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, and also with the museum's curator, the organizer of the exhibition, and the art historian who wrote the catalogue (sorry! I didn't catch those guys' names.) The talk was just a fascinating discussion of Southern African-American folk culture, the experience of poverty, the disappearance and revival of a tiny town, and the reception they've gotten in the "art" world in New York and in other major cities.

The organizer hinted at the resistance he originally got when trying to put together a show, but he was deliberately and tantalizingly enigmatic. He wouldn't say anything specific, but it certainly sounded like some art world gatekeepers were not happy about a quilting show going up in a museum space and with quilts by African-American women, at that. Yet the New York Times called these "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." Other reviewers likened the quilters' aesthetics to those of jazz and blues, improvising on a form and coming up with work that is completely original and uniquely American.

It stunned and thrilled me to hear that. Mary Lee Bendolph ended up sending her son to college on the money she received for her quilts. And had enough money left over to contribute to another child's education. The quilts have kept Gee's Bend, a tiny town with no jobs, from disappearing as children leave to seek better economic opportunities.

The women each talked about their method for designing a quilt--Mary Lee Bendolph designs as she goes, without a predetermined order, while her daughter-in-law, a more recent quilter, has entire designs come to her, and her daughter Essie sees inspiration on her drive home from work. Essie creates quilts from new fabrics, but Mary still uses patches from old clothing and scraps. For me, that is where the story was--having to take whatever is available and somehow ending up with a beautiful, coherent design. Her first quilt, as a child, took her a whole year to assemble because that's how long it took to get the material together.

One of the museum's staff members asked about the connection between African-American spirituals and quilting. Essie talked about how your foot can tap out a good rhythm as you work, but she wouldn't sing. Later, though, Mary launched into a song and the other women on stage began singing and clapping, and other audience members joined in. The auditorium vibrated and rang with music. It was so beautiful I almost cried.

I sat there through the whole thing, knitting and knitting away. As the women talked, I considered how and why making things is just so damned appealing to me, and I made a connection.

Even though I've only been knitting for about three years, the instinct and the drive to create isn't really new for me, even though I often think it is. My friends and my mom do, too, looking on at my sewing and knitting mania with bemusement. You know, like where the heck did this come from?

But I remembered reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a little kid, and being utterly entranced by the descriptions of Pa making things for the house. Or Ma sewing a new dress. I pored over those stories, visualizing how everything was being put together. It was just so beautiful to me, and sitting at that talk I remembered the scene where Pa makes a rocking chair for Ma. I became sort of obsessed by finding that scene again (me? obsessed?) and went to Half-Price Books to try and find it. But you know? There are like, nine books in that series!

By chance I picked out Little House on the Prairie and I found the scene, with the help of the illustrations. It was just as compelling as ever. But even more compelling, now that I also am a dedicated maker of things, was the scene where Laura and Mary find beads scattered in an abandoned Indian camp, collect them, and bring them home:

Laura stirred her beads with her finger and watched them sparkle and shine. "These are mine," she said.

Then Mary said, "Carrie can have mine."

Ma waited to hear what Laura would say. Laura didn't want to say anything. She wanted to keep those pretty beads. Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn't always be such a good little girl. Byut she couldn't let Mary be better than she was.

So she said slowly, "Carrie can have mine, too."

"That's my unselfish, good little girls," said Ma.

Hey! Who hasn't been there?!!? Later, as the girls were stringing their beads:

They didn't say anything. Perhaps Mary felt sweet and good inside, but Laura didn't. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her. So she dared not look at Mary again.

The beads made a beautiful string. Carrie clapped her hands and laughed when she saw it. Then Ma tied it around Carrie's little neck, and it glittered there. Laura felt a little bit better. After all, her beads were not enough beads to make a whole string, and neither were Mary's but together they made a whole string of beads for Carrie.
(pp. 179-181)

Leaving aside for the moment the problematic nature of the uncritical appropriation of Indian cultural objects and the representation of Indians in the book in general....oh, who's been in school too long? Anyway, I thought this scene was sweet and funny and honest and speaks to our greedy little crafters' hearts and why sometimes it is good to give the things we make away.

Our art, I mean.


At 6:13 AM, Blogger Laura said...

Fantastic post, Olga! I wish I had been there for the Gee's Bend event. I don't feel like an artist most of the time, either, especially lately (citing Simple Knitted Bodice fiasco and Intolerable Cruelty gauge disaster). But even if I don't feel that I am creating "art", I do feel that I am participating in the uniquely human experience of fulfilling the need to create, which drives every crafter and artist. And that's pretty amazing in itself.

Now I want to reread all the Little House books.

At 6:43 AM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Thoughtful post, thank you for sharing it with us. I loved the Little House books too, and like you, especially loved the crafting and simple living descriptions.

I think that many times crafts such as knitting, beading, quilting, aren't considered arts because they are easily accessible to everyone. For some reason I think the art world tends to think that if anyone can learn to do something, then it's not high art. I don't agree. Although perhaps one can say that every knitted object or bead necklace is not art, some of it is. Whenever creativity, and a mastery of a form or craft is involved, I like to call it art.

At 8:02 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

Thank you, Olga, I love when you post about artistic/ethnic subjects. I always follow the links you provide and have yet to be dissapointed in what I find! How anyone (even Artsy-Fartsy Snobs) can look at those quilts and not see them as Art (with a capital "A") is beyond me.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger dc gal said...

Olga-Thank you for posting this. You reminded me of the special night that I got to see the Gee Bend's quilts at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. How wonderful that you got to see the quilters in person.

Yes, the Art establishment can be disdainful of forms of expression that aren't "Fine Arts". But I'm glad that those humble quilts are seen as beautiful works of Modern Art by enough people to put that quilter's children through school.

Thanks again for sharing.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Kodachrome Knits said...

Ah...the mention of the Gee's Bend quilts, of knitting while listening to the ARTISTS/QUILTERS themselves, of singing and stamping your feet in a room full of talented, vibrant, creative women. This critical and reflective post on "what we do" was so so so good to read and then you go and top it all off with quotations from Laura Ingalls Wilder to boot. I luv luv luv _Little House on the Prairie_ (despite, of course, as you mentioned, the highly problematic representations of indigenous peoples.) Thanks for sharing these thoughts and experiences with us. Damn, I wish I would have been there!

At 1:05 PM, Blogger jennifer said...

beautiful post, olga. it made me wish that i could make something with my hands, too.

women in our community really do have a creative and resourceful tradition of making. creating.

reminds of the lorna dee poem, "beneath the shadow of the freeway." she writes, "She believes in myths and birds./She trusts only what she builds/with her own hands."

At 11:40 AM, Anonymous V. said...

I did in fact totally luuuuuv my b-day gifts! You are so thoughtful my dear friend! I didn't even realize the tank top design was something you stiched. It's so cool! I could easily picture it hanging on a very expensive rack at a wanna-be-trendy store.
Hooray to crafty chicas!

At 6:51 PM, Blogger knitannie said...

you know I don't normally read really long posts because being a mum I'm short on time, but I am so glad I took the time to read that one. Great post. I've never read any of the little house books but am tempted now. Maybe I'll wait for my little girl to grow up a bit and we can read them together. Maybe she'll get the Art bug too.


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