Talking Art

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A perfectly good piece or writing should not go to waste, right? Here's the written version of my Art Talk (note the capitols, please) that I made yesterday at the 1550 Gallery in Kerrville. Of course, it was much looser and more fun in person, but you'll just have to imagine the demonstrative off-the-cuff parts.


Rudyard Kipling in Conundrum of the Workshop wrote in 1890:

“When the flush of a new-born sun fell on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Til the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty. But is it Art?”

People in my world are always going on about art and craft and quilts and when one is the other and how they relate or don’t and who gets to decide. And, no matter how tired we get of the debate, it still fascinates us and me, and holds my attention.
As introduction to my work I want to explore those notions briefly with you – and share some of my opinions:

The majority of Westerners today, if a survey of more than 500 people conducted by Carolyn Boyd’s anthropology class at Texas A&M has any validity, think that “art is created for the sole purpose of being aesthetically pleasing to people within society and with minimum purpose beyond that of intrinsic enjoyment.” Boyd is studying the rock art paintings of the Pecos River and, she views those great works in a somewhat different light, one that does not make them ART at all, but something more utilitarian than what that survey indicates most Americans think about art.

rockart.jpgI weigh in on the side of Boyd: Human beings are makers – we evolved these opposable thumbs and then just couldn’t help but start making tools, making clothing, making shelter, making food fancier, making stuff.

As we developed more skills and fancier tools --and perhaps the time to spare, we started pleasing our senses with the things we made --adding aesthetic considerations to their functionality with decoration, embellishment – and also just with making things that had inherent sensory-pleasing qualities of texture, color, shape and form. This concern, these considerations have changed, but endured even into the industrial and post industrial, electronic world. Craft and technical skills become valuable.

We make stuff – and try to make it pleasing --but we humans also make stories. As story makers, we are as concerned with the why and how come and what happened then and what happens next as we are with making our lives run more smoothly. And to me that’s where the art comes in.

Art is about story-making as well as object-making. About the same time we started making blankets and pots to cook in and clothing and nice places to live, archeological evidence shows that we also began telling stories about the elemental forces operating in visible and invisible realms, and within our own psyches.  We painted those stories on walls. We wove robes and carved masks to act out the stories, we constructed sacred places and kept trying to tell the story and about the characters in those stories. Sometimes the stories showed up on the utilitarian objects, but they were also embodied in sacred story objects. And maybe the person who could make a beautiful cooking pot, was the one with practiced enough skills to make a terrifying god sculpture. Probably leading to the first debate about art and craft.

Carolyn E. Boyd also says this:

“Expressive forms, such as storytelling and rock paintings, are integral parts of a hunting and gathering adaptation. These expressive forms. which include rock art, “perform work.” They work to “indirectly” instruct and communicate information necessary to make certain adaptations successful within egalitarian societys where direct instruction generates an adverse reaction.”

In other words, these societies were not ones where it was accepted for one person to “be the boss.” The art became the way to share information and instruction given that social cooperation was so important for survival.

As we humans have traversed maybe 10,000 years of story or more, the stories have gotten more complicated and less functional, just as the objects we make have become more intricate and often less necessary in purely survival terms.
The stories in art can now be about almost anything – even about other art, bereft of character, freed of object. Some stories are about color, about tactile line, about pure emotion or even purely about the material that they are made of.

But elemental stories are still powerful and still hold our attention. The archetypes of hero, princess, savior, guardian, will-of-whisp, fool and befuddled are some of the characters in those stories.  And I think the art that touches me the most still has some qualities of that art of instruction and communication. So I make these big mermaids and saints and angels in series – they are like the chapters of a book and through them I explore different aspects of myself, my own inner archetypes.

We all know instinctually those archetypes – we see them in storytelling in all kinds of media, from ancient rock art to every movie we see and every book we read: characters that resolve problems – hero, heroine, healer, knight in shining armor– that cause them – joker, saboteur, villain, prostitute – the ones that find their way over and beyond – mystic, joker, angel, shape-shifters. Medical intuitive Carolyn Myss explains archetypes like this:

“An organizing principle … is shaping the energy within each of us – and shaping out live as it does so…. These patterns, often ancient in origin, populate our minds and lives in ways that affect us deeply. Yet we are generally unaware of them. These patterns of intelligence are archetypes, dynamic living forms of energy that are shared in many people’s thoughts and emotions, across cultures and countries.”

As to their multiplicity within our selves, our lives. I like what Diane Ackerman says in her book -- (great book The Alchemy of the Mind), this in her chapter about “the self,” quoting first Virginia Woolfe in Orlando:

“A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have as many as a thousand.”

Continuing, Ackerman, writes:

“A long ghostly parade of previous selves trails behind us, as values, habits and memories evolve to better reflect the current I. We often translate how that feels into spatial terms, and refer to our different facets. Or sides. All of our selves seem to inhabit separate spaces. The mind needs paces to juggle its different concerns at once, which sometimes are in sync, sometimes not. When they’re not in sync, there has to be a way to procceed fluently, without stumbling every time there’s a rift in what one part of you is conscious of emotionally and the other part is conscious of cognitively. … A self is a trail of bread crumbs we leave so we know our progress and direction.”

So I like to think of my work as a trail of breadcrumbs. These angels, saints and sinners are characters in stories that resonate with me, or that I somehow see myself living in some kind of alternative universe. The pomegranates and vines and flowers, while decorative, are also part of a language of symbols that humans have evolved in the role of story-makers. I love looking up the use of symbols in art throughout time and using them consciously in the cloth I make, a kind of hidden in plain view secret for those in the know. I am connected through this visual language of symbols, as well as the purely formal elements and laws of design – line, shape, color, emphasis, balance, etc – to those artist who have come before me to make their discoveries.

Why quilts and fiber art though? As a woman, I live in a world that values social cooperation over competitive edge, and so I have chosen essentially woman’s art as my mode for communicating stories that are important to me. I was a painting major in school, and I still carry around a feeling that being a painter is a supreme act of independence and even maybe arrogance. If you are painter, don’t take that the wrong way, but for me painting is just too much of a lone wolf path, I like the comforting connection to traditional craft that working in fabric affords me. This community aspect of the work I’ve chosen is what I try to bring to my workshops and teaching, too. It’s why I am committed to teaching more than a technique or even how to make  Art – that “object that is aesthetically pleasing to people within society and with minimum purpose beyond that of intrinsic enjoyment.”

In closing, I want to leave you with one other archetype; Wild Woman. Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes to remind us:

 “Within us is the old one who collects bones. Within us there are the soul-bones of the Wild Woman.  Within us is the potential to be fleshed out again as the creature we once were. Within us are the bones to change ourself and our world. Within us is the breath and our truths and our longings – together they are the song, the creation hymn we have been yearning to sing. …Today the La Loba inside you is collecting bones. What is she remaking? She is the sould Self, the builder of the soul home. Ella lo hace amino, she make and re-makes the soul by hand. What is she making for you?"


And one more from Clarissa, that wasn't in the talk, but finding it on Wikipedia, seems to add a lovely footnote:

"The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands - all these are the making of something, and that something is soul. Anytime we feed soul, it guarantees increase."

from Women Who Run With the Wolves (Ballantine/ Bertelsmann 1992, 1996) (p.14)