My Professors’ Advice…

I can picture Naoko so clearly, sitting trimly and relaxed in the apron she always wore in the studio, leaned back from the table a bit as we were gathered around for the beginning of the class. I can’t really remember what she was talking about before, or what she said after; I suppose it must have been some sort of explanation, but all I heard was this clear, cleaving exhortation that’s been echoing in my mind ever since:
“Don’t make practical; practical comes from China!”

The point that Naoko was making was that textile artists or artisans in North America are not going to earn their bread and butter weaving tea towels for sale at the farmers market, no matter how much we’d like it to be that simple. She was exhorting us to be creative in our work, to break new ground, to push, to be critical and questioning (and this is why she was professor at a university).

The more I’ve learned and grown in my understanding of craft in general and textiles in particular, in sociology and history and the study of the rise and fall of social orders, the more clear it has become that being a specialist artist or craftsperson has always been a role that serves a master — yes, we provide social goods, providing inspiration, occasionally challenging convention, uplifting the mundane and enchanting the world; but either we earn our bread and butter at the behest of a social class higher than our own, or we’re designers, creating prototypes for mass production using the labour of those of a lower class than us.

Naoko’s comment struck me hard, because I never wanted to specialize. When I was a child I lived on the land as much as I could; I wanted to know how the Coast Salish people had lived, how they had found food and made shelter and clothing, and I wanted to live like that, too: to earn my keep directly from the land I loved, not through the troubling, layers of society, technology, and economy. I had wound up in Naoko’s class, specializing in what I was best at, but I just wanted to make for myself — or at least be doing something simple, like weaving tea towels for the farmers market — and Naoko had called me out.

That was almost two decades ago. This sort of dissonance takes a long time to resolve — or, can provide rich ground for the conceptual framework of a practice that is otherwise motivated by selfish impulses, if I can manage to find the words to tell the story of it in a compelling way. I’m still working on that, still finding the words to express why it is that I make for myself, why use natural materials, why be interested in ancient and dying earth-based skills; in the meantime, I keep developing my anachronistic skills, keep teaching them, keep making my humble, just-wants-to-be-practical work.

Last week I was hearing Naoko in my head again, “Don’t make practical; practical comes from China!” I was sitting at a loom dressed with flax that I had grown in fields and gardens, retted in my backyard, worked on the break and hackle till my shoulders ached; Sharon and I spent hours spinning it — she the warp, since my skills weren’t yet good enough for spinning fine line; and then hours more to wind the warp, thread the heddles, thread the reed, tie on, wind the bobbins…

And I threw my head back, and laughed:

“Well, Naoko, there’s NOTHING PRACTICAL ABOUT THIS!”

And I realized that I really wasn’t ever going to make tea towels with it, or even clothing — not yet, anyway. It took almost four years to get this far, what’s another few years before I actually get a shirt on my back?

This five yards of stiff, starched, home-grown cloth was an epic banner, a testimonial to our species’ cognitive revolution, our relationship with the plants, our migrations, and our past; to paths of being where we cannot walk again, no matter how much we might want to.

No, there’s nothing practical about that.