Saturday, July 16, 2005

Arts & Crafts

Last year in London, Sarah Carrington and I went to hear art historian and curator Linda Parry lecture on the Arts and Crafts Movement. Her talk was hosted by the William Morris Society in the elegantly decorated lecture hall of the Art Workers Guild. Parry was working on an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I have since seen, that examines the Arts and Crafts movement as the first truly international art movement. The following are some of our notes, as they relate to Notion Nanny.

The Arts and Crafts movement originally took its name from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, whose first exhibition analyzed the state of British industry and tried to reconsider the decorative arts, a genre previously considered to be of minor importance. Across the Western world, the context of political and social turmoil in the late 19th century led to a longing for escape from industrialization. Artists and writers extolled the values of the 'simple life' and tried to recall and revive previous ways of living and working. This led to a celebration of local vernacular traditions in a bid to strengthen national identities undergoing significant change, and many countries attempted to redefine their national identities through an exploration of traditional heritage. Though the Arts and Crafts movement today is sometimes characterized in terms of making on an amateur basis, its original protagonists argued that with improved working conditions, everyday goods would be better designed and made.

Ruskin's writing underpinned the movement as a whole. He provided a 'beacon of sense' to people jaded by industrialization. Stones of Venice proved to be most influential on William Morris, as it confirmed his belief that medieval art was 'made by ordinary men.' Morris argued that ideal workmanship would only be realized in Britain if people moved away from degradation in the workplace and if employers provided their workers with more enjoyment. His own workshop was organized like a Medieval guild, and his employees worked slowly and laboriously to make beautiful things that the factories couldn't.

Influenced by the A&C movement, colleges developed courses and workshops to teach design and the decorative arts, and in 1896 Lethaby established Central St. Martins College. At the same time, a series of workshops were established in rural areas by philanthropists who attempted to 'take advantage of local skills and resources,' for example the Langdale Linen Industry in Cumbria. Unfortunately, the workshops were rarely sustainable, as the only buyers of their products were in London due to the unexpected but necessarily high price of the goods being made.

Ultimately, the movement appealed to a need for escape among urban professionals who craved rural experience and nature, and the work produced meant little to the rural communities themselves. Rather than providing the masses with well-made things by respected workers, the movement provided a relatively few wealthy patrons with the fruits of its labor. Morris's friend and colleague Ashbee despaired at the privileged image of the A&C movement and felt that this disparity between the object's creation and its user was responsible for the movement's decline. Unlike Ashbee, Morris realized that the movement would not achieve his political goals and he focused his need for change on direct political agitation.

Interestingly, the Arts and Crafts movement in the US was characterizedentrepreneurialneurial spirit unseen in the movement's UK manifestation. The American movement managed to utilize A&C principles with greater commercial success than was possible in the UK, for without the 'moral baggage' of the UK movement, it was far more financially successful and sustainable. Some examples of US A&C enclaves are the Birdcliff Institute in Woodstock, as well as a similar community established in New Jersey.

Parry argued that A&C values are as relevant today as they were then, since there is still little opportunity for small-scale production of goods, and mass production is detrimental to the whole. She also noted that this longing for nature and simplicity through handmade goods still holds strength today.

In Notion Nanny, the current context of political and social turmoil will be referenced via objects relating to war, trench art, and revolutionary art movements. Through the representation of a Revolutionary War-era village character type, the figure suggests a longing for escape from the present crisis, and through the peddler figure specifically, escape from corporate power structures and the commercialization of art. But rather than extolling the values of the simple life, I am looking back to moments of complexity and conflict. By foregrounding various vernacular and popular art/craft forms I am trying to recall and revive ways of living and working that speak to the current situation I find myself in as a contemporary artist, working in the context of war and a deep national divide. Rather than a celebration of local vernacular traditions in a bid to strengthen national identities, I am questioning what the notion of national identity means, and how nations, communities, artists/artisans produce visual histories.

I would like to pick up on this thread of craving for rural experience and nature, and how that is always connected to the urban experience. When it strays too far into the actual countryside, it loses its charged meaning and power. I recognize that there is something urban in my desires, and that the context for this project resides in both urban and rural settings simultaneously.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Field Research

On a one-week research trip to Cumbria, I tried to meet with as many local makers as I could, including a coppice worker, charcoal maker, wood turner, doll maker, knitter and hook rug maker, blacksmith, bone and horn carver, and a walking stick and rustic furniture maker. I met with each person for a couple of hours at their home or workshop. We spoke about the history of their craft and the notion of tradition, if and how they had apprenticed themselves to learn it, and how they feel about exhibiting, demonstrating, or selling it and in what context.

Alan Hartley, a coppice worker, described the ways in which the local forests have been worked and maintained for centuries. Coppice workers cut down young trees, strip them of bark, and use or sell the lumber for various things including, historically, furniture, firewood, charcoal, and bobbin-making. Alan does not consider himself a “traditional” maker, since he uses various machinery to help him do his work, including a circular planing machine which strips the bark from the trees. He says that he uses this machine because he has to make a living, and to do it the traditional way would be too laborious and time-consuming. However, being a coppice worker is traditional job, since it is an increasingly expensive and uncommon trade. Special forest areas have to be fenced off to protect against deer that would otherwise feed on the young saplings, and one has to get grants to do this kind of work and to keep the tradition alive. Alan, who has worked for the Forestry Commission, said that this is a shame, since most of the local forests are neglected and need maintenance.

Besides coppice work, Alan works in old houses to replace ceiling timbers. He considers himself an engineer rather than a craftsperson. According to him, the most traditional thing he does is to make traditional seats and pub furniture out of coppice wood. After the trees are cut and stripped of their bark, they are stacked against a tree and dried in the sun. Then each rounded pole is cut down to make the sturdy rustic furniture commonly seen in the outdoor areas of local pubs.

Alan described this work as a chosen way of life, one he has happily not taken a holiday from in twenty years. Making furniture is a “rainy day” project he does in the off-hours to keep himself busy when he can’t be in the forest. In an uncanny evocation of Ruskin, Alan said he only makes a few seats at a time, and only sells them through word-of-mouth, “otherwise it would be like a factory.” He is anti-advertising. His work is very tied to weather and nature. Making seats provides him with a slower pace of life and a chance to get out of the rain. He feels it is good for his health, and on a larger scale, “good for man,” since we need healthy forests for a healthy planet.

I met Audrey Steeley, formerly of Grizedale Arts, who now runs a heritage museum at the Heron Corn Mill, a working corn mill dating back to 1740. She told me a bout many local makers, and introduced me to Michael Booth, a wood turner who sells his work at the mill. Mike belongs to a local woodturning society, which holds monthly meetings and demonstrations. A prolific maker, he said he enjoys woodturning primarily for pleasure, and only sells his work to get rid of the surplus. Unlike other craftspeople in the region, he is not interested in showing and selling his work at the country fairs and agricultural shows, as he feels they are too expensive and boring, “like watching paint dry.” He doesn’t teach, because he has invented his own methods and techniques, and thinks he couldn’t teach the basics properly. So for £5 I bought a small wooden goblet he made with a ring around its stem, a somewhat common object he said, made as a way to show off your woodturning skills, and he explained how he did it so I could try it on my own. When I said I wasn't sure if I could do it as well, he remarked. "Well there ARE lady turners..."

I spent a lovely afternoon with Joanne Gill, who makes bobbin dolls from the wooden spools used for thread, as well as patchwork creations and beaded greeting cards. Trying to be, as she said, a “hostess with the mostest, “Joanne served up delicious tea and cookies in her immaculately clean home, as she told of how she has been a housebound maker, feeling poorly over the past several years. Crafts have been a way to occupy her idle hands and to stave off boredom. She has always been a maker, since she was a child and avidly watched Blue Peter, a project-centered television show for kids.

Joanne remarked that Notion Nanny is like a “journey” to learn the crafts of the peddler doll. She herself has journeyed to peddle her wares at the fairs, with some success in Cumbria but more in Newcastle. She attributed this to the fact that maybe her work doesn’t fit into the description of “traditional enough” for what people are seeking in this region. There is an interesting transformation happening in the Lake District, in which an influx of people are coming to the region and buying homes and property for holiday use. Many of these houses are only occupied by their urban owners for part of the year. Yet this growing population, seeking fulfillment of a particular notion of the countryside, have begun to transform the region into a kind of ideal fantasy of the countryside, leading some to wonder what happened to the “real” Lake District.

I spent another lovely afternoon with Audrey Grisedale, who works in lots of mediums and like Joanne, will “have a go” at any craft that strikes her fancy. In her parlor she set up an impressive array of objects that she went to the trouble of retrieving from friends and loved ones for the purpose of our meeting. You see, Audrey would never think of selling her work, rather she only gives it to people as gifts. Next to the fireplace a series of colorful crocheted teddy bears sat ready to be given to the police department for child victims of accidents. Other bears had been sent to children in war-torn regions of the world. She also showed me pieces of Ruskin linen and lace work she had done, which she intended to pass on one day to her nieces. On the wall were two hook rug banners depicting portraits of Herdwick sheep. These were made as memorials for local farmers who lost hundreds of sheep during a recent epidemic of foot and mouth disease in which mass hysteria provoked the government to have thousands of sheep killed unnecessarily. Audrey was visibly emotional as she told this story and its effect on her family who have farmed in the region of over three hundred years.

One of the positive outcomes of this traumatic event was an evening crafts group formed by Audrey and some other women in her community. Every week, women would gather to talk and make things. For the farms that lost their sheep, regular daily farming activities came to a halt, and this group became a positive way to offer women something productive to do with their time and with their feelings about the event. According to Audrey, the group was quite popular and it allowed the women of the community to come together, to exchange skills, and to expand notions of their individual identities. Whether it was in the sense of urgency evident in her making of the teddy bears and banners, her participation in the tradition of creating family heirlooms, or her desire to create a community-based crafts group as a therapeutic response to trauma, the notion of giving was key to Audrey’s craft pursuits.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

English Popular Art

Originally uploaded by notionnanny.
A couple of years ago a British friend gave me a beautiful old book on English Popular Art by Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx. It is a slim 1946 hardback, itself a wonderful example of book printing of that era. This image in particular caught my attention. An example of a genre within 19th century popular art, it seemed that the peddler doll in some way also attempts to represent ALL of the popular arts, as individual objects in her basket. It reminded me of Robert Morris's self-reflexive art work "Box with the Sound of Its Own Making," a small cube with a mechanism inside that plays a recording of just that. I am interested in the doll as a multi-layered representation: it is the thing and it is about the thing simultaneously. The basket presents a context, the world of traditional and popular art, as though the doll produces or provides it, while also being a product of it.

Friday, July 01, 2005

At Your Doorstep

Welcome to the Notion Nanny weblog, where you will find news and information about this project.