Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Ruskin Resuscitations

On the plane from New York to Manchester I read John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic, in which an interesting statement appears in the form of a footnote:

“The best art either represents the facts of its own day, or, if facts of the past, expresses them with accessories of the time in which the work was done. All good art, representing past events, is therefore full of the most frank anachronism, and always ought to be. No painter has any business to be an antiquarian. We do not want his impressions or suppositions respecting things that are past. We want his clear assertions respecting things present.”

Instantly the slang word farby comes to mind. It is a term (derived from the phrase “Far be it from me to criticize, but…”) used by American Civil War re-enactors to mean historically inaccurate, and therefore uncool. It is a derogatory term in the Living History world, where the idea is that through the impeccable aesthetic and formal historical accuracy of props, time travel is indeed possible. Re-enactors would more likely align themselves with Ruskin’s other statement, that “the painter should grind his own colours.”

I have often thought about the object makers of re-enactments, the people who sew the uniforms, make the flags, and reproduce the weapons. In a way it’s all about them, regardless of the fact that they stand on the sidelines at their market stalls on “sutler’s row,” rather than taking fake bullets on a crowded, smoky, sweaty battlefield. Look inside any hardcore re-enactor’s haversack, and you’re likely to find examples of historical making such as stitchery, tinwork, pewter casting, wood and horn carving, candle making, leather craft, printmaking, 19th century photography, and more. (If you happen to find a Coca Cola, you know you have a farb on your hands.)

I started collecting mail-order catalogs from cottage industries that cater to re-enactor consumers some years ago. My collection has grown to over one hundred and I find them a great source for ideas. But I have always wanted to meet these makers, and to learn what motivates them. Especially since re-enactment culture is so strongly focused on conflict, I am intrigued by the notion that an “authentic reproduction” could take you back to a more mundane, everyday sort of moment. Though their role in the events may seem peripheral, or even invisible, the makers of the material culture around re-enactments determine to a large extent the success or failure of this particular kind of “theatre of war.” Their re-enactment involves a performance that, through the activity of making, amounts to historical preservation in real time/studio time: repetitive thrusts of cardiac resuscitation upon dying craft traditions in order to keep them alive.

One often hears that the Lake District is a “constructed landscape,” despite a sort of “back to nature” idea that many people are performing when they come here in search of a culture-free zone, an antidote to urban living, or whatever promise of the landscape they have constructed for themselves. As for myself, I came to the Lake District wanting to experience it via local craft traditions, not because I thought I would find the “real” Cumbria, but because I wanted to witness that process of construction in a direct, hands-on way. Current exhibitions at the Museum of Lakeland Life, the Armitt Museum, and the Ruskin Museum confirm the use of craft traditions as a central signifier for this region. It can be seen almost everywhere, but especially in the National Trust gift shops, largely due to the mythology around Ruskin, who lived here and is more or less credited with inspiring all sorts of local arts industries making linen, spinning wool, doing metalwork, woodcarving, pottery, and the list goes on.

Primarily through word of mouth, I have met with about twenty makers during my time here. In some cases it has been a single brief meeting, in others a conversation over several days. I have found that I am most interested in the craftspeople who self-identify as “traditional,” who do not consider themselves artists, and whose practice is strikingly like that of the historical re-enactor. These are people who know every aspect of their craft and its history and engage in it at every level. Two people in particular that I would like to mention are Owen Jones and Elizabeth Prickett.

Owen Jones is known throughout the region as the “last” remaining maker of a particular type of traditional oak basket called a swill. He learned the technique from a man who was formerly the “last in the line,” and organically it became his livelihood. “I am a traditional maker,” he said, “and I feel quite comfortable in the safeness of that, as opposed to art, which is about opening doors and breaking with tradition.” Nevertheless, he was interested in my research as an artist, and we agreed that in exchange for helping him in the forest for a day, he would help me to make a basket. He took me to the part of Grizedale Forest he has been working in for the past eight years, a fenced-in area he has special permission to use. There are tracks that have been worn into the earth over centuries by people doing the same kind of work Owen does. “You can feel the sense of history in these woods,” he said, “and I quite like that.” He has made a sort of outdoor studio that instantly brought to mind memories of playing in the woods as a child, the way a fallen tree becomes a bridge or a big rock becomes a stage. All around us were various interpretations of a log: log as pedestal, log as pen post, log as tarp weight, log as table, log as chair. And in tidy piles that lined each work area where a tree had once come down, there were logs for firewood, for making charcoal, and for boiler fuel, bark for leather tanning, and branches for besom brooms, all stacked up and ready to be used. Even the leafy treetops, which were of no other use to Owen, were left in piles providing future architecture for the homes of woodland creatures. One could easily imagine the pleasures of working there, especially in the wintertime, next to a crackling fire, looking out over the silhouettes of trees into the distant mountains.

Owen’s other studio is a small stone structure with a large wooden door that moves with the breeze, filtering in the natural light onto stacks and bundles of wood at various states of transformation, and the comforting presence of two goats. I was fascinated by the various tools he used, like a sort of mallet made from a small log with a thick branch handle, or a measuring stick that was literally a stick with carved notches. The organic fluidity between raw material, process, and end product suggested a hall of mirrors. We talked about the performative aspects of his work, and about re-enactment. As a way to subsidize his income and to balance out the solitary times with some social interaction, he often teaches and goes to re-enactments to demonstrate his work. He says he would never sell his baskets in a store because that would make him like a “machine” and his workshop like a “factory.” Which brings us to Ruskin’s major argument in The Nature of Gothic, that regarding the manual labourer, “you must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him. You cannot make both.” Ruskin was against the industrial revolution’s treatment of people as tools or machines, arguing for an appreciation of the worker as a thinking man, which is also why he felt he should make his things all the way through, from inception to finish. More flaws and errors would come about that way, evidence of the human being behind the made thing and behind art. Owen said he enjoys being able to shake hands with the person who owns one of his baskets, and likes the idea that they too can know the maker of their possession. In another conversation he said that maybe he was a living continuation of the arts and crafts movement, or its ideals at least. It is worth noting that ultimately it was the discrepancy between maker and consumer that William Morris, a huge fan of Ruskin, would eventually blame for the demise of the Arts and Crafts movement. In a humble way, to me at least, Owen’s work prompts the notion of re-enactment as anti-capitalist gesture, or a form of lifestyle protest, regardless of how it might be used to represent the romanticism of Lakeland.

I first met Elizabeth Prickett and her husband at their home in Torver. “Have you lived here long?” I asked. “Well I was born right there,” Mr. Prickett said, pointing through the picture window to a cottage framed by rolling green hills. We had a pleasant conversation over tea and biscuits while Elizabeth explained that she is only the fourth in a matriarchal lineage of women who have been teaching a type of lace worked into linen known as Ruskin lace. She was an important figure in making sure the technique was officially recognized as independent from all other similar lace forms, though in my opinion it should in fact be called Twelves Lace, because its real inventor was Marian Twelves, who was Ruskin’s friend Albert Fleming’s housekeeper. Anyway Elizabeth has been teaching Ruskin lace for over thirty years, and has written an informative book on the subject. Her work is on display at several local museums and she and some forty other women once created a Ruskin lace sampler for the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Elizabeth approaches her work in an orthodox way. “I don’t like colour,” she said. “The people who are attracted to this type of work are people who like discipline and monotones.” Once when there was a “hiccup” in the production of the appropriate linen, she grew her own flax and spun and wove it into the fabric she needed. Elizabeth decided long ago never to sell her work, since she figured that even at one pound per hour, people would never pay what it took her to complete a piece. But she, like Owen, enjoys the interactivity of teaching, and relies on it to make a living in addition to sales of her book and a series of postcards. I attended a two-day course she gave in an agricultural hall in Kendal, along with a group of women called the Lakeland Lacemakers. Elizabeth laid out examples of her work on a small stage, and then came around giving individual instruction to each person throughout the day. Over tea and biscuits, I worked quietly, trying to make my fingers do the intricate needlework while listening to the local gossip, including news of various deaths and terminal illnesses as well as childhood stories of life during World War II.

The following week I met Elizabeth at the Ruskin Museum, where she showed me cases of vintage Ruskin lace while a video of her working played behind us. Then we sat on a bench and she took me through the next steps of the process. We spoke about what it feels like to be “holding the torch” of a tradition, and if she was ready to pass it on. She does have someone in mind, as Owen does, a sort of apprentice she trusts will continue it without changing anything. I asked her if she felt like she was a living memorial, if that held some power for her. In response she told me a story, the details of which I promised not to retell, of a near death experience to which she attributes her decision to devote herself to this tradition. She told me about her original training as a nurse, and also of the many widows who have made their way to her course, and I thought again of life support, of suturing a wound, of wounded cultures, and trauma. I think Ruskin would be pleased that you can find Elizabeth or her students demonstrating, or re-enacting, or resuscitating Ruskin lace every Thursday in his home at Brantwood.


Sunday, August 28, 2005

Basket of Supplies

Basket of Supplies
Originally uploaded by notionnanny.
This cornucopia of supplies represents lots of new projects to do over the next few months.

Some of the items you see in there are the wood handles for two walking sticks, some hand dyed Herdwick wool for knitting, several pieces of flat horn to make