Friday, July 25, 2008


The problem with trying to write a blog post when getting kids and dogs ready for a drive to Sacramento, especially a blog post with content that means anything worth saying, is that, invariably, something gets left out. I realized yesterday, as I sat in traffic on I-80 (an hour and a half to get from Travis AFB to the outskirts of Vacaville; that's about 10 miles -- I did get a lot of knitting done, though, and reminded myself that the people in the accident up ahead were having a far worse day than I) that, as I am wont to do when I've been mulling over something for a while, I left out a contextualizing piece that fed into all of the thoughts I was having at the deYoung regarding beauty and craftsmanship. (Ask me how much trouble this caused when I was writing a dissertation.) Of course, there is also the inherent difficulty of discussing something like this in a forum as small as a blog; Fuzzarelly and Marianne both left beautiful addenda in the comments to the last post (you can go read them, I'll wait), and I hope that I'll hear from other folks, too. A topic like this deserves discussion and complication.

As I was walking through this textile exhibit, admiring the work hanging there (and wondering, as I do, how it got there), I kept thinking about a visit I made to Guatemala several years ago for a conference. I was lucky enough to go in company with a colleague of mine who works with a group of women in a remote Guatemalan village. These women survived the Violencia, many of them having lost children, husbands, parents, and they created a collective to make and sell weavings in order to buy land to create a farm so they could grow more food so they could sell that, so they could have a better standard of living for their children. Most of them have very little, in terms of that most Western of commodities, stuff. They don't have a lot of food or clothes, and houses are small and crowded; access to medicine is difficult at best, and people die of things that could be treated with relative ease in the States. (I'm simplifying a lot here.)

I met some of these women when they came to Antigua to go to the market and to see my colleague. They were dressed stunningly in traditional Mayan clothes, all handwoven and brightly colored. They had great fun wrapping a head wrap around my head to show me how it was done, and demonstrating how children could be carried on their backs, wrapped up in lengths of cloth. I'm sure they wondered at this strange American who didn't know these basic things, but their laughter was kind, and I can handle being laughed at.

When we got back, my colleague told me of another academic, who, hearing that she was helping the Grupo sell weavings in the States so they could raise money, insisted that these women could not possibly be poor or in need, because they could afford to dress so beautifully. Never mind that most of the women in the group have only one, or maybe two, of the gorgeous huipiles, or that each of those huipiles was painstakingly handwoven by the woman who wore it. Ownership of beauty, to him, meant that they must have money to spare; there was a hint of criticism in there, too: are these women wasting money on beautiful clothes when they could be buying food?

That was what kept going through my head at the museum exhibit: the notion that a life without stuff must be a life without beauty. Now, I know that there is a lot more to the man's statement than that. In fact, there is an entire interesting book in examining all of the cultural, social, religious, political, economic, etc. background that makes a statement like that possible to say, and comprehensible to an audience (the linguist in me always finds it interesting to figure out what it is that a sayer and and a hearer must know in order for communication to occur). But I was thinking as a craftswoman at the time, and what was going through my head was that this man clearly was divorced from craft, that he didn't have a deep, visceral understanding of the pride, and competition, and skill that go into making something. Nor did he the craftperson's understanding that she will be living with what she has made for a while, and would want it to be beautiful precisely because she only has one of it, and because it's not easily replaced or exchanged.

I know that there have always been groups here in the States who understand that sometimes beauty is found in a few beautifully made and useful things, rather than in lots of stuff (Shakers and the Arts and Crafts movement come immediately to mind; there are more). What was going through my head as I looked at the weavings on the walls was that, worldwide, there are probably more cultures who feel and live that way than those who don't, and that being a knitter makes me feel more connected to that way of viewing the world than I otherwise would.

Someone really should write a book about this; maybe someone already has and I don't know it? Maybe one of you already is? If so, I can't wait to read it.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. From some reason it made me think of a visit to a small village in Mexico: Mata Ortiz, famous for its pottery. We stumbled upon it quite by chance and were really amazed. It is a long story so I will not write it all here but the thing that I remembered was taking a walk after dinner in the dirt "streets" of the village, I was amazed by the laughter and happy sounds you could hear coming out of the very small houses and I remember telling Joe, they sound much happier than many "rich" people in Arizona,,, we already saw some samples of their art in the dining room but the next day we found the real treasure, no wonder they are happy!

Anonymous said...

If they have enough time to make and wear beautiful things, they're not suffering? Maybe he's thinking that they're going in for fittings and having their nails done. Likely he's just dismissive of women, their time, and how they choose to spend it.

Lynne said...

To own something beautiful is to be rich? Interesting concept. Does something have to be ugly just because it's utilitarian?
I thought of those beautiful baskets in an earlier post.
I thought of discussions on a forum about giving to charity and that the needy "should be grateful for whatever they get" - even if the yarn is scratchy and an ugly colour!
I thought of dinner sets and cutlery and gorgeous underwear tucked away, never used, except "for good".

Perhaps having beautiful clothes helps those women through their tough lives?

Marianne said...

I saw that Wanda chimed in on the comments on your last post, a beauty of a comment I will say.

I don't know if there's a book out there or not. I do know, we think a lot alike, you and I...
I do find it interesting, speaking of the Arts and Crafts movement... today there are folks collecting those items, gathering them in, but in the end they've cluttered with perhaps too much which isn't necessarily what all that was about, eh? I love the style for sure but would be more than happy with just a couple of pieces :^) (and no, I'm not being 'sour grapes'... it was all about simple, useful, and a pleasure to the eye, not clutter, they were trying to get away from that!)

Another beautiful and thoughtful post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Your post is a reminder of the amazing spirit of humankind. To think of what those women had been through and then how they embraced you - stunning.

Rachael said...

You have such a wonderful way with should be drafting a book proposal to send in. We'll wait while you write it.

mehitabel said...

For me, that man's comments speak volumes about him--and I think I'm very glad I don't know him! It really is an inborn drive, I think, to make the useful everyday items as beautifully as possible. I feel sorry for people who cannot understand that, because they will always be "poor in spirit."

Shirley Goodwin said...

"If of your mortal goods you are bereft and in your slender stores two loaves to you alone are left, sell one and with the dole, buy hyacinths to feed your soul." We all need to have some beauty in our lives as well as food. I agree with mehitabel that the man making that criticism has poverty of spirit - not enough hyacinths for sure.

EGunn said...

"To own something beautiful is to be rich?" And perhaps richer than those who would criticize from their armchairs. Too often we confuse wealth with richness, to our detriment.

Do you read the Red Thread Studio blog?
I believe that she is writing a book, and judging from the blog content, it will be along these lines...

I would second the above comment that you could start your first draft, too. =)

Alwen said...

Interesting. Is the whole blogiverse (ouch!) talking and thinking about stuff and our relationship to stuff?

Or is it me thinking about stuff and seeing thoughts about it everywhere I look?

Sometimes I think the whole point of the US is to prove that having stuff does not equal happiness.

Anonymous said...

I am SO glad I clicked from your comment at Stephanie's today to here and found this. Exquisitely seen, beautifully written. Thank you for this.