22 August 2012

It's Content That Matters

When I tell someone that I am an artist, the next question is usually "And what kind of art do you do?" If I said I was a painter or a potter or a jewelrymaker, I'd be home free; I'd fit in a category. Instead I will likely answer that I am a writer and textile artist who also makes prints and has recently added enameled copper to my work. I end up attempting multiple definitions and descriptions of how I use textiles. "Embroidery" and "Russian punchneedle, like a miniature punched or hooked rug" lead to nods and comments that let me know that the questioner is thinking of monogrammed linens, samplers, or that old rug Grandma had. "Second-generation Polish snutki" entails explaining how these are not tatted or crocheted, but there's no way around "doily" in most people's minds. "Printmaker" is a bit more accessible, "enameling" less so. And at the end of the encounter this person may have some vague notion of what techniques or materials I use, may have asked questions about my subject matter and have some picture in mind -- but how this all adds up to art and in what category I am to be placed have not been resolved. When I was much younger, this uncertainty on the part of others would have troubled me. 

We live in a culture of labels and specialties and categories, a time of "this, not this," of belief systems based on duality, black/white, good/evil, us/them. I admit there was a time when I was bothered by my "lack of category," having absorbed messages about choosing one thing to focus on (as in college: pick a major, pick an area, pick a specialty), about that focus being both an indication of my commitment (as if a measure of character and maturity) and the only route to a style, to success, to expertise--in short, specializing in "this, not this" was proof that I was engaged in serious art and not some crafty, dilettantish hobbying.

I spent my 20s haranguing myself to "decide" so that other people would take my work seriously, whether that work was a poem, a stitchery, a print, or an essay. Meanwhile my life was anything but specialized. I lived on a small farmstead on the west side of Puget Sound and commuted on a ferry to Seattle to attend graduate school. I had chickens, rabbits, and a herd of dairy goats; sold milk from the farm, as well as show and breeding stock; raised organic beef and pork for sale and home use; kept a huge garden. The joke was that we'd be completely self-sufficient if we could only grow coffee, sugarcane, a bookstore, and a museum. I was a homesteading generalist, and that was reflected in my writing and artwork. Meanwhile, the world out there was telling us all to dress for success, get the money, get a career, specialize. Eventually even I tried out cubicle life, technical writing by day and farmsteading every other waking moment. It made me sick. I retreated to my barn. After a long dark night of the soul, I knew that I could only survive if I could live an authentic life, not the one the specializers and categorizers wanted to pick out for me.

Intuition kept insisting that I didn't need to specialize in a form of being human. It whispered "It's content that matters." And lucky, lucky me, I heard her voice.

My very self is expressed through my activities, the beings (human and other) I surround myself with, and the settings I place myself in. My life has meaning because its varied content is unified by my values, the sincere gratitude I feel for and to the natural world, and my commitment to wholeness. One day I realized that, if everything I was doing was an expression of me, an evolving and flawed, infinitely curious human woman, then what else could my art-making be but varied and changing?


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