All I knew about Chattanooga, Tennessee was the punch line to a joke my father used to tell, what was called a shaggy dog story, a rambling nonsensical buildup to a corny punchline that made you groan and laugh at the same time. It was a play on the Glen Miller song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, the first line of which is “Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?” The set-up concerned a fellow named Roy, a cat and his new pair of shoes. That’s all I remember. But the punch line was, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that ate your new shoes?” It makes me laugh and groan every time.
I am happy to say that I now have a much fuller and more nuanced knowledge of Chattanooga, a really lovely small city on the Tennessee River. Like many manufacturing cities, it fell on hard times late in the 20th century and has made a remarkable rebound based on tourism, history, nature and the arts. I discovered this this past weekend during a quick visit to attend the reception of a small exhibition of my work at River Gallery in the Bluff View Art District.
The gallery contacted me after having seen an article that came out in American Craft magazine last year and asked if I would like to have a show there. Sure, I said, having never been to Chattanooga and rarely having exhibited in the south at all. They selected work from images I sent and created what was a beautiful show of clay, basketry and drawing. I was quite pleased.
Here are a few of the walls. You’ll notice that the beautiful color of the walls is actually carpeting. It is brilliant. No nail holes to fill and it gives a softness to the lighting that is magical for the work. Who knew?
Let me say immediately that “Journeys” was not made in an effort to come up with a piece that would sell for $20,000. But it is the most expensive piece I have ever made. It is in the collection of the Renwick Gallery of the American Art Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. It’s existence came about under an odd and wonderful set of circumstances.
Here’s the story. I was talking with Ken Trapp, who was then the director of the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. We had met a few times and he was familiar with my work and had said that the Renwick would like to have a piece in their collection. As we were chatting, Doug Ring, a wonderful man and generous collector, joined us and asked Ken what was coming up at the Gallery. Ken said that it would be a textile show and Doug asked if I were to be in it. No, said Ken, but they very much wanted a piece of mine in the collection to which Ken said, “Well, have her make a piece and send me the bill.” Voilà. Definitely a number 9. I was in the right place at the right time.
Actually, quite a few reasons on the list came into play.
- Materials, not so much. The materials for this piece probably topped out at $250 and had no apparent intrinsic value.
- Size, yes. The shelf is about 7′ long. I wanted to have a physical presence in the Gallery and size is a good way to address that.
- Number, yes. I suppose I could have made one big basket, but variety was important to the concept of the piece, as if each of these baskets was brought back from a separate journey.
- Medium. No options here, except those within my established vocabulary of textile techniques.
- Reputation. I was known to both the director of the Gallery and to the collector who owned my work. My reputation was important to both of them.
- Social currency. This happened before social media. But I had been written about and was in other museum collections and so had a certain social presence.
- Rarity. Time consuming construction techniques assure a certain rarity. That can be a curse or a blessing.
- Representation. In this case, both men were “representatives”. Each, in his own way, was advocating for my work to the other.
- Timing. Totally amazing.
- Magic. Not really a player in this case since the piece didn’t even exist yet. You can neither predict nor enforce magic.
Worth, value, price. They are really different concepts but they overlap in both the maker’s mind and the viewer’s mind. Of course, the bottom line, and perhaps number 11 on the list, is “Make the best work you possibly can.” Always.
The absolute best right place/right time story? When my now husband and I walked through the door of a gallery at the same time and started chatting. Ten seconds earlier or later, and we probably wouldn’t have met. That was 36 years ago.
Several years ago, I found myself in a hotel room late at night with several fellow basket-makers. Jan Hopkins, Kate Anderson and Susan Kavicky (perhaps more?) were there. We were in Chicago for SOFA and had reserved rooms for the group of us. After the long day of being “on”, talking with folks, looking at work in other gallery booths, expending a lot of energy in hoping that work would be purchased, we had kicked back with a bottle of wine and philosophical conversation.
As usual, the subject of price vs. value came up. In art, the value of a piece is based on…what? Why did some of the works we had seen that day merit four-figure or even five-figure prices while others, similar in many ways, merit only triple-digits?
- Materials. Gold is more expensive than paper and so the resulting objects made from them tend to be more or less expensive.
- Size. It does seem to matter. Bigger generally trumps smaller.
- Number. If one makes ten $10 pieces that go together, the logical price would be $100. If one makes one hundred $10 pieces that go together, we have a $1000 piece. That doesn’t always hold true, of course, but the logic is there.
- Medium. Every medium seems to have its day. Glass is still the big dog. A mediocre piece of glass will sell for far more than a mediocre piece of wood or clay or textile.
- Reputation of the maker. The baseball card mentality. A Babe Ruth is worth more than a Ziggy Fitzgerald.
- Social currency. Has this work been talked/written about? How many “likes” does it have? Has a celebrity been seen looking at it or, better yet, buying it?
- Rarity. The fewer pieces there are made by a coveted artist, the more expensive they will be.
- Representation. The reputation of the gallery or agent carries weight in the pricing game, too. If a well-respected gallery or agent values the work sufficiently to represent it, that counts for something.
- Timing. There is much to be said about being in the right place at the right time.
- Magic. There is always the possibility for that ineffable quality that appears when a maker is truly an artist. And even then, it’s rare.
Many of these elements are beyond one’s control but we can control some of them. What if we thought about the “value” of the piece before we made it? From that idea came this: What if we had an exhibition in which every piece had to sell for $20,000? What would each of us do to make a piece that would cost that amount? Use gold as an element? Learn glassblowing? Fill a room with ten thousand objects? Call upon a childhood friend who has made it big in Hollywood to talk about our work at LA cocktail parties? Just put a price tag of $20,000 on anything we made?
It flipped the ongoing question of pricing on its head. Instead of looking at our work and saying, “What is it worth?”, we would set out to control what we could to make a piece worth a certain amount. People do this all the time in order to make work that sells for less but rarely to make work that sells for more. I would still like to think that artists make work for reasons other than the price tag but what I like about the practice is that it asks us to be scrupulous about what we value in our own work and in the work of others.
Above is “Journies”, a piece that is in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. I’ll tell you more about it next time.
Thursday was the last full day. Friday morning, all departed, reluctant to leave, eager to get home, including me. I’m sitting in the studio, having unpacked materials, books and clothes. Back to normal. But not quite. Two weeks at Haystack changes you, almost always for the better. Natural beauty, collegial support, good food and time are a potent mix, a tonic for well-being.
I want to thank the beautiful women in the class for their intelligence, kindness and humor. Haystack, and in particular the merry band of basketmakers this session, are a model for how life might be. It is an antidote as well as a tonic. Thanks to Carol Rissman, Fran Dorsey, Kindle Loomis, Ellen Schiffman, Joan Freedman, Sharon Cheeseman, Cindy Simonds, Ashley Chen, Anne-Claude Cotty and Pi Benio.
We ended up with a list of bywords, nine in all. It was gratifying to see how they helped to shape our inquiries, each person responding to different ones at different times. And when folks from town came to the studio on Thursday night for the walk-through, with all the work on display, many stopped to read the list on a blackboard and to snap a picture to remember them. I know that I plan to pin them up in my studio. Here’s the list.
- It’s not a competition.
- Don’t compare. Relate.
- All art is learning.
- Sometimes you just have to walk away.
- What if…?
- Trust the process.
- Be kind.
When the Haystack Board first discussed the addition of the fab lab on campus several years ago, I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. I was committed to the the handling of materials to make objects in such a way that it did not allow for the intervention of a tool as abstract as a 3-D printer or a laser cutter. I wasn’t quite pulled along, kicking and screaming, but I grumbled mightily.
Well, I was wrong. The fab lab has been an extraordinary addition to the classes here. It is seen as an auxiliary service. There are no fab lab stand-alone classes. Any student is welcome to take a problem to the lab and work with the technicians to see if there is a solution possible. Kindle took a form she had created from two pieces of paper stitched together and Helga and Margaret interpreted it through software for the laser cutter to understand. The technicians love the challenge and the students are opened up to new possibilities for their work. It is an effective link to the future of craft and fits into the commitment Haystack has to being a research facility in craft as well as an educational institution. Very cool.
The byword today was “persevere”. One of the most impressive qualities shown by every one of these students is her commitment to keep pushing, refining and reworking. They keep going. That’s something you can’t really teach because no one truly believes you. There is a tendency to think that there is a secret or a magic formula that makes an admired artwork look easy or inevitable. Every excellent artist I know has worked with discipline and commitment over time, sometimes kicking and screaming, but persevering nonetheless.
We had a heatwave today. Hottest and most humid day in a very warm session. We were all moving slowly. Even the lobster hood ornament onthe campus truck was slow. But the studios hummed along nonetheless.
The byword for today is actually the byword for the entire session. “Trust the process.” If nothing else changes for the students when they leave, if they learn to trust what they are doing, they will be transformed. If they begin and continue…it sounds so simple…they will succeed. Perhaps not immediately or even very soon, but the process will take them somewhere. One has to believe that.
It is the natural thing to try to think our way through. We sit at the desk, looking at the materials in front of us, trying to decide which to use, using which techniques. Thinking tells us very little. But handling the materials, manipulating them into a form, adding and subtracting and selecting and continuing tells us much. It makes all the difference.
Tomorrow is the last full day in the studios. I’m excited about what the students in the class are doing because they really do exhibit a commitment to beginning and continuing, to trusting the process. I’ll try to post some images.
Byword for Monday: “What if…?” What if I make this larger? What if I use seaweed instead of raffia? What if I made this structure as if it had been made by zombies? It’s a wonderful way to look at one’s work and life in general, don’t you think? Here is where I am and, by considering what if, this is where I might go.
What if necessitates a beginner mind, as they say in meditation, allowing each moment to be inhabited as if it were the first time you have encountered the particular situation you’re in. (Of course, this is impossible…except for the times you go into another room to get something and forget why you’re there. Come on, you know you’ve done it.) But being open to possibilities as if you were a beginner is a great strategy for being “present”, for being ready to encounter experiences with all of the possibilities intact.
But beyond being present and being ready, asking what if gives form to the inquiry. In our class, we have been talking about using materials, techniques and ideas to form our objects. Last week, many materials and techniques were covered in various combinations and with varying results. Today each student started thinking what if in order to carry those experiments in a more personal and expressive direction. Now if we only had two more weeks…
Saturday. Work day or play day. Go to the dump day. Laundry day. For me, chat with friends day. I was fortunate to have several friends stop by for a visit. Two architects (Carol Wilson and Becca whose last name I don’t know) and a former arts administrator from New Brunswick (Edward Leger) certainly appreciated seeing the buildings themselves and also the work going on in the studio. Carol and Edward are good friends and Becca a new one.
And then, a longtime Haystack friend, Lynn Duryea, wonderful ceramic artist, stopped by to catch up. We sat outside the ceramics studio and covered a lot of territory in a short time. I was reminded of how much of my professional and social life has been affected by my relationship with Haystack. Lucky me.
Tonight dinner was served picnic style on the rocks at the water’s edge. Beautiful evening. These pictures were taken by shooting left and straight ahead and right from one point on the rocks. It is indescribably beautiful in each direction. All we had to do was look around.
Friday of the first week at Haystack, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is an odd day. Generally there is a sense of transition, from the experimentation and learning phase to the more individually directed project phase. I like this part because there is more of the real person and artist involved. The students are bringing their own ideas and practice into play. Some will work over the weekend, some will do some sightseeing, some will have guests, some will…well, I don’t know. There are no classes, no scheduled events.
Today we had two bywords. From the radio weather report this morning came, “The sunnier it is today, the stormier it will be later on.” It seems quite often to be an apt metaphor for the process of making. You start out with big ideas and grand plans, full of “Oh, I’ve got this.” And then the storm clouds pile in with doubts and misery. “Why did I think that this was such a good idea?” The intrepid will persevere through the storm. The rest will go to plan B.
Plan B popped up later in the afternoon as someone mentioned that she had heard it several times today, probably in response to the changing of sunshine to storm. “Sometimes you just have to walk away.” It may be a permanent departure. Or it may be just a time for clearing the head, the metaphorical equivalent of going inside, out of the storm, for a hot toddy.
Tonight, there are no presentations, just a rousing volleyball game, conversations on the rocks and the quiet work of fighting through the metaphorical storm in the studios.
How do you understand a man who speaks only Chinese? You look at his work. Bai Ming, a master Chinese ceramist and painter, is teaching the ceramics class this session. He made a presentation this evening in Gateway. His daughter, Jessica, translated for him as he spoke of his home and his influences and then there was a video which had subtitles. It was in looking at his work that you could get to know him. He is of a generation that bridges the enormous past of Chinese art and the emerging contemporary scene. I especially respond to his paintings. It’s not often that you are in a place where you can chat with a modern master.
The day flew by. The class has covered many techniques and experimented with many materials. Of course, there are many more that we could cover if we had the time and inventory. Beginning today, we are approaching the design of an object from the point of view of an idea, of influences and content. After this week of quick and sketchy assignments, each person will come up with a direction that she wishes to pursue. That’s when the good stuff begins.
The byword for today was, “All art is learning.” It started as “All my art is learning”, which a student expressed when she was talking about an assignment, but it seemed that it could be simplified to include all art. The artist is learning through her pursuit of her practice and with any luck the viewer of the art is learning something about him or herself and the world. Lofty ideals but worth pursuing.