I started hiring out as a carpenter last year. After building a shed for a woman, I was asked by a friend how I liked my new line of work. I told him I liked it a lot, because I was being paid to do what I enjoyed. “For myself,” he responded, “I wouldn’t enjoy the work if it wasn’t my own building.”
Now a year has passed and I think sometimes of that shed. How is it weathering? Does the door still latch or has it warped? I live on a farm identified as “the old Sam Rosamond place.’’ Sam died 25 years ago, but the cleared fields, the rock walls, the fences, the old house — things he made — are still his and recognized by others to be his. And the shed I made is mine.
Last winter I worked on restoring a house owned by a man who lives in a city 100 miles away and comes up on weekends. He owns the house, but the house also “belongs” to the neighbors whom he hired: one who wired it, one who did plastering and concrete work, one who furnished cedar paneling from wood he had cut and stored for 30 years in a shed. Eddie, a neighbor who built the chimney, carefully centered a rabbit-shaped rock in the stonework above the fireplace, only to find that the owner had decided to cover it with a mantelpiece. He was outraged. “Do you know the trouble I went to fitting that rabbit in, shaping all the stones to fit around it, and now he wants to cover it up!” The stonework was his.
The porches and stairway are mine. I took my brother to see them in April when the owner was away. The plastic had blown off a window and rain had been blowing in on the stairway. I found hammer and nails and boarded up the window. Why? I was not working there any more, but there was no question about letting the rain come in on my stairway.
I am a homemaker. I make beds — from cribs to king-sized family beds. I make breads — everyday brown ones, glistening golden holiday braids. I make shirts for my husband, dresses for my daughter. I make milk for my suckling baby. I make time to read to my son. I make orderly stacks of sweet-smelling laundry out of tangled baskets of grubby clothes. I make order out of chaos, to watch it dissolve again. I make quilts in Winter, gardens in Summer. I make A’s in school, working toward becoming a midwife and making my sisters’ birthings more whole. (They call us “re-entry women” — visions of plump matronly meteors speeding Earthward from the ozone.) I make lists of chores, groceries, unanswered letters, meals. I struggle with this use of the singular pronouns; I feel dissolved in We — of my marriage, my family, all mothers, all women.
We make sweet love and beautiful babies. Patient horse waiting, we pry rocks loose at the quarry, coax them onto her sled and build with them. As parents, we re-learn the meaning of service and discipline and love. With friends, we discover the commonality of our search. And sometimes late at night, letting go and breathing deeply, windows wide open, I become one with the whippoorwill and the creeks and the thousand stars.
Having been a professional craftsman and teacher of crafts for alcoholics for many years, I have learned that the things I make are but the end result of lessons and truths in living.
One I would like to share is the relationship between the craftsman and the material. Whether it is clay, wool, metal, wood, or stone, the important thing to learn is that you cannot manipulate it. If you cannot respect it and use it wisely, it will remain only a piece of clay, wool, metal, wood, or stone.
If, however, you do respect it and use it wisely, it will become a living thing in your hands. You will become one with it and a singing begins as you merge hands and material to produce a statement of you and your chosen material. To be good, the statement has need of only two requirements. These are love and honesty.
During this process a lesson in living is apparent — as you learn to respect the material, you learn to respect yourself, and when you respect yourself, you learn to respect others and the process continues.
Who is the potter and who is the clay, who is the weaver and who the wool?
Hurdle Mills, N.C.
I am coming to realize I am an artist as opposed to a craftsman. I enjoy making pots that do no more than sit there and speak directly to the spirit. God, I am a lucky one, for I work with spirit every day. Some days more than others. Today, I had to work eight hours before it started, but then it was like working with clay for the first time again, finding new forms and delighting in their appearance. One day of making a group of successful “one-of-a-kinds,” or even getting just one right, will carry me through weeks of repetitious throwing. And the plates and bowls take on a newer, subtle glow.
I have found a voice. I try to let myself be open to it everywhere. When I used to play music, some of the nights, really special nights, it was beyond words. It’s a matter of putting yourself in a place where the spark can come through. You offer yourself up and sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. It is in control, not you.
I’ve tried to do the same in my relationships. If I feel that spark, I follow it. And I don’t settle for anything less than the best any more, in anything. I’m talking about quality. In music, in pots, in love. It’s all the same — I wash dishes the same way I play guitar.
The striving to reach new heights is what I love and work so hard for. Maybe I take myself too seriously, but I want to make a statement that will last longer than my life here on earth. Ego? Not entirely. Through art, man has an ability to communicate; it is an emotional language understood at the gut level if the artist has depth and command of his materials. It takes a lifetime to learn those skills — how to weld the technical to the passions of being alive. There are higher forces at work on us. I want to create the feeling that one gets from looking at the pyramids, or the stone sculptures of Easter Island — reaching higher. I have felt much pain in my life, but that has carved out a place in me that is full of love now. I have to hide it even from myself. It’s overwhelming sometimes. And I want to pass it along — it’s not worth a damn if I don’t.
My friend, Marie, is a potter who lives on Cane Creek in rural Orange County, North Carolina. The house she lives in was originally a grist mill, now converted into a home for their family. Set into the wall over the large stone fireplace in the living room is a millstone, reminding them of their home’s roots.
Up the hill, toward the dam, is her studio, once a chicken house. Here she makes her pottery. The colors of her plates and bowls and mugs and pitchers and teapots reflect the earth and landscape around her. At one end of her studio is a bulletin board, and on it are these words:
“PROCESS, NOT PRODUCT, FOR IN THE MAKING IS THE FINDING.”
Last fall, on a bright October Saturday, at a “Clay Day” at Marie’s studio, nine of us, aged twelve to sixty-one, devoted our day to clay. Our experience with it varied as much as our ages. I had not handled clay since rolling out little snakes at the E.V. Brown Elementary School in the late 1920’s.
Before we touched the clay, Marie talked about the process and product. Then we were allowed to pinch off pieces of clay and form small bowls (pinch posts). Marie suggested that we regard the making of the bowls as an exercise; it would not be necessary for us to like what we were making, or even to decide whether we like it. She asked us to concentrate on how the clay felt and how we felt about the clay, to be aware of the process without anxiety about the product (our own or our neighbor’s).
Just as the process of making pottery is important to Marie, the process of quiltmaking is important to me. I began making quilts because I liked them, but I continue to make quilts because I feel warmed and enriched by the process. I feel connected to many people through quiltmaking.
Linda Reuther and Julie Silber, owners of Mary Strickler’s Quilt in San Rafael, California, have written: “Everywhere we went we saw how quilts join people — to their families, to their communities, to their ancestors, to hidden or forgotten aspects of themselves.”
A neighbor phoned and said, “I have an hour to spare and will be glad to come over and help you.” Never would she have said, “I have an hour to spare and let’s be together and share small and large parts of our lives” so indoctrinated are we by the philosophy expressed in 1832 by Lydia Maria Child in her book, The American Frugal Housewife: “Young ladies should be taught that usefulness is happiness, and that all other things are but incidental.” But it is around a quilting frame, against a background of “work,” that we allow our lives to touch.
I have spent many hours around a quilting frame in the company of others. Particularly rewarding has been the time with women from other countries, wives of men whose professions have brought them to the United States. Many have left careers of their own to accompany their husbands; all have left homes and families. We exchange fabrics, design quilts — many baby quilts — and help each other assemble quilts and baste them together. We quilt around my big frame and puzzle over translating centimeters to inches and inches to centimeters. As we quilt, language difficulties do not seem so difficult, other differences not so different, and strong bonds develop. We find ways to make ourselves understood as we speak of the relationship of men and women. We American women are curious about arranged marriages in India and other countries. We are asked (politely) why the divorce rate in the United States is so high.
A telephone repair man says he remembers helping his mother make quilts and has always thought he’d like to make one himself. A special delivery driver says each time he comes that I remind him of his mother who used to make quilts. The insurance investigator came to estimate the damage to our car and stayed three hours — one hour on the damage estimate and two hours talking about quilts.
I find advantages in the dis-connecting, the solitary aspects of quilting. I like to have time when my hands are busy and my head is free to float. For me, quilting does not take patience, but gives it. I can recognize my therapy stitches, wobbly and uneven, put in when I was sad or angry or troubled.
I think Lydia Sigourney would appreciate what I am trying to say. In 1837, in Letters to Young Ladies, she wrote that needlework has been for women both their duty and their resource.
That’s what quilting is for me, a resource.
I suggest that the next time you see a quilt you might give a thought to what the process of making that quilt might have meant to its creator. No matter how wonderful the quilt, the process of making it might have been more wonderful. Perhaps for the quilter in the making was the finding.
Erma H. Kirkpatrick
Chapel Hill, N.C.
One of the things I make is food for my family and members of the community I live in. This is how I got started:
During a meditation, I heard a voice say to me very clearly, “Feed my sheep.” So I asked who was speaking. The voice replied, “Jesus.”
For days afterwards, I thought about the ways I could help others. In the midst of this, it suddenly occurred to me: perhaps the command was literal?
I continued to think about my experience and tried on various ideas for how to feed others. My family and friends listened. I finally gave up exhausted and frustrated.
Nothing appeared to happen for the next few weeks, except I noticed a push-like sensation to cook for my family, something I had not done for a while. I began doing this and I soon found myself making food for not only my family, but the members of the community I live in, and guests.
And I began to feel a sense of humor, as if the universe was laughing. I started laughing too. The joke was on me. I was following my command. It was not “out there,” but at home.
Now we are talking about community meals for the whole valley. There won’t be a question about who will make the food.