creativity, Mothering, Right Livlihood

What Would Patti Do?

“I have to do something every day to sort of prove my worth. Even though I’ve worked in a factory, in a bookstore and certainly labored as a mother, I don’t tend to gravitate toward those tasks.

“I feel that every day I have to show some human worth, you know, something that I’ve done. You know, if I’m not doing something politically or to help my fellow man, at least that I’ve written a good sentence, I’ve taken an interesting photograph, that this gift that I feel I’ve been given – because I believe gifts are God-given.” ~ Patti Smith

“Then quit.”

I’ve quit before. I’ll quit again. My friend’s double dare didn’t really phase me. But now, a single mom with a mortgage, I hear my dad’s voice: “You need the money.” And I feel the press of the “right thing” bearing down on me – the societal, one-size-fits-all, prescriptive right thing. Of course, there is no such thing. But we all listen to it anyhow. Besides, after doing the supposedly wrong thing in terms of work for so many years, it occurs to me that maybe the right thing is sort of the wrong thing – or vice versa? Maybe.

This discussion of whether to quit or stay in the offending job comes after a really horrific day. “Really horrific” needs to be put into perspective. No one said anything slightly mean to me.  There was no workplace hazing. No threat of being hit by some machinery on the factory floor. No blisters or burns from chemicals. No leers from men. Not even any requirements to complete a certain amount of work – or else.

Rather, my form of horrific meant feeling like an utter moron as I sat in front of a computer with someone trying to show me back alleys of Microsoft Word that I never knew existed. As my trainer went on – and on – seeming to present information to me in my native language but somehow sounding like an undersea Portuguese translator, my throat constricted, the floor dropped a few feet underneath me, and my tongue gripped the roof of my mouth. I remembered what another woman who works at the same place had already told me: “I took tranquilizers a few times in my first weeks to get through. But now I’m better.”

This is the paradox – to live somewhere between Right Thing and True Self.

My friend who is now listening to me describe the experience while I sit forlornly on my kitchen floor, a glass of Pinot Noir gripped tight, encourages me to listen to myself; “You’ll know what to do.” Up to this point, I’ve been proud of myself for taking a job that in so many ways is not a good match but will pay the bills. I am conscious of my role as Breadwinner;  I also try to be conscious of not losing myself. In other words, I try to listen to myself, but I’m not sure which voice is right.

This is the paradox – to live somewhere between Right Thing and True Self. To be true and responsible. To take care of the people in my life, while remembering that that sometimes means demonstrating how to take care of myself.

Later that night, after the Pinot Noir, after the kids were asleep, I sunk both my despair and my hope into  Just Kids, Patti Smith’s biography of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. The earliest section is one of the loveliest accounts of a soul recognizing its true intent. Without any artists in her life to serve as role models, Smith knew that’s what she wanted to be. Even as she got older and lacked a specific art form, she still knew what she wanted to be.

If you believe her memory, poverty and lack of a medium didn’t deter her. At 20, after having given a baby up for adoption, she moved to the city and started writing for music magazines and working in a bookstore. Mainly, though, she befriended artists, the first among them being Mapplethorpe. She became a student of the Beat poet Gregory Corso and was charmed by a young cowboy writer who turned out to be the playwright Sam Shepherd. Gradually, through trial and error – just as Mapplethorpe was experimenting with different art forms, largely selecting those that were the cheapest because he was so broke – Smith landed on singing. After a poetry reading-cum-electric guitar performance at the famed St. Mark’s Church, the Godmother of Punk was born.

Patti Smith in the suburbs? Like spotting Hemingway at a Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Julia Childs at a Jack-in-theBox, nothing  makes sense about it.

I read quickly through the chapters on Smith and Mapplethorpe’s parallel rising fame. Sure, it’s interesting to catch of Hendrix in a stairwell one night or to meet the glittering Euro-wealth who became Mapplethorpe’s patrons, but I was intent on getting to the part where Smith becomes a mother. In 1979, she left New York to live in Detroit with her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith. There, they eventually raised two kids in the St. Clair Shores. Patti Smith in the suburbs? Ever since I learned this odd fact of her life a few years ago, I’ve turned it over and over, trying to find a reason to the rhyme. Like spotting Hemingway at a Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Julia Childs at a Jack-in-theBox, nothing  makes sense about it. Still, it is incredibly intriguing.

How did this unbridled spirit enter motherhood? She gives us no hint. Rather, she gives us silence. In Just Kids there is a break of seven years during which time she moves to Detroit and has her first child.  Pregnant with the second, she receives a call from a friend that Robert, her soulmate, has AIDS.

“That confidence that he instilled in me at 20 years old, I’ve never lost it. I mean, I’ve had tragedy in my life, I’ve not wanted to get out of bed, I’ve gone through a lot of difficult things, but I’ve never lost that confidence that he instilled in me and it’s right now blossoming.” ~Patti Smith

What Smith was doing in Detroit, there is very little record of. I suspect there’s very little record of the lives of most mother-artists – even recent ones. It’s our hiatus. Our downtime. Our private time. In 1996, Smith told the New York Times: “I did all the usual things, laundry and tending to children. But I also did a lot of studying, which I have always really loved. I’m completely happy just immersing myself in something. I studied 16th-century Japanese literature, I studied painting again. And I wrote diligently through the 1980’s, novels. There are about five books that I haven’t published yet.”

At the end of Just Kids, the last photo that Mapplethorpe took of Smith is reproduced. She is smiling, her hair in loose braids, she is holding her infant daughter. The strung out-looking, pale, black-tie-wearing hermaphrodite of her early career is hardly recognizable. She is very nearly an earth mother.

Based on the performances Smith has given in recent years, some of which can be found online one would be wrong to think that those years of laundry and “studying” made her soft. She cared for her children. She lost her best friend. She lost her husband. She lost her brother. Not to mention countless other friends who died from AIDS and drugs. She is resilient, a woman who has through choice and circumstance swum deep into the darkness but who willingly, joyfully resurfaces in the light.

She is still the person who believed in Art as a young girl growing up in a relatively poor family, and who was electrified by her one and only visit to an art museum as a kid: “I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I new I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not. I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, but I hungered to be one.”

The hunger. The trips through the darkness in order to find the light. This is what we do. But it looks and feels so different with kids journeying next to us. Which is why I so want to know more about the days that Smith spent in St. Claire Shores, what I imagine to be a bucolic sliver of Detroit. How did she go from running into Hendrix and Warhol, from writing a play with Shepherd and posing for Mapplethorpe to carrying babies on her  hips, shopping for groceries, picking socks out of the back of the dryer? What was happening inside her?

Patti, I didn’t adore you back when I was young and should have. But I do now. I love your forthrightness. Your gentleness. Your joy. Please, please write a book about those years in the suburbs. Please tell us how you kept burning with your rock-n-roll heart while taking kids to preschool and choosing diaper brands. What did the woman who posed for Mapplethorpe, all bleach white and sinewy, make for dinner each night, and when did she write?

Now, as I consider the job once again, I think, “What would Patti do?” This woman who seems to have held on to her working class roots and not shied away from life’s hard  jobs, but who radiates the energy of a poet. I’m not sure. The Right Thing and The True Self clearly both exist in Smith. She found a way for them to co-exist. I’m still searching.

So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy shall conquer all despair

*quotes above in purple are from an interview with Smith on the Tavis Smiley show.



Happiness lies not in finding what is missing, but in finding what is present. – Tara Brach

I haven’t posted here for awhile, in part because nothing has come to fruition in my mind. Unlike my other blog, which I use as a near-daily sounding board, a place to explore my heart, my fears – this has been my place to further an idea: Namely, how to be a good enough mother and an artist? I’d hoped to create a book – which could still happen – but for various reasons, I’ve loosened my grip on that dream, which sometimes makes coming to this space difficult. I feel as though I shouldn’t be allowed here if I’m not pushing my marble up the hill.

Letting go of our expectations seems one of the hardest thing we do as artists – and mothers. I’ve been simultaneously reading The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Both have much to say about loving our children and ourselves as we are. Both are so seemingly easy and yet this kind of love and acceptance is ongoing practice for most of us.

A few weeks ago, I got some good practice. I had set up a workshop at a local crafts store, for single mothers to gather and do a sewing project together. I’d started out envisioning us all making super hero capes to celebrate our inner super powers – incredible patience, checkbook balancing genius, ability to make dinner out of scraps, etc. – but had come to realize that I didn’t really want a cape. What I wanted was more like a prayer shawl–something that would help me to turn inward.

About five people said they’d come, but when my daughter and I arrived at the store no one was there. I’d been preparing myself for this possibility all week, telling myself I wouldn’t be a failure if no one showed up. The store owner was incredibly kind about the whole thing, and helped Bella and me to envision our projects – my prayer shawl and her magical cloak. An hour later, when one friend joined me, I was pleased – but I was having so much fun by then, that her presence was just gravy to an already good experience.

I had brought my wedding dress with me, which a friend’s mother made sixteen years ago this spring (whoa!) out of a beautiful ivory silk charmeuse. I never really liked the dress. It wasn’t her fault, but my own discomfort with my body at the time. The dress was a huge, formless thing, so there was plenty of material to play with. Cody showed me how to undo all of the seams, and after tugging and ripping, I had a long piece of material almost exactly the width and length of the wool shawl  I sometimes use for meditating. Amazing!

Making something from seemingly nothing is an art that entails the ability to see possibility, to value all objects – no matter their seeming inconsequence, and to accept imperfection.

“I think I want to incorporate a quote on it … somehow,” I told her next, worried that this would entail some difficult skill that I couldn’t master. She smiled and announced, “Embroidery!” then introduced me to the backstitch. I went through my journal, seeking out the perfect quote (there’s that word again), and finally settled – in part, I admit, because of its relative brevity, which goes to show how imperfect perfection is, based on subjective things like length or tone – on a Hafiz line:  “God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.” Before the quote itself, I added the word BREATHE as a little reminder to myself, followed by a heart.

Bella and I left the store after more than two hours, her with a finished cloak in hand and me with a bag containing my silken garment and some deep red thread and a needle – not to mention a new skill. I felt a calmness I hadn’t experienced in ages. Twice since then, I’ve taken it from the bag and worked on the embroidery. I have “breathe”, the heart, and “god” done, which as my friend Chris says is all you really need.

Making something from seemingly nothing is an art that entails the ability to see possibility, to value all objects – no matter their seeming inconsequence, and to accept imperfection. That’s what I was doing with the silk material that had been hanging in my closet for years, doing nothing but reminding me of disappointments. A friend who lived in Haiti nearly a decade ago shared a memory during a recent church service. A woman she knew there had gone to market and come home with a used skirt. It didn’t fit her, but she undid the stitching, saving the thread, and then cut it to a shorter and slimmer size, and re-stitched it using the same thread. I know some crafty women out there who might re-make a found skirt, but no one who would think to re-use the thread. The image has stuck with me and grown as a metaphor for how we live when we are at our sleekest and leanest but also our best.

This kind of re-use and sharing of things/ideas can loosen our hold on Our Vision – that vision that can all too often strangle us. (You know, the one that says, “This better be for your book, or else!” or “Is that really good enough for a show?”). I think of my friend Cheryl, an amazingly talented calligrapher who spends hours every day hunched over her lettering table working at perfection. People pay her to create beautiful, seemingly flawless marriage ketubahs, birth announcements, or extra-special awards for extra-special people. A page of quotes that she calligraphed from women engineers went up with the Space Shuttle. If your work was going into space, wouldn’t you want it to be perfect?

But perfect, it turns out, is not only unattainable but makes us tight. It contracts and prohibits possibilities. “Ironically, to really do the calligraphy right, you have to let go,” Cheryl says (which reminds me of the psychologist Carl Rogers who wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”)

Assemblage by Cheryl Jacobsen

The pieces she’s been working on for the past two years appear incongruent with the ideal look of her calligraphy. They are assemblages made from old photographs, books, and found objects. “This work has been great in that I can mash them up more and they get even better,” she says. “If I bang something that’s already beaten up and old with my large sledge hammer, it gets even better.” I love visiting her studio to see the stuff – to imagine the voices and stories that are gathered there – the novel that was good enough to get published 90 years ago, but not critically acclaimed enough to be remembered. The family photos taken no doubt with saved money and treasured by someone at some time – but no longer. The jewelry, once dear, now cast off. All remade by Cheryl into something with an entirely new narrative, a new purpose, and a beautiful imperfection.

In Cheryl's studio.

Playthings in Cheryl's studio
Items in Cheryl's studio awaiting a new home.

My friend Kyle who runs her own arts-crafts space in Los Angeles, told me about a time recently when she was actively trying to let her inner critic – that striver for perfection, go, only to find it further challenged by her son. (The story is wonderfully reminiscent of another painter friend, Jill, who I wrote about here.)

One night at the studio, we were having a workshop in collage, and I decided to work with an old, thinning and worn piece of framed out wood. I am not sure even where it came from, it was just sitting there, discarded and it called out to me. I began tearing pieces of paper off and applying layers of paint. Just when I felt it was “freely” going somewhere I liked and I had a rhythm, my 8-year old son stepped over and asked, “Can I help?” (He had been hanging out while class took place and previous to this moment had no interest in participating). I looked around at the faces of the women and men who were there; people I was trying to model spontaneous, unstructured creativity to. Sometimes when my son asks if he can paint with me on a piece I am working on, I say yes. If it is a painting that is from a sketch, and super detailed, I say, “Not this one, honey,” and offer him some paper and paint. In fact, I often encourage him to paint with me.

But this piece, I was (I thought) ‘in flow’ and for a split second I was about to say “no” in order to protect this piece of art and so that I could get out of it what I thought I wanted. Then I realized I would be doing the very thing that stifles pure creativity. So I said, “Sure, sweetie, go ahead. Here is a paint brush, here is some glue, what would you like to add”? He promptly picked up the brush, dipped it into white paint and painted almost entirely over an area that I had seen as “done.” I smiled and let go. He continued, then I joined in and it was fun and I released all my expectations. We painted, added some tape, glued paper, and then he said, “Okay, thanks, Mom, I’m done”, and walked away. I added a line drawing of a dandelion, something that reminds me of him, and put it away to dry. It is hanging in my hallway and I love it. It has pieces of both of us and we both signed it and I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it.

collage-painting by Kyle Hollingsworth and her son Griffen

Will I write a book about motherhood and creativity? More importantly, am I any less or are my ideas unworthy if I don’t? If I take the words and drop them to the floor in a big heap, then sweep them up and re-use them in some new form – knowing that their original intent is still buried in their hearts – I am not doing them a disservice. Rather, they are more robust, more infused with thoughtfulness than before.

We are all stumbling forward, clumsily. Sometimes we even crawl. There’s no way it will always be pretty or even slightly perfect – which is the beauty of creating and parenting authentically. Of being ok with the chicken scratches and the shitty drafts, with the Wolf Mama who sometimes rages and bellows, as well as with the Comforting Mother, who holds child and manuscript close to her breast, waiting for spring and for her own healing balm.


Unconventional Teachers

“We aren’t supposed to look the same. We aren’t a bunch of fucking drones.”

“My teachers had been encouraging me to paint with my kids, to work in my surroundings, but I’d just sort of rolled my eyes at them, like, ‘Yeah, right,’” Jill tells me over lunch. She has three kids under the age of seven and helps run a sugar importing business with her husband in L.A. A photographer and painter before having kids, she’s returned to painting again in the past year after relegating herself to pen and ink (very funny ones to say the least) during the kids’ infancies.

I get her “Yeah, right” attitude. If I had a dollar for every piece of advice people have given me about how to write while taking care of two kids… My therapists haven’t been able to avoid this kind of advice giving (something I find really annoying in a therapist, actually), nor my doctor, and certainly not my mother-in-law or many male friends. Only other women friends with creative bents have totally avoided it, and that’s because they’re all in the same boat – the same yeah, right boat.

Jill goes on to tell me that she’d started thinking about a painting – imagining it and planning it out in her head. She’d bought a four-foot by four-foot board for the work, storing it at home as she kept planning. One day, her kids wanted to paint with her and she decided to take the board out; “I figured I could always just get another one.” The kids went to town. Her seven year-old daughter, Scarlet, was dripping paint and making abstract designs. “I hadn’t been envisioning an abstract work,” says Jill, “but suddenly it really worked.”

Then 18-month old Zuma picked up a crooked stick and started trundling over to the table that held big slabs of blue acrylics. He carefully dipped the stick into the paint, went over to the board and scratched away with his robin’s egg-hued stick. “He was so focused,” remembers Jill.

She watched him, then got out her camera and filmed him. “I just knew he was teaching me something. ‘Thank you for showing me I don’t need a brush to paint!’ I wanted to tell him.”

“I want to make authentic work at this point in my life; I want to lose the critic,” she says with great passion.  If learning new tricks was the point of the 20s, and honing them was the point of the 30s, becoming authentic seems to be the point of the 40s for many women I know.

Jill’s kids helped her to let go of some of her rules. It’s that wonderful way in which our teachers can come from unexpected places. Certainly, our kids can be major teachers – artistically and spiritually, especially (see Karen Maezen Miller’s Momma Zen on this). Love, patience, gentleness, and play are all lessons children have to offer. Others who can maintain a sense of play or non-attachment to the usual way of doing things can provide such lessons. A friend who works with “retards” (his loving word) says they have been his gurus because their hearts are so open, without pretense. Another friend, a bookbinder and Buddhist, finds constant inspiration in her cats.

A yoga teacher who I visit when I’m in L.A. (in fact, Jill and I were still sweating after taking his class during our painting/teacher conversation) always connects me to my most authentic self.  The lessons I learn in his sweaty, unadorned studio translate not only into my yoga practice but my life and art.

While we were all balancing in a variation of parsvottonasan, he walked around the room and said almost fiercely: “This is called standing-on-one-leg-with-your-other-leg-in-the-air position. If you could look around – and don’t – what you’d see is the beauty of a room full of eighty-some people doing the same thing all differently. We aren’t supposed to look the same. We aren’t a bunch of fucking drones.”

Bryan Kest's yoga studio after class - imagine 100 people in here... It's powerful.
Bryan Kest's yoga studio after class - imagine 100 people in here... It's powerful.

Ok, I’m a sucker for anyone who swears during yoga and makes it just a little less holier than holy. But I also love this guy’s constant reminders throughout class that we are here for ourselves. Our practice – be it on the mat or on the canvas or in rearing kids – is to be our truest self, whoever that is at the moment.

In yoga, it doesn’t mean I should look like the woman next to me who weighs forty pounds less and is twenty years younger, or the guy on the other side who runs ten miles a day and has the hamstrings to show for it.

As a writer, that doesn’t mean I should sound like Dave Eggers, much as I love his work, or succeed in the same way as this month’s hot new thing, much as I wouldn’t shirk success. It doesn’t even mean identifying the most saleable work.

As a mother, it means showing up for my kids to the best of my ability, but not pounding on myself if I forget water bottles and snacks.

It does mean practicing as though my standing leg is strong – shaking though it may be – and my other leg is extending a bit farther than I thought possible. It means being open to the possibilities of standing longer than I initially thought possible. Or of putting my leg gently down when I need to.

Which reminds me of another teacher. In helping me try to navigate some particularly strong emotions—passion and the possibility of connecting with another person, emotions that surprised and somewhat scared me—my friend/yoga teacher/Reiki teacher Jenny, said:   “Of course, it was that strong – you’re more Jennifer than you’ve ever been before.”

At first, this seemed so simplistic as to border on the childish.  But that was the point. I drank the idea—the feeling—in. Indeed, I have been learning from all of my teachers in recent years – the ones who live far outside the classroom walls, away from criticism and convention – and their lessons have been powerful. I can paint without a brush these days. The effect is a strength that comes through effort, coupled with the suppleness that comes when we abandon assumptions. Stick on board. Knee to head. Fying.

Related: See Honoring Your Inner Tutu

creativity, Mothering

Craft v. Art – The Showdown

Does Craft  such as this, with its harrowing capitol C, keep us away from Art making? Snipped free of her kids for a few hours a day (she home schools), could she be a contemporary painter of import? Does Craft keep us away from more active, progressive work, such as campaigning or letter writing or, oh, rioting against the banks? 

Last week, my daughter and I toured the studio of a woman who teaches children’s art classes. Bella was hoping to find a place to draw during the summer, which thrills me since some of my fondest memories are of classes that I took at the art museum when I was a kid – an activity that, as I recall, was scheduled after swimming lessons and before the Watergate hearings, which occurred in the heat of the mid-afternoon.

The teacher’s studio was sparse, with just a few Scandinavian trappings and some children’s art hung sparingly on the walls. “I teach art in the classic manner,” she told us with a smile that was probably meant to be open but felt a little challenging. “Not craft. The schools teach plenty of that.” I could tell she was working hard not to sound overly despairing.

I don’t think Bella, who is as fond of craft as she is drawing, will be taking the classes, but it was one more salvo for me in a war I’ve been playing in my head between fine arts and crafts. It’s a war that began when I wrote about journals – artists’ sketchbooks, scientists notebooks, and birders’ logs – only to be asked repeatedly about scrapbooking. And it’s a showdown that continues as I write my book about motherhood and creativity. Do I separate the two? Do I need to? Is it truly, as I sometimes imagine, a wrestling match with crochet in one corner and concert violin in the other?  Or can everyone play together? There was, after all, an exhibit last year called Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting.

A detail from Freddie Robins’s “Craft Kills,” a comment on the post-9/11 ban on knitting needles in airplanes.
A detail from Freddie Robins’s “Craft Kills,” a comment on the post-9/11 ban on knitting needles in airplanes.

Most of us cook but aren’t chefs. Many of us sing but are hardly of recordable quality. When I think and write about mothers who are artists do I need to differentiate between Artists and crafters? I’m pondering … What do you think? And what is the equivalent of craft in the non-visual arts? Is chick lit to literature as craft is to painting or textiles? I’m not sure.

I’ve also been interested in the gender politics of crafts. There’s plenty of good ol’ progressive politics behind the crafts movement. Trying to sort it all out, I talked awhile back to Priscilla Perkins, an English prof,  crafter, and blogger, who said that she makes her kids’ clothes in part to keep them from wearing something made by a kid in another country; and she grows her food and cooks so that they are connected to what they eat. All excellent reasons to craft (and let’s do put cooking in the mix). But, but…. when I look at some of the uber pretty crafting sites out there, I can’t help but feel a bit squeamish toward them. They seem to just be Martha Stewart with a crunchier exterior.

In our conversation, Priscilla and I picked on Amanda Soule because she’s, well, so pickable. I mean, everyone always picks on the prettiest girl in class. Amanda seems nice as can be — I actually have it on firsthand authority that she is, indeed, nice as can be – but that doesn’t make her web site any less daunting. Like Julia Roberts’ mouth or Anna Nicole Smith’s cleavage, it’s just too much!

by Amanda Soule
by Amanda Soule

What’s too much craft? Try this:  Amanda not not only threw what appears to be a perfect art-themed birthday party for one of her kids, but she hand-stitched art aprons as party favors for each guest! And weekends at  her house are filled not with dashing from soccer to dance, and spare time spent picking up piles of random papers and junk from ever corner of the house while dodging the kids’ whines for computer time … BUT in playing memory games spread out on beautifully aged and scrubbed wooden floors with handmade cards .

The woman inspires awe and a following of thousands. She also, me thinks, casts too large of a shadow on mere mortals, as expressed by exasperated entries by Soule imitators like this: Amanda Soule: You Will Be the Death of Me! 

Does Craft  such as this, with its harrowing capitol C, keep us away from Art making? Snipped free of her kids for a few hours a day (she home schools), could she be a contemporary painter of import? Does Craft keep us away from more active, progressive work, such as campaigning or letter writing or, oh, rioting against the banks? Again, these are open questions.

by Amanda Soule
by Amanda Soule

But Art is none of the above. It is solo. Away from the family. Not immediately or obviously useful. And, in plenty of cases, unnerving in its content.

There are artists, without doubt, who ride the line between Craft and Art with ease, using each to embolden the other. Of recent fascination is the children’s book author Virginia Lee Burton who wrote and illustrated the design-savvy books Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House, among others. It turns out that Burton was the maiden name of Virginia Demetrios, mother of two and wife of a notable sculptor, who started a design cooperative among her friends and neighbors.

To quote from the Cape Anne Historical Society, which holds the cooperative’s works:

“The Folly Cove Designers were established in Gloucester, MA, in 1938, where they worked together as a guild of designer-craftsmen [sic] from 1941 until 1969.  … The leader of the Designers was Virginia Demetrios (1909- 1968). An accomplished artist and a dynamic teacher, Demetrios was well known outside Folly Cove as the author and illustrator of several superb children’s books published under her maiden name. The classes began at the request of one of her neighbors, Aino Yjrola Clarke. In exchange for some lessons in design, Mrs. Clarke offered violin lessons for the Demetrios’ two sons. So in the best tradition of a Yankee swap, the lessons began. In the months that followed, Aino Clarke enthusiastically recruited a party of neighbors who met each Thursday evening in the Demetrios studio. virginia-lee-burton-in-studio

“The students concentrated on producing decorations to use in their homes – fabrics for clothing, table linen, and upholstery. Meanwhile, Virginia Demetrios concentrated on developing a comprehensive system for teaching design to people who hadn’t any artistic training. She decided to break down a design into its simplest constituents. Once those were understood, mastery of complex concepts would follow more readily. Size, shape and tonality were isolated for consideration in homework exercises; the Thursday classes convened to compare their completed exercises and to work together with their instructor…

“The Designers achieved an unexpected degree of commercial success, selling their work initially from an old barn in Gloucester during the summer. By the fall of 1941, their designs were accepted for resale at America House (created by the Society of Arts and Crafts) in New York. As the handcraft revival continued, they were invited to participate in museum shows and the demand for their work increased.”

A hand-painted lamp at Vanessa Bell's home, Charleston.
A hand-painted lamp at Vanessa Bell’s home, Charleston.

Art or craft? Clearly, what started as one thing became another. I love the mention at the end of the “handcraft revival,” since we’re in the midst of another one now. And I guess that whenever such a revival occurs – I’m thinking back to Vanessa Bell’s heavily decorated home and the entire Bloomsbury group – artist and artisan becomes more intermingled, the so-called high and low meet in the middle under the guise of functionality.

by Teirney Gearon
by Teirney Gearon

It’s particular to mothers, though. Mothers have reasons to craft – it has a practical end — new napkins, clothes, even doll’s house decorations can seem more useful than a poem; it is publicly recognized and accepted, e.g., knitting puts others at ease, performance art less so; it can be done with kids. But Art is none of the above. It is solo. Away from the family. Not immediately or obviously useful. And, in plenty of cases, unnerving in its content.

Photographs of one’s schizophrenic mother – a project by photographer Tierney Gearon that I just came across in a google adventure – are not nearly as inviting as Soule’s knitted baby booties or  handmade Valentine’s cards. There’s a lot more there there, in my mind at any rate. I like the bite. But maybe that’s just me. Or maybe I’m just jealous. I wonder what Ms. Burton, er, Mrs. Demetrios, would say?