So today one of the weavers brought some baskets into the studio. In addition to her work at the loom she’s a basket-weaver and recently returned from a workshop in Branson, MO (of course!) with two remarkable artifacts.
I’m struggling to articulate my new respect for functional handicrafts. I’ve always been an at-best marginally socially conscious consumer, viewing objects such as dishcloths and baskets–even scarves and rugs–as products among products among products. As a former Nordstrom scarf lady and occasional overseas traveler I’ve been much more respectful of the artistry of the latter. But baskets are things you buy half-price around Christmas time to hold gifts or dinner rolls and dish cloths are things you don’t even think about except perhaps when moving into a new apartment and wanting something fresh rather than tattered in your kitchen to wipe down countertops–and you purchase them for a few bucks as an afterthought.
As I observed the structure of the baskets, their materials, their combination of textures and hues (hand dyed), I also had to think about all the other basket-makers in the world. These objects aren’t made by machine but by people. Women and children and old men making things of beauty, so lightweight, so cheap; how many must fit into a commercial shipping container?
But that’s not what I logged on to say.
I logged on to observe that basket weaving is done wet. The reeds are softened (as clarinet players know) with moisture. Many types of basket weaving must be done with water. Perhaps not “under water” but as a former SCUBA diver I have no problem visualizing the aesthetic possibilities and, for that matter, the fun challenge of weaving a basket under water. I have easy access to a swimming pool. I can rent the gear. I might just try it. I’d need to take a few basket-weaving lessons, though.
I’m not kidding.
Here’s the thing: in this time of economic constraint when I am so blessed as to be taking a sabbatical that permits me to explore widely and deeply the intersections of art and writing, I find myself moving ever more zealously toward activities that are “impractical” because I find that the closer I get to those activities the more I discover their fundamental practicality–no, their essential practicality, perhaps their transcendent practicality. (Emerson would be right on board with this.)
What is more practical than cloth, than vessels?
What makes these things impractical is not the objects themselves but the assumption that a person like me has no practical need to make them myself, nor to study how they are made. I’m an American university professor in suburbia. My job is to teach writing to college students–people who are already functionally literate, which means my job is not to “teach writing” so much as to teach “good” writing or better writing or writing that enables them to gather information, analyze it, and communicate it in ways that deepen their critical thinking and advance their facility with research and writing for now and for the future. That’s my job. OK. And I guess my retort (another favorite metaphor but since this isn’t my writing-and-laboratory-science sabbatical I won’t elaborate) is that as soon as we move from the teaching of functional literacy (something that, frankly, I’m not trained to teach) into the realm of teaching-for-resourcefulness-and-ingenuity we’ve moved into a realm where it matters for someone like me to understand such bedrock cultural practices and connections as the composition of functional crafts and the crafting of functional compositions.
And I don’t just mean metaphorically.
This arts-immersion experience is not just about metaphors; it’s a leap of faith, really. I know there’s more to learn about the materiality of language through the materiality of handicrafts.
That’s what I’m after.
And in that vein, I’m seeking connections to that other “impractical” thing: the liberal arts education. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the phrase “underwater basket weaving” seemed to be the standard joke regarding the liberal arts curriculum–the path that prepared you for everything by preparing you for nothing in particular through explorations of whatever the heck struck your fancy in a loose confederation of seemingly arbitrary categories.
(I need to find that scene from Addams Family Values with the liberal arts joke.)
When you study fiber materials (ex: viscous materials pounded and strands twisted or interlaced or chained to achieve strength and flexibility) and weave structures you’re dealing with chemistry, botany, physics, architecture, mathematics . . . it’s all so obvious. It would take so little to parse out every discipline represented in the process of weaving a basket–and the delightful problem-solving dimension achieved by doing so under water. (Not to mention kineseology or phys ed.)
This may be the perfect course. If only I were qualified to teach it.
Image source: Advocacy Project
Note that the basket is composed of tightly wound newspapers: