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tobacco, art careers and tossed salad (yep, long.)

updated fri 26 may 06


primalmommy on wed 24 may 06

I am really enjoying the tobacco stories, which are not about clay but
say a lot about what work looks like to workers. I have always loved the
look of tobacco barns, and have heard stories from Maryland and Virginia
old timers -- (usually over coffee, with my little tape recorder
listening in) -- about the "old days" of tobacco farming and how it all
went to hell with the modern market.

I heard the same stories of pride in skill, the value of tradition, and
doing it right, from the green swamp's moonshiners -- back when they
made whiskey in copper kettles instead of car radiators, and aged it in
oak barrels instead of mason jars. One old timer said, "If these young
guys offers you a taste of stumphole liquor, just hold it to your mouth
and make your adam's apple bob up and down. By gaw don't DRINK the
stuff, you'll go blind." (He said it was the lead solder, dissolved by
the yeast, that made folks whiskey-blind.)

One old guy -- with maybe seven teeth and a big wad of red man chaw in
his cheek -- forgot all about the tape recorder and went on to tell me
that there warn't no profit in whiskey no more -- (it's just a tax
violation, now, or a convenience in dry counties) -- so he had taken to
growing that OTHER smokable leafy crop, which made more money by far. I
had to do some creative editing on that tape, since the archive I was
creating was part of the State-funded museum in Wilmington NC... I'll
admit it, I Nixoned it.

Me, I grew up farther north, where it was corn one year, soybeans the
next. The difference was how easy it was to get lost in the rows. A
journey to the center of an acres-wide cornfield, plants towering ten
feet tall, was almost like scuba diving -- a whole different element,
cool and green without a horizon, far from home, invisible to all,
carrying grandma's rag rug, an apple and a book. But the narrow roads
between rows only went north or south... you knew you'd get home.

Uncle Bud -- who drove the old style John Deere tractor with the metal
seat shaped like your butt, and kept his teeth in his lunch box -- let
me ride the warm green fender, or after the soybean harvest, loaded us
kids into the big wagon full of beans to tow home -- (those red
triangular hoppers-on-wheels with the drain-hole at the bottom, looking
for all the world like a pregnant sow). A truck load of soybeans is a
marvelous thing, a smell and feeling I'll never forget -- too solid to
swim in, too liquid to stand on, gleaming dry, white and shiny. In the
evening my aunt would bake bread and the men would play horseshoes under
the big beech tree. We'd find beans in our socks and cuffs and pockets
at bedtime.

It's so hard to nail down who any individual is, much less a culture,
based on one story, one element or influence. I spent much of my
childhood in a cherry tree, or tagging around behind grandpa in his
workshop, helping grandma pit and can cherries or shell peas into her
apron, then playing between dancing dresses and sheets on the clothes

But I am hardly Laura Ingalls. I have also bartered for copper pots in
the ancient Constantinople-bazaar of Istanbul, had a little apartment in
Paris, partied in Amsterdam, lived on Beacon Hill and sold oriental rugs
in Harvard Square. Somewhere in the last four decades I earned a couple
of degrees, published in literary journals, learned to make pots.

Is mine a rock and roll culture? Well, for my parents it was Nat King
Cole, Barbara Streisand, Julie Andrews. My first concert WAS Aerosmith,
Foghat and Ted Nugent (79) at the Pontiac Silverdome... I wore my Janis
Joplin albums thin in college -- but we prefer Vivaldi when we
homeschool, and drive around town with classical on NPR, or Stan
Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Garcia/Grisman, Charlie Parker.

Backyard parties always include our friends who show up with banjo,
fiddle and bass and play contra dance and Irish tunes... but the guest
list includes the homeschooling Asian cellist from the symphony, a mural
painter, the Muslim neighbors, the Christian homeschoolers. We go to the
occasional avante-garde modern gallery opening, but make weekly family
treks to our world class art museum to see ancient Korean pots, the
Dutch masters, Greek Attic ware, Harvey Littleton and Chihouly and

We're not rare or unusual. Most of my fellow citizens -- in all the
ethnicities and generations that make up the culture -- don't fit well
in any one category.

American isn't a melting pot, it's a tossed salad - and every ingredient
stays what it is. It enriches us all, and makes us darn hard to classify
as this type or that.

Ironically, the grandparents and parents who worked so hard to get by,
wanted their own kids to have it easier. I sometimes wonder if we're not
the last generation, at least among the "landed" middle class, to have
the experience of working to the point of exhaustion, working on some
community project like a harvest or barn raising or cutting up a felled
tree, where there is no quitting until it's done.

And then we cluck and shake our heads at the "entitled" younger
generation, wonder what has become of work ethic and that old scout
credo, "Do Your Best." Careful what you wish for, I guess.

But when folks keep popping up with the stats about how few art grads
end up in art careers, I have to say, "And?"

The point does not seem, to me, to be how (or whether) a person decides
to earn a living. What we learn becomes part of us, what we become
skilled at empowers us. Art informs what we see, what we choose, how we
live our daily lives. Our influence as artist touches everyone we know.
The rest is just about money.

It's what I was trying to get at in the CM Comment. It rubs me wrong
when people assume that the only choices for an artist/potter are 1.)
"success, recognition, publication, MFA and a teaching job or workshop
circuit" -- or -- 2.) "failure". It seems to me that there are hundreds
of other paths, equally important, equally redeeming, equally
significant in the larger scheme of things.

Maybe I am a product of my culture -- the democratic notion that the
individual matters as much or more than the institution. Or maybe I am a
product of my station in life: after all, I am categorized as a person
who "does not work" -- at least during these childrearing years --
because my contribution is unpaid and thus uncounted.

My friend Val was tested in childhood and proved to have an incredibly
high IQ. She was told -- "You could be anything! You could be president,
an astronaut, you could discover the cure for cancer!"

Instead she is a homeschooling mom on a small, disheveled family farm,
raising sheep, changing diapers, doing laundry. She does not feel that
her potential is in the least bit wasted... though in low moments, when
the day's work is done and the children happy, schooled, fed and in bed,
she muses, "Well, I still haven't discovered the cure for cancer..."

My point -- among my bewildering and interwoven thesis statements -- is
that we can save the world, one day, one person, one project at a time.
We don't all have to be a household word, a cover pot, a big dog. Fame
is overrated. The work you make that becomes a part of someone's
artfully set table, becomes a member of someone's family, and rewards
those who value what hands make, it matters.

We all matter.

And I am off to bed. The former CEO of the science museum is coming
tomorrow to bake his artisan loaves in my clay oven, if the
thunderstorms hold off. Modern, meet medieval. High tech, meet no tech.
Bread, meet clay.

Kelly in Ohio... head full of clayart posts as I drift off to sleep...
thinking, Wow, Snail is smart... yikes, wet advancers blow up... is
"zeitgeistish" a good thing? ... zzzzzz......

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Hank Murrow on thu 25 may 06

On May 24, 2006, at 9:29 PM, primalmommy wrote:

> My point -- among my bewildering and interwoven thesis statements -- is
> that we can save the world, one day, one person, one project at a time.
> We don't all have to be a household word, a cover pot, a big dog. Fame
> is overrated. The work you make that becomes a part of someone's
> artfully set table, becomes a member of someone's family, and rewards
> those who value what hands make, it matters.

Dear Kelly;

D.H.Lawrence was thinking along those lines when he wrote this for you:

"We are Transmitters"

As we live, we are transmitters of life.
And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.

That is part of the mystery of sex, it is a flow onwards.
Sexless people transmit nothing.

And if, as we work, we can transmit life into our work,
life, still more life, rushes into us to compensate, to be ready
and we ripple with life through the days.

Even if it is a woman making an apple dumpling, or a man a stool,
if life goes into the pudding, good is the pudding
good is the stool,
content is the woman, with fresh life rippling in to her,
content is the man.

Give, and it shall be given unto you
is still the truth about life.
But giving life is not so easy.
It doesn't mean handing it out to some mean fool, or letting the
living dead eat you up.
It means kindling the life-quality where it was not,
even if it's only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.

Love, Hank