Dreams, artisans and an exemplary life

As I walked through the ruins of Teotihucan near Mexico City recently, at intervals you would come across one or two people clustered around assorted goods, for sale, souvenirs, often representing local crafts. As I walked past, on this occasion, I noticed a lingering sadness. The root of this sadness I did not grasp until waking this morning from a dream about 'artisans'.

The artisans had been attending their annual conference but in order to go to this event, they had each to reduce themselves to the size of an 'individual human being' and hide their 'cosmic status' and at the conference they appeared trapped in a repetitive cycle of sterile conversation. It was only at the end, when they returned 'home', to their place, they could throw away their disguise and assume their full dimension.

The 'souvenirs' at Teotihucan were the copies of copies of a broken or a constrained living tradition being sold by individuals to make (an all too necessary) 'living'. They had no home to go back to - to find a living tradition of making.

The dream was undoubtedly influenced by reading Wendell Berry's monograph on Harlan Hubbard. Harland and his wife, Anna, married late and made a life for themselves (after an adventurous exploration of the Ohio and Mississipi rivers by shantyboat) at Payne Hollow in a house they made themselves on the banks of the Ohio. They lived as self-sufficiently as they could with regards to the household economy and openly, yet discriminatingly, to the wider culture.  They settled into a place and made it home, one that had been abandoned as too marginal by others and made it by the virtue of hard work and grace, a living opposite to a world fashioned after ceaseless growth and material accumulation.

Harland was a disciple of Thoreau but his life was more rounded, extended and complete than Thoreau's, where Thoreau made an experiment after truthful living at Walden Pound over a two year period, Harland and Anna made an enterprise of it over forty years.

Harland was a painter, professionally trained, and a good painter, whose seeing of his place and giving life to its meaning and grace, is exemplary and beautiful but he barely sold a handful of his works - partly through his reluctance to enter the world of money (preferring barter even for their household needs) and partly because his art sat in a tradition of making that the contemporary art world did not recognise. It was one rooted in a place, in a dialogue and extension of the past, and in a fundamentally religious view of the sacred givenness of the world.

Harland was an embodiment of something wider than himself, bound like my 'artisans' to a cosmic ordering. The crafts (and craftspeople) represented by the sellers at Teotihucan had once been similarly bound to traditions, place and a sacred order of meaning but like my 'artisans' (and unlike Hubbard) had been made 'smaller' reduced to individual human beings 'making a living' (or trying to) out of the displacement of tourism (of which I was an example).

I recall when I joined the governing body of Oxfam (in the 90s) I wanted to see that our catalogue of 'fairly traded' goods should not 'sell crafts' that people bought out of pity for their makers but things made by artisans that people wanted and needed and I am pleased to say the balance tilted in that direction. It was an impulse (on my part) but which reading of Hubbard's life clarifies - that there should be no separation between utility and beauty (the latter being where we recover from the ugliness of the former).

Any artisan's work should display a cosmic status, should fit into an economy that embraces a sustaining ecology. We have far to go then!


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