When I was a senior in highschool, I had to write a senior thesis in order to graduate answering the question “What is man, and who am I?” Pretty serious stuff for a 17 year old kid (I remember I had based it largely on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, but couldn’t tell you now what I actually wrote, nor could I put my hands on a copy if I wanted to). What I got out of that work, though, was a real and long-lived interest in what binds us together as human beings, what makes us who we are, both as individuals and as groups.
Fast-forward to university and grad school, and I translated that (often, quite literally from ancient sources) into my love and passion for Classical archaeology. Finding the same questions “what is man, and who am I” relevant throughout time and place and making the answers accessible to everyone me seemed then like the great work of my life, and I loved it. I loved the immersion, the mental challenges, the physical work. It took me many years to see that what I loved the most was finding the work of human hands left behind: the pot sherd with the fingerprints of the potter, the simple construction of an infant’s burial, the craft and care in the seals used for documents. I came to see more and more to see that pattern and geometry, craft and art, architecture and engineering, are all languages, that, to me, transcend one group, one time, one place. As a maker of things myself, I felt deeply connected to what I was studying, and sought ways to connect past with present everywhere.
When I decided to start my business last year making my own quilts and patterns and quilting for others, this feeling was at the core: the stuff we make is intimately tied up with who we are now, where we have come, and where we are going. Each quilt (or whatever we make–for my husband, it’s stuff made in wood with hand tools) becomes a snapshot of that moment, a stop in our itinerary but not the end of our journey. My studies of art through the ages (quite literally!) have impressed this upon me, as well.
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal since QuiltCon, where I came away feeling excited and disturbed at the same time. The modern quilt movement (and it has been in motion!) has so much going for it, yet I also felt that in an attempt to define what it *is* there is a very real and great danger of reducing it to a narrowness of vision that doesn’t encompass what it could become and all the variety it can include. As a small business owner trying to get my start designing quilts and patterns, I came away worried that my work didn’t fit into the mold, would be rejected out of hand, and I was very hesitant to share it. I left feeling timid (and those of y’all who know me, know THAT sure isn’t my style).
And then, I read the three posts by Thomas Knauer on just this: My Wager, Impasse, and One More Thing. I remembered the lecture given by Denyse Schmidt about her journey, and I realized how silly and even cowardly I was being. I was not being true to myself; I haven’t really given a rat’s ass what people have thought about me or my work before this, since I make what I like and what appeals to me. Always, the most important thing to me has been challenging myself in ways that keep me growing as an individual, as a mom and spouse, as an artist and a quilter, as a business owner. Do I care if I fit the mold? Not really, since I don’t think I have, ever, in my life. I won’t deny that being in the cool-kids-club has a certain appeal, but only because it’s “safer” that way.
“Safe” is boring. “Safe” doesn’t encourage or promote growth. “Safe” is a cheat. Success without authenticity is not success. So, here’s my thesis for my life and work. My manifesto, if you will, although it, like everything else, is always going to be a work in progress:
I will make stuff. I will try new things. I will grow. I will screw up. I will be afraid and yet still do what feels right to me anyway. I will pass things on, carrying on traditions even as I fit them to my own experiences and life. I will be challenging and be challenged. I will learn, always learn.
I’m going to leave this with a passage from Thomas Knauer’s post “Impasse”, since I think he has summed it up eloquently and passionately
So, go make shit. Stop stressing about fitting in. Trust me, nobody fits in and nobody ever feels like they do. At least I don’t. We all make stuff for different reasons; those reasons are ours. Those reasons can never be wrong. That said there are differences between modern and traditional, conservative and radical, unique and generic, and everything in between, just as orange is different than green. Not everything is modern. Not everything needs to be modern. And modern is not inherently better than anything else. It is all just stuff. To be honest I don’t really even care about the stuff itself that much; what matters to me is the conversations, the reasons why. It is in those that I learn something…