Everyone knows that the citizens of the first world no longer make anything. And by make anything, I don’t mean manufacture in the industrial sense. I mean actually make something. We are divorced from the work of our hands, and now spend all of our time slumped in front of a screen of some sort. A screen which keeps getting smaller. Right now you’re no doubt reading this post from a screen the size of a bandaid.
We don’t weave our rugs or mill our wheat or cobble shoes or pluck a few hairs from a horse’s tail to make a paintbrush capable of rendering the slenderest of lines. Not that I want to pluck hairs from a horse’s tail for any reason. But I would like to reconnect with my hands, my physical self. This sensation of disconnect between the work we do and our physical lives was underscored by reading Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art.
She was an artist and author of children’s books. She met publishers’ deadlines, met her own deadlines, cooked, canned food, ran a design collective, danced, raised children and sheep, tended to the ego of her famous sculptor husband, all while entertaining copious friends who stopped by for feasts of lamb roasted over an open fire in the summer and Scandinavian nisu bread and carol-singing around a spinet in the winter. Oh, and she designed and made by hand the family’s annual Christmas card. And another thing: she didn’t seem to irritate people with all this bustling productivity. A quality which would alone justify a biography.
Burton was eminently connected to culture and ideas and the abstract, but practical all the same. Ideas were based in the real world, and design concepts were carried out by hand. The Folly Cove Designers, the group she founded, created incredibly detailed and beautiful designs. They were also the craftsmen and technicians, expected to develop techniques sophisticated enough to meet the aesthetic demands of their designs, and designs rigorous enough to work within the parameters of their technology. They carved these designs into linoleum blocks and inked and pressed the blocks by hand onto fabric to create placemats and tea towels and more – pieces for everyday use. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when our homes were filled with items, from the chamber pot to the silverware, that were made by hand. The Folly Cove Designers insisted on carrying on this tradition by making useful items that were also beautiful, removing art from the realm of the specialist and putting good design back into the hands, literally, of the consumer.
Burton insisted on utilizing the labor-intensive process of the hand-made, not for nostalgia’s sake, but for her own sake, for the sake of living the best life possible. And living the best life possible involves making things. Not all of the time, not everything, but something, and, in doing so, acknowledging that your hands need real work. It sounds overly simplistic, and certainly contemporary life cannot be built brick by handmade brick. But in our hurry to surround ourselves with synthetic materials engineered to make our lives easier, we forget that we ourselves are made up of organic matter. That we are just waiting to be made into compost, and that we recognize ourselves in the natural world and miss being a part of things, so to speak.
Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman is a slender volume, and not intended to be comprehensive in matters of design, or craft, or even Virginia Lee Burton herself. But it captured the spirit of a life well-lived. I think I’ll head into my studio now, just after I whip up an apple pie from scratch.