Graduate Seminar 1__Summer In-Residence 2013


Homo Faber, a brief poem by Frank Bidart

Whatever lies still uncarried from the abyss within

me as I die dies with me.

          There may not be a one of us who has not heard the old adages, “busy hands are happy hands” or “idle minds (or hands) are the devil’s workshop”. My influences as a child were mainly from the women on the maternal side of my family. They were raised in a textile mill culture in North Carolina–namely that of Cannon Mills in the city of Kannapolis, which is where I was born. My mother and her three sisters lived with their parents in a mill house that sat in a neat row of other small houses that were all exactly the same amidst many, many rows of houses that were the homes of other mill workers and their families. So, working hands were an important part of their lives even if as girls they did not formally understand all that working hands connote or have any inkling about craft. What they responded to the most was the affect of hardship.

In the prologue for his book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett described Animal laborens and Homo faber through the lens of his mentor, Hannah Arendt. He wrote, “Animal laborens is, as the name implies, the human being akin to the beast of burden, a drudge condemned to routine.”[1] He further stated that Arendt described Homo faber as the “image of men and women doing another kind of work, making a life in common”. [2] While not much was spoken to my generation about working in the cotton mill or what the Cannon mill house culture was like, I can surmise that life for my grandparents, Beatrice and William Ballard, fit right smack into these two Latin descriptors for human condition.

Beatrice worked various jobs until finally settling to work as an edger, which was described on record as a “semi-skilled operative”. William worked in textile line production in the beginning and moved over to spend the rest of his tenure at Cannon Mills in the graphic design department as a text and sign painter and package designer. My family says, although there are no formal records of the fact, he designed the Cannon Mills logo; he painted the company’s first sign. Neither Beatrice nor William thought of themselves as artists in spite of the fact that their hands worked long shifts at repetitive motion that in spite of themselves were fine rituals of craft. Before I was born children were no longer allowed to labor (thankfully) or even set foot inside the mills, so I never got the opportunity to watch my grandmother at her work station. However, I did become witness to her fine sewing of dresses and quilts. I did get the chance to see my grandfather paint letters and numbers with perfection. Both of my grandparents worked with great economy of movement and sensitivity to their tools and media. So to me, artists they were in spite of the drudgery of their long days of hard labor and raising four girls in the North Carolina mill culture.

After retirement and in spite of having hands with gnarled fingers bent all in one direction from years and years of pushing washcloths, towels, sheets, and pillow cases through her sewing machine, Beatrice took to painting what she called “pretty pictures”. Her formal draughtsmanship excelled in the years before her death. That lady could draw, I tell you! Sadly, in the years before her death a series of strokes left her with nothing more than the ability to try to use Crayolas to color inside the lines of a children’s coloring book. Needless to say, I have an affinity about the toil of women and what remains for them in living.

In Helen Molesworth’s, Work Ethic, she discusses how early artists influenced by feminism were challenged to figure out, inside a world of increasingly commodified art wherein the traditional labor division of manager and worker did not apply to domesticity, how to combine their artwork with housework and child rearing.[3] As one example, she described the work of Martha Rosler whose art I have long admired. In Backyard Economy the artist trained her video camera upon herself as she performed the unpaid labor associated with her life, thereby doing “double duty” to her life’s chores and her art.[4]  I am reminded of something my grandmother self-effacingly said on occasion, “How many years have I been so unproductive?” It was a stunning statement considering all that she did accomplish, but I suspect she was referencing her newfound love of painting and drawing against the years of toiling in a cotton textile mill.

In my work, to touch upon in some way the words and experiences of my family members, particularly the women, has become a stronger precedent that I wish to explore albeit not as literal enactments per se. My mother’s generation of women is dying or they are in their twilight years and unwilling to be curious enough to aid in my endeavors, and time is escaping our favor.  Sometimes I think about the clichéd Southern aphorism that was meticulously cross-stitched onto cotton muslin by my grandmother and hung on the wall above her kitchen sink, “Kwitcherbelliakin!”

[1] Richard Sennett. “Prologue”, The Craftsman. (2008) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Helen Anne Molesworth, M. Darsie Alexander, and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Work Ethic. Baltimore, MD: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2003.

[4] Ibid.

Readings About Craft:

  • Helen Anne Molesworth, Darsie M. Alexander, and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Work Ethic. Baltimore, MD: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2003. Print.
  • Richard Sennett. “Prologue.” The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

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