If ever there was proof of how globally connected we really are, it’s in the volume of artists from far away lands contacting me in little ol’ Brisbane, Australia, with their cancelled shows and concerns for the future. We truly are all in this together.
Michelle Radford was the first of those overseas artists to make contact, and I’m so happy she did. Her work is right up my alley – textiles that pay homage to the influence of traditionally ‘female’ crafts on artistic practice, without looking like a Home Economics project. A little bit domestic needlework, a little bit highly proficient landscape painting, these works are humble without losing confidence; witty, while retaining the whimsy.
Radford’s exhibition Give Me Leave To Do My Utmost was due to open this Friday at the Barrington Center for the Arts at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. I could write more about her practice, but having read her own statement on this body of work I think I’m best shutting up and letting her beautiful words speak for themselves.
“In the final page of Isak Dinesin’s short story, Babette’s Feast, Babette quotes her friend, the great Parisian singer Achille Papin:
‘He told me so himself “It is terrible and unbearable to an artist,” he said, “to be encouraged to do, to be applauded for doing, his second best.” He said: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!”’
What artist has not felt the strong desire to escape his or her present circumstances and distractions to focus fully and singly on the skill, vision, and effort necessary to the artistic practice?
J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Niggle in Leaf by Niggle is torn between the pull to finish his great painting of a tree and the constant interruptions of neighbors, his civic duties, and the physical demands of caring for his own health and home.
Before becoming a mother I painted landscapes in oil both en plein air and in the studio. After having children I found this kind of work impossible to continue given the demands on my schedule and attention. I shifted my practice towards textiles and mixed media and embraced the subject matter of caregiving and domesticity as a way of sorting out my own struggle with and questions about my new vocation of motherhood. I found that the repetitions necessary in the textile processes of knitting, crocheting, weaving, and stitching were a ready metaphor for the repetitions inherent in mothering and caring for a home. Incorporating the handmade artifacts of women from past generations became a way of honoring and embracing the often unrecognized creative work of women. In this way I am also questioning the hierarchies of artistic techniques and materials as well as the perceived value of paid and unpaid work.
Now that my children are school-aged and my studio time expands, I’m finding ways to incorporate landscape painting back into my studio practice, a genre I feared I would not return to. In these works, the landscape subject matter represents a desire for complete embrace of artistic production. The trees are Niggle’s tree in Tolkien’s short story. They are the desire for vocational purpose and excellence in the studio, the cry “Give me leave to do my utmost.”
In contrast, the textiles, laces, and domestic objects represent the repetition of caregiving and domestic upkeep, life-giving and beautiful, but also demanding some of the same resources of energy, time, and attention that might be used in the studio. In much the same way that the artist in me cries out for time, space, and energy, so does my calling as mother. I have at times wished motherhood were my only calling, leaving me to focus singly on the tasks of home and family. The cry “Give me leave to do my utmost!” is the cry of every calling, perhaps, but none of us has a one dimensional life. I want to honor the goodness, value, and necessity of this care-giving work while resisting the temptation to sentimentalize, trivialize, or flatten it.
Meaningful art is never made in a vacuum, and parenting efforts are always cross-pollinated by the details of real life. By combining landscape painting and women’s handcrafted textiles in this exhibition, I recognize the rich interplay and collaboration between my vocations of art-making and care-giving while acknowledging the tension in combining two extremely demanding callings.
Ultimately, both Babette’s Feast and Leaf by Niggle resolve in acknowledging a future in the life after this life, where creative vocations and community continue in a completely integrated whole, and without the vocational disappointments and frustrations of the present. In that future the artist is able to live fully into beauty and purpose. The realities of the future give meaning to the present.
‘Yet this is not the end! I feel, Babette, that this is not the end. In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be! Ah!’ she added, the tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Ah, how you will enchant the angels!’