It’s that time of year when more than ever we contemplate and reflect. In this essay Bettina Matzkuhn assesses her work as a craftsperson over the years alongside what her Mother created. Read her thoughts below!
My Mother was a craftsperson. She made brilliantly coloured slippers, washcloths, crocheted pads for scouring pans, cozy sweaters. For Christmas fairs, she made tiny mice to sing on mantelpieces or snooze between the boughs in a hammock. Children called her “the mouse lady”. People would stop by and bring a little bag of yarn they had picked up at a flea market, or give her wool they had bought for a project whose allure had faded. She would spin straw into gold, using ends and mismatched yarns to make the most glorious things. She has Alzheimer’s now. I bring her knitting needles, crochet hooks, and coloured yarns. She looks at them, pleased, yet uncertain what she should do with them.
In a small photo album she calls her “brag book”, she kept photos she received in the mail of people wearing their slippers –children, grandparents, young lovers. They pose happily; warm feet keep the body going. For some, she made several pairs over the years as they wore out. She had a folder with hundreds of footprints, each bearing a name, that people had sent when they originally placed their orders. There was joy in the making and joy in the wearing. Their functionality bore warmth both physical and emotional.
I have a collection of sweaters Mom made me. She worked with odds and sods, but did love high quality materials when she came upon them. One, made when I was fourteen, still fits and looks as if she just sewed up the seams. Others have been mended and mended. My late father’s favourite sweater is over the back of my office chair. I lean on him as I write. Sweaters she made for my children are in boxes anticipating another generation. Latent enjoyment.
I can’t help but assess my own work as a craftsperson over the years alongside what my Mother created. I have two postsecondary degrees. Her education was nixed at grade 9 as she grew up in wartime Germany. She learned a new language, adopted Canadian citizenship and worked in offices. I have had shows in large galleries, in other countries. There are reviews, catalogues, comment books that say “very nice work”. I have received grants, collaborated, taught, given talks. Yet I have few parallels to the beaming people in her brag book. The grand projects I have undertaken do not accompany people or keep them warm or wear out from too much loving. They sit in their crates most of the time.
Function is an underrated aspect of craft. Years ago, working on my BFA, one assignment was to make a piece of art “that goes out into the world”. Even then I thought, well, that’s what craftspeople do. Their art lives in the world, not in crates or white painted spaces. Functionality is what allows the work to live with us, for better or worse. When something is useful, it is cherished, often on a daily basis. An installation may be moving or provoking, but the word “cherish” doesn’t come to mind. It doesn’t develop a long relationship with a person (or people), an intimate familiarity the way craft objects identify a person or a dwelling or an activity. I remember seeing a display of First Nation’s tools at the Royal Museum in Victoria, B.C. Each item had been carved and embellished in some way, added to by the oil and sweat from the user’s hands. Each tool had its own identity and functioned as the investment of its maker, the record of service to its user(s), and its contribution to a broader community. Each tool had a life.
What is the function of my large works? I wonder about this, wrestle with artist statements, set forth something convincing in a proposal. The work hopefully makes viewers see something in a new light, casts images that slip into their memories, flutter in their thoughts. But most likely, the viewer leaves the gallery and goes for coffee. My smaller pieces, the kind people would take home, may fare better.
At this point in my life (pushing 60), I wonder where to dedicate my limited energy. I have only recently participated in craft fairs. Some conversations with viewers are repetitive, some thoughtful, some exciting. People buy the work to live with it. A woman who bought a larger piece says she finds new details every time she passes it in her home. A couple bought a piece that reminds them of hiking, something that has been hard to organize with their young children. A man bought a moody piece for his daughter because she likes embroidery and gardens drenched in rain. The artist in me feels separate from my audience; the craftsperson chats with everyone.
When I visit Mom, I take her small things to look at: some of the Christmas mice she made years ago, a ceramic bowl, a wooden box, a bit of patchwork, a shibori scarf. She holds them carefully and marvels at the work. Some Alzheimer’s patients respond enthusiastically to familiar music. Mom is enthralled with colour, material and workmanship. Function, in her now limited world, is reduced simply to joy. It is a significant attribute. Cherish it. Merry Christmas, Mouse Lady.
– Bettina Matzkuhn