Thursday, February 16, 2012

Functional Art

I had the pleasure of meeting the great African American author, Alice Walker, back in the 70’s in Atlanta. She was just getting started back then, so it was good to see her success with “The Color Purple” and other endeavors.

She wrote a short story, “Everyday Use,” that is very special to those of us who think a lot about the differences between the North and the South, urban life and city life, life in the fast lane and the slow laid back lifestyle. The story is set in rural Georgia at a little shack way back off the main roads. A mother and a daughter (who has grotesque scars from a house fire) live together there and as the story opens, we learn that they are expecting a visit from the other daughter, who has moved to the city for education and changed her ways, her name and her identity.

She has changed her name to an Arabic name and, when she arrives, she is accompanied by a boyfriend, who also has assumed another name. The condescension begins immediately. The city sister looks down on those she left behind as ignorant, uncouth, uncultured and unaware of the ways of the world. She admonishes both mother and sister that they should be less provincial. The mother comes back with the fact that they are content in the country life and would not fit in anywhere else.

The sister explains that she has changed her name because she did not want to be identified with the family that “owned” their ancestors. She wanted a new name and a new life as a free person, not burdened by a terribly unjust past. The mother points out that she was named for her mother, who was named for her mother, who was named for her mother before her.

At this point, the city sister takes an interest in the quilts in the house and wants to take them to the city to display them as art. But the mother is firm in pointing out that, even though granny was an artist in quilt-making, she intended the quilts for everyday use. The city sister couldn’t understand why her backwater family denied the importance of those quilts as art. But the mother is firm in honoring granny’s desire to provide beautiful things that also had a purpose. Thus, Alice Walker makes a wonderful point about art’s functionality. She also draws a beautiful contrast between the kind of city people who reject history and country people who live it every day.

I do believe that quilting is a unique art form today that is both delightful to look at and completely functional to keep people warm in bed. I remember awakening from naps as a child, tracing the beautiful patterns on my own grandmother’s quilts with my finger, enjoying the art that had kept me warm. At one time, I thought automobiles were functional art. Now I don’t think we value vehicles for very long. If we know we are going to trade them in for a newer model, the whole idea of streamlined beauty goes out the window.

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