Thursday, August 11, 2011

Made by hand, made in China

Last weekend, Eric, Little A and I went to the Uptown Art Fair, part of a big two-day affair here in Minneapolis in which hundreds of artists gather at three locations and thousands of buyers come to look and, well, buy.

I got this bowl from Monica Rudquist (and a strawberry ice cream from Bridgeman's for Little A):

I love Monica's ceramics. I also have one of her mugs and I use it everyday (form meeting function). She makes clean, modern, seemingly simple pieces. The trick is that each piece is full of detail and thought. I love the ridged texture that is her trademark (and the crackled glaze that is a new technique she's been working on). I love the subtle pink line around the edge of the bowl where the two glazes met. I love that I got to meet Monica -- that's part of the charm of the art fair: you get to meet the person that made the work.

But why?

I don't know why I love having handmade items in my home, items made by people I may have actually met or know a thing or two about.

Is there something about the narrative of the object that makes it more desirable to me?

I love it when an object has a story or history behind it. I love imagining an artisan sitting at her potter's wheel or in her studio or at her sewing machine, creating something beautiful and unique. I love that something in my home came from somewhere other than a factory, that my dollars are spent to support an artist, a member, potentially, of my community.

Sometimes I'll buy something second-hand at an occasional sale or a vintage store and I'm drawn to the idea that it was used by someone else. I bought this child's wicker rocking chair at Flamingo's Divine Finds.

Little A likes to sit on the front porch and rock in it. I like to imagine that (and am a little creeped out by) another child enjoyed it before Little A.

Here's the rub.

In addition to going to the art fair, I also recently saw an article about this exhibit, Made in China by Lorena Turner. In her work, Turner takes items that were made in China, removes them from the plastic boxes in which they were seemingly entombed (untouched, sans history), dusts them for fingerprints, and then photographs them under a black light. The photos reveal that these previously-thought-to-be-sterile objects are covered in fingerprints, evidence that even items made in China have a history. A handmade history.

Turner's exhibit has flipped what I'd thought about consuming on its head.

I used to think a lot about this when I was making things for craft fairs. I'd be watching Law and Order or CSI and I couldn't help but think of all of the fingerprints, epithelial cells, and hairs I was leaving. Traces of DNA and other identifiers. But even though I was thinking about it in the context of a crime scene, it wasn't creepy or gross. Because, absent a belief in some spiritual essence or aura being left on these objects, wasn't it precisely this physical humanness left on handmade items that made them attractive. Isn't one of the reasons why I buy handmade now is for some connection to another human being even if I mostly think about it in terms of (the relatively sterile) concept of design?

(The above item is a threader -- I thought it was appropriate to include given the context of "handmade" versus not.)

And yet there's something disconcerting about Turner's black light revelations. These mass produced items were made and packaged by someone's hands. They, too, have left their mark. How different is that from a charming piece of pottery or artwork that I buy from an artisan? Is it different because I've removed the middle man? Because some third party isn't making money off of their labor? But what about the art fair vendors or the team of people who developed and maintain a website like etsy?

How, then, is the story of the factory worker in China different from the artisan in smalltown USA?

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