The entire series, Disappearing Acts, in the Guardian is good information for anyone who cares about craft. It hits exactly the points we’ve been discussing on this blog recently but does it 1000 times better and with great pictures. (It helps to have funding and a talented staff!)
My dad, Max Ranft, made his living as a fine artist. He really lived it. He had a studio. He taught life drawing. He sketched on every scrap of paper. He taught me how to draw. He taught my brothers. He set up his easel in the snow. He trekked through the forest preserves and churned out landscape after landscape after landscape. Before he got his job at J. Walter Thompson, he traveled the Midwest doing church murals. And he is one of the only people I ever met who knew–I mean really knew–how to draw the human figure.
He hated working from photographs, whether he was painting a portrait or a bridge. The light isn’t real. The shadows aren’t real. The colors are not real. Whatever he was trying to convey was not containable in a snapshot. He needed more than that to say what he had to say.
I remember when I finally got it. He was painting, I was sketching. I could see him from where I sat, measuring, looking, mixing, adjusting. We were out there for hours, a beautiful spot by a lake. The birds, the sunshine, the sound of leaves against the wind. I realized my father spent a good deal of his life observing nature. I thought he was just the guy I saw at dinner. You know, eating. Getting mad at world news. Fixing the gutters. But what I realized by the lake was that what was blue or white to me was not to him. He’d cultivated a way of seeing, a way of knowing the natural world that most people don’t know. He knew stuff, unique stuff, and he was trying to pass this stuff along to me.
Today he has Alzheimer’s. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about lost arts.
If there’s someone in your life with Alzheimer’s, then you already know what I’m going to say. Everyone’s personal or family disease is important: it makes its own strong and particular mark, it takes you down paths you don’t think you can walk. Alzheimer’s–I’ll venture to say–is one of the more stranger ones. What is it–what!–that allows him to play chess (and win) but not remember what he said five minutes ago?
Not long ago, we had a visit from the great nephew of my dad’s teacher, Louis Grell. Richard is doing research on his relative for a book and my dad was one of his closest pupils. (If you’ve ever been to the Chicago Theatre on State Street, you’ve looked at the murals inside–those are Grells.) My dad revered Grell. Mister Grell, as he called him even well after he died. I grew up with stories about Grell and the impact he had not only on my dad’s art, but on his thinking. It’s all lost. My dad couldn’t recall anything significant about his apprenticeship to this man. And no one in my family had written anything down.
You think the stories you have in your youth are the stories you’ll have your whole life. They are the stories you live with, that shape you, that make you who you are. If you forget a detail, no matter. The storyteller will tell the story again. You can have the story back in all its vivid detail any time you want. Or so you think.
So much else is gone, too. I’ve been wracking my brain to remember what he taught me about the color of clouds, about how to paint a sky, about how to measure the human form. What was I supposed to do with half tones? What exactly was I supposed to look for when the weight was on the opposite hip of a figure at three quarter turn? What did you mean when you said to soften the shadow? These are the stories I heard every day of my youth. Of everything he taught me about art, I internalized only maybe ten percent. The rest is gone. Just gone.
This sudden and desperate sense of loss has made me frantic about the lost arts of our world. Where does all the knowledge go? Who is keeping track? Who’s writing it down? Better yet, who’s practicing it, making it present? Here are a few on my current watch list (in no particular order):
Dark room photography
and, of course, hand spinning
Maybe you know some people who practice these arts. Maybe you practice some of them yourself. But let’s face it. These crafts are endangered. My list has a decidedly Western bent, but that’s the culture I know. Please send me more and I’ll add them.
Recently, someone said that she struggled with deciding when to consign an art to history. This really took me aback. I don’t want to lose any of these arts to history. But then I thought how many people I know who are looking to buy a hand-tatted collar. Zero. Who wants a hand-carved bed? Who needs their books rebound? There are reasons we don’t practice these crafts like we once did. But, gosh–is that the reason to let them go? Zip? Gone? Disappear forever like my father’s memory? Maybe I’m too emotionally invested here. If I am, talk me out of it. But somehow I don’t think so. Besides all the practical use I get from my spinning wheel, there’s another reason I make yarn by hand. I do it, damn it, because there’s value in the doing. Like my father standing in the forest, under the sun, measuring, mixing, creating what only he could create out there that day, there’s a knowledge in the doing that only comes from doing. Do we really want to lose that to history? Really?
Have you ever noticed how most American hand spinners are not outspoken advocates of the American sheep industry?
We love working with wool but we don’t support the wool industry in our own country.
Many American flockmasters are struggling to keep their sheep, especially since last summer’s drought. The special care required to keep a spinning flock producing top quality fleece can add up in dollars, sometimes costing more to care for the sheep than the price of the fleece. Since summer, the cost of feed has fluctuated, making it difficult for flockmasters to project their spending. As a result, some farmers have had to sell their sheep as market lambs, their fine fleeces of little value when times are tough.
With the Internet, it’s easy to buy wool from overseas, but great wool is being produced right here at affordable prices. We don’t have to send away to Canada or Australia to discover the world of sheep.
Many American flockmasters are working to preserve rare breeds or different breeds, a treat for any hand spinner who knows sheep and wants to work with great fiber. These fibers are not hard to come by: you can find them at festivals around the country or over the Internet. I buy my fleeces direct from sheep farmers because I value what they do and I don’t want a middleman to get money that could go directly back to the farm. Wary of buying a fleece you haven’t seen or inspected yourself? Most producers are happy to send a sample.
I’ve spun Coopworth, Romney, Corriedale, Jacob and East Fresian-Polypay Cross. Each fleece taught me more about spinning long wools. And I’ll tell you this: once you connect directly with the flockmaster who cared for the sheep you’re spinning, you learn so much about your place in the production chain and how much we owe the people who tend these animals.
As I happily spin up my fleeces, I’m reminded that I’m lucky to have them at all this year. Whenever I see cheap lamb for sale from Australia or a hand spinner who’s willing to get a Merino fleece from New Zealand, I think of all the struggling American flockmasters I’ve met. There’s not a one who wanted to sell a sheep due to hard times. It’s tough out there and American hand spinners have a duty to support the industry that supports them.
If you want to learn more about the American sheep industry, read Sheep!.
Images of yarns and fiber from Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival last week in Jefferson. This fiber fest has everything a spinner or knitter could want: a fleece show and sale, two barns of vendors, three days of classes, and plenty of sheep. Oh, and inspiration!
Ever visit a place for the first time and find you’ve already been there?
I don’t mean literally, like you remembered you’d been there once before. I mean something more visceral: you find your true self has been waiting for you there, waiting for you to discover that you belong there. In fact, you have belonged there all your life–if only you had known enough to look.
This happened to a friend of mine when she visited California. She got off the plane, took one look and said, whoa: this is where I’m supposed to be. It hit her that hard, and she’s never really come back.
This is what happens to me every time I attend the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival (it’s this weekend: Sept 7, 8, and 9). As soon as I get there, I feel so me, it hurts. It’s the land. It’s the sheep. It’s the spinning. I know I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. There’s only one problem: the Sheep and Wool Fest isn’t a place, it’s an event. It’s over in a flash. Then it’s back to work. Back to urban life. Back. Back. Back.
Don’t’ get me wrong: I enjoy my life. It’s just impossible to live it outside a major urban area. My husband and I could give up a lot to live in a rural small town. We could say good bye to shopping malls and the Art Institute. We could do without 4G and Lake Michigan water. We could happily trade the Cubs for a lawn tractor. What we can’t give up is our jobs. Our jobs keep us tied to the city. By living one dream, you say good bye to another. Sometimes, you don’t even realize you’ve made a trade.
Nobody told us when we were young that pursuing our careers would tether us to city life. Frankly, this was the last thing on our minds anyway. The young think everything is possible. It would never have occurred to me that my choice of profession meant I couldn’t live in the country. If I wanted to live in a small town, why, I’d just move there. Simple as that. But it’s never that simple.
For decades the movement has been out of small towns into the cities. Who would have thought people would want to go back? Whenever my husband and I drive in the country, we are sure to pass by the remnants of old towns. My mother-in-law can pick out the crossroads of Wisconsin towns she once knew as a girl, now marked with just a few collapsed houses and a vine-wrapped chimney or two. It always makes me sad. Who lived there? What dream fell apart? I’d love to live out in the country, but where are the jobs? Even in thriving small towns, it’s hard to find a doctor or a clinic. What if you need a good lawyer? What if you need a gasket to stop your faucet from leaking?
With small town life out of reach, we thought of moving farther out. We scoured the map of Chicagoland: if you want to get out of town, I mean really out of town, you’re looking at an hour commute–at least! And we’re not big fans of long commutes. What a waste of time, resources, and spirit. So, we’re stuck, at least for now. I’m grateful to the city for the life it gives us; but, in a few days, I’ll be walking through the dusty barns, searching for the perfect fleece, feeling very much myself and as close to the horizon as I can get.
With the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival coming up this September, there’s more than enough to fantasize about: yarn, fleece, sheep, tractors, farm equipment, and plenty of 4H events. I’ve been a regular since 2004. In Chicago, quality yarns are easy to find. Try finding a fleece. A good one. At this festival, I always go home with a beaut. You’d think that as an avid hand spinner, I’d be fairly near to heaven, dreaming about the great fleece in my future. Nope. This year, I got just one thing on my mind: corn dogs.
Not just any corn dogs. I’m talking about hand-dipped corn dogs, made while you wait.
Oh, my stars. Have you ever had one of these?
My first was at last year’s festival. When the line at the lunch counter was just too long, I decided to take my chances at the food cart outside. That’s where I found these golden delicacies. Creamy cornishy hot doggie goodness. Like night and day from the stuff I’d had before–what I thought were corn dogs, now clearly understood as impostors. There ought to be a law.
Here in Chicago, food truck owners are struggling with the city council, which just passed an ordinance allowing them to operate, but they must remain beyond a 200-foot radius of any brick and mortar restaurant. The food truck owners complained that this made it nearly impossible for them to operate, especially downtown. At first I thought, hey, restaurant owners pick their sites with care. They have a right to operate without a food truck parked in front of their door, taking all their business. The food truck has the luxury of mobility. The brick and mortar restaurant does not.
I guess you could say that no lease owner is protected from competition. What prevents a competitor from moving in right next door? I rent an apartment. I have no control over who lives next to me or over me or across the hall. If I don’t like it, I can move.
But really, something about this perspective doesn’t seem quite right. Why is the burden on me to move? I’ve been here a long time. I’ve established a life here. Is it really fair to the restaurant owner who has worked hard to establish a clientele and a place in the neighborhood when a food truck parks outside its door?
My guess is that food truck owners don’t want to cause problems. They want to establish a tradition, as the Chicago Food Carts blog puts it, “that other great cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have had for decades.” My jones’n for a hand-dipped corn dog has made me think maybe it wouldn’t be half bad to ease the restriction.
From what I’ve read, corn dogs are rather pedestrian fare for food trucks these days. They probably wouldn’t even sell corn dogs. They’d probably sell corn duck sausage or corn fritters with chicken, spinach, and asiago. Well, if you can put it on a stick, I guess I’ll try it.
Here’s hoping Chicago can work this out. Don’t make me wait once a year for something so good.
If you really get into hand spinning–if it becomes more than a means to an end (cheap yarn!), if you find yourself at summer parties wishing you had brought your wheel instead of potato salad–if this is you, then at some point you’ve probably fantasized about owning sheep. I sure did.
The desire to own sheep is something I’ve heard a lot lately, even among people who admire spinning but don’t actually spin themselves. Some of them don’t even knit or crochet or weave. They just want sheep.
I understand. Once I spun my first fleece, I started thinking about how nice it would be to have a small spinning flock of one or two breeds, maybe even rare breeds. Sure, we lived in a condo, but I saw this as a surmountable problem. We wouldn’t always be living in the city. Someday, we would move to the country. We would buy land, maybe a small hobby farm where I could live out my dream of raising sheep, spinning, and knitting and–apparently–living off my husband’s job, whatever that was going to be in this new rural landscape.
Yes, I would raise sheep. I knew it was a big job, that you couldn’t just leave for days on the spur of the moment, that you needed to give yourself over to hard, physical work. Inside, I knew I was tough; I could do it. In anticipation of this future move, I decided to study up. I devoured Sheep! magazine. I learned what I could from books, the basics of feeding, fencing, sheering, even birthing and predator control. I learned about breed characteristics and talked to breeders about the breeds that grew wool I liked to spin. I knew I’d need a lot of hands-on training before I could handle a flock of my own. And then I learned the biggie: sheep die.
It’s true. They die from all sorts of things and once they die what you have is a big dead sheep. I was ready to run out in the middle of a cold spring morning to help a ewe give birth. I knew about parasites and scrapie and bluetongue and foot rot. Actually, there’s a host of horrible sheep diseases that I won’t mention here, but I figured I could deal with them with the help of a good vet and vigilance.
What I’m saying is this: of course I knew all along that sheep die. What I realized was that I really wanted a flock of pet sheep that lived in my barn. Flockmasters who are close to their sheep talk about how hard it is to lose them. No one wants to lose an animal. You can tell how much it matters when you get a fleece from the bloodline of one they really loved. They want you to make something wonderful from the wool because it contains the legacy of a special animal. If you ask, they offer you fond memories, and I treasure these fleeces because I’ve been made a steward of the legacy they carry.
As great as it would be to have a spinning flock, I know I just couldn’t do it. Listen, I’m still haunted by the death of my cat Pheefers and she died three years ago. She got the best possible veterinary care and she still died too young. She endured like a little saint. Every night, my husband and I light a candle in her memory and for all the pets our friends have lost. Can you image what I’d be like at the death of my first sheep? Better to leave the shepherding to others. I don’t know how they do it. But they can do it, and I know I can’t.
Not long ago, I was at a llama 4H event with my cousin. Llamas are stately, elegant, beautiful and the spinning is fine. Unlike me, my cousin lives in a rural area and could probably have farm animals. She had never seen a llama up close. “Wow,” she said, “wouldn’t it be great. . . ?” She trailed off. I knew what she was thinking. “Yep,” I agreed. “It sure would.” Except for one thing.