Tuesday, 4 July, 2000

Dear Friends,

. . . Having just purchased an ''Arts and Crafts'' house in a village much influenced by this hundred-year-old style of thought, I'm reminded again of John Ruskin, William Morris, and all those thinkers of Victorian England and their disciples here in the States. Now that we have this house in our care, I'm wondering how faithfully we need to adhere to the Arts and Crafts orthodoxy.
. . . Ruskin and these others championed solid, personal work. These writers abhorred objects made by the repetitive actions of workers using machines. Workers, they believed, should be able to give thought to their work, something impossible to do if all you're doing is running a machine that's doing the work. What they valued was thought incarnate, the evidence of personality shaping matter.
. . . What sorts of objects should we put into our house? Only those which are hand made? What tools can we use? Only hand tools? What would Ruskin say? What will my neighbors say?
. . . If you know much about Gandhi, you know his life was changed after reading a small book by John Ruskin called ''Unto This Last.'' As I remember, Gandhi was practicing law in South Africa. He absorbed the message of Ruskin's book while traveling by train. He stepped off the train, stopped practicing law, and started practicing something more like education and social change.
. . . The book, said Gandhi, ''left an abiding impression on me. Before the independent thinking, profound morality and the truthfulness of this book, all the books given me . . . seemed to pale into insignificance.'' ''I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book.''
. . . Gandhi championed work by hand. One of his dreams was to see millions of his fellow Indians spinning their own thread and making their own cloth, thus making India independent of cloth imports from England. The national flag of independent India shows a spinning wheel in its center.
.Three women painting . . Did Gandhi think machine-made cloth was inferior to home-spun? The champions of the Arts and Crafts movement thought so. They valued the simple honesty of hand-made objects and the thoughtful work behind their production. They denigrated the superficial quality of mass-produced goods and the numbing mindlessness of the work.
. . . Their beliefs had wide appeal and still do. One problem with their beliefs is that simple handmade objects are very expensive, available to few. The other problem with their beliefs is that machine-made goods are not only cheaper, they are often better than hand-made.
. . . Have you been watching "The 1900 House" on PBS Television these last few weeks? A family of six in London, England was asked to spend three months living as a similar family would have one hundred years earlier. They dress the same as people did then, cook the same, clean the same, and use the same products.
. . . Over and over again viewers of this show see how much effort the simplest tasks demand, especially from women. By the time you've watched this family cope for three months without the benefit of recent technology, you leave convinced much of our freedom from drudgery, especially women's freedom, is a blessing of technology.
. . . After seeing this family take three days to wash a week's laundry, tirades against technology sound shrill. (Have you noticed that, when I get didactic, my words alliterate and my vocabulary becomes more ponderous?) After seeing that a middle-class family in 1900 could only afford three changes of clothes, our present wardrobes seem remarkable. Would any of us really prefer only three changes of clothes simply because they were made by hand?
. . . All of this is prelude to a confession. We're using machine-made items in our 1909 house. Sadly, it's true. We have strayed far from Arts and Crafts orthodoxy.
. . . We've installed machine-made sconces on our walls that are imitation Arts and Crafts. The look is only superficial. But the lighting is pleasant, warm and affordable.
. . . We are using Arts and Crafts colors on the walls, colors we've found in two books -- Smith and Yamamoto's "The Beautiful Necessity: Decorating with Arts and Crafts" and Cathers and Vertikoff's "Stickley Style: Arts and Crafts Homes in the Craftsman Tradition." But, if the colors are orthodox, the paint and brushes are not. They are machine made using unnatural ingredients such as latex and polymers. That said, I hope we can at least get partial credit for applying the paint by hand.
. . . I want credit, too, for restoring the wood floor in my new office by hand. I used my bare hands to tear up the stained carpet, using no tools at all, not even my teeth.
. . . I also used my bare hands (and a pair of pliers) to tear up the padding that was underneath the carpet. AND I used my bare hands and a narrow putty knife to tear up the linoleum that was under the padding that was under the carpet. I tore up two fingernails, too, in the process and I want full credit for the effort.

The old floor

. . . That's not all I did. I used my rubber-gloved hands and an ALL NATURAL MATERIALS BRUSH to apply some mad chemist's concoction of solvents to the floor. This dissolved the glue that was under the linoleum that was under the padding that was under the carpet. Sadly, the solvents weren't natural. A warning label on the can cautioned that inhalation of the concoction's fumes could cause three types of cancer. I may be dead soon after long, agonizing suffering, but I will have done the work on my hands and knees in the finest Arts and Crafts tradition and I expect full credit for the effort.
. . . Now I want this question answered: how is it I found synthetic carpet, a synthetic pad, linoleum and who-knows-what-kind-of-glue in this Arts and Crafts home? Could it be that our predecessors in the house were not dyed-in-the-wool handcrafters? Could it be that my neighbors aren't ultra-orthodox Arts and Crafters?
. . . If you've been to our village, you know that the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement here is strong. Stronger still has been a different ethic -- a sort of American practical opportunism. That is, people built what they wanted with what they could afford or find. They didn't worry about orthodoxy unless it pleased them.
. . . For that reason, many houses here have evolved from small shacks to big, rambling shacks. The workmanship and design may not be the best or even average but it is consistently charming and welcoming. It puts a person at ease, fits into the woods and gardens, and is very American. For what does it mean to be an American if not to be free from tyranny, including tyranny of style?
. . . So, on this Fourth of July, I say God bless America and God bless Arden, where we can purchase an old house and be one more owner making it the place we want it to be.

PHOTOS: The top photo is of our new home. The middle photo is of my wife, Barbara with fellow painters Laura and Liz. The bottom photo is of the linoleum before I removed it from the floor. Grey foam padding still sticks to the top.

See how Arden celebrates July Fourth
Ten photos of the competitions.

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