Mad in Pursuit Notebook

diagram: art, beauty, power, and the planet

The Maker, the Power, and the Planet

Apr. 4, 2016. I belong to a couple groups where artisans share their experience making contacts prints on cloth or paper with a variety of plant materials. These are commonly referred to as "eco-prints," using the term India Flint came up with to describe her bundling and processing method. One of the groups recently got into a debate over who has the right to call their work "eco"-anything if they use store-bought toxic chemicals to enhance color or lightfastness or if they play with plastic wrap to achieve a desired design effect. Purity credentials demand upcycled cloth, native plants, mordants obtained only from old aluminum or iron pots, etc. But what about energy use? Slow steaming is part of the back-to-nature gestalt. But isn't a microwave or a pressure cooker more energy efficient?

Round and round we went.

It got me thinking. Isn't it most "eco-pure" to do nothing at all? Buy textiles at the thrift store. Use them as is.

But the artist in us wants to transform a dull second-hand thing. We want to make beauty. Why?

There is power in beauty. We have used our skill to harness nature and make it conform to our vision. We have achieved mastery over our raw materials. Our audience is enthralled. "How did you DO that???" Beauty -- making it and displaying it -- has the power to boost status. (Why do people pay millions for Van Gogh paintings? It's not because his blue matches their couch upholstery.)

But the greater the power, the greater the dangers. Some would-be artists are ignorant about their materials and processes, but serious artists often choose to work with toxic chemicals and potentially explosive processes because their vision and their craft lead them there. They push the boundaries. The beauty that they can produce is that much more powerful.

I began to diagram my thoughts -- what is the dynamic of this system? How do we take command of our craft, experiment, push the boundaries, yet still maintain our "eco" cred? How do we provide a net benefit to the planet instead of a net deficit?

For me, today, it comes down to the maker's character. Just as the maker chooses to transform her raw materials, she has to choose to use her resulting power for good. That's not always an easy calculation, but we should be willing to educate ourselves. The maker might need the soul of an artist, but she also needs the brain of a scientist. Don't be stupid.

As I write this, I can think of all kinds of side topics and ramifications. Our capitalist/consumerist society demands we keep feeding raw materials into the maw of transformation to make our pretty gewgaws. At the same time it shields our eyes from the resource stripping, political corruption, and human rights violations involved in fueling the gewgaw factory. The power of our gewgaws overwhelms us, mesmerizes us.

It's hard to get a good perspective on anything.


Books by Susan Barrett Price:

THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) Thailand: lovers of ancient treasure tangle with international black markets. Delia Rivera pulls Martin Moon back into the game and their quest turns deadly. In paperback and Kindle editions.

TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) Time after time, Mary asks herself: Do I go or do I stay? She finds her power in her ancestors: Smart women turn discontent into action. An illustrated memoir in paperback and Kindle editions.

PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008) The twin forces of revenge and redemption drive Nellie MacKenzie and Taylor Jackson on a crazed adventure into the heart of Central Asia. They grapple with issues of ethics, trust, rage, and bitter heartbreak -- as well as the intrigue of the international antiquities trade. In paperback and Kindle editions.



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