Even before the recent renovation, the Renwick Gallery was one of my favorite museums. I found it to be a place where craft was treated as art, and where art was celebrated for its craftsmanship. I have never fully understood the blurry lines between the craft world and the art world anyways, and at the Renwick I feel like those rules don't really apply.
Naturally I wanted to join the party for the re-opening of the museum. My lovely husband and I went to one of the opening galas, mingled, toasted in champaign, and walked around the room sized installations, goggle-eyed and in awe. Then I went back a few weeks later, with my friend Jennifer, to take it all in again, in daylight this time, which gave the marbles in Maya Lin's Chesapeake bay watershed extra sparkle.
Although I truly admired all of the work displayed and the gallery renovation itself, this is not a post about Wonder or even about the Renwick. It is a post about time. Especially about time spent creating art and its worth.
A few days after the Renwick opening The Washington Post's art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott wrote a review about the exhibit. Overall he was fairly positive, and beside a major complaint about the neon signage he seemed pleased about the renovation. Then there was this passage:
"The quantity of human labor and investment embodied in these large-scale works, so painstakingly built up from small bits and pieces, may leave you wondering: Is this a productive use of time? Artists and craftsmen will bristle at the question. If you have to ask it, you’ve failed to see what’s wonderful about a great painting, or the thousands of hours woven into a rug, or the centuries of community toil embodied in a great European cathedral. But if we live on a dying planet, the question becomes very different. Is there something futile and even decadent in the amount of human energy we invest in trying to fit a representation of nature into a gallery space, while that same world heats up, desiccates and shrivels away before our eyes?"
As an artist who not only work in a time consuming medium, but who also focuses my art on the fragility and preciousness of nature, this paragraph did make me bristle. Although Mr. Kennicott obviously anticipateed my reaction, he still decided that this was a point valid enough to bring up in his review.
He is implying that if you are an environmentalist, your time would be better spent actively working on behalf of the environment, assumingly through political activism, engagement in environmental organizations, and hands on work such as river clean-ups and making environmentally sounds choices in our daily life. And he is right. But what I object to is the assumption that this only pertains to artists, and in particular artists who's work relates to nature. Would the world not be a better place if we all devoted more time towards pressing issues like climate change, regardless of our occupation?
I spend endless hours on my work. For me it is incredibly meaningful to let the dye processes develop in their own time, and to slowly work my stitches by hand—hundreds and thousands of them in one sitting. This is my way of celebrate nature and the world we live in. I think that by making and presenting work that embodies nature, we bring awareness about the issues at hand. I can't imagine working in another way. And even if I did, would my time spent making art be more justified if my methods were less meticulous?
I do engage in local environmental issues and I strive to live in a sustainable way, but for me it is not a question of either or. I believe there is room for both activism and beauty in ones life. I believe most of my actions, whether embroidering hundreds of french knots, creating oversized quilts from my prints, or being a tree stewart in my community, eventually will make the world a better place.
You can read Philip Kennicott's full review here. I would love to hear what you think.
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