Marsie in the Pink House and Marsie in the White House

That’s what my mother and uncle called their grandmothers. I’ve heard about these women all my life, though I never really got to spend time with them. From what I’ve heard, they were great ladies…

Before I left for Ireland, I was furiously framing some embroidered envelopes from the spring and early summer. I hadn’t really had a chance to title them, but I’ve been thinking about them ever since I left. I’ve decided that the envelopes are ‘houses,’ illuminated houses to be precise. And I’ve decided that these two are my great-grandmother’s houses.

During my residency at New City Arts, I began to work intensely with my hands – really tedious, obsessive work with thread, fabric, and paper. It’s work that happens in a very small physical space and it requires long hours of stillness of the body while the hands make tiny movements. As a result, it’s hard on the body – the back, the neck, the wrists, the eyes… But I’ve also found that my mind expands far beyond that small space as I work. Lots of memories and revelations have come to me during this time, and I think this is true of many types of manual labor. The relationship between labor and intellect has been on my mind, and these two episodes of “On Being with Krista Tippett” are timely:

Mike Rose – The Intelligence in All Kinds of Work


Ellen Langer – Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness

Mike Rose says, “I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This then is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work.” This is something I saw in the adults around me as I grew up, too. Although I think some of them referred to it as ‘common sense,’ and often lamented that so many people seemed to lack it. But I think it’s much more ‘sophisticated’ sense, an intuitive ability to examine and manipulate materials, whether it’s food, wood, fabric, dirt…

And I think this intelligence is linked to mindfulness, which is where Ellen Langer comes in. (Though I feel like ‘mindfulness’ is getting so overused nowadays, it’s losing it’s meaningfulness.) Langer is not interested in doing yoga everyday or meditating. She’s interested in the moments when we tune in to our surroundings versus tuning out. I think tuning in to work is the point at which Mike Rose’s ‘intelligence’ begins to form and transform.

Some food for thought for your Monday: at the Haven, while working on The Quilt, so many people would come up to me while I was working to tell me that they remembered their mothers or grandmothers sewing and making quilts. They spoke with so much admiration for these women, and usually the conversation would end thus: “Well, people don’t do that anymore. They don’t do it like they used to.” So, let us prove them wrong. Let us reflect on our elders and ancestors and their work as we carry on our own.

P.S. If you’d like to see the “Marsies” and other envelope houses, they will be exhibited at The Garage in Charlottesville in December alongside beautiful paintings by Kat Hall.

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