In 1994, I left my last day job to try and make a living by art. I had no idea what that would look like, but a friend who taught anthropology invited me to a slide presentation by a guy who had worked with peasant craftspeople all over the world — mostly helping them to build better devices for cooking with wood. His name was Ianto Evans, and he had returned from traveling when he realized that the problems he was trying to solve were not in fact caused by poverty, but by the wasteful and disconnected practices of the wealthy.
That spring, as part of a larger vision for de-consumerization, Ianto was teaching a workshop on how to build a mud house for next to nothing. So I gave him some of my shrinking funds and, with a wonderful group of folks, mixed mud to build a beautiful little cob cottage, as well as a wood-fired oven. That summer, I sculpted Minnesota and New York mud into a couple of ovens for family members. The ovens, in addition to giving me a wonderful medium for larger-than-life sculpture, also gave me the key to making the kind of truly wonderful bread I had eaten as a child in rural France. I sent Ianto pictures, and he invited me back for more mud work with more wonderful folks.
My vision of art up ’til then had been dominated by a love for stone carving — but I didn’t like the art world, which seemed frivolous, driven by ego and money rather than beauty and service. To me, beauty is what we live by, and cannot live without — like sunshine, grass, and water. The point of life is to participate in those gifts, and to give all we can to insure that they continue.
By another set of lovely coincidences, I had been invited to fix up a little cabin in the country where I could build an oven, bake my own bread, and learn to grow my own food. Eventually, I also built myself a little cob cottage there. Without being able to explain any of it, and mostly by what it was not, I knew that I would not truly be able to live by art unless I could I re-find a real, living connection to nature. Building home and garden became my university, and ovens became the vehicle by which I could share what I learned.
Since then, I have been fortunate to meet and learn from many marvelous, brilliant, and inspiring teachers, all of whom live by a whole variety of arts. I have also discovered that my inchoate feelings about art and beauty constitute, in fact and in practice, what amounts to a universal cornerstone underlying all of culture. The literature is well known, but poorly taught. Ananda Coomaraswamy summarizes it well:
The basic error in what we have called the illusion of culture is the assumption that art is something to be done by a special kind of man, and particularly that kind of man whom we call a genius. In direct opposition to this is the normal and humane view that art is simply the right way of making things, whether symphonies or airplanes.
Manufacture is for use and not for profit. The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man who is not an artist in some field, every man without a vocation, is an idler. The kind of artist that a man should be, carpenter, painter, lawyer, farmer, or priest, is determined by his own nature…
This is not to say that any mere practice constitutes art, but that goals such as beauty, proportion, and harmony can be pursued in any vocation — so long as the vocation understands its purpose as defined by use and not for profit. In other words, art cannot and does not serve self or wealth, but others.