A few days ago, leaving a young friend in charge of our home, my husband and I set off south to Santa Fe via the Great Sand Dunes (which is a story for another time.) I have only been to the city once before and George had never seen it, so it seemed a perfect destination for a year when we cannot travel as far and wide as we sometimes do. But it was a little peculiar to have every single person we told about the trip say the same thing, “Bring your credit cards.” I have to confess this is a first. I have traveled to some of the great shopping cities of the world (Paris, London, New York) more than a few times and no one has ever suggested that a credit card is the only thing I need to pack.
So far, the journey has been a spiritual and emotional wrestling match. And it has invited me to move to a new level of honesty and awareness around my own sense of call to fiber art as the primary expression of my life and ministry.
First, I am humbled almost to the point of paralysis. I have not walked past a single shop window that is not filled with exquisite, unique wearable or otherwise usable art. And it doesn’t help that the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture has an exhibit called, Turquoise, Water, Sky which is showcasing sublime pieces by both ancient and contemporary artisans. The symbolism and story that are captured in the craftsmanship brought me to the edge of tears – and I don’t know whether it is joy or fear or grief or some strange amalgam of them all. [I have some of my own pieces with me and can only pray that they hold some small portion of the spiritual intensity of the work I saw displayed.]
Second, I am humbled by the dedication of these women and men – a number of whom are recognized artists of long standing — who shape silver, who polish and set stone, and who do it for something around minimum wage. Because as I walked through the shops with my husband who wanted to buy a bolo to mark his passage to another decade, I started to do the math. I looked at the prices on the pieces. I held them so that I could feel the weight of the silver. In several shops, pieces were on sale at 30% or 40% off. I took a conservative (that would be low, in this case) guess at what the shop’s percentage was. And it was a startling awakening.
I am not a jeweler. The most I have ever done is string a necklace, which takes me an inordinate amount of time even though I consider myself quite dexterous. So, I am perhaps not a good judge. Perhaps these artists really can craft a sterling bracelet of unbelievable beauty, polish the turquoise, and set the stones in less than 10 hours start to finish. But unless they can churn them out at that rate, they are making less per hour than I did as a manuscript editor. And that is without deducting the cost of the materials.
Then I looked at the native artists who were selling in the plaza outside the Museum of the Governors – the artists who hadn’t made it to the point of being able to sell in one of the highly competitive shops. I paid attention to the (more-than-well-worn, cheaply made) clothes, I watched their (wary and hopeful) eyes, and I watched them talk to potential customers and I noticed the missing teeth in men and women decades younger than I am. And I was humbled again.
You see, I arrived in Santa Fe with my credit cards and my fiscal conservatism. George and I live relatively frugally and we both knew that to buy a bolo that truly represented a life transition meant we would forego some other purchase. We don’t do debt and Santa Fe prices are not in our normal budget, so we would be giving up something to buy the work of one of these artisans…but I feel all the way to my bones that the transaction we made was not fair. And I don’t know how to make it fair. Not buying the bolo would not help the artist, but I know – because I know how long it takes me to make one of my fiber pieces – that we didn’t pay what that bolo cost in creativity and spirit and skill.
So I feel a good amount of guilt.
And I feel an enormous humility, standing last and least in a long line of women and men who create beauty because that is how they make meaning in the world.
And I also feel more inspired than I ever imagined.
I understand on a whole different level that I can only be an artist if I love doing the art for its own sake. Full stop. Nothing else can ever really matter in the equation.
And I am wondering whether all artists pay it forward in some way that we will never fully comprehend. Whether the art is part of a foundation on which other people will eventually stand to build more beauty. So the best I can do at this moment – maybe all I will ever be able to do – is create my own pieces and release them into the world at minimum wage (or less) and hope that they will mark a transition for someone somewhere someday; that some door in the heart will open into a new awareness (as my heart has opened in Santa Fe) and whatever came before will become inspiration.
It’s been a journey!
© 2014, Andrea La Sonde Anastos