The Value of Good Home Economics
“What we have been becomes the country where we are.” Wendell Berry, Anniversary
10 years ago, Harwood Art Center opened its main gallery to my MFA thesis, Home Economics, when few other galleries around town were willing. I wanted to create a hand-made domestic interior and prepare and serve meals in the gallery throughout the month of September. Centering food in the gallery made many gallerists nervous, as it continues to do. I am grateful to Darby Photos, who directed Harwood’s exhibitions at the time, for her forward thinking and open-mindedness. She accepted my exhibition proposal and introduced me to Harwood’s head cook Robin, who ran a café at Harwood and prepared lunches for Escuela del Sol students. Robin allowed me to use her industrial kitchen in exchange for help preparing student lunches while she was on vacation.
As I explained in my 2008 gallery talk, I ripped the title for my exhibition from a collection of Wendell Berry’s essays on community, education, agriculture, government, and economy by the same name. Having found Berry at a young age, his writing has informed my viewpoint, fears, and hopes as an American. But his belief in the value of work and human creativity, in the fullest sense, are what apply most to this body of work.
In the year preceding Home Economics, I secured grant funds to subscribe to local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares and to purchase and plant an urban garden box of my own. I began the slow and careful production of table linens made entirely from reclaimed fabric, a hand knit felted rug, a recycled hand knit curtain, knit dish cloths and ornate objects while testing recipes with local produce. I created more than 100 small plates, a series of sculptural serving platters, several dish sets and small sculptures. I even made a kitchen sink: two sinks actually, a wash bin and a rinse bin.
My dad flew out in advance of the opening and he and I spent the better part of a week baking crackers, pickling hard boiled eggs in beet juice, and preparing dips and salsas. At the opening reception, we served an array of bright and flavorful foods including figs from my friend Nan’s tree, with fresh goat cheese and black pepper. Harwood staff counted nearly 300 people in attendance, eating, drinking and washing their dishes in the gallery. My sinks had to be emptied and refilled. Soaked dish towels were replaced with dry towels. Platters were refilled from reserves in the kitchen. But by the end of the night, my pots wore the patina of use: drops of oil, a dusting of herbs, a few crumbs.
Throughout the opening reception, guests were invited to sign up to attend one of the meals I scheduled throughout the month. Inspired by Marina Abromovic I decided to dine with my guests, though the introvert in me would have preferred performing from behind the scenes. Each meal left me exhausted yet enlivened. My cup was poured out, but my inner tap root was thriving, digging deeper into my personal reserves.
Home Economics was not only a test of my outer limits, though it certainly was that. It was the fullest expression I knew to make of convictions I held deeply then as I do now. I believe that making is a profoundly human act and essential to our well-being, mine especially. The slow production of careful objects in my studio is as important to as the social action that follows. And I believe that industrial production is toxic for everyone and everything involved: for the people and landscapes who bear the burden of industry as well as those who consume it.
In 2000, when I was fresh out of college I had the privilege of hearing Jane Goodall speak at Chautauqua Art Institute where I worked a waitress. (Staff were given a free pass to all the symphonies, concerts and lectures that took place.) Jane spoke very little of the rainforest or chimpanzees. Instead, her lecture took the form of an impassioned plea for an end to what Pope Francis today calls “America’s unbridled capitalism.” Ms. Goodall argued convincingly that mass consumption is the primary culprit when it comes to the decimation of the rainforest and other landscapes, the destruction of cultures, the enslavement of people and the polluting of our food sheds and water ways. She advocated for practices that have come to shape my making, trading and collecting habits:
1) Sales Resistance: avoid buying what you don’t need to begin with.
2) Responsible consumption: when you have to buy something, do your homework. Know where and how it was made and at who’s expense. Buy, as much as possible, a good that was produced fairly - honoring the landscape and labor behind it. Buy a good that will last a long time.
3) Give back to the planet. Recycle everything you can. Ride your bike or walk when you are able, carpool with friends, plant a garden, share with neighbors.
Mass produced goods poison landscapes and demand underpaid and taxing labor from people the consumer usually has no contact with or knowledge of. Industrial production degrades the planet and fuels economic disparity across the world, including in the States where Walmart employees can’t afford groceries and healthcare. Thanks to ease of communication, we all know this now. But sometimes we fail to consider that our consumer dollars are the votes that prop up these systems.
10 years after the fact, I need to clarify that Home Economics was (is) not an “America First” proposition. I don’t subscribe to that brand of American Nationalism; I am a humanist foremost. I believe all people are equal and deserve to thrive. I believe all artists deserve intellectual ownership of their traditions and ideas. I believe that all deserve a fair wage for their creativity and labor. I have wonderful objects I’ve purchased directly from artists across the world at what I hope were fair prices. But the way this county conducts International trade is so unjust that it makes me want to withdraw from that system completely. This is impossible of course. But we can begin the process; We have more power than we think we do.
Turning my attention to what I can make, and what others within my city can make, puts my votes in favor of fair wages, just labor practices, environmental care, quality and community building. Most of my collectors are people that know me in some capacity. And I am increasingly getting to know the farmers who grow my food and the cooks who prepare it. In the 10 years since Home Economics, I’ve learned much about my convictions, my community, and Art as Social Practice. In the upcoming months I’ll highlight projects I’ve done since Home Economics and what I’ve learned from them too. I hope you’ll join in the conversation! Stay tuned to my blog at jenndepaolo.com to learn about other projects and leave comments.