We recently had an estate agent round to prepare the sale of our house – yes, we’re trying again, though without much hope, it has to be said – and inevitably we entered my workroom (aka the second bedroom) so that the agent could measure up. ‘I work in here,’ I explained, apologetically gesturing at the books, the shelves, the cupboards, the stacks of paper, coloured pencils, paintbrushes, etc. Estate agents like to see a bed in a bedroom, and there is no such thing in my workroom. I had tidied it as much as I could, but there was evidence of art pretty much everywhere.

‘What do you do?’ asked the agent.

‘I’m a textile artist,’ I said.

She nearly dropped the measuring gadget. She glanced up at ‘Communion’, still hanging  across the bookshelves. ‘Do you mean THAT??’ she said, pointing.

‘Yes,’ I said.

There was a long silence.

Eventually the agent said, ‘Well, I think it’s lovely that people can have a hobby. No, really, I do. Good for you. It’s nice that people can do something with their hands in their spare time.’

I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation, but she was completely incredulous that what I do counts in any way as ‘work’.

And I’ve spent some time thinking about it myself in the meantime.  Is it work? Even when I’m trying a new technique I think of it as work. I don’t ‘play’ with fabric. I work with it. Making art of any kind is challenging; it takes up more time than a full-time job; it can be strenuous; it’s productive; it’s tiring; it’s exhilarating. Does it make money in the way that a job does? No. Do I need money in order to live? Of course. So this has to become part of the ‘where-am-I-going-what-am-I-doing’ general life review that is happening at the moment. How does any artist actually make a living out of art? Do they have to create with the intention of selling? Is art (should art be) just another business, like plumbing or hairdressing?

And textile art is a whole different thing anyway. A painter can spend as little as an afternoon painting one picture, and then sell the print a thousand times. Textile art takes the same amount of skill, a lot longer to create, and can be sold once. The painting is described as ‘fine art’, the textile as ‘craft’. But we’d best not get started on the whole art/craft thing.

Today there are no pictures, as you can see. I don’t have a visual image that will say something about this.

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35 Responses to Work

  1. Jane Deane says:

    I empathise a thousand times! I am involved in a project involving European funding, exchange of skills/knowledge between three countries and disciplines and working with degree students. First thing the steering committee said was that we had to avoid ‘the usual demographic’ by which he meant the perception of textile practitioners being ladies of a certain age producing work of various levels of ability and inspiration and regarded fondly or otherwise by those who have no knowledge of how much work – not just the physical aspect – is required in the creation thereof.

    Had I not got to go to a family wedding, I could spend several hours ranting about this….I do not know what the answer is, except to put a note by every piece documenting the process, counting the hours, identifying the inspiration, the sampling, the dyeing, the whatever, and people will still say it can be done more easily/cheaply/’better,’ by a machine.

    But then estate agents are a kind all by themselves!

  2. Sue says:

    Ooooooh…. of course, there are some countries where artists/crafts people are revered…. Japanese potters, etc, sadly, not in this country at this time, apart from a minority of wonderful people, however, our whole lives need some artistic input from the textile clothing we wear, the textiles we use in our houses, the ceramics in our house, the world would be an awful place without creative people… we can’t all be estate agents (thank goodness) Fortunately, I feel blessed to have been born creative and allowed to indulge in my passion….

  3. It would be a very bleak world indeed if it were only filled with estate agents who did not see the beauty and art in your piece Communion! Millions of interchangeable carbon copy agents sell houses; how many can create a unique work of art with their mind and their hands? Modern cultures are valuing the wrong occupations; evidence of that is everywhere, much to our peril.

    I’ve always called myself a designer, a term that people tend to respect just a bit more that artist, though I work with yarns, fibers, textiles, beads etc to create. I’ve been considered ‘lucky’ to work for companies that paid me well, but I never felt as engaged and connected with my work then as I do now with my own business, where I make far less money, but I make what speaks to me. Being able to support myself, however precariously at times, doing what I love is a huge blessing. To be practical though since I’m only one person, part of that income comes selling the vintage works of the many crafting women who’ve come before me. I do tell buyers how items were made and how long it takes to do such works, and ask them if they would spend that much time making something for the price I’m asking.

    Here in Turkey, so many ‘women of a certain age’ – and younger – knit, crochet, embroider, quilt, make their families’ clothing – that it’s considered part of everyday life. Weaving carpets and kilims was the most valued skill since it can actually bring the household more money. It’s a shame now that most handcrafts – many of which I consider art, though I know that’s subjective – are no longer made here, but in China and other cheaper places to the east. Fiber arts have become mere commerce. I now work with women by designing knitwear and home decor like embroidered pillows and such. Working with our hands to create is a feeling of accomplishment and connection to a larger human experience that would never happen in a corporate job. Let’s not be apologetic for our talents – cultures of the world need to remember their arts before they are lost forever.

  4. jude says:

    best not to say anything.

  5. Penny B says:

    Oh, Karen. I started reading and was ready to rant about the ridiculous expectations of estate agents….and then I saw the word “hobby” and I knew we were going down a steep and slippery slope. It is so frustrating working in a medium that has not hit most people’s radar and Joan wrote so much better than me about the perceptions of the artists who work in this medium.
    Go and read the William Blake quote I posted today under the heading The Tree. Your estate agent is one who would see a tree as a green thing that stands in the way. Blake’s words reminded me to trust my eye and my creativity.

  6. Gina says:

    I’d rather be a textile artist than an estate agent… that says it all really.

  7. arlee says:

    Some are insensitive, some are stupid, some are oblivious, BUT *you* are not your house and that’s whats she is all about. She will sell your house so you can keep making art. Don’t worry about it. In the long run, one has nothing to do with the other–that’s why you are an artist and she schleps houses around 🙂

  8. Eva says:

    It is the material age. What is “work”? It is defined by the income it generates. But the same people who do so suffer greatly from the lack of sense in their work and the fact that not the work itself is satisfying. The satisfaction is reduced on the price at which they sell their lives. I feel sorry for them.
    Maybe this lady just pushed aside an alternative idea.

  9. Helen says:

    I read your post earlier before there were any comments and I was too busy spluttering to formulate one myself! So it has been interesting to read everyone else’s more articulate responses. Gina has said it all for me, I think.

  10. mb says:

    most everyday folks think those things, but don’t say them. thank YOU for asking the questions you do and giving me some fodder for exploration today.

  11. serenapotter says:

    this is why my fabric is living in my mom’s bedroom. agents like beds in bed rooms….i did get to keep a small sewing nook….wish i could give you a big, real life hug, and say i love you and i understand because trust me, i do.

    i’ve often sat wondering why michael and i have worked ourselves so hard for what we have, missing so much of the important, foundation memories in the lives of our kids…michael was absent and i’ve been exhausted and neurotic.

    i like to think we’ve learned a lesson that we won’t do this same thing again and hopefully that’s worth something.

    • serenapotter says:

      and you know i’ve thought about how people perceive fiber artists all day….i meant mostly that you learn a lesson not to worry so much about perceptions, learn to just do what you love and leave the rest a lone.
      i’ve spent the last few months wondering if i simply waste my time quilting….took time and money from my family for it
      and finally i just thought, how ridiculous
      ….a reread my comment and it sounds odd….and not how i meant it…feel free to delete it.

  12. Penny B says:

    Hey Karen: Had to come back and let you know I’m still smiling over your comment about the books! I’m a bookaholic and getting worse. BTW in my last comment Joan should read Jane!

  13. Rachel Biel says:

    Hmmmm….. there are really so many things that could be said here. I think it is hard for people on the outside to understand any of the arts and the discipline it involves. The woman is probably a brute in other areas of her life, as well…. having to endorse someone else’s lifestyle to fit into her own world view… but, there are other things that I react to as well.

    First, that work and play can go hand and hand. What is that saying? “When work becomes play and play becomes work?” Work (any kind) can be fun and playful. That would be the challenge of finding the zen or deeper meaning in everything we do, whether it is washing dishes, sweeping a floor, or working on a masterpiece. The Apostle Paul talked about “my life is a prayer”. In other words, wherever we are, whatever we do, we can do it with meaning.

    That society at large doesn’t understand what we do is sad, but also a part of our work. I grew up in Brazil and then spent 20 years in Chicago. I could see in my friend’s kids how much more exposed they were to the world than I was, even though I grew up in a multi-cultural environment. They knew about didgeridoos, kinte cloth, and all kinds of other cool things from places far away. It’s in their school curricula, their parents are engaged in the world, etc. So, there is a huge divide between those who come from a smaller place and who don’t have curiosity about the world and those of us who can’t get enough of it.

    The good thing is that there is an audience out there who does understand and appreciate it. They are paying for our work. I had a commission a couple of years ago to transform a man’s life collection of ties into a textile. When asked for a budget, I was told, “Go until it is finished.” How rare is that? It came from someone who values hand work and who has the disposable income to be able to support it. I finished it at $5,000 and they were delighted. It was several months of hard work, some of it playful, some of it aggravating.

    Anyway, hopefully you will sell your house. Maybe another fiber artist will look at it and want it!

    • Karen Turner says:

      Thanks, Rachel. As you say, hard for people on the outside to understand. The agent wasn’t unpleasant, just baffled. For so many people, ‘art’ is still ‘paint on canvas’ and nothing else. Maybe it will just take time. Maybe one day textile art will be up there in the Tate.

  14. Bea says:

    Oh Karen, I’ve got steam coming out of my ears! I guess some people are frightened by such creativity and can only cope by bringing it down to the limited size of their own little world. x

  15. Cathy says:

    I used to work in a research lab with scientists, and engineers. They experimented, developed new techniques, sometimes called it playing and loved it. I don’t think what they did was so much different than when an artist experiments with a new technique. So yes, I’d say it is work. You’re one of the lucky few who truly enjoys their work.

  16. Rachel Biel says:

    That (Cathy’s remark) reminds me of something my brother noticed on a visit back to Brazil. He said that very few people seemed to ask “What do you do?” at parties or gatherings. His take on it was that so few people are doing what they want to do that it is the least important thing in their life, just a way to pay the bills. We really are fortunate to be able to pursue our interests and that big old Muse…

  17. Jeannie says:

    The agent was only one person. There are many here who disagree, including me.

  18. Rachel says:

    There are a good many people who do understand, though, and as Cathy said, scientists and engineers are among them. I recently attended an event at which physicists and artists spoke about the interrelationship of their fields, and it was clear that that the physicists “played” as much as I do!

    • Robert says:

      That physicists play is quite true. Like when they needed a unit for nuclear cross section and thought it was so large that it was like “hitting the broad side of a barn” and named it a Barn. Then when they needed a smaller more convenient unit they called it a Shack. Clearly they have a good time.

  19. Els says:

    Karen, truely said: I’m just speechless (besides, all the others can tell it better than I can)
    So, carry on with your beautiful art-work, my dear !

  20. bwilliams says:

    As best as I can recollect, the most lasting things from any previous civilization/culture are it’s arts. Ever wonder why? Maybe they are an essential part of what it means to be human, to really be alive. Creating something beautiful with our own hands is as close as man will ever come to being divine….I wonder how many times the agent has thought about Communion since this encounter…I dare say more than once

  21. beverley says:

    Yes it’s work. Yes, ignore her. Breathe easy…………you are an artist.

  22. JeanaMarie says:

    I don’t have any answers, but after quite a few similar experiences I totally hear and empathise with you. Thanks for writing about it.

    xx Jeana

  23. helen salo says:

    I try to remember not to apologize for anything i do. I am who I am; I do what I do. When one speaks such as your agent, I try to let it go and only surround myself with positive, like minded people. Find solace in the fact that others appreciate and revere your “work”.
    ( I noticed another “helen” I will always sign my full name, so you can distinguish)

  24. judy martin says:

    This is an issue that never goes away.
    Keep your inner core, do what you love. It’s not your responsibility to change others.

    • Karen Turner says:

      I once had a wise friend who used to say ‘Don’t worry about changing the rest of the world. You are the only thing you can change, and you are the only thing you have the right to change.’

  25. deb says:

    Love your post and love all the answers. Don’t get me started on the art/craft, painting/textile art debate! I’m just so thankful that I have the time to do my stitching and that I’ve met so many like minded people, both in the real world and on the internet.

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