“Kit. Darling,” I called him, and he opened his eyes. Darling—there is magic in that word. Giles once addressed me as darling, in his letter to the Lighthouse, and the world changed its hue.
—Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star Gazer (281)
Ahab’s Wife is a romantic, learned, and ambitious novel. I can not be sure if it was my mood or the book which matched, but I told a friend as I read it that if it had been music, it would be a bass tone. A low note ran through the heart of the novel that resonated deeply. The tragedy of life pins us to the earth as the brilliance makes our hearts wish to soar.
At Margaret Fuller’s salon, women talked of magnificent ideas, of poetry and art, of science and travel. Never had I heard such discourse among women. Not one word of family of home or food or even sewing. I interjected the question did they not think that quilting could be an art form and perhaps the only art available to frontier women, and several, including Miss Fuller, quite agreed with me, although not all (375).
By sheer coincidence I happen to have been participating in a pilot class, Critical Craft while reading this book. Throughout Jeter Nasland’s book she came back to sewing as a relevant and essential aspect of the protagonist Una’s life, so it was of wonderful interest to me that this point: the intersection of art and craft, as well as the function of crafts in people’s, particularly women’s lives came up.
In 1978 Lucy Lippard wrote a compelling article for the journal Heresies (reprinted in the book Craft in Action) called “Making Something from Nothing (toward a Definition of Women’s “Hobby Art”) in which she discussed many of the attitudes towards the ostensible lesser or lower art of craft.
The “overdecoration” of the home and the fondness for bric-a-brac often attributed to female fussiness or plain Bad Taste can just as well be attributed to creative restlessness. Since most homemade hobby objects are geared toward home improvement, they inspire less fear in the makers of being “selfish” or “self-indulgent,” there is no confusion about pretensions to Art, and the woman is freed to make anything she can imagine (Lippard 486).
She wrote of the lingering tendency of women being brought up with “an exaggerated sense of detail and needing to be “busy.”‘ The article highlights the “high end” art world’s turned-up nose in the face of some stunning and creative “crafts” made largely by women (often nameless women, as in textiles and decorative household goods) while embracing the male versions of bricolage, abstraction, and even fabric sculptures (she points to the work of Claes Oldenberg, whose wife, it should be noted, did the actual sewing!).
And this is not entirely a disadvantage. Not only does the amateur status of hobby art dispel the need for costly art lessons but it subverts the intimidation process that takes place when the male domain of “high” art is approached (Lippard 488).
In 2015 there is something of a renaissance of crafts. Curiously the word ‘hobby’ seems to be out of use….But, the hipsters have gotten involved! there are “craftivists” and a burgeoning cottage industry of high-end craft, which looks a hell of a lot like art to the likes of me (or at least costs as much…). The lines crumble. And yet there is something in craft that reaches beyond ourselves. Often these are techniques and skills that are passed down from one generation to the next. Or, in a DYI spirit, one is free to create, in whatever manner one envisions the things they need, for themselves. The work involved is repetitive and mediative. There is also the sense of not only the connection with generations past, but also in the moment. And the lengths of time working on something acts as a marker of one’s own life: I knit that when I was pregnant, or, I made that when I was heartbroken that winter, or, I quilt that for my sister’s baby, I baked that cake for my daughter….our days are reflected back to us through these objects that are beautiful and precious because they mark our hand’s touch, our presence, our being.
Jeter Nasland’s book is a elegiac tale, intermixing historical figures, places and politics, with historical fictional figures. She takes her time in the telling, and although occasionally uneven, when the story is moving full sail the sweet wind of the storyteller is invigorating.
Beyond that, and more pertinent to this essay, she makes lovely use of the practice and metaphor of the crafts which surrounded her character’s lives. She uses Una’s defense and pride of her needlework to represent her independence of mind and connection to her body. The physical act of doing and making is what allows Una to be a “Star Gazer.” One must be connected to the mundane to let one’s spirit soar to the border of imagination: the star sewn heavens.