Useful and Beautiful

November 13, 2011
Reverend Dr. Victoria Weinstein


It was just a simple chair. I would not have particularly noticed it if it hadn't been pointed out to me. It was July. I had gone to the studio of William Morris in London, a man whose love for art and craft and beauty inspired me. "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful," was his golden rule.

I had loved and felt spiritually attracted to William Morris' wallpaper, tapestries and stained glass designs for years without knowing who he was. His work was first and foremost for me romantic, evoking the medieval era, and sensual, with twining vines and voluptuous flowers and lush colors. I would look and look and look at his designs and wonder how he could manage to make such busy designs feel so calming and harmonious. So much color and form and movement, and yet his interiors never felt chaotic. That is real genius.

When I came upon Morris' portrait in the Victoria and Albert Museum and saw a young man with an unruly mop of red hair, a burning gaze and beautiful bone structure I was surprised and intrigued, having always pictured him as a typically buttoned-up Victorian Englishman of extremely advanced years. I purchased a few books about him from the library and devoured them in the museum cafe he had designed (the first museum cafe in the world) along with a pot of tea and a scone. I learned that William Morris was the son of privilege and that he had had aspirations to the Anglican priesthood while at Oxford. However, he went on a walking tour of the Gothic cathedrals of northern France and thereafter devoted himself to the gods of art. He and his close friend Edward Burne-Jones were connected to the group of artistic and literary talents known as the pre-Raphaelites. The most famous pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was one of Morris' dearest friends and they married sisters, Jane and Lizzie Burden. Some years after Rossetti's wife committed suicide, the painter took up with Morris's wife, Jane, creating a very uncomfortable menage a trois. (Not so "buttoned-up" after all!)

I learned that Morris became drawn into the work of social justice and political change as a result of observing the degradations of poverty and the destruction of landscape, worker dignity and of the imagination caused by the Industrial Revolution. He became a Socialist reformer and organizer. I knew I had to meet him, even though he had been dead for 115 years. He became one of my all-time dead guy crushes. So there I was in front of that fairly ordinary-looking chair, having found my way one afternoon to his tiny studio on the banks of the Thames down in what was in Morris's time the slummy neighborhood of Hammersmith. The neighborhood today is beautiful and residential. I wasn't particularly interested in chairs- they're nice, they're functional, and woodworking is beautiful, but I wanted to get into the studio and see the pretty stuff- the flowers and the birds and the vines. The wallpaper, textiles, tapestries, stained glass. His printing press.

The woman who had welcomed me into the studio (no one official: she was there crafting with a group of other knitters and needleworkers) watched me looking blankly at the chair. "This is a Morris chair," she said. "This was the first design by Morris & Company." She further explained. "William Morris lived in the Victorian era at the advent of industrialization. He was concerned about the loss of the craft tradition to factory manufacturing. His idea was that workers needed to be able to take pride in the things they made, to have a sense of ownership of each piece that they completed instead of just being a cog in the system." (We talked a little bit about how this idea of each worker a cog in the system, an automaton on the assembly line, was to be an innovation perfected in America by Henry Ford just a bit after Morris' time.)

This chair was starting to become a lot more interesting to me. I thought about the furniture in my own home, about how as soon as I got my first apartment after college, I thought it would be the height of accomplishment to furnish it with items from the Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel catalogue (and of course, I ended up with a lot of IKEA). As it turned out, though, armed with my first (dangerous) credit cards, I found that, given the choice, I didn't want to own mass-produced furniture. I wound out finding my furnishings over the years at flea markets and yard sales, and church fairs- far preferring beat-up old wooden pieces that I could either re-finish or just leave raw and splintery. Particle board and plastic make me depressed. I always thought it was just me, that I was some kind of weirdo for having a spiritual and emotional response to furniture. Here in William Morris' studio, I met my spiritual mentor in understanding why.

The woman continued to talk about Morris' philosophy. She told me that Morris and company were inspired by the idea of the medieval guild, with the emphasis on apprenticing and perfecting one's craft. Each Morris chair was made from beginning to end by just one craftsman, an artist who was encouraged to leave his own mark on the chair, to imbue it with something of his self and spirit. No two chairs were exactly alike. I ran my hands over the hand-turned spindles, the curved back, the beautiful arms. Was it my romantic imagination or did the item just feel alive? It did. I could feel tree spirit, nature spirit, human spirit, the beautiful interaction of material, design and craft. The woman and I smiled at each other. The chair was too old and fragile to sit in but it was a treat just touching it, and she knew that. "Of course," she informed me with a sad expression, "they just couldn't afford to sustain this method of manufacturing. It was just too time-intensive and expensive."

It is, isn't it? Just as putting up our own jams and jellies at the end of summer is labor-intensive and costly, as the Alliance members and I were discussing a couple of weeks ago. Just as sewing clothes is so much more work than just buying them off the rack. Just as cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients is so much more time-consuming and effortful than driving through a fast food window or getting take-out Chinese. As Thomas Moore notes in The ReEnchantment of Everyday Life, "Anything of the soul requires time."

I love to walk around this meetinghouse and just touch the wood and the carving: all imbued with someone's effort and spirit. It is so important, though, not to romanticize the back-breaking work that goes into artisanal crafting of foodstuffs, furniture, clothing, textiles, and homes. The beauty of industrialization is that we don't have to kill ourselves making what we need to survive. However, there is an undeniable difference between the thing that was made by hand and the thing that was made by machine.

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." He meant more than that. Morris was invested in this idea that things have a spirit to them, a spark of life force, and that that spirit is not only inherent in the raw materials but comes also from the maker, from the craftsman or woman who brings it into being. You know this to be true, you know it from your own experience. You know it from the special resonance of objects in your own homes have that are have been made by someone who has known, in Morris's words, "the power of producing beauty."

Let's think about how that happens. The potter at the wheel, for example. The woodworker at the lathe. The knitter at her needles, the quilter with her pieces set out before her, imagining the design they shall take. The cook setting out his ingredients on the counter, knife in hand ready to chop. What is it that we access in all of these acts? It is not just pattern, as any machine can follow pattern. It is not just beauty, which is subjective in the end anyway. It is not just finding the right pitch or intonation on the organ you are rebuilding by hand, or the harpsichord or cello you are intricately crafting (as have two men of this congregation). There is a phenomenon that occurs in our handiworks that every crafter knows, a sense of being completely absorbed in the rhythm, the inner vision, the harmony and the act of creating. External distractions fade away and we enter what psychologists refer to as "the flow," a state of energized focus. We become one with what we are making. We can enter almost a kind of trance state. It can become a transcendent experience.

Michaelangelo articulated the work of the artisan so beautifully when he explained it thus, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." In the raw material, we see the thing that wants to become, and we yearn to give ourselves over to the bringing forth of that thing. It is a kind of a birthing, a godlike activity that echoes the first chapters of the creation story of Genesis, where God calls every created thing into being and calls those things "good." It is more than just an internal vision that we are following or pursuing. It is, I think, a communion with Beauty itself, a way we partake of divine nature by becoming creators also.

Is this not a form of physicalized love? I think it is. I think it is a kind of love-making. Crafters, I ask you. The fabric beneath your hand that speaks to you, as Joanne Howard who made this robe out of Bob Sutter's family heirloom tablecloth from Europe, said the garment spoke to her as she was making it and working around challenging designs in the fabric. The spirit of the tree that communes with the spirit of the man whose hand turns it into something beautiful, something treasured, something to be used by generations of his family. The wool in the knitter's hand as she passes it through her fingers and her needles and transforms it into a warm cap for the chemo patient's bald head. The dough beneath the baker's hand as he shapes and pounds it to nourish his family, engaging in that ancient alchemy by which flour and water and yeast and salt meet heat and become our daily bread. This is love-making, this deep attentiveness to the thing that wants to be made, this obedience to the vision, to the passion, to creation. It is an embodied spiritual practice no less to be honored and trusted than prayer or meditation or any internal forms of spiritual practice.

In this time-crunched existence, in this mass-produced culture, in this land of instant and plastic and machines and computers (which, however beautifully designed and pretty to hold or work with are still mass-produced items), I urge you, crafters, artisans and handiworkers, to consider yourselves high priests and priestesses of the ancient rites that ensoul and enrich the world and cannot be lost. Teach your children and grandchildren how to use their hands. Encourage them in the domestic arts, the time-consuming, labor-intensive work of the crafts that you love, or even those that you don't love but that you find nourishing and worthy. For we, who are fearfully and wonderfully made, cannot make a life of deep meaning if we have no experience as Makers ourselves. Let it be useful and beautiful.