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The Politics of Hand Made

The Art of Pam DeLuco—

On a recent foray to Michael’s – “The Arts and Crafts Store”, amidst a jungle of fake flowers and pre-assembled memories I had an “epiphany beside the wall of Easter Bunnies”. It would appear that hand made has not only lost its place in “art” but also its place in craft. It seems to have morphed into a ready-made elite pastime fashioned on figurines, stickers and plastic jewels. As we carefully decorate, glue and frame with pre-packaged stuff made in far away lands, are we not just supporting the art of mega industry? In our attempts to feel a feigned sense of loving hands of home are we not undermining the very politics of hand made?

The time honored politics of “hand made” are those of self-sufficiency; the practice of traditional craft an act of independence. Now in the face of an extinction trend, the skill and personal production of useful objects have become potent form of protest. The convention of the reactionary has produced a new kind of rebel. A post-modern protester whose work involves an intimate connection both to their materials and to the land.

Philip Leider

The Bay Area has always been a petrie dish for all movements of protest and one such notable group of rebels is chronicled by Philip Leider, then editor of Artforum (June 1962–December 1971), who upon returing from a road trip to the West Coast in 1970, published “How I Spent My Summer Vacation… Or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Fransisco and Utah.” Leider had become disillusioned with the political potential of art and looked to the pastoral craft ethos as a possible solution.* Leider argued the future of not only political radicalism, but art making itself, lies in an intimate connection to the land instead of New York art galleries. He found, in the separatist commune near Berkeley, named Canyon potential. [In Canyon] “it is worth your life to cut down a tree” as the inhabitants are determined to “effect no change in the natural ecology of the region.” Leider was particularly keen on the leader of the Canyon commune, David Lynn, a sculptor from Berkeley, who had rejected the avant-garde to become a house builder. “…it seemed pretty clear that as far as Lynn was concerned, every sculptural idea he ever had was in his building. The revolution in Lynn’s art, if there was one, was dictated by the terrain…”

Like the Bay Area innovators of Canyon, whose work involved an intimate connection both to their materials and to the land, so does current SF based artist Pam DeLuco practice her art. There is an ethos behind the work. Ethos defined as “morality, expertise and knowledge.” Her pieces are an exploration of their own provenance, investigating the origins of materials and techniques involved by the cultures where they are practiced. Years traveling and living with people in remote areas of Central and South America gave DeLuco the opportunity to study up close the Ngöbe women of western Panamá where the elaborately patterned Chácara bag is crafted and The Choco people of Panama where the fruit of the jagua tree is used to produce decorative pigments for body paint.

Back state side, she uses the deep crimson dye, carmine, extracted from the female cochineal larvae and indigos collected from the Indigofera tinctoria, a member of the pea family. Cochineal is one of the few water-soluble colorants that resist degradation with time while her Indigo is processed using the preindustrial method of reduction (chemical alteration), dissolving the indigo in stale urine. Not an easy system to put into routine practice.

Behind the innocent facade of a crocheted pillow cover lies a patient connection to the hand-spun, 6-strand, Tussah silk, cable yarn and end medallions from her hand-reared Bombyx mori silkworms. Over a period of 60 days she carefully charts the progress of the eggs as they hatch, eat their way through tasty Mulberry leaves, become fat juicy worms who then cocoon producing the silky fuzz that is spun into thread. Allowing the cycle to complete the moths emerge, mate, reproduce and the new eggs are stored until the following spring when the process will repeat.

When the fur of an animal required, DeLuco is unflappable in her sympathetic acquisition of raw materials. The hand-knit sweaters require only the hand-spun Angora from her house pet rabbit, Jambo. The braided horsehair tassels, belts, hatband, and stampede strings are procured from the horses under her care. When hand-spun Qiviut down is required for knitted gloves, Pam is there at the San Francisco Zoo collecting the precious material off the fence.

As newcomer to the Bay Area, where artists and craftsmen like DeLuco have migrated in order to be with like-minded thinkers and rebels, I, like Philip Leider and others before me, am humbled. These practitioners are our seed banks, protagonists in the technique of know-how and self-reliance. More than a self-conscious authenticity, or token tribute to ennoble the vernacular, DeLuco is prepared, indeed steeped in the politics of hand-made; not a backwards looking nostalgia, nor revivalist idealism, but a proactive pursuit to find equanimity within our time.

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