HOME ARTS: More than a gift shop

Nina Westaway

“Home Arts”, the current show at the Village Gallery, has brought many people in exclaiming that it looks like the pre-pandemic gift shop run by the Lumby Arts Co-op. However, the inspiration for this show is much broader.  

During the pandemic, people have revived traditional skills that were done out of economic necessity: sewing handmade clothing, preserving food, knitting warm winter sweaters and mittens, quilting bed coverings for insulation and beauty, and making bread or cheese. The current show celebrates these domestic arts, which have been largely considered “women’s work”. 

This is not to denigrate the contributions of men to domestic arts, (consider basket making, woodworking, furniture making, leather work and more). However, in the European art tradition, women were excluded from training in “fine” arts and relegated to domestic arts.  

But in the sphere of ordinary, indigenous people, many skills by women in particular were practiced as they had been for many centuries. This body of life, creativity, and history later became part of ‘Folk Art’.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, art historians and ethnographers started looking at domestic arts and curating their remarkable history before they were lost forever.

In England, artists and artisans lamented the loss of these arts due to industrialization, making objects cheaply but without long lasting value or aesthetic merit. New objects had come from imperial colonies and were collected for their novelty and exoticism although Victorian homes were overstuffed. 

A revolt against the industrial age called the Arts and Crafts Movement tried to infuse the production of ordinary household goods with artistic integrity.  William Morris made beautiful furniture and wallpapers and was the most famous exponent. The induction of women in the Arts and Crafts movement was revolutionary, their wonderful influence in not only fabric arts but pottery, stained glass, sculpture, landscape design and book design. This movement spread all over the world and is still reverberating with women and culture.

In my mother’s heritage, Ukrainian collections of folk costumes and crafts are now found on Pinterest that celebrate older traditions as well as using them as a foundation for new beauty and celebration. 

Louise hand spinning wool

When I was a child, my mother had some small hardbound books approximately 4 x 6 inches, that had Ukrainian or Romanian embroidery patterns for the domestic fabric artist; but no matter what culture you come from, there is a satisfaction of being able to make things that have design integrity. In contrast, modern industrial processes are very fragmented, almost anything can be made cheaply from somewhere over there with exploited labour, computers, and machinery.

A rug maker in this show reported a sense of calming and relaxation while crafting. A hobby of cheese-making was reported to be cheaper and more flavourful than commercial products.  Dying fabric with plant resources gave interesting variations and surprises.  A cousin of mine visits thrift stores and re-purposes clothing under her label “Pant Legs”. An aunt embroiders Tlingit designs for a tapestry piece, commemorating her ancestors.  

I would not want this to be an ant-feminist plea for a return to the days when a woman’s place was in the home as a source of free labour that was never ending.  The mechanization of many chores has made the lives of everyone safer and easier.  

But a lot of modern life tasks are not inherently satisfying.  Perhaps practicing domestic arts is a happy bridge between many contradictions in life: drudgery versus creativity, necessity versus choice, tradition versus modernity, longevity versus spontaneity, novelty versus history.  

When I worked at a large unionized office of mostly clerical and administrative women in the early 2000’s, a Christmas building- wide sale was deluged by nearly every worker sharing an artistic “hobby”.  The women of the Arts and Craft Movement would have cheered.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to reconnect art and everyday life. The Home Arts Show at the Village Gallery during August 2021 is part of an ongoing re-evaluation of the domestic arts.