The other day I was polishing this thing, this butter-keeper, which has been passed down in the family, and I started wondering about the young bride who received it as a wedding present back in 1873 or so. How much time did she spend polishing it? Did she relish figuring out how to get into all the little crannies of the calla lily handles? Or under the applied leaves on the lid? Was she proud of this object? Did she even use it very often? Knowing what I do now, that Matilda Norman Cavitt, whose initials are embossed on the rim, became a very young widow with a year-and-a-half old child to raise, I suspect that, at some point, all her Victorian wedding presents weighed rather heavily on her time and energy. In that day and age, was all the extra work engendered by such an ornate and demanding possession seen as a small price to pay for beauty in the home? I have not yet found a clue, but I still might, because many of this lady’s personal letters remain, unread, in my possession. Even though this object is yet another drag on my time now, I enjoy having it to look at and remind me of other days. It is a constraint that I continue to choose, for the sake of history and those after me who might need to know something about the past. As an aside, growing up looking at this butter-keeper, I always associated it with the Kaiser Wilhelm II-era German helmets that I saw depicted in an old World War I cartoon book on our bookshelf.
As another aside, this butter-keeper has a clever and useful design. The butter sits on a pierced metal platform positioned over a bowl of water, the evaporation of which helped to keep the butter cool in the summer.
Assuming that Matilda Norman Cavitt, with all her school-teaching, housekeeping, and caring for a small child, only had 24 hours in her day, I wonder how she managed her time to make life tolerable and perhaps, enjoyable? She obviously had an overwhelming amount of drudgery, yet she took pleasure in the written word and in reading, so she must have made time for these pursuits. When I feel overwhelmed with so many responsibilities that my art-making threatens to take a back seat, I can remember this relative and her life and try to find my own answer partly buried in the past.
I can look at constraints a different way, besides as a necessary evil. Above is a picture of a wooden puzzle given to me in about 1960, I would imagine. Its lessons have been a steady undercurrent in my life for the past 50 years. There are sheets of designs underneath the puzzle, each with a suggested arrangement of the blocks within the square box. Playing with this puzzle taught me that there are multiple solutions for a problem, all within a constraint. This is useful information to have, and it keeps me looking for the next plan when the first one fails, or the second, or the third. Another benefit I can identify from this very toy is the enjoyment of spatial arrangement and geometry. Not only could I play with the blocks, all based on the triangle, within the box, but I could string them out or up in any number of free-form designs. What endless pleasure! And, I don’t have to think too hard to realize how this putting-together-from-pieces has fed my appetite for mosaic making. What are mosaics, except accretions of little hard things that form a new whole, if managed well? My point here is that constraints can be a benefit as well as a hindrance, depending on attitude and approach.
Yesterday evening I took my little Fujifilm camera out to the park and played, expecting to capture images to use as reference material for later artwork. I did not expect that some of my photos would turn out to be art themselves, but that is what happened, due to the recognition and selection of them in my later thinking. Using the constraint of my camera set to “auto”, I set out to stretch its capabilities. Some of my favorite results are on my flickr site, which you can access from the sidebar of this blog. Here is my funny photo. I wonder if it is funny only to me, or to most anyone from my own country who sees it, or is there something inherently funny about the image to anyone, anywhere? Hmmmm, yet another unsolved mystery.