Several weekends ago, a friend and I went to the New England Quilt Museum to view an exhibit of quilts by Radka Donnell. Both of us were struck by the fact that Donnell, although considered a maker of “art quilts,” intends her pieces to be used as actual bed-covers rather than wall-hangings, her patchwork patterns of color and texture reflecting the shape of a mattress and the presence of pillows.
As soon as you allow an intricately wrought, wonderfully colorful patchwork quilt to be “used” as a bed-covering, you invite the possibility of dirt and damage. Beds are the site of love-making, bed-wetting, and other messy realities: people eat in bed, muddy dogs occasionally use beds as couches, and cat claws leave their inevitable mark. When you actually use a quilt, you also subsequently wash it, the structural integrity of both fabric and stitches being subjected to the strain of washer and dryer. A wall-hung quilt in a museum will be pampered, protected, and (if need be) carefully restored by professional preservationists whose expertise is the fending off of time. An everyday-use quilt, on the other hand, gets tossed in the wash by a harried mother after it’s served as the stuff of a living room pillow fort or gotten muddied during a backyard camping adventure. The life of an everyday-use quilt is much more difficult–much more dirty and prone to damage–than that of a prized museum piece.
But what is the true purpose of a carefully crafted quilt: are quilts designed to be Art or to be Active? Is a meticulously-pieced patchwork designed simply as decoration, or it is destined for the sheltering of dreams? Alice Walker asks these same questions in an oft-anthologized story, and its title, “Everyday Use,” suggests her own presumed preference. In the story, two sisters both want several heirloom quilts stitched by their grandmother: one wants to hang them as examples of traditional African American handicraft, and the other was promised the quilts as a wedding gift so she can use them in raising a family.
Walker’s story begs the same questions as does Donnell’s exhibit. Do heirloom quilts belong on a wall where they will be admired (and preserved) by strangers, or do they belong atop the bodies of precious, tucked-in children? Would the grandmother in Walker’s story be more proud to know that her work ended up in a museum, deemed as Art, or wrapped around the bodies of great-grandchildren, cherished as a hand-crafted expression of love?
I have two cameras: one I use at sporting events and other instances where I intend to take lots of pictures, and the other I carry everywhere in my purse. It is this latter, everyday-use camera that provides most of the pictures on my blog, for most of the pictures on my blog are unplanned: without intending to go out and Take Pictures, I’ll notice something at the supermarket, post office, or along a morning dog-walk that begs commemoration.
My everyday-use camera still works even though I’ve dropped it repeatedly: its telescoping lens-housing is dented, and its lens-cover no longer closes. Because I carry my everyday-use camera with me constantly, it gets damp when it rains, and its lens fogs when I bring it in from the cold. My everyday-use camera, in other words, looks like its been used, and the number of pictures I take (and share) with it bespeaks this use.
A camera kept in either purse or pocket will eventually get damaged: it’s a rough world out there. But as much as I love my new and fancy “special occasions” camera, it’s too big to take with me everywhere, and ultimately the most valuable camera isn’t the one that’s the most expensive or feature-laden: it’s the one you have with you when something photo-worthy happens.
What good is a camera that you keep safe at home where it won’t get damaged while the stuff of pictures transpires in the large and unruly outside world? What good is a quilt or camera–what good is life itself–if you keep it isolated and protected from the stuff of heartbreak and harm?