Friday, April 6, 2012

the relevance of the Victorian Kitchen Garden

Over the last six months I have been doing a lot of reading on fairly hair-raising topics concerning the end of oil and climate change.  I take these things seriously though I admit to a kind of hyper-excitement about the direness of all of the predictions.  I have spent the last several months pondering how my art could make any difference at all in these critical times.  How will we survive at all?  I wonder.  What good can art even serve?  Will making more stuff even begin to address the stuff problem that has gotten us here?

The home making part of me has fared better: ah! resourcefulness! self-sufficiency! local food! frugality! victory gardens!  I am inspired by the issues to hand.

And life is so lovely: there is always some serendipity that reminds me of what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious, what others think of as karma or our simple interconnectedness.  So it happened that a couple of weeks ago my partner in ribbon, Edith Minne of Renaissance Ribbons, mentioned to me that she had been watching an old BBC TV series about the Victorian Kitchen Garden, did I know it?  I wrote back that I had used a book, based on an 80's TV show, The Victorian Kitchen Garden, by Jennifer Davies, as the extensive resource for my series, the English Kitchen Garden, which I wove in the late 80's.  Yes, that was the series.

The English Walled Garden, 1989, hand woven tapestry

She sent me the link, and I have been able to patch it together on youTube.  What a wonder it has been for me!

It is such a slow and gentle kind of program, dated even by the time of its making, let alone its subject.  A leisurely conversation between two gardeners, lingering shots of beautiful and unusual produce.  But the reality here: the goal of the kitchen garden was, of course, to provide food for the house.  If it was a big house, it needed a big garden.  Little question of anyone of relying upon imported food: one ate what was grown at home.  If one were very rich, and had at hand 14 gardeners, glass houses, and acres of land to till, one could have pineapples brought to table, melons, bananas even.  So what? a trip to the supermarket will get us all that -- brought in from Costa Rica or Mexico, whenever we want (at the cost of oil and our climate) -- but this was all grown in chilly, grey, rainy old England.  The hunger to impress, to have a variety of stimulating and exotic foods was theirs, as it is ours, but the ingenuity required to perform all of this magic without today's comforts of ready electricity and plumbing is simply breathtaking.

The Vinery, 1989, hand woven tapestry


This takes me back to my work, then & now, as it were.  In 1988 or so, I witnessed what remained of an English walled vegetable garden at Holkham Park, in Norfolk, England, in the dead of winter.  It was glorious:  patterns of trained fruit trees etched on pink brick walls in the low and golden December sunlight; bluish glassed houses and cold frames with sheltered vines and fruit trees, rectalinear patterns of quiescent gardens awaiting spring.  I took photos and flew home inspired.  I took up the Victorian Kitchen Garden book for reference.

Cold Frames & Fruit Trees, 1989, hand woven tapestry

I look back at that work now, after watching these sweet programs, and wonder at the relevance. Here it is.  I have been reading -- and ranting -- about year round gardening (per Elliot Coleman's Four Season Farm, for example).  I have been chivvying up our reluctant gardeners here in the mildest southern Indiana climate to try growing vegetables all winter.  I have been working hard to convince people that our farmer's market is worth building and worth shopping at.  So I look back at my old tapestries and think,"yes, there is an answer, and I have known it for many years".

The Root Cellar, 1989, hand woven tapestry

All photos and artwork copyright Laura Foster Nicholson, 1989-2012.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Frugal Housewife

I have been reading a modest little volume called "The American Frugal Housewife, by Mrs. Child, dated 1832, and dedicated to "those who are not ashamed of Economy".  Can you imagine!  not so long ago frugality was looked down upon most witheringly, even by those of us who probably would have benefited by sticking with it.

I have always been interested in frugality.  Raised by exceedlingly thrifty parents who had themselves grown up during the Great Depression, thrift -- we called it being economical -- was a survival mode, without which one certainly could not get ahead, and the idea of educating 4 girls without saving every available penny was my mother's great gift to myself and my sisters.  My friends at my upscale school -- and plenty of girls who were decidedly not friends -- mocked my home made clothes.  I longed for store-bought, but even so I desired a sewing machine as my high school graduation gift rather than the usual typewriter.  Am I dating myself here?  I finished high school during the revolutionary period of the early 70s when so very many borders were crossed and customs thrown aside our heads were spinning.  Most girls hardly knew what to think about just about everything but it didn't stop us from charging ahead and having a fantastic time experimenting with many things that had been out of reach for girls just 5 years older than ourselves.

Thrift. Sewing.  Mending.  DIY.  All derogatory terms in those days.  Sewing & cooking tied women to the old ways we were too smart to kowtow to.  Thrift?  as the 80's barreled in, and Reaganomics took hold,  the idea of  money as a brand new kind of thing that raised all boats -- we thought -- even those of the artists.  I began a successful career making art and selling it -- easy!  starving artist? moi?

I made a number of knitted sachets in the 80's and early 90's, with virtuous words knitted in: Patience. Caution.  Forbearance.  Thrift.  I showed them to a couple of friends who had rather more money than we did.  The husband was Belgian, not perfectly comfortable in his English:  "What does Thrift mean?"
His wife responded in her offhand way, "you know, like being cheap".  Cheap.  That hurt!

For I had been raised to consider thrift a virtue.  Hear Mrs Child's first sentence in her Frugal Housewife:

"The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost.  I mean fragments of time, as well as materials.  Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed in earning or saving money."

Whoa! How many bells does that ring for you?  And yet, what a lot of sense it makes.  Green.  Eco. Cradle to Cradle.  And OK, maybe child labor -- or at least encouraging one's children to contribute to the well-being of the whole family.  Old fashioned or revolutionary?