Thursday, March 6, 2008

Imperfections Make "Perfect"

My Slovenian Grandmother crocheted lace all her life. I never knew her; she died when my father was six. However, I do remember seeing her handiwork in my Grandpa's house when I was young.

Slovene women have a long history of making fine lace, dating back to the 1600s. There were trade schools in Slovenia to teach poor peasant women the skill. Selling lace helped lift families a little further out of poverty; though, never completely out.

My Auntie Anne, (who learned to crochet at her mother's knee) told me that Grandma believed that every piece of lace, even the finest lace, must have a mistake in it. Why? Because lace, like life, is never perfect.

I had the occasion to share that story with my friend Jess recently. She is a disability rights activist and a very talented quilter.

Jess made a baby quilt for me, my daughter and my new grandbaby, Sabine. When she gave it to me I was completely overwhelmed by her generosity and kindness to my family. I pored over each stitch, each scrap of fabric, and every inch of the design. She got all self-conscious, saying, "Oh, please don't look too closely, it's full of mistakes."

So, in my thank you note to her, I told her about how we cried with joy over it; that we didn't see any imperfections; and that it reminded us of the old lace maker and her creed.

Here is her reply:

Your Slovenian ancestors who prescribed to the theory that lace is like life … I have a similar theory. I learned it in Asian Art History class.

The beautiful, graceful Chinese statues of horses that are so rare and prized today were only considered perfect if imperfections are represented in the glaze. Their artists made hundreds, literally, of each stature and all but a few would be rejected and broken because they were too perfect.

It was believed, and this is a very Taoist way of looking at the world, that unless you could actually see the process of creation in the finished product – meaning a drip of glaze hardened on the horse’s belly or a spot on the tip of the ear where the glaze has completely run off during firing – you had not captured the essence of the art form, or the horse.

I’m willing to bet that your Slovenian lace maker ancestors didn’t know much about Taoism or Chinese ceramic arts, but isn’t it fascinating they had a similar understanding of what made their art beautiful.

Sometimes I hate the fact that I’m just so dammed “American” in my thought process and I can’t accept what the lace makers and the Chinese artists have known all along to be true – perfection really isn’t perfect.

It was my husband, after reading both notes, who thought there was something quite interesting about two women with disabilities--two disability rights activists--discussing art, life, and what constitutes "perfect". I hope you do too.

Life, like art, is infinitely unique, diverse, and imperfect; as are we all.

Description of Photo - Picture of the baby quilt Jess made. On a white background is an eight pointed star with rings of pastel colors from the center to the edges. Around the edges of the quilt are hand appliqu├ęd flowers on stems with leaves. All the fabric pieces are vintage 1930s prints.

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