I was wandering today in the J & J Flea Market, “The Biggest in Georgia,” with a young friend. I love flea markets, because you can get a sense of other people’s lives, both past and present. We passed an old man with a wizened face and a patchy faded blonde beard playing guitar with a young girl sporting a nose ring. She set to those strings with flying fingers singing an old country song I wish I knew. We saw little Hispanic boys clutching a small fuzzy dog, and passed through a market that smelled like Mexico. We saw chickens and game cocks and a duck in a cage. We passed a table with cast iron pans and I told my friend how you can’t beat cast iron for cooking. There were white country folk selling plants, and a large black man covered in tattoos and gold chains and cowboy boots with a sweet expression on his face. There were cheap Chinese designer bags, and tons of books. We found a great booth with ridiculously inexpensive rings and pendants made with Botswana agate, amethysts, garnets and chalcedony sourced from all over the world. My friend was talking about making art and how it will be so cool when you won’t even need anything, you’ll just imagine it and the computer in your brain will make it. Hmm, I said, I don’t know how cool that will be. Why not, she asked? Well, I said, one of the things about art is that the medium, the material, often resists you, and that is why the image in your mind is often different than what comes out on canvas or paper. You have that momentary inspiration, and then in attempting to make the thing—poem or painting, garden—you have to deal with the medium, which is balky and not always easy to work with. Take watercolors, for instance. How many great results happen by accident? You just have to go with it sometimes. Or a plant volunteers in your garden that you didn’t intend, but you find that it works for you. Or you plant something and it just doesn’t want to be there. Or language—part of the fun of writing is that it is a discovery, you don’t always know where a poem will take you. Still, she said, I think it will be cool. Well, there you have it, I thought. Kids today—they’ve grown up with computers, and it is all so natural to them. Then I wondered if our next stage of evolution will be human/robots. Which no doubt she would think is cool. We walked by a booth and I spied a piece of quilt. When I opened it, I saw a beautiful pattern of golds, olives and purples. It was distinctive—the maker had a fine aesthetic sensibility. It was small, a lap robe. I asked the man where he had gotten it. An estate sale, he said, an old black woman in Alabama had made it and he had once had hundreds. I asked him how much, and he said 5 whole dollars. I bought it. Maybe some of her spirit is in the quilt, I said to him; it needs to be appreciated. I looked at it more closely. The stitches were all by hand and as fine as anything I’d ever seen. The cloth was wool. I know that in the Depression old coats were cut up to make quilts; I have an Amish quilt made almost entirely of dark coat fabric. The fabrics were in fine shape, but clearly old. I imagined the woman putting together the quilt from things she had on hand, making do. I imagine her on her hands and knees, laying out the pattern. I imagine her taking the time to make those tiny stitches, maybe after a day of picking cotton. I imagine her satisfaction at the results, after the patience and effort. I looked around the booths, at junky plastic toys and jewelry made in sweatshops and hand carved walking sticks. Most of it wasn’t art, or even craft, but I had a pang of nostalgia for all the humble made things. I am not anxious for a future where we think things into being. I want a world where serendipity can happen, where the medium has to be wrestled into form. I put my quilt in my study, over the back of the futon. I think it is very happy there.
Made Things May 11, 2013