• The Material Issue

    Getting Your Hands Dirty

    The Material Issue

    Notes on care of the body as resistance from the mind of someone who's piecing it together.


    Ruby Brunton is a New Zealand-raised poet and performer who now lives in Brooklyn. She spends a lot of time thinking about how to create community and education alternatives. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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    Getting Your Hands Dirty

    There was a time when my friends and I were free to experiment, to try things out, to pick things up for a short time and decide they weren’t for us. There were limitations due to cost, location, availability of a guardian type to come along, and access to required equipment, but if I wanted to see if my next obsession might be flamenco dance or learning the guitar or painting still lifes, I was able to attend a class or two and at least get a feel for whether it was something I might want to continue exploring. There were always ways to do it on the cheap – community centers, family friends, after school programs provided options. There were spaces available for us kids to spread out paints, bits of newspapers, sports gear, random percussion instruments or our limbs. There were few consequences if the latest trend didn’t develop into a full-blown pastime. The answer to how or why experimenting with our latest interest was good or useful was vague. The consensus seemed to be that experimenting with things that interested us would help us develop into curious, well-rounded people bursting with knowledge, ideas, and skills.

    The concept that everything we did had to have some kind of impact on our career path or lead to financial gain hadn’t entered our mindset yet. As we grew older, our options in terms of what we could study or practice widened but the limitations imposed by time and cost narrowed. The science and maths kids dropped drama classes and afterschool arts programs like they were going out of style, arty kids (like me) were over the moon we could stop lugging calculators to school. At a certain age, the experimentation period was over and we were expected to know more or less what we wanted to focus on. By the time we reached college, the subject areas we were allowed to try out narrowed and the overall workload grew so large there was little room to attempt new things. The hours I’d spent in the art and drama labs at high school turned into hours pouring over books and finding ways to regurgitate sentiments learned in lectures into semi-passable written assignments. There was no more time to be self-indulgent with our spare hours outside of lectures. There was no more time to make anything. 

    There’s a link between creating and healing. Getting your hands dirty and clearing your mind in the process. Somewhere in the mess of modern automation and the rise of the internet, the humble act of making has been greatly eroded. How we spend our time and what we produce is directly tied to how much profit we can make. I often have to check myself when I start questioning how every little thing I do relates to the merciless forces of production and consumption. A friend of mine recently bought an antique desk she decided to strip down to the wood. It took weeks and weeks and I was kept up to date on the process with photographs of the desk in various stages of renovation. I remember having two lines of thought, one side of me slightly envious of the devotion to a creative project that served no purpose in the capitalistic sense, and the other so conditioned by socio-economic forces wondering if the whole exercise was a waste of time.

    I haven’t always felt like this. When I was younger I would come home from school to find the dining room table had been converted to a work station. Piles of shredded newspapers, pots of homemade paste and clay molds sat waiting to have the 6 plus layers of paper mache required for a sturdy mask or puppet head. Whoever was around during these periods was expected to roll up their sleeves and get macheing. I remember it being an incredibly peaceful time, my mother taking advantage of the calm to listen to a new record or have an in depth discussion about art or politics or whatever. I would always resist at first, not wanting to get sucked into the paper mache cycle that might see dinner postponed till 10 or 11 at night. Eventually we’d come up with a trade, I would do two layers of paper and paste and I’d get help with homework or my latest writing project in return. Soon the meditative state of applying layer upon layer of newspaper would wash over me and I’d accept the notion of just doing for the sake of doing.

    Painting was my favorite part. The masks removed from their molds would require two or three layers of base coat, then the color could be applied and after that had dried, the best part of the process which was decoration. The decoration required research, hours and hours of looking at art, masks, and costumes from around the world for inspiration. Hours and hours of looking, thinking, writing, drawing for no other purpose than to come up with the right design for each particular mask. To contrast this with my newly developed constant questioning about the purpose of everything I do is painful. To maintain a creative imagination as we grow into adulthood in our current global order is an act of resistance – and not an easy one. To think of how hard my parents worked to not be subsumed into the capitalistic machine makes me wonder if there’s a reason they were not long for this world.

    I confess I have made little since those paper mache days. And so much of what I do make is online. My hands last felt paste sticking political posters to bollards a few years ago. I don’t remember the last time my hands touched clay. The time and expense involved with acquiring the materials and space for creation feel insurmountable and despite knowing getting my hands dirty will help rest some of the turmoil in my mind, my opposition to getting started keeps my hands tied firmly behind my back. It feels like my time for experimentation is long over and I’ve entered a time of survival. Supporting ourselves requires sacrifices of time and energy and doing a lot of things we don’t really want to do and doesn’t allow room for much else. I’m not sure what I would do if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, but I often find myself picturing the dining room table of my youth and wishing I could paper mache a mask, or stick some buttons on a puppet head, or mix up some paints in a paint tray, for no particular reason other than because it feels good. 

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